When the League’s Feminist Caucus was formed in the 1980s, its goal was was to make space for women in a largely male-dominated field and organization. Since then, much space has certainly been made, but many women in poetry, literature, and writing still face unique obstacles for the sole fact that they are not men. One facet of this is the term “woman writer” — what is a woman writer other than a writer? Not too long ago, the hashtag #ThingsOnlyWomenWritersHear went viral, with women from all fields of writing sharing their experiences as “women writers.” Although the conversation has been going on for decades, it’s far from over, so we wanted to sit down with some of the women shortlisted for our 2017 book awards and ask them how feminism interacts with their writing and writing lives, if at all.
Today, we’re chatting with Alexandra Oliver, shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, Elee Kraljii Gardiner, shortlisted for the Raymond Souster Award, and Ingrid Ruthig, shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award.
LCP: Do you identify as feminist? What does feminism mean to you?
Alexandra Oliver: Absolutely. As a woman who writes—and a woman who has a preoccupation with other women suspended in quasi-surreal domestic situations, I’d say I’m both immersed and committed. How can I not be? Being in the English and Cultural Studies PhD. program at McMaster is adding another layer to what I’ll loosely refer to as my feminist consciousness. My profs and my colleagues are incredibly inspirational and I’m being asked, on a daily basis to look deeper into things. It’s such a privilege to be there.
When I was young and silly (okay, sillier), I used to shy away from calling myself a feminist, because I was in a phase of my life where it seemed “superfluous”. I’m putting this in quotation marks because, of course, that was pure bloody-minded hubris and ignorance on my part. In the early nineties, my friends and I were all were puttering about in the glow of the Riot Grrl movement; we were making zines and homemade posters and holding events and getting out there, but I somehow found myself caught in this post-feminist image game. I camped up being proper and old school and I let it define me. Since then, I’ve had closer brushes with discrimination, violence, abuse, injustice. I’ve come to terms with what has affected the women in my family,—how religion or a sense of social propriety altered their decisions and effectively hobbled them. Maybe I’ve just become more aware of what was there already.
I look around me and I wonder about these young girls who are so preoccupied with selfie culture and reality television and Instagram, and it makes my skin crawl. One thing that really changed my life when I was fourteen was that I met a friend of my brother’s, an older woman who was a multimedia artist. She brought me into the world of performance art and video and got me involved in all sorts of projects. She never spoke down to me in a condescending manner; I’d leave her house feeling a thousand feet tall, like I was brimming with potential. She is a big part of the reason I do what I do. Where I’m going with this is to say that female mentorship is so important to me. I honestly think its one of the biggest weapons in our collective arsenal.
Ingrid Ruthig: As a young woman I rode the optimistic wave of feminism through the late 1970s and into the ’80s, when I entered a male-dominated profession – namely, architecture, which I practised in Toronto for over a decade after graduation. So, how could I be anything other than a feminist? I’m grateful to those who stormed in before me, breaking ground in new territory and leaving a broad trail of footprints for the rest of us to follow. I even added some muddy boot-prints of my own along the way, for those coming up behind. However, I’ve also been around long enough now to see what happens when people forget how it was, or because they’re young, simply don’t realize how forward motion can so easily slide into reverse, as it’s currently doing. I’m squaring my shoulders again, pulling on the workboots, digging my heels in against the backslide. Feminism has never been and shouldn’t be about placing one gender or group ahead of another – for me, it’s about equal rights and opportunity for all. Not everyone will reach his/her goal, but everyone should have the same chance.
Elee Kraljii Gardiner: Feminism is one access point for checking in on who experiences freedom, privilege and respect and who doesn’t.
LCP: How does feminism influence your writing life, if at all?
IR: It’s honed my awareness of boundaries, especially those that are imposed and without justification. And it strengthens my instinct to question everything: expectations, limitations, accepted ways of thinking and being, even the ways we use language or receive information. No one is going to keep me from doing something, simply because of my gender. Well, they can try… but good luck with that. At the same time, I will write what I observe and think – not as a woman, not as a person of a certain age or persuasion, not as member of any group or arbitrary category, but as an individual. Any other label is restrictive, as most labels are – perhaps even “feminist”. I’ll be who I am. And I’ll write about the world the way I see it. Again, it’s all about an equal chance to do the work, to speak up, and to be heard.
