I’m writing this piece from Britain as what you could call a displaced Canadianist but I don’t think of myself that way. What is a Canadianist? An expert on Canadians? That’s not me. My research focus is on experimental writing, much of it by lesbians, queers, and people of colour, all of whom, when they are writing from Canada, are highly critical of the patriarchal, racist, classist, homophobic Canadian state.
It’s true that much of the literature that I think of as my literature was – and still is – written by folks who were born, live, or once lived, in Canada but it has never been considered in the mainstream of Canadian literature. Work by Dionne Brand, Nicole Brossard, Daphne Marlatt, Erín Moure, NourbeSe Philip, Lisa Robertson, Fred Wah: that was the writing that fascinated me, compelled me, moved me, nourished me, never abused me. My readings of that literature changed me in profoundly positive ways and even led me, after a very long struggle, out of a heterosexual life, away from Canada, toward previously unimagined worlds, not narrower ones.
I live in London now. The queer communities here nourish me and give me space to think, love, be. I’m working on a manuscript called Queer Openings, about the years I spent reading and teaching queer experimental writing. I’m particularly interested in the role that reading plays in recognising new realities, in what Caroline Bergvall calls that ‘strange passage’ where alternative worlds are felt, imagined, available.
From my current vantage point, across the ocean, outside the fray, tangentially connected via friends and colleagues, I watch the CanLit ‘dumpster fire’ and am bereft. I am entering that fray now to say the following directly to other women: turn to each other, rebuild your friendships, focus on your needs and desires, write your stories, read work that nourishes you, claim your space, take care of yourselves because no one else will.
In the HuffPost’s article about the abuse of power in the Canadian creative writing community (9 January 2018), not one woman speaks or is cited. The article is by a man, based on what a male university president and a male blogger have to say. How does this serve women? As Rachel Lau noted in her article about Julie McIsaac’s ‘And then a man said it’, although many women have written about misconduct in the same creative writing department at Concordia University, they did not get the same attention: he ‘made this name for himself for being the whistleblower.’
The dumpster fire rages and expands to exclude women again. On both sides – and in the current conversation there are just two sides – I hear articulations of pain, assertions of power, failures of imagination, shutting down of dialogue, and expressions of hopelessness. These were not my experiences of participating in literary communities in Canada. But I’ve always been a geographical outsider, inhabiting the margins of CanLit. I did my graduate degrees in Eastern Canada (at the University of New Brunswick) and at the peripheral Toronto university (York). I taught and carried out my research in Western Canada.
I never expected or wanted to be included in the centre, in the conversations being had by the Atwoods (et al) of white, straight, ‘upper’ Canada, though I was under no illusions. Those women were at the centre of a powerful set of forces that kept them looking to men instead of women. Their work had never been for us. In my literature of Canada, I – and generations of my students — found gestures of hope, possibilities, potential futures.
There is a freedom to being outside. Unable to gain access to an Oxbridge library, Virginia Woolf famously wrote, ‘I’d rather be locked out than locked in.’ It helps, of course, if you know what it feels like to be locked in before finding your way out.
Let me be clear: I am well aware of the significance of the current political moment. Some abusive men are now beginning to pay the price for their behavior. A few are losing their jobs. One abuser’s books are no longer circulating. And many women’s stories are being heard for the first time. But are stories with men (still) at the centre of a field – Can Lit – with women forced to take sides from the sideline the stories we need to hear? Will they make us strong, hopeful, resistant?
For years, my feminist anger was focused on the recognition that I too had been forced – in subtle but damaging ways – to agree to my compliance. Here’s my version of #metoo for example, written in the form of a poem I published on Facebook:
You can’t compare misogynies
But others’ assaults, abuses, overt harassments
Make me think at first
This never happened to me
I slept with a male professor when I was 21
I thought I wanted to and I did need him
To write letters of reference for me
I was always a bit afraid when I wasn’t
So I often stayed home
I had a loving lovely husband
Except I didn’t want a husband
I wanted a woman
So I haven’t really been touched against my will or hurt or forced
I have agreed to my compliance
Almost all of the time
But it was in the imaginative spaces and alternatives opened up by experimental writing that I found hope and ways to make what Fred Wah calls ‘loose change.’
Frankly, and let me put it bluntly, the CanLit dumpster fire has meant that we – women, feminists – have been turning our full and complete attention, again, to powerful men. In so doing, we are turning on each other. We are not working toward alternatives. We are not getting on with our own lives. All of us who identify as women are suffering.
A false dichotomy has been set up, not only one that posits an ‘us’ who would stop the harassers against a ‘them’ who would tolerate them, but more insidiously, an ‘us’ who would stop the harassers against an ‘us’ who would do nothing, as if there is no alternative, as if there is no other world that we might – and many of us already do – inhabit.
As even the title of Kai Cheng Thom’s article ‘On Women’s Participation in CanLit Rape Culture’ suggests, women are being held responsible for rape culture. She asks: ‘What can we, as Canadian trans women writers working on stolen Indigenous lands, do to stop rapists in the literary community?’ But the only alternative she can imagine is to ‘close [her] eyes in front of [her] laptop screen’:
To my surprise and my shame, I find my whole body crying out, we don’t stop the rapists. We stay quiet, we write our stories, we hope to get published, and we survive.
This is a false dichotomy. It is not true that the only alternative to stopping rape culture is to stay quiet and complicit. We can get on with our own work instead.
Alicia Elliott argues that the time is ripe to ‘write the books you’ve always wanted to read. Encourage others to write the books you’ve always wanted to read. Celebrate those books’. Absolutely. Let’s also claim the work that has been done, the writing in Canada that has provided spaces of resistance for the last fifty years.
Nicole Brossard infamously described herself as ‘a woman of the present’ (1999): ‘If the writer has a job to do,’ she wrote, ‘it is to … make sure our language remembers us, and remembers the joy of free women’.
The joys of free women.
With these words, Brossard names an ontology we don’t read about all that often anymore.
This latest trick of the patriarchy, this determination to turn women’s gazes back on men, to circulate stories that frighten us so much that we will finally stay quiet, stay off the streets, out of classrooms, believe that we have no writing or future of our own, this too must be refused and a more hopeful vision retrieved before it is too late and young women don’t have any memory of what it is like to be free at all.
 See ‘Strange Passage(s): Finding ourselves in queer space with Caroline Bergvall’, forthcoming in Georgina Colby’s edited collection Reading Experimental Writing (Edinburgh University Press).
 Including Concordia’s president, a male blogger, and four infamous Americans.
 In ‘The Giant Nature of Words and Silence around Identity’, in Fluid Arguments (2005).