which brings me back to the question
of "female-sexed" texts. . .

excerpted from SPACES LIKE STAIRS, by Gail Scott

French writer Philippe Sollers:
Je dirai que la reine Victoria, en chemin de fer, en train de lire un roman du XIXe siècle, c'est l'image parfaite du point zéro où on peut en arriver la littérature. Il y a là une période d'anesthésie*

Feminist writers everywhere know of the struggle to express a reality that has been mute with a language tailored to the needs of a society where the Phallus is significant. Although the material arising from the current wave of feminist consciousness very quickly starts hammering away at the boundaries of form, the assumption among most Anglo-American feminists until recently has been that language, syntax, genre are not important enough issues to merit serious debate. Québéçois women writers have played a vanguard role in the growing awareness of the relationship between language and struggle for change. But whether there will be, in English Canada, the kind of energetic fusion between feminism, and revolt in language and form, that characterized Québec women's writing of the late 70s remains to be seen. Canada's history is different from Québec's, particularly its history of progressive struggle. In Québec, language has always been a political issue. This was further fueled by the cultural connection with France and the language-focused issues raised by post-structuralists (Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida) and by feminists like Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous. Also, in Québec, since the beginning of the nationalist movement, avant-garde writers have been a point of political/cultural reference, another factor which facilitated the emergence of a deeply contestative group of women writers in this culture.

Still, we've heard a call for female-sexed texts and something deep in us responds-although not without doubts. Maybe the call does not suit our English-Canadian needs. We have to find our own solutions--and debunk our own myths. What we can learn, I think, from French-speaking feminist writers is their insistence on asserting la diférence féminine as context. It's an assertion that rests on the confidence that the feminine exists as something culturally positive, at least potentially. But perhaps the feminine does stand as a dimmer shadow in our English-Protestant heritage. This may be another reason why English-Canadian feminist writing has tended to be content-oriented compared to the more radical contestation of language and form that has taken place in Québec.

And what does all this have to do with the writing of prose? Plenty, I think. I see the leaves rushing along an autumnal St. Denis St. sidewalk. France is waiting for me in a café for what we called one of nos dimanches durassiens. The café has a very "contemporary" setting: nostalgic old-Québec décor and a heavy drug trade in the washrooms. Our talk is very "modern," too: we talk of l'ècriture, rarely of the novel or short story, or the poem. A fire crackles in the fireplace. Around us are couples, children, artists. Perhaps I notice especially the women with their bright colours, their well-groomed hair, because in our heads ring the voices, the words of other women writers. This is a period where I'm reading almost nothing but women, mostly in French, and nearly always women who are forerunners of or participants in la moderniè: Duras, Kristeva, Stein, Wittig, Brossard, Irigaray, Cixous, Emma Santos, Sophie Podolski (both dead, young, of suicide), Bersianik. All of them confirm what we already feel--that to express the shape of our desire, our prose must lean towards poetry (wise old Virginia had predicted this decades ago), and poetry can no longer look "like a poem" on the page. They also confirm our doubts about sentences and the relationships of verb to subject. We're listening hard to each other and scraps of our conversations end up in each other's writing. This text, for example. Or her novel, Nous parlerons comme on ècrit. One of the things we have learned in our quest is that, having for so long existed as the fiction of patriarchy, writing our own stories now is often, at least in part, a biographical process. My prose writing becomes part of a spiral-like movement, linked in space and time to the work of other women in Québec and elsewhere. It IS and is more exalted because it's part of a community.

If I quoted modernist French writer Philippe Sollers at the beginning of this section, it was not to deny my respect for Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontës. Nor for more contemporary writers like Margaret Laurence. But we are not only women living at the end of the twentieth century, but also women who--thanks to the struggles of the last twenty years--are hearing ourselves better, more profoundly than ever before.

Unfortunately, before being able to publish the new work expressing this subject-in-process, these new sounds, we have to shout down the precedents. I find it fascinating that two of the most "modern" American pre-war women writers, Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes, wrote out of Paris. What would have happened to their writing in Milwaukee or even in New York? Indeed, for a contemporary English-language woman writer, dealing with English literature is like dealing with English law. The precedents come back to haunt you. The critics remind you that the English novel in its present form was to a great extent shaped by the writing of women. So what's all the fuss? I have even heard it said that the experimental work of Québec's new women writers has (paradoxically of course) something to do with the Catholic imagination, whereas the English-Canadian (Protestant) imagination is irrevocably realist (read accessible and possibly anti-intellectual) and that's that. No use looking to the left for support either. Because if you fool around with the meat and potatoes of syntax and form, you render the work inaccessible to "ordinary people"--the bulk of whom think, we are led to believe, like white, middle-class males. The same group who brought us television and the newspapers.

Still, the process of knocking the written word into some new shape better suited to our use goes on, it seems, with increasing insistence. A community is being formed, cutting across cultures and resistances. I know my relationship with France and other Québéçois women writers opened me early to ideas not easily accessible to most anglophones. . . . But it also led me to a new vision of my own culture inasmuch as I could study that culture reflected in the eyes of the cultural (and colonized) other. This distanced and lucid bead on patriarchal culture is in fact eventually shared by any group of women working together as a community of writers. For regardless of the language we speak, the culture we live in, we always have the double sense of both belonging and being excluded.

Standing on the outside--the better, perhaps, to create.

from Gail Scott's Spaces like Stairs
Montreal, 1981


translation of Philippe Sollers quote at beginning of piece:

* I would say that Queen Victoria, sitting on a train reading a nineteenth century novel is the perfect image of the lowest point at which literature can arrive. There is, there, a period of anesthesia.

Gail Scott is the author of Heroine and Spare Parts. She co-founded the magazines Tessera (a bi-lingual journal of feminist criticism and new writing) and Spirale. For the last ten years she has shared a writing group in Montréal with French-speaking women writers Nicole Broussard, France Théoret, Louise Dupré, Louise Cotnoir and Louky Bersianik. The excerpt above is from her book of essays, SPACES LIKE STAIRS (The Woman's Press, 1989).

Gail Scott

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