In a recent interview with the New Yorker, Margaret Atwood took note of her favourite sign at the Women’s March in Toronto in January, one of many hundreds of marches by many millions of women around the world. It read: “I can’t believe I’m still holding this fucking sign.” “After sixty years, why are we doing this again?” Atwood asked the interviewer, although she had the answer herself. “But, as you know, in any area of life, it’s push and pushback. We have had the pushback, and now we are going to have to push again.”
The interview centred on Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, now a hit series on Hulu and an Amazon bestseller (number one in February, the book then dropped to number seven) thanks to the resemblance between Atwood’s dystopian future and the current American political landscape. But the book owes just as much of its rebooted fame to the prevailing wave of popular feminism—the kind that sells celebrity memoirs (Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, Tina Fey and Amy Schumer) and defines columnists (Lindy West, Jessica Valenti and Scaachi Koul) and creates, out of the infinity of the internet, a ferocity of female voices that are shaping a generation.
Feminism is “hot,” a sales pitch to an eager target market. It is Instagram-pop-culture-independent-zine fuel and, if the alt-right is to be believed, a cornerstone of the mainstream media. It is also, these days, didactic. Instructional. Even dogmatic. It is scalding about identity (and especially race) and abortion, and plagued by and perhaps even profiting from controversy over what feminism is and who it is for and who is, and is not, a feminist. Within the movement—never mind from without—there is, there always was, push and pushback.
With the constant threat of online backlash, the stakes for writing about feminism have perhaps never been higher. That fact—coupled with our culture’s hyper-individualism and the progressive demand that one should never try to speak for the experiences of another—has led to a particular trend in modern feminist writing. In the “my life as feminism” model, you, woman writer, are the story, and the takeaways from your life are spelled out. Its ideal form is part memoir, part polemic, in the vein of Roxane Gay or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and its aim is explain our current mess, and set a path forward.
But what if the goal, instead, were more visceral? A bold new anthology, Making Room: Forty Years of Room Magazine, is as good as any argument you could find that feminism is best grappled with, unwound, thought out and pressed forward not through treatises, but through literature. There are no blithe mantras here. But there is much, much else.
The Canadian feminist literary magazine Room of One’s Own (now just Room) was founded, aptly, in 1975, the International Year of Women. It emerged from a women-in-literature class at a community college in Vancouver and has published a slew of award-winning writers including Carol Shields, Constance Rooke, Susan Musgrave, Lorna Crozier, Lynn Crosbie, Ivan Coyote, Madeleine Thien, Yasuko Thanh and Carmen Aguirre. But most of its contributors will not be household names. The magazine has relied on a collective of rotating members over the years who comb through the unsolicited submissions to arrive at the selections that make up 90 percent of its pages.
Eleanor Wachtel, who was an editor at Room in the 1970s, wrote the anthology’s foreword, calling the collection of essays, poetry and short fiction “remarkable.” And it is. To begin, there is the pleasure of it. The large “Rubens nude / sleeping in her flesh on the pier” in Lorna Crozier’s Still Life with Nude, for whom “The sun is too small, her skin / consumes it.” The wry wit and colonial politics of Marie Annharte Baker’s Native granny “who alone shows off red suede stiletto heels / not for the purpose to make her ass stick out / … history no longer low budget bargain shoe but ritzy style.”
The circular, probing guilt of M. NourbeSe Philip’s essay on witnessing a suicide in a wintry Toronto ravine: “What if Newton’s apple hadn’t fallen to earth but instead was borne up by angels, as I wish had happened to this man. Who was drowning. Not waving.” The spare exploitation in jia qing wilson-yang’s poem “trans womanhood, in colour”: “please. / i know your intentions are good / it’s just that i don’t trust them.” The linguistic pain in Najwa Ali’s essay “Writing, in Transit”: “escape to English built new walls around me. It took years of work to figure a way out.”
There are also the places: A seaside shack abundant in smells and strangers and young femaleness. A small apartment in New Delhi overlooking tangles of telephone lines now home to the elderly Amah, a mother-figure who once raised a Toronto writer and now has only the woman’s childhood photo to hang on the cream-coloured wall.
By turns languid and cutting, meandering and truncated, the anthology is a testimony to the wide-ranging talent among Canadian women writers, and to their innumerable points of view. Not every piece feels elevated beyond good or very good (although many do), and one could debate the question of whether this collection represents the very best of Canadian women’s writing over the last 40 years (not everyone has submitted to Room, and so, probably, it does not). But it certainly represents the breadth of it.
The surprising images and characters, conundrums and questions gain depth and presence as they rub up against one another in this book. Most readers will likely read the anthology in bits and pieces, flipping at random through the years, but to read it cover to cover is to plunge into a warm, gracious pool of feminine experience. In the hashtag and hot-take era, it is a relief to wade through a female world as beautiful and broken and messy as this one.
