- Unarrested Archives: Case Studies in Twentieth-Century Canadian Women's Authorship by Linda M. Morra
In her introduction, Linda M. Morra states that "Unarrested Archives is in part about archives, specifically Canadian women authors' literary records housed both in and beyond official institutions" (p. 3). The book is divided into five case studies, sandwiched between an introduction and an excellent but all too short conclusion. By arranging the text in an interesting crescendo of chronology and experience, beginning with well-known performer and author E. Pauline Johnson and ending with the internationally recognized author and activist M. NourbeSe Philip, Morra provides us with a thorough and fascinating history of Canadian women authors' lives, the experience of women authors in Canada, and their varied yet similar experiences in relation to their archives.
Morra describes arrested archives as being held in-house and privately, such as those of M. NourbeSe Philip, while unarrested archives, such as those of Jane Rule, have been turned over or surrendered to a public institution. Morra uses this lens of "arrested" and "unarrested" archives to examine each writer's case study. While Morra's interesting premise of "arrested" and "unarrested" archives piqued this reader's interest, it ultimately left many stones unturned: the reader would benefit from a more fulsome explanation of the concepts of "arrested" and "unarrested" archives as most are not likely familiar with them. This ambitious work perhaps attempted too many topics at once, at least for an archivally focused reader. Many in the archival profession are starved for [End Page 179] an in-depth discussion of a number of the topics touched on here, and in the end, the archivist is not the target audience. To be fair, Morra is not an archivist. Currently a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Morra is a full professor of English at Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Quebec, where she teaches Canadian literature, Canadian and cultural studies, Indigenous literatures, women's writing, feminist theory, theories of globalization, and American literature. She also serves as the president of the Quebec Writers' Federation.
Her academic credentials are readily apparent in the extensive and thorough research presented in the case studies of these five extraordinary Canadian women: E. Pauline Johnson, Emily Carr, Sheila Watson, Jane Rule, and M. NourbeSe Philip. We learn a great deal about the trials, tribulations, and tenacity of these important artists through anecdotes of their personal and professional challenges. Morra expertly guides us through an exploration of the authors' awareness of crafting an image of themselves, both through their writing and through the assemblage and very deliberate placement of their archives–whether held privately, within their own control, as in the case of Philip, or deposited with a confidante, which in the case of Carr eventually led to the donation of her records to a public institution. The importance to Sheila Watson that her papers be held on their own, in their own right–and not as an adjunct to those of her husband–is clearly related.
Themes of voice, silence, appropriation, and oppression are common throughout the five case studies. For example, in the lengthy chapter on Emily Carr, Morra provides us with a thorough discussion of the issues of cultural appropriation on the part of Carr, including the "artistic license" she took in representing an indigenous culture as "dying" or "endangered" while concurrently presenting her work as an authoritative or true source for research. "Carr was also involved in a series of 'appropriative acts,' including building an Indigenous archive, which implicated her in the colonizing process" (p. 51), potentially running the risk of silencing or distorting the voices in the archive. Carr clearly felt that she was a type of cultural saviour as "the terms in which she justified her painting came to revolve around preservation of indigenous artefacts rather than her own artistic accomplishment" (p. 49). Morra places these observations alongside the complication that Carr's voice was arguably also appropriated at times by male advocates, such...