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On The Edge Of Change, Gail Scott

GAIL SCOTT is a Montreal writer who grew up in a bilingual community in Eastern Ontario. For several years she worked as a journalist, writing on Quebec culture and politics for the Montreal Gazette and the Globe and Mail; she also helped establish Spirale, a French-language cultural magazine, and Tessera, a bilingual journal of feminist criticism and new writing. She is the author of a book of short fiction (Spare Parts, Coach House, 1982), a novel (Heroine,' Coach House, 1987), and a collection of essays, Spaces Like Stairs which was recently published by the Women's Press. Barbara Carey spoke with her in Toronto.

BiC: You worked as a journalist, and you teach journalism, but in your fiction and essays you break radically with what you call the "reasonable writing" style of journalism. Mat made you uncomfortable with the form?

Scott: In journalism you learn a lot about observing, about how to look at things. And you learn one really important thing about language that a lot of writers don't know, which is word economy: how to say things efficiently and quickly. These are both incredibly valuable tools, at least for a prose writer. But at the same time, when I was working as a journalist I was aware that there was a lot I wasn't expressing of myself and even perhaps of the people I was interviewing. I was talking to minority groups, to women, all kinds of people whose stories changed when they landed in the newspaper because the form had changed and the language limited or censored them. For example, in journalism, there's often a kind of cause-and-effect movement through time, which I find restrictive. And the novel as we know it is not dissimilar.

BiC: What effect does being a minority anglophone in a French milieu have on your writing?

Scott: A phenomenally large one. Sometimes I think it has taught me more about my own culture than the francophone culture, because I learned to see it - my own culture -7through the other person's eyes, with all its crazy permutations - including its role of political oppressor. In terms of writing, I ran into the postmodern feminist milieu in Quebec in 1976 or '77, and found in it a way to break the "reasonable prose" of journalism. This was just when I was starting to write fiction.

BiC: Let's talk about the structure of Heroine. You use an interlocking and overlapping and repetition of images,you don't exactly abandon narrative, but you also don't use a strictly linear,, conventional form of narrative.

Scott: When you're writing poetry or short stories it's possible - at least on the surface - not to deal with the big questions, the so-called universal issues that are a result of the practice of politics, social institutions, the family, etc. - except maybe in a fragmentary way. When you're writing a novel, even if you're struggling against or refusing certain values or ethics, you still have to consider them because you're taking in a much broader terrain, a wider view of society. The first draft of Heroine was like a long song. It was musical and rhythmic, and went on and on and on and on. . . . It might have done perhaps in .a Spanish courtyard 350 years ago; I could have talked to Cervantes. I realized that I had to give it some sort of shape because if I didn't, for most people (and even for myself) it would be boring and unreadable after a while. So I added a connecting narrative voice. Of course there was a vague thread in it already, implicit in the circular way of looking at this love story from every different angle, and the left experience and the feminist experience.

BiC: It's circular but progressive, too, not just totally reflexive.

Scott: That was the work of structuring it. For me, there was a poetic stage and then a structuring stage. That was where I found the bathtub device, in which the woman begins telling a story, although she constantly rejects the form in which she is telling it. For example, her first attempt to tell her own story takes the form of a traditional novel and fails. She has to keep trying until she finds a way to speak herself - a space that gives in neither to melodrama nor to political self-righteousness, yet Which fulfils her own modernist expectations and her desire for freedom. It does have a progression, not towards a resolution, but at least towards a hope of future continual movement.

BiC: Your work was criticized by some feminists, I think, for not being positive enough.

Scott: It's true that a few feminists have made this remark to me women who have been around the women's movement a long time. Perhaps they would prefer to see that period of their lives idealized. Many, many younger women have told me, on the contrary, that Heroine was a very liberating experience for them. I think that the time is passing when people want writing structured with a message. Writing should challenge you, should make you perhaps angry, upset, happy, joyful, blissful, whatever. But I don't think messages have anything to do with poetry or prose.

BiC: Yet it's written out of a particular consciousness.

Scott: Yes, but when I write, I know I'm a feminist, I'm a left person, and I don't have to prove it to myself all the time; it's there. I'm never going to write something that talks favourably of sexual assault, for example. It's excluded; that's not the person I am, and I don't worry about that when I'm writing. I refuse to be guilty about the kind of experimentation that I want to do with language. It seems to me that the very best ,writing has to do with, pushing the boundaries of thought as far as you can. And if you do that, you can't constantly be self-censoring. You have to take chances with language, with form, and with stepping on people's toes, too, even if they're people you agree with politically.

BiC: Would you say in general that there has been a different critical response to Heroine in Quebec, compared with the rest of Canada?

