BELL, Meghan




Author Tags: Women

REVIEW:
Making Room; Forty Years of Room Magazine
Edited by the Meghan Bell and the Growing Room Collective
Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press, 2017, with the Growing Room Collective. $24.95 / 9781987915402

Reviewed by Phyllis Reeve

[A second review of this book by Meghan Davies is also posted below this one.]

*

When I began to think about reviewing this book, a Canadian historian expressed amusement at the mere idea of 1970s feminism in Vancouver as a serious topic, let alone an episode in real history. Thus challenged, I felt compelled to charge ahead and write this review; otherwise I must conclude that the word �history� is not as I have assumed a derivation from Greek ???????, historia, meaning �inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation� (The Handbook of Historical Linguistics, 2005) but instead a compound of �his� and �story� distinct from the equal and opposite discipline called �herstory.�
1970s Vancouver feminism liberated us from more than lipstick and foundation garments. Something happened that has not finished yet. We had read Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir, but more kept coming: Kate Millett, Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, Judy Chicago. We had our own Canadian talent: among them journalists Doris Anderson and June Callwood of Chatelaine, Eleanor Wachtel (who wrote the foreword to this book) of the CBC, Florence Bird, a.k.a. Arlene Francis, chair of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada.
.
In Vancouver, Pauline Jewett of Simon Fraser University was the first female president of any Canadian co-ed university. Enough women insisted on being addressed as Ms instead of Miss or Mrs that the form stopped being weird and began to appear on official forms. We had Kinesis, the publication of the Vancouver Status of Women. And we had Room.

The founding members of the Growing Room Collective named their quarterly literary journal Room of One�s Own in homage to Virginia Woolf who, in her 1928 essay of that title, asserted that �a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write�.�
Woolf, who recognised her own privilege, lamented that �privacy and free time were luxuries denied to all but a very small minority of women.�
In their 1975 inaugural editorial the Collective -- Mary Anderson, Laurie Bagley, Pat Bartle, Penny Birnbaum, Lora Lippert, Gayla Reid, and Gail van Varseveld -- expanded the meaning of �room� beyond physical and economic space to include access to publication: �The woman writer needs not only a private place in which to create but also �room� in publication where she can communicate her ideas and feelings to others� a forum in which woman can share and express their unique perspectives on themselves, each other, and the world.�

The founding seven converged from a non-credit evening course on women in literature that Reid taught at Vancouver Community College. It was not a creative writing course, and none of the editors were �creative� writers, at least not yet. They were not planning to publish their own work; they were planning to enable others.
Reid explains: �At the time, writers typically got started by publishing in a little literary magazine (usually edited by men). So, Room would be a place where women could get started.�
And Reid continues: while Room �belonged in the feminist landscape, � there was no requirement that submissions should explicitly address sexism. We wanted to publish writing by women that was good writing, and we were convinced that there would be a lot of it around -- and there was.�

Room�s founders called themselves a �collective� because they �believed we should work collectively as opposed to hierarchically. Collectives were the feminist norm: there were daycare collectives, health collectives. The impetus came from the left and it was very much part of the times.�
Nevertheless, the magazine has had a succession of strong managing editors, whose voices as spokespersons relate the narrative behind this anthology. For the editors as much as for the writers, Room offered a unique opportunity to prove themselves.
Room�s four decades frame the collection�s four sections, each opening with an interview between an editor of that era and a predecessor.
I made the mistake with the First Decade (1975-1987) of trying to read straight through before deciding that this is not the best way to read any anthology.
The great Dorothy Livesay, mother poet of them all, set me straight in her essay �Women as Poets,� written to review her own editing of Forty Women Poets of Canada:
One reviewer complained that �with few exceptions � the poems are wry, agonised, despairing. The subjects chosen are suffering, dark, hurt, lonely. There is very little joy. One wonders why.� I think one knows why. This is the world we live in, the world from which one must free themselves.

These women wrote what they could not have written before they found a safe haven for their stories.
So I skipped around, dipping in here and there, taking a break, rereading some and finding quite a lot of joy, after all. The joy may be elegiac, as in Sandy Frances Duncan�s �Was that Malcolm Lowry,� later picked up for republishing in Vancouver Short Stories (1985), and in Marian Engel's �The Smell of Sulphur.�
There is wryness, if not despair, in Audrey Thomas�s deconstruction of �grass widows� and �old maids� in �Untouchables: a memoir.�

We are closer to despair in �Ten Sketches� by Carole Itter, who recently received the 2017 Audain Prize of Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts. These writers, and others of that decade -- Leona Gom, Daphne Marlatt, Lorna Crozier, to name a few -- had not yet achieved their present status in Canadian letters.
The editor interviewed for the Second Decade (1988-1997), Mary Schendlinger, co-founder of Geist magazine, recalled that Feminism was still regarded as something for white middle-class women, but proponents of diverse issues were finding their voices, gender and race were in the mix, and �there was all this stuff flying, flying, flying around.�
With politicism came schism: Rape Relief vs WAVAW [Women Against Violence Against Women], �people ripping people�s guts out.�

