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Unarrested Archives: Case Studies in Twentieth-Century Canadian Women’s Authorship

By Linda M. Morra

Review By Patricia Demers

February 3, 2016

BC Studies no. 189 Spring 2016  | p. 183-84

This precisely researched and engaging study enlarges our understanding of the archive by focusing on the decisions taken by or imposed on five Canadian women writers about the disposition of their papers or literary record. Invoking and then challenging the foundational theories of Foucault and Derrida, Unarrested Archives deftly grounds its analyses in an expanded theoretical field, including the work of Ann Cvetkovich on trauma, Antoinette Burton on the omnipresence of archive stories, and Anjali Arondekar on the colonial archive. Through the lens of gender trained on distinct socio-political and cultural traces of women writers as citizens, Morra explores what was allowed, disallowed, and kept away from material institutions. Using “unarrested” in the sense of being freed or mobilized, she asks the important question of by whom and for whom archives are established.

The case studies present both troubling features of erasure and condescension and positive instances of fastidious preservation according to the writer’s own conditions. For the subject of the first case study, Pauline Johnson, Morra argues forcefully for public performances as “a form of the unarrested archive” (24), complicated by the fact that archival records related to these performances have mysteriously disappeared (from the University of Reading and subsequently from the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas). Noting that “orality and embodied performances are key to the production of knowledge in Indigenous cultures” (19), Morra underscores Johnson’s British and Mohawk heritage as a performer who embodied both her Indigenous presence and proud participation in imperial Canada. She uncovers the power of Johnson’s performance of “A Cry from an Indian Wife,” offering insight into the predicament of an Indigenous woman at the same time as it asserted Johnson’s authorship and challenged “the restrictive national imaginary espoused in the period” (42). Morra’s treatment of the second case study, Emily Carr, concentrates on the strong, shaping, revising role played by Professor Ira Dilworth in the publication of her writing, especially the posthumously published Growing Pains. Since Carr actually allowed Dilworth to make these decisions, Morra manages quite adroitly to present his collaboration as Carr’s acquiring “greater ontological weight” and “securing the very self-agency that would have been threatened or denied altogether” (54). Her case study of Sheila Watson is a related but distinct instance of an imminent narrative of a writer’s withheld personal story and another example of the significance of male endorsement, this time by F.M. Salter, leading to the approbation of Watson’s The Double Hook.

The remaining two case studies, Jane Rule and M. NourbeSe Philip, change the tone from appropriation, marginality, and reluctant disclosure to activist involvement and attention to the materiality of racial exclusion. Rule’s interventions in the raid of the Little Sisters bookstore, her refusal to abide by the heteronormative conditions of a contest in Chatelaine, and her uncompromising opposition to unapproved editorial changes in her work are among the examples of fully informed artistic integrity contained in the Rule archive, now housed — after considerable negotiation — at the University of British Columbia. Philip’s protracted court case, bringing libel action against reporter Michael Coren and Toronto radio station CFRB, constitutes a minor archive which effects something major. As Morra comments on this archive which refuses the erasure of the African Canadian community, Philip “is social activist rather than social outcast, legitimate protestor rather than public parasite” (175).

Through its range of genres and cultural periods, meticulous scholarship, and respect for the public life of women writers’ documents, Unarrested Archives recalibrates perspectives on what might be uncovered and what must be preserved.     

Unarrested Archives: Case Studies in Twentieth-Century Canadian Women’s Authorship
Linda M. Morra
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014, 244pp. $29.95 paper