EKG: One small way is that I focus my (small) book review practice specifically on books by women and trans authors.
AO: I try and commit myself to telling all kinds of stories through watching people very, very carefully. As far as I’m concerned, feminism is a crucial part of that compassion and observation. It’s one face of the lens, if that makes any sense.
LCP: Related: do you feel your writing is inherently political just because you are a woman? How do you interact with that in your writing?
EKG: No, there are a lot of people writing about nonpolitical topics with a lack of ideology. Being a woman is not a political position. Being a critical woman is.
AO: What with everything going on stateside—the upending of rights designed to protect women, LGBTQ individuals and people of colour—I am, like many of my fellow writers, on the alert. It’s unbelievable what’s happening. These attitudes are pernicious and contagious. I often wonder how effective I can be as an individual participant in the creative project (and the larger social project), but I do know that I can contribute as part of a tenacious and loud-mouthed collective. My work may not seem overly political, but I try to make the poems look unflinchingly at people or situations, I try to sing out with a curious and unnerving music. I try to be heard. I try to empathize. That’s the best I can do.
IR: Have to say, this kind of question, teetering on that little word “just”, wouldn’t even occur to me to ask someone. Maybe that says more about when and where and how I grew up, than it says about me. Anyway, my answer is a flat-out “no”. One can’t assume the writing, having sprung from a woman, has some built-in political significance about anything, not even gender issues. It doesn’t, necessarily, and thinking it does only perpetuates the main problem of divisions. The work issues more importantly from the human perspective, the human experience. What makes it inherently political is the fact that an individual voice has dared to seek the universal in documenting a singular experience, has dared to rage against the silence, the day-to-day, the blind complacency, the dazed acceptance of how things are at this moment in time. By its very nature, the act of writing is political and entirely human.
The writing springs from watching, listening, taking the world in (though many days you’d much rather shut it out). It’s like tossing a pebble into a pond… You think, record what demands to be recorded, because if you don’t get it out, some part of you will explode. If I put to paper the words that represent what I see and think – understanding full well that, in the process, they may become something else altogether – and if I let then them go, there’s the breath of a chance someone else might connect with them. If I don’t, there’s no chance at all of a pebble, a pond… a ripple or two.
LCP: Who are some writers who have influenced you, or who you would recommend as must-read writers?
IR: For the past 2 ½ years, I’ve been working on an extensive image-and-text-based project, which is to be exhibited in a solo show this Fall at Whitby’s Station Gallery. It’s taken me deep into the foggy legacy of women creators, and it has been an eye-opener. Female mentors have surrounded us for centuries, even though we’ve been less than fully aware of their influence. To date, I’ve recreated portraits in image and text of more than 100 visual artists and writers from history. I couldn’t single out just one or two. Suffice it to say, my research has expanded my sense of this component of our creative family tree, and it’s a rich, persistent story. Pick a name, any name, and start reading.
EKG: A list of people who have stirred me this week:
Erin Wunker, Alex Leslie, Rachel Rose, Gillian Jerome, Lucas Crawford, Adrienne Gruber, Ali Blythe, Sonnet L’Abbé, Ivan Coyote, Dina Del Bucchia, Amber Dawn, Looks Both Ways Woman, Muriel Marjorie, Sina Queyras, Doretta Lau, Jane Eaton Hamilton, Betsy Warland, Cecily Nicholson, Gwen Benaway, Lindsay Brown, Anakana Schofield, Jonina Kirton, Chelene Knight, Karenza Wall, Sachiko Murakami, Sikeena Karmali Ahmed, Melissa Bull, Sheila McIntyre, Juliane Okot Bitek, Ayelet Tsabari, Leah Horlick, Aoibheann Sweeney, Carleigh Baker, Nancy Boutilier, Vivek Shraya, V. Penelope Pelizzon, Joan Naviyuk Kane, Antonette Rea, Christine Lowther, Madeleine Thien, angela rawlings, Evelyn Lau, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Chelsea Vowel