When she arrived in Vancouver in 1970 with a student husband and a baby, Schendlinger was refused a credit card because her husband was not working. It was irrelevant that she had a job.
Things began to change a little. There was a movement and issues that were new �and still quite embryonic, and we had kids to raise and husbands to leave and communal houses to live in.�
Some laughter mixes with the tears, in selections as different as Carol Shields� comic story �Orange Fish� and the stunning photo-essay �The Cancer Year� by Dorothy Elias and Barbara Findlay.
The section for the Third Decade (1998-2007) kicks off with Lana Okerlund and Meghan Bell asking �Are we feminist enough?� and the arrival of new technology, a database, even a website. Does �feminism� allow �trans-inclusive�? Was colour a factor?

The Collective rebranded with a formal change of title to Room, the name everyone had always used informally, and an effort to take more risks. �So whether we still need this women-only space, I don�t know, but we certainly need a space for that conversation.�
They found space for Anna Humphrey�s poem sequence about the Montreal Massacre, December 6, 1989, when a lone gunman killed fourteen young women, �Because you were there,� and room for �My Hero� by Ivan Coyote, whose very name evokes edginess, and for Elizabeth Bachinsky�s �Skin,� which addresses some unexpected consequences of our body-conscious culture (�What upsets Candace most about losing one hundred and seventeen pounds is that no one tells you what, exactly what, happens to your skin when you lose weight.�)
By the fourth decade (2008-2016), Rachel Thompson tells Kayi Wong about �translating intention into action,� the deliberate effort to invite diversity and explore language, exemplified in a Women of Colour issue and a translation issue. They refer to Souvankham Thammavongsa's poem �Pregnant� which expands on the Laotian words and perceptions around childbearing.
Transgender writers and themes are now a natural part of the mix, and explorations of violence against women reflect contemporary headlines.
Such intentional reaching out to specific interests and communities risks diluting quality, but not so here. Thompson talks about maintaining �integrity yet flexibility.� While I preferred some selections to others, I found none that were not compelling.

Current managing editor Chelene Knight wants to continue �these never-ending conversations� with a wider and more diverse audience without losing sight of the founding principles.
In the predominantly urban Canadian landscape of Room, the adage to �Never judge a man until you�ve walked a mile in his moccasins� is transformed by Anishinabe poet Marie Annharte Baker to �Walk a mile in her Red High Heels.�
Baker�s stilettos are more challenging, more dangerous, more tragic, and more contemporary than those comfortable moccasins.

But this is not a contest about which gender can be the more challenging, dangerous, tragic, or contemporary. Lana Okerlund worries that �increasingly, in our world, everyone�s just talking to themselves and the people who already believe them.�
Apparently after all these years they still need to convince some potential readers that, as Mary Schendlinger proclaims, �This is not Chick Lit.� Readers of His Story beware.

*

Phyllis Parham Reeve has written about local and personal history in her three solo books and in contributions to journals and multi-author publications. Recently she wrote the foreword to Charlotte Cameron�s play, October Ferries to Gabriola. She is a contributing editor of the Dorchester Review and her writing appears occasionally in Amphora, the journal of the Alcuin Society. A retired librarian and bookseller and co-founder of the bookstore at Page�s Resort & Marina, she lives on Gabriola Island, where she continues to interfere in the cultural life of her community.

*

The Ormsby Review. More Readers. More Reviews. More Often. Reviews Editor: Richard Mackie. Reviews Publisher: Alan Twigg

The Ormsby Review is hosted by Simon Fraser University. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn.


Making Room
Review #2



REVIEW: Making Room; Forty Years of Room Magazine
Edited by the Meghan Bell and the Growing Room Collective
Vancouver and Halfmoon Bay: West Coast Feminist Literary Magazine Society and Caitlin Press, 2017. $24.95 / 9781987915402

Reviewed by Megan J. Davies

*

Holding the 416-page heft of this volume gives me the certain knowledge that I am a shareholder in an impressive collective cultural history. And no wonder, for the anthology Making Room connects the reader to a deeply authentic selection of Canadian feminist poetry, short fiction and memoir drawn from the pages of the Vancouver magazine Room over its forty years of publication.

Founded in 1975 as Room of One’s Own -- an evocation of Virginia Woolf’s famous dictum that women need freedom and unfettered space to nurture their own creativity, Room has more than lived up to its name.

The magazine published pieces in its early years that made other CanLit journals uneasy: poems like Cyndia Cole’s searing “No Rape. No” would not have appeared elsewhere in this period, nor from The Cancer Year, a brave and beautiful photographic essay on mastectomy by Dorothy Elias and barbara findlay.

