It is, and has been for years, erroneous to use the first-person plural when describing women’s experience. Early criticisms of the feminist movement focused on the differences of female experience when it came to race, class, and sexuality, noting that second-wave feminism championed the straight, white, middle-class woman as implied in any use of we. But in Meghan Bell’s Erase and Rewind, Alix Ohlin’s We Want What We Want, and Aimee Wall’s We, Jane, there is a new connotation to we, highlighting the diversity in contemporary women’s experiences. When Wall and Ohlin use the first-person plural in their titles, we is not a homogenizing force that attempts to universalize a specific female experience but an acceptance of difference in the female community.
In We Want What We Want, Ohlin writes about the diversity of female experiences, particularly when it comes to the imperfections of family. In one story, Vanessa, a young woman, returns home from a year abroad to discover, to her surprise, that her best friend fell in love with her father. While her best friend gorges herself on wedding cake samples—vanilla bourbon with chocolate ganache, carrot cake, chocolate, and coconut, among others (111-12)—Vanessa falls in love with an old friend from high school, later asking him to follow her to New York City. Neither situation, to her understanding, makes sense. When she asks her partner to come with her, she expects him to consider “the practical things: about money, geography, youth” (95). But none of these concern him, and he replies instead that he wants to marry her. While Vanessa’s best friend, Kelsey, wants the stability that comes from marrying her best friend’s father, Vanessa wants nothing more than for her partner to stay in her life while she studies in New York City. In this story as in others, the diversity of expression is in desire. Ohlin shows great range in her portraits of women of different ages, social classes, and races, all of them unafraid to demand exactly what they want.
We, Jane by Aimee Wall depicts a different variety of female experience but is similar to Ohlin’s book in its representation of fearless desire. It tells the story of Marthe, a young woman from Newfoundland who befriends a woman whom she initially refers to as Jane. Jane becomes Therese after she returns to Newfoundland to stay with Trish, another older woman who performs underground abortion services in her rural community. Marthe commits to learn Trish’s skills as an abortionist and to take over her role after Trish is arrested, having been exposed by Kara, a young leftist academic writing about the experience of home abortion for a feminist magazine. Desires clash in: Therese wants to leave, while Marthe wants her to stay; Trish wants to stay clandestine, while Kara wants to “detail her adventures in outsider reproductive health” (188). But there is beauty in these interactions: Marthe’s decision to continue her work as Jane (the name adopted by the abortionist) is one that ensures that women in rural Newfoundland will continue to have access to abortion services. Wall’s novel highlights the difference in experiences that come from the rural-urban divide, along with the valuations that contemporary society places on differing forms of education and knowledge. Trish is arrested not because she endangers women, but because her intergenerational knowledge is not recognized by the province. We, Jane is, fundamentally, a love story about alternative knowledge and women’s dedication to helping each other.
But the collection that truly shines amidst this vast array of female experience is Meghan Bell’s Erase and Rewind. Darkly comic, the titular story uses time travel to explore the story of Louisa, a woman who is date-raped by Nick, her classmate. After her assault, she reverses time, choosing to rewind it to prevent her from meeting her rapist. But she also struggles with her decision:
If she removed herself from the equation, it didn’t mean Nick would no longer be able to date or date-rape. It just meant that he would happen to somebody else, like he had already happened to somebody else. What sort of activity—what sort of feminist—was she, if she was fighting only for herself? (20)
Louisa considers her responsibility to report Nick, but she ultimately chooses to rewind time, hoping to forget the moral quandary inherent in her decision. Although she chooses to protect herself, Louisa does warn a fellow student away from sitting near Nick in class. The rest of Bell’s collection is equally thought-provoking and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. Her writing is as exciting as her subject matter. Erase and Rewind is an impressive debut and should not be missed.
Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.