Scott: Yes and no. The first really interesting article that came out about Heroine was in Spirale, a French-language journal that I used to be involved with. Not interesting because it was favourable, but because it was an analysis of the novel's place in Quebec, and in the critical currents that exist in Quebec and Canada. The review really understood the novel's efforts to address both cultures at once regarding issues of politics and art. And we're at very different points in the respective cultures on these issues. In Quebec, for example, the women/language debate has been around for almost 15 years, and one senses the beginning of a backlash against it in some areas. Whereas in Canada, it's still relatively recent, still a discovery - for some people anyway. Also, narrative practice and perceptions of what modernity is differ. The angle of reviewing was different in English Canada on the whole, but not, by any means, less interesting. More emphasis on the feminism sometimes. . .

BiC: What about now that the book has been translated into French?

Scott: In Quebec, the response to the French version has fallen into" two camps: the response of the informed reader, that is, the reader who is familiar with the debate on feminism/ modernity, and the reader who has not participated in that discussion, or who is of a younger generation just not particularly interested in modernity or feminism. 'Me two camps have generally responded favourably. But reviews from the second camp, ironically enough, have tended to focus on the narrative line, almost as if Heroine were a typical American novel. English-Canadian culture is seen in Quebec as quite American, anyway. The one thing that everyone notices is that the anglophone in the book doesn't mind at all the idea of Quebec independence. That always brings chuckles or exclamation points.

BiC: In Spaces Like Stairs, you discuss women's relationship to language as being different from men's, and you relate that to the body as "a vehicle of memory." Some of the French theorists lean toward a biological determinism - that difference between the sexes is determined by the fact that women are, physically different. But what about cultural influences, socialization?

Scott: I tried to make it very clear in the preface that I believe the issue is a social and cultural one, and that the body is mediated by language and by our perception of ourselves, which is also mediated by culture, just like everything else that we perceive. I certainly don't belong to the biological-determinism school. But having said this, I think the fact that women have the bodies we have, that we reproduce life, has put us in social experiences and given us functions that make our relationship to language very different. And our bodies are different. I think women are talking a lot about language right now because the assumption in the print culture we've had for so long is that language is neutral. Yet the language as We've come to understand it has really been determined by institutions that are controlled by men. I really believe that there's a lot of potential feminine in language that has been buried in that process.

BiC: Is that why you concentrate on the deconstruction of memory in your work?

Scott: In part. Memory is a big issue for women . . . what we choose to forget, for example. When we start looking at how we use language, we start to remember differently. Almost like what happens when you do dream analysis. But memory is also a construct. What you think you remember about your childhood, for example, isn't just something you carry inside you until one day you say, "Open sesame" and there it all is. You articulate it according to your milieu, your social awareness, your experience.

BiC: It seems that, in English Canada at least, language theory has had more influence on poets than on fiction writers. Why do you think this would be?

Scott: I think it's because there's always been more licence in poetry to let language take you where it will. Prose has come to be thought of as a very goal-oriented process. You want to tell a story, and you have certain structures, a dramatic climax, all of those things. I don't think the same constraints exist for poets. They don't have to use sentences, we do; we're not expected to listen to the language. and poets are, and so on

BiC: Yet there are conventions of form and poetic stance.

Scott: Oh yes, I don't want to idealize it. I think that poets can be as conven tional as anyone else. In Quebec we've had the phenomenon of the "text," which comes to us partly from the French influence. It's between genres, in a Way, neither ion nor poetry norautobiography. Certainly sound is more important, and ideology as well, than in conventional prose. The text is a genre in itself, I suppose, as opposed to a mixture of genres, but it still looks like prose on the page, although it doesn't necessarily happen in sentences. It's had a vast influence on both poetry and prose in Quebec. My prose and even my short stories lean toward the text a little bit in terms of their refusal, at some level, of straight narrative, and on their insistence on the ear. Nowadays in Quebec people are very interested in narrative again, but an entirely different kind of narrative.

BiC: In Spaces Like Stairs, you stress that the way of thinking that develops in the book isn't individual,- that it comes from interacting with "a network of women speaking, writing, thinking." Do you think that kind of community is qualitatively distinct?

