There's hardly a pedestrian or workmanlike piece amongst all the twenty-eight stories gathered by Shannon Cooley in her cross-country search for new female voices in fiction. The energy and intelligence here are so impressive that it can be difficult to distinguish the truly interesting, original, or deep minds from those that are more facile or trendy.
What picture of young Canadian women is on view here? As might be expected, most of the young, female protagonists are still struggling with the issues of identity, sexuality, intimacy, and relationships with parents and siblings that dominate the emotional landscape as people come of age. In some cases, the writers show the type of insight or wider vision that normally comes only with age and experience. It is pleasing to see the easy confidence with which some of these young women have boldly experimented with narrative form. Some attempts are more successful than others, of course. All are at the very least intriguing.
The stories are divided into four sections, called magnifying the creases there, and here we are now, this is for real, and you can go to sleep now, nana, I'm here. For the life of me, I could not figure out by what criteria they were divided, but no matter. As a way of making sense of the book, I started grouping the stories according to dominant themes. Here are the results: stories in which sexual or physical abuse by a male figure is a major focus (four); stories revolving around the experience of cultural difference (six); stories that ooze sexual tension (four); stories about bad childhoods or devil moms (four); melancholy reflections on family break-up (four); defiant tales of the antics of Bad Girls (four); explorations of lesbian love or sex or curiosity (four); anguished chronicles of the search for intimacy with boys or men (four); notes from that other country, insanity (two). Sisters and female friends appear throughout-sometimes as allies, sometimes as competitors-but are rarely in the foreground; and, of course, many stories contain more than one of those themes, while a few cannot be categorized, or are one of a kind.
Favourites? This will depend on the reader's point of view. A man might find this all-female collection a bit suffocating, as if he were the only outsider stuck in a small room with a bunch of high-powered and enthusiastic committee members busily engaged in an intense discussion about the minutiae of their organization. Actually, even as a woman I found myself feeling somewhat the same way; it could be that age is telling on me. Twenty-somethings or thirty-somethings might find personal resonance in more of these stories than I did as a forty-something.
Most-I'll go out on a limb and say all-of these stories are very well-written. What any particular reader likes best is likely to be, therefore, a question of content rather than of form. I was drawn to the work of Elaine Littman, Tonja G. Klassen, Mina Kumar, Eufemia Fantetti, Lesley-Anne Bourne, and Nick Nolet, probably because I cared about the characters in the stories, as well as admiring the writing styles and finding the resolutions satisfying. The work of Suzette Mayr, Jo-Anne Berman, and Larissa Lai was less appealing, simply because it was peopled by brutish and insensitive or even despicable protagonists. In other cases, the stories were about characters who are rather too immature to be really compelling. This group, however, contains two extremely talented writers who will, if they continue to produce work of such high calibre, achieve widespread acclaim in the next ten years: Amanda H. Jernigan and Jenna Newman. My eyes nearly fell out of my head when I arrived at the short bio following each story, and found that both these women are still less than twenty years old.
After I finished reading this collection, I found myself wondering what a book of stories by Canadian men under thirty would be like. Eye wuz here calls out for a companion volume. If the function of writers is to hold up a mirror to our society, we're only being shown half the image; in the interest of completeness if not equality, we should hear from young men too.
"Great art" has been defined in such a way to leave out a dimension. The female sensibility has often been excluded except when it was filtered through the male sensibility; a woman's voice was included only when it could pass for the voice of a very observant man. The male sensibility could be held out as "universal" even when it did not encompass anything of the female. So I'm always glad to see young women breaking through the old, flattening conventions that have left the arts not so deep as they could be.
In the long run, though, I wonder how much the segregation of male from female furthers the cause of great art; it would be better to integrate them into a vision that fully honours both. Perhaps it is too early in women's artistic emancipation to articulate such a utopian vision. But if we give up looking for something of this sort, we fall into a bifurcated world that does not reflect the uncomfortable but wondrous reality present in any and all of our lives.
Nikki Abraham is a Toronto writer.