Feminized Literature, Motherhood, & Canada Reads

It was with trepidation I opened the current CNQ, dubbed "The Gender Issue." I understand, and advocate, the need to be fair to all sides when delving into any issue, but today, this week, I'm tired of being angry. And if you're going to give equal time to all ideas on gender (specifically, gender and Canadian literature), I'm going to get angry at something. It's inevitable. I'm an "angry feminist" and generally pretty happy about that.

So I was gratified that the lead piece was Nicole Dixon's "The Other F-Word: The Disappearance of Feminism from Our Fiction." Dixon takes on the current landscape of Canadian female-authored fiction with a real "angry feminist" eye, that I appreciate. Sometimes, I feel that as feminists we have to pull our punches too often, so as not to offend. Third-wave feminism, as the reader no doubt knows, was a big, needed leap forward in terms of inclusivity. However, Dixon and many other feminists now take umbrage with a theory of feminism that has become too scared to make a point in fear of coming across as not inclusive enough. Feminism, so the thinking goes, has become too susceptible to alternative versions and definitions (Sarah Palin, anyone?). The resulting
problem with keeping feminism undefined and mutable is that the stereotypes the second-wavers fought against creep back into public thinking and published fiction, brought back and advanced by women as well as men.

One of the stereotypes Dixon rallies against, within a CanLit framework, is compulsory motherhood. As I've said before, I'm child-free – recently I chose to have a tubal ligation to (hurr hurr) seal the deal – but I am interested in motherhood narratives, sometimes just for the reassurance that I have made the right choice for me. So, for someone like me, it's always good to read a piece that fights against the notion that motherhood is a necessary part of the female experience, though it is one of the most common. Of Lisa Moore's February Dixon writes:
To write and publish such a novel and create such a character at a time when more women graduate from universities than men sends the message that breeding is more important than education... Why coach women toward publishing and graduate degrees when Canada's successful women authors literally coach them toward mental suicide?
I don't think Dixon is suggesting that those women who have had children are now brainless (though mothers with too little sleep might argue they feel as such). Rather, that the imagined women of CanLit, and indeed some of the authors, are defined not by their own personhood, but by the existence of their children.

There are, of course, some issues with Dixon's analysis. While I agree and/or am engaged by a lot of her critical analysis of the texts, the politics fall down a bit. In returning to a more second-wave activist viewpoint, Dixon does neglect some of the things the third-wave worked so hard to achieve, mainly understanding. First off, I'm troubled by the unthinking classism displayed here.
Nothing else a woman does is universally applauded as having a baby – not earning a PhD (more women attended a friend's baby shower than her PhD defense), not becoming a lawyer (most of my lawyer friends are now stay-at-home moms), not even running for president

Not all women have the opportunity to get graduate degrees, let alone attend post-secondary education. While I did get a BA, I'm not exactly a high-powered career woman, and there are lots more like me. Are these women invisible? Is the “loss” of people like me to motherhood okay, because we don't have graduate degrees? I doubt this is what Dixon means, but her examples are not exactly pan-experiential

Dixon also assumes that “women can choose to live whatever lives they want (in this country anyway)[.]” This again, seems to speak to a certain section of Canadian female experience that is, indeed, over-represented in CanLit. Some women don't have a choice (or don't know that they have a choice) about motherhood, due to cultural, familial, or religious obligations and constraints. However, if we're going to focus more on the white, likely middle-class women who write the books Dixon is looking at, there are still issues. The thing is, a lot of women really do choose motherhood. Not to beat the fandom horse, but Kerry Clare and Marita Dachsel have a wonderfully thoughtful conversation on motherhood and writing* posted at Pickle Me This. Many of my white, middle-class friends have, or want, kids. If motherhood narratives are popular, it must be at least partially due to the number of mothers reading and identifying with them. It's dangerous to call too many of these narratives mindless, because that view is suspect of the readership,** and in truth, there are a lot of really smart women out there, with children, who appreciate literature on the same level that Dixon does.

While I'm critical of Dixon's piece, I also want to make clear that I really, really like it. I think it's a really great bit of feminist analysis that has me thinking about CanLit in a new way, and it's given me a critical framework that I'll definitely employ going forward. It also reminded me, through some of the works it deals with (Lullabies for Little Criminals, The Birth House)and the mention of Dixon's roit grrrrrl university days, that a really deserving book missed making the Top 5 of Canada Reads this year, after making it to the top 10. Bottle Rocket Hearts is the story of Eve, making her way through life and love in mid-90s Montreal. Zoe Whittall belongs to the same cohort as Dixon and I, and Bottle Rocket Hearts inspires fond memories of how transgressive we felt, before "alt" was (ironically) so common a modifier as to be completely meaningless. Eve is unsure and tough, all at the same time, and reminds me of the 20-year-old arrogance and swagger we displayed, while not having any fucking clue what we were really doing. If I'd met Eve in 1995, I'd have wanted to be her, though I was probably more like her than I think. Bottle Rocket Hearts is, I hope, a book Nicole Dixon could get behind.

