Reading Together and Apart: Feminism And/versus Ethnicity in Margaret Laurence and Margaret Atwood: A Conversation

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What happens when three feminist literary critics, accustomed to reading and writing separately, get together to work through a difference of opinion? Several times a semester, we met for brown-bag lunches in Veronica's office and, as is inevitable for English professors, the talk turned to what we were reading. Lynn and Veronica, both Americans, were enthusiastic about Canadian Margaret Atwood's latest novels, while Donna, a Canadian, felt that Atwood's popularity in the United States had hindered our awareness of the excellence of her Canadian literary foremother, Margaret Laurence, just as Atwood's feminism overwhelmed the Canadian aspects of Atwood's identity as a writer. Veronica and Lynn resolved to read Margaret Laurence, and Donna decided to reread some Atwood. Our initial goal was to alter, in this instance at least, the usual isolation of the solitary critical enterprise. But we didn't realize when we started that our interpretations would test the limits of our priorities and the boundaries of our scholarly and personal friendships.

As our conversations ensued, we became increasingly aware that our attraction to these writers differed according to competing aspects of our individual backgrounds. Veronica is the grandchild of Lithuanian and Ukrainian immigrants, while a central part of Lynn's identity was her decision to marry a Jew against the express wishes of her parents--a sort of ethnicity by choice. Donna, as a Jew and a Canadian living in the United States, voices the competing and complementary aspects of that additional hybridity. Specifically, we found that our unity as feminist literary critics, committed to the analysis of sexual difference as a primary constituent of psychosocial identity and literary history, was challenged and modified by other aspects of our individual identities. Our respective ethnicities linked us to other, equally compelling systems of classification, and thus determined our readings of Atwood and Laurence. As we continued to work together, we realized that we were relating both to the texts and to each other, and that this dynamic was perhaps the most interesting and useful aspect of the experience. More specifically, as each of us expressed the autobiographical underpinnings of our reading, especially our ethnicities, to the others in the group, we achieved a greater degree of empathy, which in turn led to personal growth and sometimes to new interpretations of these texts. Most importantly, by voicing our differences, we arrived at a feminism that is not monologic or unwittingly exclusionary and that reflects a new-world situation of multinational independence.

Given such a gestation, what follows here is the outcome of several years of reading, talking, and writing about these two Canadian writers but which is ultimately just as much about our own backgrounds and views of feminism. We cast it here in the form of a conversation in order to give the flavor of the talk, essays, and e-mail messages that we shared over the years in the way that a formal academic essay could not. We three were in dialogue with each other and about each other as well as about our differing and changing views of Laurence and Atwood, a kaleidoscope of perspectives. For us, the process was as important as the product, and we present this conversational style here as a potential model for other scholars, particularly feminists, to break down the walls of their solitary ivory towers and learn about themselves and others as a part of learning about the writers they profess to explicate.

LYNN: Feminism--the presupposition that not only are women the equals of men, but in some ways superior--meets readers as they enter all of Atwood's works, whisks them in, and accompanies them, gregarious and sardonic, on their winding paths throughout the texts, dark and fearsome and utterly beguiling. In such alluring works as The Handmaid's Tale and The Robber Bride, feminism enables--indeed compels--readers to interpret the insights transmitted as often through flashes of lightning illuminating the night sky as through the misty, ambiguous light of day. …