Scott: I think there have been other periods when this kind of thing has happened. Among the Surrealists in France, for example, there was a lot of collective writing, and group discussions, declarations and manifestos about art and so on. What happened in Quebec is that the space between politics and art closed somewhat with the decolonization movement of the 19608 and 70s. This tendency moved over into feminism in a way which wasn't content oriented. By that I mean it saw the material of language as part of the problem for women - at a time when a younger generation of modernist poets was challenging the nationalist poets on the same level. So you had a conjuncture both "formalist" and highly politicized. In Quebec, a lot of discussion about art and politics happens publicly. One of the texts in Spaces Like Stairs was written for something called La Forum des femmes, which was an afternoon of performance and discussion in which five or six of us who belonged to a writing group each wrote short texts. And five other women from very different milieus, not prose or fiction writers, wrote texts in response and gave them publicly. And they didn't necessarily like the texts. Then there Was a public discussion, and a performance. This facing off of art and politics happens less now than in the years before the referendum was lost in 1980 -lost for many of the people of Quebec. Since 1980, the feminist thing has continued to happen in some manner Many of the essays in Spaces Like Stairs came out of group discussions or were written for some kind of group effort. Because they come out of those conditions, I think they're essays that invite dialogue.

BiC: It sometimes seems that criticism inevitably tries to limit possibilities. But I got the sense that you were phrasing things in order to open possibilities.

Scott: One of the things I'm trying to say in these essays is that this is a record of what I've experienced myself. I hope it's a fairly rigorous record. I've tried to keep abreast of contemporary theory. I've tried to see how it applies to, my writing, I've discussed it with other people and so on. But it's a record of what I've experienced, and I hope it invites responses. I like the root meaning of the word essay in French, which is to try (essayer). I try, then you try, then she tries. . .

BiC: In "A Visit to Canada," you use the term rapport d'adresse to describe a kind of give-and-take between writer and reader. How important is. that notion of a reader or receiver to the actual process of your writing?

Scott: I think its the thing that permits writing. to change or not to change. If you're a writer and you sit down and think, Okay, I'm going to write a book that will impress the editors of some big publishing company in this country, or some major critic, or My professor or whatever, you may as well stop writing. For me, and for many women, I think, writing is partly about constructing a subject - this is the point at which writing and life are so intertwined. I'm constantly thinking of new ways that a person could live that would be ecologically harmonious, non-oppressive, and non-racist, and non-oppressed as well, not putting up with any bullshit. When I write, I address other people with whom I've been discussing these issues. That rapport is really important, and so is the pluralist aspect. For example, when I sit down and read what I call a "straight" novel, it doesn't leave any room for me to intervene at all. There are no spaces, there are few mysteries; someone is talking to me without pausing and giving me a chance to say anything. It bores me and it makes me angry. I feel the same way about a lot of essays - that someone is addressing me from a very authoritarian position. I don't like that, and I hope I'm ,not doing it myself. But it's really important to add that I don't think this excludes theoretical rigour, which brings up the whole question of accessibility. I don't think being concerned about accessibility is any excuse not to approach, in an informed manner, the really hard questions about form that are being raised today.

BiC: You comment that much of the 20th century's best writing by women is by lesbians, and you go on to relate this to the sharing of nurturing. But don't you think it has more to do with a writer's marginality?

Scott: I'm uncomfortable with generalizations - even my own. But it has always fascinated me that many of the women writers of earlier generations who really changed our ways of thinking about prose language were either lesbian or had lesbian inclinations: Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Virginia Woolf, and Jane Bowles, to name my favourites. And I have speculated this may have to do with the fact that it's often hard for women to find the kind of nurturing they need. An artist needs a tremendous amount of nurturing. I think there's nothing- more egocentric than an artist: we fight against it, but at 'the same time, we need this constant stroking and feedback, it seems, in order to really believe in our project enough to go ahead and do it. Probably because we like to believe we're risking things all the time. It seems to me that it's easier to get that kind of nurturing from women, be they lovers or friends, than from men. Though I know there are men who are nurturing. As for the marginality - probably there's a vision or clarity that comes from standing on the outside looking in, but I think there have been and are heterosexual 'women who participate in that too, sometimes because of their ethnic or class background, or any other combination of circumstances. BiC: What are you working on now? Scott: I thought it was a collection of short stories, of portraits of women on the Main in Montreal, but I think it may be a novel after all , . . let me put it this way: in my current fiction, I'm trying to find a way, without copying Gertrude Stein, to write portraits that I feel really express certain women that I've seen and known without giving in to the temptation to write the story of their lives. But I'm finding it almost impossible. There's a narrative voice beginning to connect these portraits together, so its a little different than I thought it was going to be.

BiC: What's the significance of the title, Spaces Like Stairs?

Scott: "Spaces" can mean all kinds of things, but they have a poststructuralist connotation that I really like, which is that writing is something that operates constantly on the edge of change, and is always opening new spaces. The stairs I see as a kind of reconstruction of values. I don't see them as something that goes straight up; they're more like the spiral outside staircases in Montreal, which go up, but in every direction.


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