Partisan asked eleven noted Canadian writers to each make the case for a woman writer that the rest of us shouldn't be living without. They boosted rising stars and perennial luminaries, poets, novelists, and an essayist who almost writes essays. For your consideration, here are eleven writers that our advocates can't let you miss.
Recommended by Kim Jernigan
I arrived at the main library in downtown Victoria to hear Audrey Thomas read, and by the time I realized I was a night too soon, my ride had left. To occupy myself until pick-up time, I settled into the poetry stacks and when, after a half-hour’s browsing, I looked up and out, I saw a man outside the window with his lapels spread wide. How long had he waited on that blustery evening to expose himself to a dreamy mom on furlough from her kids? I thought I should report the incident to the library staff. “What did he look like?” they asked, which struck me as an awkward question under the circumstances. I returned the next night for the reading which began with a new story, “Bear Country,” about a woman studying French at L’Ecole Polytechnique, a year or two after Marc Lépine separated out the women in an engineering class and opened fire. Thomas’s protagonist is interested in the gendering of nouns in French (“In her dictionary she saw that blood was masculine, le sang, but wound was feminine, la blessure”), and the story turns on the French word for bear, ours, with its sense of masculine entitlement. But the electrifying moment for me was when Thomas who, like me, had studied French in high school by memorizing dialogues, started into the first one I’d got by heart, the only one I still recall: J’entre dans la salle de classe. Je regarde autour de moi. Je vois les élèves et le professeur.… Je prends ma place. No one can expose the threat in familiar language with such breathtaking narrative intent as Audrey Thomas.
Recommended by Alexandra Oliver
It's probably very unfashionable to champion Edith Wharton in the twenty-first century, but I have to. I love so much of her work, but I have to say that her 1905 novel The House of Mirth is one of my three favorite books of all time, in any genre. Wharton was a savvy, versatile, stylish individual; she was what Goethe would call a weltkind, a person of the world, living, participating, absorbing. Even when detailing the goings-on within certain socio-economically privileged strata, her observations are razor-sharp and applicable on a universal level—plus, they’re delivered with a well-honed wit that is never cruel or superfluous.
Recommended by Suzannah Showler
I’m not even sure how to say what, exactly, playwright and MacArthur-declared genius Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write is. Ostensibly notes towards pieces she might have written were she not so consumed by the demand from her three young children to be present with them, really, these are more lucid, more generous, and more complete than most essays ever approach. The first thing I did when I finished reading was order five more copies to mail to friends. I don't say this lightly: this book feels vital.
Recommended by Catherine Bush
The Guardian recently called Maggie Nelson “one of the smartest thinkers of her generation.” I discovered her through Bluets, a hybrid work that mashes together the end of a terrible love affair and a love story with the colour blue. The paragraph is her window of attention. Nelson talks about smashing paragraphs together. She says she offers up her body to see what it can tell her about the culture. There’s theory here but the work comes to us through the body. This is essential reading for this moment. Read Bluets. Read her new one, The Argonauts.
Recommended by Phoebe Wang
The first Australian debut with the star-maker machinery of Faber and Faber, Emma Jones’ The Striped World appeared like a trailing comet in 2009. It was omen and proof of a poetic voice both civil and wild. Biblical as Blake, The Striped World draws me repeatedly for its quality of fearlessness. Even its flaws are mesmerizing: its wandering rhythms, its unquotability. Over time I grow more fascinated by Jones’ ventriloquism and eerie shifts in perspective, while she maintains her own perturbed accent: “Here, my sight is a wrecked president. An act. / I see, and want to see / other things. The particular grit.”
Recommended by Robin Richardson
Buffam’s The Irrationalist thrilled me when it first came out in 2010, and now, more than ever, I find the playful charm and insight of these poems a crucial reprieve. Buffam peels back the plain top layers of perception to reveal increasingly delightful, under-observed truths. These truths have a precarious relationship with logic at best, making them all the more mystic in nature. They are innocent in the style of Blake, both poets seeming to believe that living is in perceiving. “There is no such thing as a dream that comes true. // Every dream is already true the moment it is dreamed.”
Marlene Nourbese Philip
Recommended by Sonnet L'Abbé
Whether you read it as poem or as a fantasy fiction novella, Marlene Nourbese Philip's poetic prose book Looking For Livingstone is a fascinating bridge, in style and strategy, between her two better known poetry books She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks and Zong! In it, an unnamed black female Traveller moves through time in search of explorer David Livingstone. On the surface, her goal is to track the man down to tell him that his claim to have discovered Africa is bogus, but really she's looking for something much more important. If you've ever set out on a path of meditation, or yoga, or poetry, hoping to get somewhere, you might be looking for the same thing that the Traveller finds in her metaquest to voice the silent consciousness of a continent.
Recommended by Claire Kelly
Ali Smith’s How to be both is a literary double take. The novel’s two parts appear in a different order depending on the version of the book you pick up. George, a teen girl mourning her mother’s death, falling in love, and discovering the potency of art, is the protagonist of one section, and the 15th-century painter Francesco del Cossa is the protagonist of the other section. Smith’s writing is expansive; a small moment has heft and is like a prism that refracts one instant into others. I love the risky leaps that shouldn’t work but do. I also love a book that is crafted for a fulfilling reread.
Patricia Hill Collins
Recommended by Tom Howell
It might not sound like a party on a page, but Patricia Hill Collins' Another Kind of Public Education: Race, Media, and Democratic Possibilities is great—brave, sharp, funny when funny is needed. Makes you laugh, makes you cry (e.g. for the CBC and what it isn't—yet). She's the rare academic who knows how to write. And don't just read it because it's good for you, for goodness' sake. Read it because Collins is awesome and you'd be a nerf to miss out on her mind.
Recommended by Nyla Matuk
In 1993, at least a decade before Canadian poets decided science was a promising episteme of poetic inquiry, Lavinia Greenlaw’s Night Photograph brought us to the fields, pith helmet and all. Shortlisted for the Whitbread and the Forward Poetry prizes, this book offers us the imperfect inquiry of the hypothetical, perfected with lines replete with quiet reckoning and witnessing. In “In the Zoo After Dark,” “animals intended / to live an ocean apart / have got an idea of each other,” and the book never strays from Greenlaw’s attention to our hesitancy about the world, our gropings in darkness and what we lose sight of. In the book’s conclusive poem, “Night Photograph,” a crossing of the Channel “at midnight in winter” and a series of things that “cannot be pictured” offer arresting instances of the world’s unknowables, contra the poet’s disciplined, attentive eye. “The Recital of Lost Cities” rehearses the slip of our knowledge, too, with an elegiac reportage on the continental drift and the rise of oceans’ levels; the “irrelevant contours” of dusty old atlases, for instance.
Recommended by Amanda Jernigan
‘The world of Canadian poetry is like some lonely farmhouse …’ wrote James Reaney in a 1960 essay. Inside, the poets worked away on ‘wonderfully strange carvings.’ One of them had just completed a model of the farmhouse itself, which was at the same time a whale, and at the same time an ark complete with beasts. This poet was Jay Macpherson. Reaney’s image gives a sense both of Macpherson’s virtuosity and of her oddness, qua poet. For me, her published oeuvre—gathered in the 1981 Poems Twice Told—remains, like the addressee of her poem ‘She’, both labyrinth and clew.