Cautiously Hopeful: Metafeminist Practices in Canada. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
On January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, over 470,000 protestors—including many Canadians—took their activism and anger to Washington, DC for the Women’s March that has since become an annual tradition. This kind of mobilizing activism against misogyny and social injustice has helped re-energize feminism in recent years. Indeed, the feminist movement has gone through various waves, from the first, defined by its focus on liberty and suffrage, to the most recent, fourth wave, prompted by intersectionality and women’s empowerment through digital media. So how do Canadian scholars, activists, and creative writers push forward feminist theorizing and practice?
For Marie Carrière, a professor of English at the University of Alberta, “feminism encapsulates writing, teaching, theory, literary analysis, artistic practice, and everyday gestures that activate that belief” (10). This multi-faceted approach infuses Carrière’s Cautiously Hopeful: Metafeminist Practices in Canada, which harnesses the concept of metafeminism, a term coined by Québécoise author and translator Lori Saint-Martin, who was herself inspired by the literary and theoretical practice of écriture au féminin. This French feminist legacy—associated with Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva, who championed a playful yet subversive language as emanating from women’s bodies and selves—profoundly influenced Anglo-American feminist practices, as well as Carrière’s own immersion in this tradition. (Surprisingly, though, there is virtually no engagement with the pioneering phenomenological feminism of Simone de Beauvoir.) As such, the book also engages with Anglo-American feminisms, including those of Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Judith Butler. Even as Carrière is mindful of the limitations of feminism, the most central focus of her book is on feminist multiplicity as a capacious concept. That being so, many of the feminisms introduced reveal fissures and tensions with each other, which Carrière deliberately foregrounds as part of her metafeminist reflections.
These multiplicities are concretized in the book’s three thematic threads—intersectionality, the affective turn, and the ethics of care—each of which comprises theoretical considerations followed by case studies. The first thematic, intersectionality, emphasizes the politics of identity transgression and the poetics of border crossing to flesh out feminism’s intersectional relationship with Black, queer, Indigenous, diasporic, and ethnic identities. While western feminism has a distinctly white history, its anti-patriarchal ethos and its valuing of women’s subjectivities have propelled its development and growth into a more democratic and inclusive state. The literary works of Dionne Brand, Marilyn Dumont, Naomi Fontaine, and others are discussed through intersectionality to demonstrate both the possibilities and results of metafeminist resistance and resilience.
The second thematic—exploring the affective turn as a metafeminist practice—opens the aperture on the literary aesthetics of constructing human and non-human emotional life and experience. Nicole Brossard’s post-9/11 novels and poems are, as Carrière contends, “more anxious and less utopian” (118), as her poetic speakers witness dystopian worlds while actively recuperating agency through social change. Likewise, Larissa Lai’s poetic space casts an affective account of posthumanism through the intersecting lenses of ethnicity, technology, and gender. Tracey Lindberg’s trail-blazing debut novel Birdie (2015) provides a critical interrogation of how the body, informed by an Indigenous epistemology of feelings, deals with trauma, violence, wrongful history, and identity reconstruction. Carrière argues that Brossard, Lai, and Lindberg “develop a feminist aesthetics of feeling through their very different literary worlds, which ultimately inscribe a relational ethics” (103).
The third and final thematic, the ethics of care, engages the works of American feminist scholars such as Carol Gilligan. Here Carrière offers sensitive and nuanced reflections, illuminating how the practice of care is socially and culturally (en)gendered. While the ethics of care gains urgent relevance for the COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 eras, the discussion is largely pre-pandemic with a focus on euthanasia or assisted suicide (which was federally legalized in Canada in 2016) and considerations of Canada as a “caring nation” (144). The book also considers Miriam Toews’ Mennonite-focused novel All My Puny Sorrows (2014) and Ouanessa Younsi’s autobiographical work of non-fiction Soigner, aimer (2012), both of which explore issues of mental health.
Throughout the book Carrière cross-references each metafeminist practice to highlight a non-linear way against “a single subject, condition, or time” (183). Seeing her work as a “metafeminist form of academic writing” (182), she aims to rekindle feminist theories and to re-evaluate feminist scholarship through the flexible essay form. By drawing on Michel de Montaigne’s idea of the essay as a forum for testing (essayer) ideas through writing, the book self-consciously aims to represent an open-ended flow of ideas and to push against the norms of traditional academic writing, challenging itself to reach many readers.
Despite this laudable goal, Cautiously Hopeful does not take readers to the edge of the feminist avant-garde or push the boundaries of creative experimentation. With a deliberate unpretentiousness in style, the book is not a new feminist manifesto, call to arms, or radical self-baring in the manner of literary scholar Jane Gallop or performance philosopher Shannon Bell. In fact, the book’s structure, register, and method are less playful and experimental than they are traditionally academic and occasionally even technical in a distancing manner (as seen in the regular overcrowding of paragraphs with names or the frequent repetition of the acronym AMPS for the title of Toews’ novel).
More positively, as its title suggests, the book’s strength lies in the fact that it is a cautiously hopeful reflection—including self-reflection—about many creative tensions in Canadian (and global) feminisms and the future of scholarly writing about them. The ultimate take-away of this book, especially for a new generation of graduate student feminist readers, is an invitation to reflectively navigate the myriad differences of feminist theory and praxis both past and present while contemplating their multitudes and problematics, as well as their potential for hope.