- Stranger at the Door: Writers and the Act of Writing
Kristjana Gunnars, an award-winning writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry who has taught creative writing at the University of Alberta and Okanagan College, says that her collection of essays on writing emerges out of what she refers to as the marriage of creative writing and academic literary studies. Guided by Theodor Adorno's statement that 'the only education that has any sense at all is an education toward critical self-reflection,' Gunnars suggests that the writing seminar gets to the heart of what education should do. These essays are an attempt to communicate that process of critical self-reflection.
Although many of the essays are distinct and occasional, a number of themes recur and in fact overlap throughout the collection. According to Gunnars, the need to write simply presents itself like a stranger at the door. Once you let the stranger in anything can happen. Gunnars's essays tease out a number of key tensions at the heart of this encounter. For example, in spite of the suggestion in her preface that her own essays have emerged from conversation, dialogue, and feedback, much of the writing in the book focuses on the idea of the poet as hermit or solitary who craves solitude and silence for her craft. 'Writing,' says Gunnars, 'is akin to prayer, and it is a spiritual pursuit which comes to you the way grace does.' The relationship between home and exile is another tension that recurs in several of the essays. In the chapter on the 'Diasporic Imagination,' for example, Gunnars suggests that the diasporic writer, because of her dislocation, can most effectively question everything. At the same time, in her essay 'The Home and the Artist,' she demonstrates how 'home constitutes a necessary nexus of creative energy.'
The most compelling essays in the collection are those where Gunnars evokes the elusive and mystical or mysterious elements of the act of writing and the almost inexplicable relationship to silence or the unsaid. In 'Writing and Silence,' a response to an essay by Maurice Blanchot, she suggests that insight into our mythologies and a condition of doubt are both crucial requirements for the creative writer. In the essay 'On Writing Short Books' Gunnars not only reiterates her preference for 'the fragmented, the poetic, and the theoretical,' she also describes several examples of powerful short books that add weight to her thesis. In fact, this is one of the greatest strengths of the book: Gunnars is a meticulous reader as well as writer as she explores the act of writing through a range of voices. She [End Page 405] engages these voices in conversation and she makes links and connections as she forges a writing community that spans the globe. She is somewhat less persuasive when she enters into specific theoretical debates, as in her essay on cultural appropriation. The narrative voice seems distanced in this essay, as Gunnars positions herself outside of the debate. She hedges about the potential dangers of appropriation when she suggests, 'some form of abuse is being inflicted somewhere.' Similarly, in her defence of 'metafiction,' she admits to collapsing important distinctions between terms such as modern, postmodern, and poststructuralist. Perhaps further engagement with her own writing and her decision-making processes in the context of these debates would breathe more life into these essays.
Given the semi-autobiographical and self-conscious nature of so much of Gunnars's writing and given the focus on critical self-reflection in her preface, it is curious that there is not more explicit engagement with the author's own writing throughout the book. For example, it is only in a footnote to the chapter 'On Writing Short Books' that Gunnars admits that many of the books she has written are in fact the kind of 'intergeneric' short book that she describes in her essay. However, throughout Stranger at the Door, she does explore precisely the elements of writing that she engages in her own work: 'diaspora,' 'textual practice,' 'process writing...