The 75 writers chosen over the decades, in short fiction, poetry and personal essays, avoid prescriptions. There is, for example, no academic stance on breasts and what they mean, but you will read about a grandmother’s unlikely pride in her drooping, limp chest. In one piece, Amber Dawn recounts a meeting she attended, when she was a sex worker, where activists planned a strategy to decriminalize sex work. She finds that, even there, she felt like an outsider, but the most she offers in the way of a polemic is the need to help women where they are. And when the topic of pornography—a perennial lightning rod for feminist in-fighting—surfaces in a story about time travel, the only agreement between characters is to draw the line at bestiality, pedophilia and eating feces, a stance that, the narrator pronounces, makes her feel “like such a second-wave feminist.”
Which is not, in the story, a compliment, even though that is where Room magazine began, in the age of women’s libbers when, as co-founder Gayla Reid notes, “the literary landscape, male dominated from the beginning of time, was undergoing tectonic shifts.”
The anthology is divided to represent roughly four decades, each section acting like a chapter. Reid’s comments come in an interview to introduce the first decade (1975–1987). Similar interviews with editors from the magazine’s past reflect on each subsequent decade of work. They are intended as historical goalposts, efforts to contextualize each grouping of pieces in the particular politics of their time, and comprise a significant effort to make the anthology, in the words of current editor Meghan Bell, “a historical document.” It is only here that modern, intersectional feminism, the politics of our times, is explicit. There is much discussion about diversity, about efforts to be inclusive along racial, sexual identity, linguistic and class lines, and about the definitions of feminism at the time, what Room’s managing editor Chelene Knight, in a postscript of sorts, dubs “these never-ending conversations.”
In an interview titled “Are We Feminist Enough?” Lana Okerlund, editor from the late 1990s to the late aughts, explains how controversy erupted when the magazine printed a trans woman’s piece. Former managing editor Rachel Thompson describes how the magazine moved from exploring in its pages the need to be more inclusive to simply being more inclusive.
At times, the interviews read like explanations for why Room was not, from the beginning, an intersectional feminist utopia. There is a sense of apologizing for past whiteness, of making sure the reader knows that these days, Room is doing feminism right. That urge is understandable, but the evolution is noticeable on its own. As the decades roll on, the stories become demonstrably less white, straight, Anglo-Saxon middle class Canada, less second wave.
Last month, while the news media was convulsing over a glib Twitter thread that had some of the industry’s top journalists promising to fund an “appropriation prize” in the interests of free speech, Room republished a searing essay on diversity and cultural appropriation in Canadian literature by indigenous author Alicia Elliott. She writes: “If you can’t write about us with a love for who we are as a people, what we’ve survived, … making all stereotypes feel like a sham, a poor copy, a disgrace—then why are you writing about us at all?”
Not all in this anthology represents evolution. The collection begins with rape, with a poem that might have been written today. “To have named rape love / is a heinous crime, / a tearing and twisting / of my mothertongue” writes Cyndia Cole in “No Rape. No.” Sexual violence appears in many other places in the collection, including the very last selection, another poem that chastises our legal response to rape, this one by Alessandra Naccarato, titled “No Comment.” The message is clear: look at all that has changed, and all that has not.
Among other things that have not changed: feminism, though popular, is still hated. That is how, in part, Donald Trump was elected. It is among the founding ideologies of the alt-right in the United States as well as Canada. In perfect feminist timing, Making Room enters bookstores just as the world is convulsing again over women and our place in it. Just as anti-abortion laws in the United States reach a new fever pitch, and in the midst of Black Lives Matter (an organization with substantial female leadership) and anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiments, months after the Women’s March on Washington, the year after Hillary Clinton’s presidential hopes fell under the weight, in part, of sexism and misogyny.
Politically, the pressure is on for women to both get in line and coalesce around a single feminism, and to push this feminism more aggressively on the world. To counter newly unleashed hostility toward women from outside our huddle, while behaving perfectly toward one another within it. For a collection like Making Room and for its parent magazine, the question is: should they strive for both? Even Okerlund, in her interview with Bell, questions “whether we still need this women-only space … Isn’t it important that men read the stuff in Room?” she asks. (By and large, they do not. Less than five percent of the magazine’s subscribers are men, Bell notes.) The “tons of feminist or women/trans-inclusive lit magazines” that Bell says have emerged in the past five years likely feature a similar readership, all “making room,” whether it is wanted or not, for the insular work of perfecting feminism. On the other hand, many of the authors published by Room over the years have gone on to reach a wider and more mixed audience, negotiating some of these very questions in those bigger arenas. And Room has undeniably played its part in getting them there.