Life Writing

Published by: Wilfrid Laurier University Press

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Life Writing

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Marian Engel’s Notebooks

“Ah, mon cahier, écoute...”

Marian Engel emerged as a writer during that period in Canada when nationalism increased and “new feminism” dawned. Although she is recognized as a distinguished woman of letters, she has not been widely studied; consequently we know relatively little about her and her craft. The material collected in Marian Engel’s Notebooks: “Ah, mon cahier, écoute...” is a major step in redressing that neglect.

Extracts carefully chosen by Christl Verduyn from Marian Engel’s forty-nine notebooks — notebooks Engel began in the late 1940s and which she maintained until her death in 1985 — track Engel’s creative development, illustrate her commitment to the craft of writing and document her growth as a major Canadian writer. The notebooks also portray Engel’s surprising leaps of logic, her fascination with the bizarre, the eclecticism of her reading and the depth and variety of her thinking. Finally, they present moving documentation of a woman facing cancer and early death.

Christl Verduyn’s illuminating introductory discussions to each of the notebooks unobtrusively guide us in the reading of these sometimes difficult writings. Marian Engel’s Notebooks: “Ah, mon cahier, écoute...” leaves readers with a vivid sense of Canadian culture during the 1960s and 1970s. It provides insight into the literary life of one of Canada’s significant woman writers, including her connections with other Canadian writers, and will be of special interest to scholars working in the field of literature.

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Memoirs from Away

A New Found Land Girlhood

How does the imagination entwine the shreds of memory of family, place and culture to root a self in the fluid experience of the present?

Daughter, wife, mother, teacher, writer and feminist academic, Helen M. Buss / Margaret Clarke has lived in many parts of Canada and writes from a life of multiple perspectives full of contradictory loyalties and obligations, of opposing histories and identities. For this woman, whose sense of a unified identity is so tenuous that she even writes under two names, writing memoirs becomes the way to bring together the diverse strands of her life.

A Newfoundland girl who awakened to the public world just at the moment her homeland joined Canada, she writes of her childhood, of the effects of war, technology, the politics of nation and gender, and of the private world of several generations of her close-knit family. From the perspective of a woman from “away”, she discovers a New Found Land of “girlhood” that weaves past and present in a narrative that delights in questioning its own making.

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The Memory of Water

Over the last forty years, Canadian adventurer, writer, and artist Allen Smutylo has experienced some of the wildest and most captivating waters imaginable in all corners of the globe. The stories in The Memory of Water—all of them accompanied by the author’s own stunning artwork—describe his adventures in the Arctic, South Pacific, Great Lakes region, and India.

In the Arctic he is attacked by a polar bear, stalked by a rogue walrus, and nearly drowns in ferocious waters. But his Arctic stories also celebrate human creativity as they recount the life of the pre-Inuit people, who, hunting in a changing environment, endured many hardships and developed new technologies, such as the sea kayak, to cope.

Other stories include an account of a sojourn in a small Georgian Bay fishing village as a young artist, an adventure on an urban river in southwestern Ontario, and a portrayal of the complex underwater world of the South Pacific. Travelling the River Ganges in India, the author finds that a massive misuse of water is complicated by a billion people’s faith-based adoration of the same water.

The Memory of Water probes a crucial and contemporary issue—that of our relationship to water and the wildlife and human life that depends upon it. This book will appeal to anyone interested in the natural world, in artistic depictions of it, or in a good story well told.

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Motherlode

A Mosaic of Dutch Wartime Experience

Motherlode: A Mosaic of Dutch Wartime Experience is Carolyne Van Der Meer’s creative reinterpretation through short stories, poems, and essays of the experiences of her mother and other individuals who spent their childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland or were deeply affected by wartime in Holland. The book documents the author’s personal journey as she uncovers her mother’s past through their correspondence and discussion and through research in the Netherlands. Motherlode also considers mother–daughter relationships and the effect of wartime on motherhood.

