Women?s Writing in Canada by Patricia Demers
(University of Toronto Press $34.95)

Review by Linda Rogers (BCBW 2020)

Women?s Writing in Canada is a reference book, valuable for students of Canadian literature. It makes the case for various narratives, all of them one way or another stories of resistance.
Alice Munro resists smalltown Presbyterianism. P.K. Page resists the super ego of an obsessive compulsive artist corralling her own inner voices. Deepa Mehta resists the cultural constraints of misogynistic culture. Adele Wiseman bears the world of child exploitation on her shoulders.

Margaret Laurence endures the beauty myths that surrounded her. Jean Coulthard Adams resists compromises in a life and art defined by her gender.

As these women dared, they explored a landscape that defied the paradigms of post-colonial Canadian society.

There is a reason why the voices of Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Mavis Gallant rose mid-century to demand international attention. They were fresh and rose out of the ashes of colonialism to seed their own surrounds.

Now that the same landscape is being reclaimed by Indigenous writers, many of them women claiming hereditary rights almost obliterated by the Indian Act and its patriarchal model, we are enjoying a new freshness, women?s voices continuing to dominate, because, as Demers observes, we live real lives.

Statistics show little girls are compulsive readers and it is accepted wisdom that reading creates empathy and that writers emerge from the cocoon of childhood reading, pencil ready. It is logical that the stories that compel us, all chakras, from the carnal to the spiritual, from Lady Murasaki, the first novelist, to Yasuko Thanh, not the last, are written by women. We have taken off our girdles, broken free from the boundaries meant to define us in a glorious explosion of colour and light.

The real story is about how women?s creativity has been formed and malformed by patriarchal values, and how a feminist agenda is defining the new order in Canada.

No one knows better than Indigenous artists the ways in which women have been affected by the imposition of patriarchal values on our creativity. We have common cause, the survival of our children in a country and a planet destroyed by the competitive nature of men.

Demers nods to awards, a new phenomenon in the formerly sacred art forms: art for art?s sake, music for joy and lamentation, literature for sharing the human story. The advent of creative writing schools led to new vocabularies, careerism and competition with its inherent dangers. Many of our women writers have now been commended, even exalted.

We are one in the many, ultimately the One. There was that moment of grace when Atwood, Nobel aspirant, gave accolades to Alice Munro, then the new laureate, a sisterhood that is too often eclipsed by the transient notion of winning.

These are the details that breathe between the lines in Demers? book. What she has given amounts to an annotated bibliography of selected artists that prompts broader discovery of meaning in the lives of creators drawing us into the larger narrative.

Her map shows how women on fire, challenging the old norms of style and content, are no longer constrained by patriarchal society.

Women?s Writing in Canada marks the moment a match is struck. The forest was dying; long live the new forest. The best is yet to come.

They used to throw women artists in mental institutions, our radical behaviour disruptive to the norm.

Now, women artists are freer to leave the shadows and make noise.

Acknowledging the challenge of diversity and limitations of space, Patricia Demers? welcome overview of selected Canadian women authors of poetry, fiction, non-fiction and film reminds me of the West Coast Indigenous practice of throwing the bones of the first salmon back in the water, so that the fish might generate a ?new gown? of skin and flesh on the bone.
Well-organised in categories of genre, with an introduction and conclusion and timeline, Demers? book ?reflects the hybridization of changing demographic, economic, linguistic and community conditions.?

That?s another way of saying it?s a skeletal reorganization, ready for whatever comes next.
With Women?s Writing in Canada, Demers gives us a valuable resource, good bones, warp, and woof for future discussion, the framework constrained not by genre but by personal choice. 9780802095015

Linda Rogers will be at the Word On The Lake Writers? Festival in Salmon Arm, May 8-10. Her most recent book is Yo! Wiksas? Hi! How Are You? (Exile Editions, 2019) with Rande Cook.