Writing the Other Self in Aritha Van Herk's Novels

By Sellery, J'Nan Morse | West Virginia University Philological Papers, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Writing the Other Self in Aritha Van Herk's Novels


Sellery, J'Nan Morse, West Virginia University Philological Papers


Contemporary Canadian female authors' novels explore how language and notions of identity are differently construed according to history, time, class, race, and community. Because the impulse toward self-representation is connected to the cultural milieu of Western Civilization, subjectivity-or one's emerging identity--begins with a person's awareness of her physical and emotional self that expresses itself in language or story. Too often girls or women are defined as other. These notions manifest themselves in Aritha van Herk's unique early childhood in which her unrelenting eagerness to unpack her family's basic languages of Dutch and English became the source of her female imagination.

In 1949, with three small children, her parents emigrated from Holland to settle on a farm in Alberta, Canada, learning English by studying their son's first grade reader. Van Herk was born in 1954. Speaking Dutch and English until she began elementary school, she admits the "cultural effect" on immigrants "is enormous." Recognizing her parents' and siblings' honest difference, she feels that immigration "is much more profound, a displacement so far-reaching that it only vanishes after several generations. At least it was for me. I learned that the world was fiction and fiction was refuge" (Frozen Tongue 46-47). With that insight, she later wrote that Alberta's prairie country was "peopled by characters who have abandoned their setting and who seek to plot their own story in a new way. They choose to displace themselves, to surrender the familiar, rearranging it to suit the story. Curiously enough, the effects of displacement only begin to appear in the children or grandchildren." In other words, inter-generational family members experience the loss of the homeland, without necessarily understanding why they are unable to adjust to "the custom of learning a language" (46-47).

From childhood she sensed a gap between what she considered her childhood identity and that of her siblings, parents, and later other school children. Bridging different female and male identities continues to be a consistent trope in her essays and fiction. One difficulty resides in the fact that "woman is not the subject of her language. Her language is not hers. She therefore speaks and represents herself in a language not her own, that is, through the categories of the language of the other.... Discourse carries in itself the sign of its subject, the speaking subject who in discourse speaks himself and speaks the world starting from himself " (Adriana Cavarero qtd. in de Lauretis 16).

During that childhood of knowing and not knowing Dutch, van Herk explores a sense of displacement that requires "its own best fiction" (InVisible Ink 173). Developing verbal acuity and a sometime irreverent use of the English language allows van Herk an imaginative and affective way to express her sense of otherness. Knowing she is both Canadian and not Dutch, and Dutch and not Canadian, suggests that "out of a love of lies and a desire for truth [she becomes] a writer of fiction" (Frozen Tongue 47). She makes it clear that struggling with the emotions found in the "story of migration" verifies why "the content of language" is "not for truth but for fiction" (Frozen Tongue 47). Realistically, she links the imaginative self to "such a good story that the characters believe it themselves" (InVisible Ink 174). Thus, she thinks feminist writers need "to refuse to be contained, restrained, [and] handcuffed" as they discuss how to "invent a women's world" (InVisible Ink 274).

In her novels and commentaries, van Herk explores a youthful tension arising from her childhood's formatted beliefs that are modified and changed through fictional discourse, educated reading, and finally her choice of career: teaching and writing about how language is capable of disabusing culture's phallocentric dominance. Nevertheless, van Herk understands she can only creatively develop "character formation" or "subjectivity" after she has attained her own identity (Hutcheon 5).

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