- Unarrested Archives: Case Studies in Twentieth-Century Canadian Women’s Authorship by Linda M. Morra
Drawing on contemporary archival theory (especially as developed in Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge and Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression) and building on her recent co-edited (with Jessica Schagerl) collection Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace: Explorations in Canadian Women’s Archives, Linda M. Morra’s Unarrested Archives digs through an impressive quantity of unpublished material not simply to study the working lives of five Canadian women writers but also to place the very category of the archive under examination. Like other recent feminist theorizations of the archive, this one calls not simply for self-consciousness regarding the politics of the archive and “the law of what can be said” but also for an expansion of the concept of the archive to include, for example, embodied practices or documents that have not been collected by official institutions. Morra calls this category of practices and texts “unarrested”: if Derrida points to the etymological trace of arrest in archive, Morra insists on the importance of examining that which was never arrested in the first place—that which was lost, displaced, refused status, or deliberately withheld. If women writers have generally had greater access to institutional archives in twentieth-century Canada, Morra deftly shows that queer-phobia (in the case of Jane Rule) and racialization (in the case of Pauline Johnson and M. NourbeSe Philip) have limited the conditions of this access and, consequently, the attractiveness of institutional repositories for some women writers.
Using the case-study method, Morra ranges broadly across contemporary women’s authorship in Canada in five chapters that deal discretely and chronologically with five different writers’ archives: Pauline Johnson/Tekahionwake’s “archive of embodiment,” Emily Carr’s “archive of kinship,” Sheila Watson’s “archive of imminence,” Jane Rule’s “archive of activism,” and M. NourbeSe Philip’s “minor archive.” The strongest chapters corral diverse arrested and unarrested archival materials into compelling interpretations of the constrained conditions in which women artists laboured in the twentieth century. The chapter on Carr, one of the best in the book, offers a detailed account of how Carr’s access to the national public sphere was gained at the expense of her own participation in an “arrested archive of First Nations cultural goods.” Charting through Carr’s archives (located at the British Columbia Archives and at the National Gallery in Ottawa) her tumultuous relations with women editors and her eventual “kinship” with Ira Dilworth, whose masculine conception of the autobiographical genre helped to usher Carr’s unconventional work into print, this chapter offers rare and valuable insight into a Canadian woman’s experience of authorship at mid-century. Other [End Page 313] chapters pay closer attention to the politics of archiving, as well as to women’s deliberate placing (as in the case of Watson), withholding (as in the case of Philip), or collecting (as in the case of Rule) of their personal papers. A less effective chapter opens the book: the study of Johnson’s performance career as an “embodied archive” that has lamentably been excluded from archival collections posits an intriguing theoretical consideration while actually rehearsing much that is already well known about Johnson’s life as a writer and a performer.
Nevertheless, this is an important contribution to archival studies and contemporary Canadian women’s writing, and it is also a welcome new voice in an ever-growing choir of scholarship on the production of Canadian literatures. Given its focus on its subjects’ professional lives and their negotiations with the press, agents, editors, and publishers, it finds particular company with studies of authorship, such as Carole Gerson’s Canadian Women in Print, 1750–1918, Clarence Karr’s Authors and Audiences, and Lorraine York’s Literary Celebrity in Canada. Sociological and materialist approaches to the study of literature in English Canada have been somewhat slow to consider the sexual, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of Canadian writers. Building on the wonderful essays collected in Basements and...