Room introduced Québécois feminist literature to the rest of Canada in 1979. And the evolving journal collective has struggled, and had some success, with the on-going project of ensuring that the feminist canon is inclusive, first by intentionally including writing by Indigenous women, Black women, East-Asian and Asian women, disabled women, LGBTQA+ and 2S women, and then by opening the door to authors who are transgender or non-binary.
Room was born out of the sense of extreme urgency and heady possibility that moved Canadian feminists in the mid-1970s. Internationally, publications like Ms Magazine (US) and Spare Rib (UK) were rolling off the press and major female authors like Margaret Drabble and Doris Lessing were publishing work that made the material and emotional lives of women central to their story. In English Canada, Margaret Lawrence, Alice Munro, Audrey Thomas, Jane Rule, and Dorothy Livesay claimed a feminist voice and sold a lot of books.

The four women who formed the genesis of Room’s first collective lived in a city where a vibrant feminist community grew to include a women’s health centre, a feminist newspaper, a women’s bookstore, a women’s press, and many other organizations, businesses and structures that supported women. Crucially, stable funding was available. The collective, still Room’s operational structure, was the norm in feminist circles of the era. “I felt I was exactly at the centre of the life I most wanted,” recalled founder Gayla Reid.

Because I am a women’s historian I looked at this volume as a rich cultural archive of Canadian feminism, each chapter a cultural time capsule containing a handful of published pieces and the text of a past/present collective member conversation. I tried to mine the writing and interview transcripts from each of the four decades for insights about the evolution of the “ism” that has defined my adult life.

The interview and prose selections from 1975-1987 are infused with the liberation of women -- difficult, necessary and joyful -- and short fiction and poetry deals with violence, motherhood, identity formation, and bonds among women.

Between 1988 and 1997 the themes are similar, but here I see a poem about incest and a short story about a lesbian relationship, and the conversation coming out of the interview is more self-critical, citing good intentions but limited diversity at Room.
A more noticeable shift comes in the 1998-2007 chapter. The section opens with a set of poems addressed to women murdered at École Polytechnique in Montreal, but apart from those and a poem about racism and violence, I struggled to situate the rest of the excellent pieces within a feminist canon, even after a swim and a late-night re-read.

Reevaluating the accompanying interview with former collective member Lana Okerland, I understood these writings as coming out of the difficult period when calling yourself a feminist was socially suspect, kind of like being caught recycling your socks for a third day. Okerland describes how criticism from Canada Council and former collective members prompted an identity crisis for Room in the early 2000s, when it was even suggested that the magazine disassociate itself from the word “feminist.”

The resulting 2007 rebranding brought a new (and delightfully expansive) name, an overdue entry into the world of twenty-first century technology, and -- most importantly -- a decision to stop playing safe and take on important, relevant work. “We wanted the magazine to move forward and initiate conversation and literally give writers and readers the room for that dialogue,” Okerland recalled.

This bold move may have been why Room survived when so many other feminist publications vanished. “Pushing feminism to be more,” meant keeping the organization flexible so it could respond to change and opportunity, making diversity not just theory but praxis, and embracing intersectional feminism alongside humour and surprise.
Reading the pieces in the final chapter, which covers the years 2008-2016, kept my feminist mind alert for these elements. The cleverly structured “River Phoenix Social Club,” with an uppity group of rape victims opting for collective action instead of solitary passivity, might have been published thirty years earlier, except that the ending doesn’t provide a clear moral message.

In the dark fantasy of the poem “Maheen’s Collage,” an Iranian mother carves up the bodies of her two young daughters, selecting the finest eyes and the flattest belly, to make one perfect Persian bride. In the 1970s or 1980s, I suspect, the main character of this piece would have been a blond Barbie doll or perhaps Jane Fonda.

Social justice literary forums like Room take the power of the personal voice and amplify it, providing crucial venues for creative output from often-marginalized artists. The past/present conversations in this volume provide rich insights into what involvement with a collective meant to members, but I wish I knew more about the authors whose names do not bring ready recognition. Did seeing their work in print for the first time bring the same amazed pride that I recall from my first undergraduate publication? Did publishing in Room open the door to continued work as an author and a new creative identity?

I didn’t notice that feminism had become acceptable again until women all over the world took to the streets to demonstrate on January 21, 2017. “I want to talk with you,” a woman said to my 24-year-old daughter at a recent party, “because you were a feminist before it was cool to be one.”

So here is the gift that this book gives: it makes it 150% clear why being a feminist in the twenty-first century isn’t just cool. It is about feminisms, plural, and operating with a clear appreciation for the privilege that race, health, age, and economic position offer. It is about taking and holding female power in a fashion that includes all who claim that descriptor. It is about being ready, always, to march for the right to control your body.
And it is about finding the female -- the woman on the bus, your best friend, yourself -- on the cinema screen, in the novel you are reading, and the poem you see pasted up on the subway. As this wonderful anthology makes clear, feminism is a toolkit for survival.

Happy 40th Room, and thank you.

*

Megan Davies was a founding editor at The Emily (now Third Space Story), a feminist student newspaper which began publication at the University of Victoria’s Women’s Centre in the early 1980s. A B.C. historian based at York University, she researches and writes on madness, old age, food, and rural health.