*Yet, I was also taken aback by the following comment: “My own view, of course, is that biological reproduction is intrinsic to creative work, and that the labour of giving birth and of finishing a book are pretty close to the same thing.” I felt this comment to be marginalizing to those of us who have chosen not to participate in the parenthood process (not to mention those women who – for whatever reason – can't have children but want to). The comment has since been contextualized for me, but honestly? It still rankles. I am definitely pro-mama, and I think as a society we still don't value mothers as people enough. However, we can't go so far as to assume that “biological reproduction” is a necessary pre-condition for a certain kind of work. Not only am I child-free, but I'm the second generation of my family to be adopted. This history, in part, leads me to believe that there is an over emphasis on biology and reproduction. Which is where Dixon and I meet up again.

**And this is something I find all too often with critical analysis in this country; if something is popular, it must be mindless. I feel there's a classism in this as well, and I don't believe that populism is necessarily a bad thing. But what do I know? I don't have a graduate degree.

It's odd to admit, within the context of a post dealing with feminism, that I read The Birth House because I saw Ami McKay give an award acceptance speech that made me cry. I ended up liking the speech more than the book.

And I could also write three times as much on all the times I said “Yes!!” in my head, or on some other little things I want to engage with, but I'm trying to be ever-so-slightly focused.


Ben said...

I despise Facebook's "Like" button on stuff. I refuse to use it. Not sure why--I'll use one on other sites. It's just something about Facebook's "Like" button that bugs me.

I kind of wish I had a "like" button for this though, so I could press it.

Then again, I could just leave a comment mentioning how much I like it. I don't have anything else intelligent to say about it. I just want you to know I think it's a really good, thoughtful post, and I hope you keep them coming.

No pressure....

Kerry C. said...

I like your analysis of her piece. As an angry feminist with a child, I felt her view was a bit narrow, but I think provocation was always the point. What fell apart for me, however, was the view that all our female protagonists are meant to stand for us. Also that we're either to be in graduate school for twenty years, or be sentenced to the prison of motherhood. And it frustrates me too when other feminists won't be the kind of feminists I want them to be, but perhaps I'm not well versed enough in academic theory to understand who gets to be the decider.

Panic said...

Also that we're either to be in graduate school for twenty years, or be sentenced to the prison of motherhood.
Yeah, exactly. As I say, I'm not part of any of these worlds. I'm not in academia, or publishing, or any of that world. I make spreadsheets for a living, but I am a reader, and a feminist, so where does that leave me? I don't exist in this analysis. That was a bit frustrating. I suddenly feel all that "ivory tower" criticism very keenly, from outside the tower.

charlotteashley said...

I found Dixon's piece challenging, I admit: On the one hand, I was thrilled to death with her criticism of the selected titles. It spoke to exactly why I dislike so much of our woman-written literature. "The feminist movement, in all its waves, has fought to ensure that women have and can make choices. And making choices is also what drives narrative and moves plot." EXACTLY! Why must so many of our heroines be meandering, directionless, confused and infantilized?

But on the other hand, I also consider myself an angry feminist with a child - I don't see anything inherent to my motherhood which is contrary to the values Dixon champions. I've been in and out of school for 12 years, I am the breadwinner in my family. I have a brain - when I'm not sleep deprived - and most of all, I feel it's strong, intelligent feminists like me who should be raising children. I have a uniquely powerful effect on my children as their mother. My daughter will grow up with a strong, intelligent, ambitious mother has her primary female role-model. Isn't this good???

I understand she doesn't mean to unload on the wide swath of motherhoods, but she certainly made no allowances for the rest of us. I don't think I'm part of the problem with feminism, and I'm not sure we're going to gain any ground pointing fingers at each other.

Amy Lavender Harris said...

I'm the author of the comment you found objectionable on Kerry's blog. I'm very sorry you found it marginalizing to women non-parents: that was certainly not my intent.

My intent was to respond to the narrative that women must 'choose' either motherhood or a creative/intellectual life. My point was that not only is the duality false, parenthood is (also) itself an intellectually and creatively generative act.

Having lived with infertility (having a kid after great struggle doesn't make me any less so), I am acutely aware that the inability to have children also stirs the imagination. Women I know who have lost children also feel changed profoundly by the experience.

In truth, I think women who cannot (or who do not intend to) have children face much of the same erasure that mothers do. Women who 'fail' to have children are deemed biologically inept and/or selfish, while women who do have children are too often excluded from creative communities.

I guess if I was a big fan of Judith Butler, I would argue here that many or perhaps most women 'perform' our gender and in/fertility through our creative work. Even without the theoretical superstructure that is what I meant by the comment.

Panic said...

Hi Amy,
I really appreciate your comment. I didn't think Kerry's blog was the space to get all into my own issues, so I'm glad you came over here to discuss.
Honestly, I agree with everything you've said here, with your blog post that I linked... it was just something about "biological reproduction is intrinsic to creative work" stuck with me. I couldn't shake it off, and that has as much to do with me and my views on biology as it does with anything else.

Amy Lavender Harris said...

It sounds as if whatever we choose (or are constrained by) as women we are expected to feel guilty or bad or at least ill-at-ease about it. Certainly we seem consigned to struggle more (differently?) than men do with our choices / options regarding having or not having kids.

I have many good women friends with and without kids. Some by choice, some by surprise. All are thoughtful, original people (that's what makes them friends), and that to me is what makes for creativity, not whether or how we make use of our wombs.

Kerry C. said...

What if a man had written her essay? And instead of viewing (a small parcel) of contemporary literature as an affront to feminism had said it constituted a violation of aesthetic excellence (and I've read that essay too, many times before). Wouldn't that be infuriating?