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Up Front - New Lamps for Old
by Barbara Carey

IN THE MID- I960S, JANE RULE'S novel about the relationship between two women, The Desert of the Heart, was described by one newspaper reviewer as "... extremely frank in its treatment of lesbianism. Perhaps a little too frank. The author almost makes it seem desirable." A few years later, when Margaret Laurence's The Fire-Dwellers was published, the Canadian Forum review of the book referred to the main character as .1... merely a middle-class mother of four children

Of course, this was long before lesbian chic and k. d. lang hit the pages of Vanity Fair; there was no such thing as women's studies or Ms. magazine. Nowadays, such blatant value judgements -the implication that lesbianism is repugnant, the condescension towards a "mere" housewife -- seem embarrassingly dated. Who could get away with such statements in the 1990s? They're the lava lamps of literary criticism, popular in their heyday, but now only kitschy artefacts of dubious taste.

I'm not sure that, in practice, contemporary Canadian society is much less homophobic and sexist (not to mention racist) than it was 30 years or so ago. There are still lots of people who would agree with one or both of the reviewers quoted. But as far as public discourse about these issues is concerned, we're considerably more liberal and sensitized, which is why those comments do seem inappropriate. Civil rights activism, feminism, gay pride: all of these political movements have raised public consciousness of their respective causes. They've transformed society -- and, not incidentally, they've also transformed our literature. As the poet Loma Crozier put it, in her essay "Speaking the Flesh" (from Language in Her Eye),

Feminism.... has changed what is being written about, and how, and by whom.... And just as significantly, it has changed the reader's response to the "classics," to what she has read in the past and to what she has yet to read.

The above quote would be just as appropriate if you replaced the word "feminism" with "Black consciousness" or "gay pride." The activism of these groups -- their insistence on being visible and on having their difference from the society at large respected -- translates quite directly into the greater cultural diversity on display in your local bookstore, and the growing amount of review space in newspapers and magazines devoted to what have been called "marginalized voices." The richness of experience and expression available to CanLit readers is greater now than ever before precisely because these movements have created an audience for such work, not only in their own communities, but also in the wider public.

We're looking at literature differently, too, paying attention to the social context of a book as well as its literary devices and style. Arun P. Mukherjee, a York University professor, teaches a course on aboriginal writers and writers of colour in Canada. In a paper presented at last year's Writing thru "Race" Conference (and reprinted in a recent Paragraph magazine), she says:

My white students say that the course offers them an insight into the cultural and historical realities of their non- white friends' background. My non-white students ... find the course content appealing because it validates them by representing their lives.

This is not reducing literature to a form of sociological document, as some might argue, but augmenting a narrowly aesthetic approach. A book's aim, after all, is to create a world -- and we read what goes on in that world on the page according to our own values and assumptions. (Just as the above-cited reviewers of Jane Rule's and Margaret Laurence's work obviously did.)

These developments strike me as tremendously beneficial to CanLit, although controversy and resistance have accompanied them. In the United States, commentators such as William A. Henry 3rd (In Defense of Elitism) have gone into rhetorical overdrive to decry the excesses of "political correctness." Here in Canada the cultural debate over issues such as equal access and appropriation of voice has often been acrimonious and divisive.

Pressure for cultural and gender equity has changed- and is still changing -our social and artistic climate. I'm sure there have been errors and injustices, as detractors, who seem to have no problem getting publishers and media attention, are quick to point out. (Though whether they exceed the damage done by hundreds of years of entrenched cultural and gender inequity is debatable.) But there have been benefits too -- among them the fact that statements such as those I quoted at the beginning of this column would likely be vigorously challenged if they appeared in the press nowadays. And to me that's a sign not only of change, but of progress.

Barbara Carey's most recent book is The Ground of Events (Mercury).


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