Motherlode is not about recording precise historical data; rather, it attempts to recover and interpret the complex emotions of the individuals growing up in wartime. The book is based on interviews with the author’s mother and other Dutch Canadians, interviews with and letters from Canadian Jewish war veterans, and information provided by individuals with direct or indirect experience of the Dutch Resistance. The creative pieces explore onderduik (going into/being in hiding), life in an occupied country, the work of the Dutch Resistance, liberation, collective and individual cultural memory, and the way in which wartime childhoods shaped adulthood for these individuals.

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Must Write

Edna Staebler’s Diaries

Long before she became the renowned author of the best-selling Schmecks cookbooks, an award-winning journalist for magazines such as Macleans, and a creative non-fiction mentor, Edna Staebler was a writer of a different sort. Staebler began serious diary writing at the age of sixteen and continued to write for over eighty years. Must Write: Edna Staebler’s Diaries draws from these diaries selections that map Staebler’s construction of herself as a writer and documents her frustrations and struggles, along with her desire to express herself, in writing. She felt she must write—that not to write was a “denial of life”—while at the same time she doubted the value of her scribblings.

Spanning much of the twentieth century—each decade is introduced by an overview of key events in the author’s life during that period—the diaries vividly illuminate both her intensely personal experiences and her broader social world. The volume also presents four key examples of Staebler’s public writing: her first published magazine article; her first award-winning publication; the opening chapter of her book Cape Breton Harbour; and her lively account of the Great Cookie War. Must Write: Edna Staebler’s Diaries portrays an ordinary woman’s struggle to write in the context of her lived experience. “All my life I have talked about writing and kept scribbling in my notebook, as if that makes me a writer,” wrote Staebler in 1986. This volume argues that the very act of writing the diaries, with all their contradictory accounts of writerly ambition, success, and conflict, made Staebler the writer she yearned to be.

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Not the Whole Story

Challenging the Single Mother Narrative

Edited by Lea Caragata

Not the Whole Story is a compilation of seventeen stories narrated by single mothers in their own way and about their own lives. Each story is unique, but the same issues appear again and again. Abuse, parenting as single mothers, challenges in the labour market, mental health and addictions issues, a scarcity of quality childcare, immigration and status vulnerability, struggles with custody, and poverty—these factors, combined with a lack of support, contribute to their continued struggles.

The themes that recur across stories illustrate that the issues the women face are not just about individual struggle; they demonstrate that major issues in Canada’s social system have been neglected in public policy. In order for these issues to be addressed we need to challenge the flawed public policies and the negative discourse that continue to marginalize single mothers—in terms of the opportunities in their own lives and in terms of how they are understood by other Canadians.

The first-person narratives of the struggles and issues faced by low-income single mothers provide narrative richness and are augmented by introductory and concluding chapters that draw the narrative themes together and offer overarching discussion and analysis. </p

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Pursuing Giraffe

A 1950s Adventure

In the 1950s, Anne Innis Dagg was a young zoologist with a lifelong love of giraffe and a dream to study them in Africa. Based on extensive journals and letters home, Pursuing Giraffe vividly chronicles the realization of that dream and the year that she spent studying and documenting giraffe behaviour. Dagg was one of the first zoologists to study wild animals in Africa (before Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey); her memoir captures her youthful enthusiasm for her journey, as well as her näiveté about the complex social and political issues in Africa.

Once in the field, she recorded the complexities of giraffe social relationships but also learned about human relationships in the context of apartheid in South Africa and colonialism in Tanganyika (Tanzania) and Kenya. Hospitality and friendship were readily extended to her as a white woman, but she was shocked by the racism of the colonial whites in Africa. Reflecting the twenty-three-year-old author’s response to an “exotic” world far removed from the Toronto where she grew up, the book records her visits to Zanzibar and Victoria Falls and her climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. Pursuing Giraffe is a fascinating account that has much to say about the status of women in the mid-twentieth century. The book’s foreword by South African novelist Mark Behr (author of The Smell of Apples and Embrace) provides further context for and insights into Dagg’s narrative.

