by Maggie Bowers
On International Women’s Day I have been reflecting on the combination of inspiration and horror that is communicated by the women writers on the University of Portsmouth unit Women’s Writing in the Americas. The voices of the women from across the world that are transmitted through the texts that we read are honest, powerful and tell us that we matter. Not only that, but that literature and the passing of stories is vital to our personal and communal life. Where many of the stories in these texts bear witness to the trauma perpetrated against women in public and private, in war and in peace, they do so in order to protect the next generation. Delphine in The Master Butcher’s Singing Club by Louise Erdrich (New York: Harper Collins, 2003) takes control of her father’s and Fidelis’ households when they are trapped in a stasis of depression. She brings hope and the ability to continue to the household, and companionship in the last days of the mother Eva’s life. The narrator of Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak (New York: Soho Press, 1995) risks her life and that of her family to write down and bear witness to the horrors inflicted upon the women of Haiti and the Dominican Republic during the Duvalier and Trullijo regimens. Not only this, but she bears witness to the strength and ability to survive of the women in previous generations that she considers verging on the miraculous.
The most direct example of the power of women’s writing is one that I will be reflecting upon most today: in 1981 the Canadian writer of Japanese heritage, Joy Kogawa, wrote the novel Obasan (Canada: Penguin Classics, 2016) following the lives and the inter-relationships of three generations of Japanese Canadian women interned by the Canadian government during World War Two. The novel is an intimate examination of cross-generational relationships, migrant identities, exile and the lasting trauma of internment. What marks this novel as unique is that it was used as a document read in the Houses of Parliament during the debate of the 1988 Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement. The agreement passed and the Prime Minister Brian Mulroney gave an apology to Canadian citizens of Japanese heritage that were interned during the war on behalf of the Canadian Government. Whether redress was adequate and to what extent it healed the hurt and displacement that resulted from the internment is an open and complex question, yet one that we can begin to understand by reading the novel.
So on International Women’s Day, I’m thinking in particular of Joy Kogawa for bringing this story to global attention, for revealing a subtle and touching story of the relationships between grandmothers, daughters and granddaughters, and most of all for being living proof that being a woman writer has a power beyond the page.