- Private and Fictional Words: Canadian Women Novelists of the 1970s and 1980s
In Private and Fictional Words, Briton Coral Ann Howells offers what she calls an outsider's view of Canadian women's fiction. Her feminist analysis is appealing in its sensitivity to the similarities between the politics of imperialism and of gender. Yet, it is her very insistence upon a national/gender comparison in such chapters as "Canadianness and women's fiction" and her "Introduction" that undermines an otherwise exceedingly readable critical work. "Women's stories," as Howells sees them, "could provide models for the story of Canada's national identity."
What Howells has obviously encountered during her research is the same thing that any student of Canadian literature initially encounters: the preponderance of criticism written to prove/disprove a cultural identity or literary tradition. We seem to have been, according to poet-critic Earle Birney, most "haunted" by "our lack of ghosts." From our current, more worldly view, we now perceive those postcolonial concerns as ironically antimodern, certainly limiting, and, I think, decidedly male. Our own insecurity was for many years the most frightening skeleton in our critical closet.
In resurrecting the spirit of nationalism past, one that some contemporary Canadian writers would like to see stay entombed, Howells denigrates the better [End Page 699] part of her argument. "The concept of difference which feminist theorists have appropriated and developed from Jacques Derrida's poststructuralist writing about texts," she says, "is already there in women's fiction, and now as readers and critics we have been given a language through which to 'see' it." Why not respond to the question she says is repeatedly asked outside Canada—"Why are there so many good Canadian women writers?"—with greater emphasis on our increasing ability to see ubiquity in the enticing, subversive world within women's writing?
Speaking as a feminist critic, Howells has indeed stressed that the multiplicity of voice, gender marginality, and the problematization of writing itself are most often solved by the "mixing of genres" within the fourteen titles she surveys. She also highlights the fact that for writers like Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, Marian Engel, and Audrey Thomas working ostensibly within a realist tradition, "reality is infinitely recessional." Private words have a way of becoming fictional words as women are forced to manipulate language in order to reinvent a history that includes them. Many of the writers make estrangement an accepted habitat: Joy Kogawa portrays the dark side of multiculturalism; Janet Turner Hospital removes her heroine to India; expatriate Mavis Gallant "scrutinizes Canadian ideals of nationalism, cultural heritage, multi-ethnicity, and idea of 'home' itself"; Joan Barfoot commits her narrator to a mental asylum; Marie-Claire Blais creates a lesbian protagonist; Anne Hébert resurrects a "shadow" Héloïse "condemned to the endless re-enactment of her story of unfulfilled desire"; and Margaret Atwood reduces her heroine to a dystopia that "has no real existence and occupies only the space of writing."
The Canadian women's fiction Howells critiques is perhaps then best described not only as postcolonial of the female spirit but also as postnational in the sense Canadian critic Northrop Frye predicted in The Modern Century (1967). Howells' own best writing certainly occurs when she forgoes her Canadian concerns for feminist and poststructural ones. The former, paradoxically, cause her to remain the outsider. [End Page 700]