A FEW YEARS ago, in an article in This Magazine, Paulette Jiles lamented that most of women's writing was about relationships (with men); she urged women writers to explore new forms of fiction that would allow for female protagonists who were active, rather than just reactive, and whose sense of self and purpose did not hinge on the male species. "Women have always had experiences other than those of relating," she argued, "Why are we ignoring them in our fiction?"
Most of the 17 stories in Imagining Women, a volume of short fiction put together by The Second, Second Story Collective of The Women's Press, present female characters who fit Jiles's description of active protagonists to at least some degree. Does this mean that the tide is turning? I don't know but I do know that this is a lively, varied collection with very few low notes and an engaging range of style and theme.
'Me sensitive examination of male/female involvements to which Jiles took exception does have its place here. Helen Rosta's "The Hunter" is the story of a woman whose relationship with her father has always been blighted by his utter disdain for women,, except as providers of sex, comfort, or care. There's a feeling of sorrow and helplessness to this tale, not least because the father's lack of regard seems subtly shared by the woman's brother and her husband, and because she herself has always been so willing to give affection and serve his needs.
In "Sliding Home," Caroline Woodward depicts a protagonist who must-reconcile the demands of marriage and her outside interest, namely participation in a recreational softball league. Is it possible to be both, a conscientious wife and a good shortstop? Woodward seems to be saying yes, but it isn't easy - at any rate, there's no indication that Elly is going to hang up her cleats (and her sense of accomplishment) because of her husband's growing discontent.
Like Elly, Gertrude Story's protagonist in the first-person narrative "Old" takes responsibility for her decisions, even when they make her unhappy. At 57, she's passionately in love with a man who has always regarded her as just a friend. But there's a sardonic dignity to her loneliness, and a strong sense that she is making choices, not simply letting fate (represented by the Golden Sunset Home's "beige old ones" tottering around the garden across the street) wash over her like a wave.
A number of stories place women's relationships to men in a more overtly societal context: both J. A. Hamilton and Marian A. White deal with sexual abuse of young girls, and the psychological damage inflicted upon the victims, which is due as much to community attitudes as to the actions themselves. Of the two narratives, Hamilton's is stronger, the dialogue more natural, the feel of place and situation somehow fuller.
Atmosphere is also the key to "Ulli on the Beach," an understated but evocative tale of a young woman travelling in Spain, by Patricia Seaman. The women in this story vary from a solitary, independently-minded painter, to Madame Dupries, whose "voice dropped to a whisper when she said Monsieur Henri," to a vagabond whose joyless flamenco dance on a crowded train represents both her pride and her humiliation.
"She Said It's Guaranteed" makes it clear that integrity is not just a question of sexual politics. Donna Balma juxtaposes the exploitive paternalism of a wealthy Filipino immigrant couple with the honesty of compatriots who do not "bargain with life." And sexism is just one element in Claire Harris's intriguing and complex. "A Matter of Fact." Harris points up the ease of our moral judgements when it comes to sexual exploitation (in the form of a Trinidadian man who leaves his pregnant girlfriend in the lurch), as opposed to our blithe acceptance of racial stereotypes ("I am sure the story was told as I have written it because this is how the books say Afro-Caribbean tales are told. Your books, I mean.')
"A Matter of Fact" is one of the more stylistically adventurous pieces in Imagining Women. The most outstanding story of this nature is by Marlene Nourbese Philip, and also focuses partly on the Caribbean. In "Burn Sugar," a black woman's feeling of being torn between two cultures, that of her native Trinidad and of her adopted home (Canada), is powerfully manifested in the language itself, a mixture of patois and more formal, grammatical English that is painfully knotted but' alive with the speaker's inner struggle: When she cut the string she use to, would tear off the Scotch tape -impatient she would rip, rip off, rip the brown paper, prise off the lid pause ... sit back on she haunches and laugh - laugh she head off - the lid never match, never matched the tin, but it there all the same - black and moist. The cake.