- Unarrested Archives: Case Studies in Twentieth-Century Canadian Women’s Authorship by Linda M. Morra
At the Affecting Women’s Writing in Canada and Québec Today conference held at the Université de Montréal in November 2013, poet and essayist Erín Moure noted, “It’s so hard for women to leave a trace.”1 [End Page 288] She was speaking about a series of chapbooks produced in the 1980s by the Feminist Caucus of the League of Canadian Poets: stapled booklets with bright paper covers enclosing typed or early word-processed pages of feminist writing. Those booklets, made for wide distribution and fashioned by expedience, are fraying; they may not last for more than another few years. Moure’s comment, made in post-presentation discussion, has rung in my head ever since and seems destined to ring there a little longer as I consider feminist archival theory and its satisfyingly subversive practices in Linda M. Morra’s Unarrested Archives: Case Studies in Twentieth-Century Canadian Women’s Authorship. In Canada, where a decade of conservative government cutbacks has profoundly threatened the existence and breadth of the national repository, Library and Archives Canada, the importance of preserving different histories through a wide variety of archival practices has become vital not only to scholarship but also, and more fundamentally, to acknowledging, recording, and asserting the significant materiality of those histories. Whenever I teach, I emphasize to students that the texts they are holding are in print only because a chain of people throughout history thought the texts good enough to print and to keep in print: a perpetually precarious state, especially if the text is more than two decades old and written by a woman whose background and politics are at odds with mainstream corridors of power.
Unarrested Archives delves into women writers’ withheld, refused, or redistributed archival materials with an emphasis upon the nation-state’s reliance on official archives to shape its narrative. As Morra points out in her introduction, the dynamics of the archive—including its necessary partiality—also form the idea of the citizen or who can “say the nation,” and women are not always considered citizens with a say. “Unarrested” literary archives, repositories of papers that are strategically positioned by the author, assert that citizenship has been painstakingly negotiated by these women writers precisely because the nation-state has rendered their citizenship limited or non-negotiable on the basis not only of their gender but also their race, class, or sexual identity.
The list of women writers chosen by Morra as her case studies reads like a who’s who of Canadian female writers: Pauline Johnson, Emily Carr, Sheila Watson, Jane Rule, and M. NourbeSe Philip. Morra’s writers demonstrate that canonicity is a double-edged sword; while their written texts are problematically preserved, their archives note the decades of struggle to assert the value of their voices, the writers’ desire to control their own narratives (both literary and lived), and their understanding that female citizenship is forever under the threat of erasure. I have been teaching long enough to see Johnson’s work resurrected in the late 1990s and early 2000s by feminist and First Nations scholars and now see that [End Page 289] her scholarly star has begun to wane. Morra’s investigation into Johnson’s popular performances of her politically accusatory poem “A Cry From an Indian Wife” (1885) in the years after the Northwest Rebellion as an archive (with due reference to Ann Cvetkovich) is enlivened by the texts of public protest coming out of the Idle No More movement. Morra’s work with the archives of Carr and Watson, the two modernists in the study, gives intriguing consideration to their choice to enlist male allies as designated archivists and prompts a welcome discussion about how men can be respectful allies in the political fight to preserve women’s voices. Carr and Watson are good examples of female authors who knew that they could not...