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The Queen of Peace Room

What is memory, and where is it stored in the body? Can a room be symbolic of a lifetime?

Memories are like layers of your skin or layers of paint on a canvas. In The Queen of Peace Room, Magie Dominic peels away these layers as she explores her life, that of a Newfoundlander turned New Yorker, an artist and a writer — and frees herself from the memories of her violent past.

On an eight-day retreat with Catholic nuns in a remote location safe from the outside world, she exposes, and captures, fifty years of violent memories and weaves them into a tapestry of unforgettable images. The room she inhabits while there is called The Queen of Peace Room; it becomes, for her, a room of sanctuary. She examines Newfoundland in the 1940s and 1950s and New York in the 1960s; her confrontations with violence, incest, and rape; the devastating loss of friends to AIDS; and the relationship between life and art. These memories she finds stored alongside memories of nature’s images of trees pulling themselves up from their roots and fleeing the forest; storms and ley lines, and skies bursting with star-like eyes.

In The Queen of Peace Room, from a very personal perspective, Magie Dominic explores violence against women in the second half of the twentieth century, and in doing so unearths the memory of a generation. In eight days, she captures half a century.

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Repossessing the World

Reading Memoirs by Contemporary Women

Why does it seem as if everyone is writing memoirs, and particularly women?

The current popularity of memoir verifies the common belief that we each have a story to tell. And we do...especially women. Memoirs are not only representations of women’s personal lives but also of their desire to repossess important parts of our culture, in which women’s stories have not mattered.

Beginning with her own motivations for writing memoirs, Helen M. Buss examines the many kinds of memoir written by contemporary women: memoirs about growing up, memoirs about traumatic events, about relationships, about work. In writing memoirs, these women publicly assert that their lives have mattered. They reshape the memoir, a form as old as the middle ages and as young as today, into a social discourse that blends the personal with the political, the self with the significant other, literature with history, and fiction with autobiography and essay. Buss urges readers to use their reading experience to help themselves understand and write the significance of their own lives.

Repossessing the World is the first book-length critical inquiry into women’s use of a form that has often been dismissed as less important than autobiography, less professional than the novel, and less intellectual than the formal essay. Buss demonstrates that the memoir makes its own art, not only through selective borrowing from these genres but also through the unique way that the tripartite narrative voice of the memoir constructs the personal and public experience of the memorist as significant to our cultural moment.

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Seven Eggs Today

The Diaries of Mary Armstrong, 1859 and 1869

Offers an intriguing glimpse into the daily life of an average Toronto woman in the mid-nineteenth century.

Mary Armstrong’s diaries are a window into the daily life of a middle-class woman in a new and changing land, and a revealing account of life in early Toronto just before and after confederation. Her journals are one of very few published by Canadian women, especially women outside the upper classes, in the decades surrounding the mid-nineteenth century.

Mary Armstrong was the wife of a butcher / farmer who lived in what is now the Yorkville and Deer Park area of Toronto from the 1830s to the 1880s. She had immigrated with her parents and siblings from England in 1834. Her diaries, which cover five months in 1859 and eight months in 1869, reflect her multiplicity of interests and concerns including family, women’s work, faith, status and class, occupation and trade, community networks, and local and national identity.

Jackson W. Armstrong’s introduction examines who Mary was, what her world was like, and how she saw her own place in it; it also explains the origin and history of the diaries. His extensive primary research supports the well-annotated diaries, and gives contextual information on the events, people, and places that Mary mentions.

Seven Eggs Today offers new information and a new perspective on mid-Victorian English Canada, and will be welcomed by general readers and scholars interested in colonial life, biography, immigrant experiences, family or local history, or women’s studies.

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