Writing Stories and Producing Knowledge

  • Rachel Berman (Editor)
    Corridor Talk: Canadian Feminist Scholars Share Stories of Research Partnerships. Inanna Publications and Education (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • R. H. Slansky
    Moss-Haired Girl: Confessions of a Circus Performer by Zara Zalinzi. Anvil Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sarah MacKenzie

Though disparate in genre, the texts under review are directly connected by their engagements with and elaborations upon the role of reflexivity—and general emotional involvement—in investigative processes (personal or professional), as well as their considerations of the creation and delivery of narratives. It is no surprise that R. H. Slansky grew up in a family of travelling circus performers. Indeed, her first novel, the 72-page Moss-Haired Girl: Confessions of a Circus Performer, is clearly derived from an in-depth understanding of carnivalesque performance. The book—a captivating read—details protagonist Joshua Chapman’s search to uncover the truth concerning the life story of circus performer Zara Zalinzi, the “Moss-Haired Girl.” Joshua, while sorting through the belongings of his recently deceased mother, discovers Zalinzi’s autobiography. Struggling to separate fact from fiction in order to update the performer’s narrative, Joshua undertakes a journey through his own family history, eventually coming to question the foundation of folkloric family tales. The novel’s intricate dual narrative—the combined accounts of Zalinzi and Joshua—is, ultimately, a deeply involved, however brief, problematization of the construction of stories and, by extension, knowledge.

Making a substantial contribution to the growing body of scholarship relating to reflexivity in feminist research and writing, Rachel Berman’s Corridor Talk addresses a number of salient issues pertaining to the forging and maintenance of research partnerships. While notably diverse, the articles included in the timely collection are tethered by a shared focus on the significance of not only reflexivity, but also emotional struggle in feminist work. As indicated by the text’s title, the essays contend most specifically with the informal academic and non-academic relationships that lead to knowledge production. Authored by a range of contributors, from various backgrounds, and working in different fields, the articles examine differing research relationships from varying vantage points. While several authors concern themselves with academic and community partnerships (community-based research “CBR”), others consider those collaborative investigations in which participants also function as researchers in a mode of research known as participatory action research “PAR.”

Given that such intricate, egalitarian-style investigation is under-theorized in terms of both approach and outcome, the poignant and highly entertaining pieces in Berman’s collection might also be considered roadmaps for future feminist investigators engaging in potentially productive and fulfilling, though necessarily difficult, research partnerships. In the book’s third chapter, for example, Colleen Dell and her colleagues discuss their reflections after working on a “large-scale” study involving racialized—Indigenous/ First Nations—women suffering from addiction problems, along with service providers, and treatment centre directors. In their essay, Dell and her fellow researchers work to assist readers to better understand the reflexivity and emotional labour necessary to conduct truly “respectful research.” Similarly, in chapter four, Berman and her co-author Vappu Tyyskä forewarn that disconcertion surrounding collaborative research may not truly resonate until after a project has been completed. Keeping the socially transformative goal of feminist research in mind, researchers, as Berman argues, may continue to ask themselves for some time after a project’s completion: “whose interests were served anyway?”

This review “Writing Stories and Producing Knowledge” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 226 (Autumn 2015): 125-26.

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