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Writing the other self in Aritha van Herk's novels.

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). By blurring or mixing genres, or creating neologisms, in her first three novels, she recreates herself as a character standing over against men and assimilation by the culture's dominant discourses. In effect, she actively reaches toward collaboration and community with both women and men authors. Her novels offer readers another way to "make sense of our world (past and present) and as such, it is comparable to historiography, philosophy, physics, sociology, and so on" (Hutcheon x-xi).

In van Herk's five novels, criticism, papers, and performances, she recreates a woman's language with narrating characters that story western and northern Canada and Europe in the last half of the twentieth century. I have previously focused chronologically on the trope of immigration through the narrating characters' feelings of displacement as they leave home and change locations in order to come to terms with expressing how their represented selves and voiced identities change. Importantly in this essay, I add how van Herk's travel motifs begin--in medias res--as each female subject explores a different feminine self in the five biotexts. They are: Judith (1978), The Tent Peg (1981), No Fixed Address: A Notebook on a Missing Person (1986), Places Far From Ellesmere: A Geografictione: Explorations on Site (1990), and Restlessness: A Novel (1998).

In the first three bio-texts, the young female subjects discover that internalized knowledge of their socially constructed culture prompts them to reject men's use of power over women and their work in the prairie town, farm, or countryside. Judith, JL, and Arachne explore provocative feminine attitudes in various cultural conditions. They begin by recognizing that their formatted identity was learned in childhood. Thus, in an effort to get away from what distressed them, travel becomes a way to experience the world's reaction to their assertive voices. In effect, their nomadic motivation is critical, so the narrating subjects in Judith, The Tent Peg, and No Fixed Address acquire a new style of conscious thinking that causes them to accept their self representation in the city versus the farm, the arctic versus college, as a salesperson versus an arctic loner.

Judith, the farmer's daughter, leaves the farm and travels to the city to become a secretary, returns to create her own pig farm, and winds up rejecting men. J.L. (Jael), the student thinker, cross-dresses to confuse the miners she plans to cook for in a summer camp in the Arctic, and miraculously winds up discovering her feminine self when meeting a female grizzly with her two cubs. This experience is followed by her rejection of a miner's sexual deviltry. Arachne, whose inadequate relationship with her mother makes her reject her family's impoverished lifestyle, chooses free sex and independence as she drives around Alberta in her Mercedes, selling women's lingerie. After risky sexual escapades with different men, she "drives home to Thomas" her mapmaker (No Fixed Address 188). Later, in her trusty Mercedes she travels by "spidering her own map over the intricate roads of" the Northwest Territories (No Fixed Address 223).

Not wanting to be caught by patriarchal hegemonic precepts with their misogynist demands, and not understanding their parents or their formatted identities, these female subjects subscribe to getting away from their family's attitudes in order to experiment with feminine autonomy. Effectively, they desire to cross mental, physical, or emotional borders, all the while thinking they are unique, when in fact they do not recognize that their rejection of the intact collective cultures changes nothing. Beginning with insights about the other self and their desire for female subjectivity, but failing to recognize that their poor choices contain elements of failure, they struggle against "phallogocentric image of thought" (Braidotti 101).

The first three novels, therefore, expand on the subjects' epistemological attitudes relevant to their age and place in different social locations in western Canada in the 1970s and 1980s, eliciting personal and feminist notions of identity and subjectivity. While explorations of sexuality contribute to their politics of identity, these women test their understanding of how to communicate with men. In effect, "thought is made of sense and value" that these women recognize must be feminist, but that is not the affective cultural foundation (Braidotti 113). Nevertheless, the intensity of their energy takes them through conflicts to stasis, and to differentiated thoughts. In various geographical locations, they experience a "tension" between their learned attitudes formed as childhood beliefs that are modified in adolescence, that become reconstituted knowledge from experiences as young women, that help them enter into new voices, speech, and discourses with others (Kaplan, "Deterritorializations" 187-98).

Each begins with an unconscious awareness of the relationship between their minds and their bodies that puts the subjects in these novels at risk as nomads, for nomads must recognize their displacement. Without the language of emotion-feeling, or synonyms of affect--these subjects are unable to articulate the impact of their experiences, even though miraculous experiences like the appearance of the grizzly makes the men think JL is a wonder woman. Nomadism requires a consciousness of the subjects' actual positionality, epistemology, and point of view. For example, while female rogue attitudes were outlined by Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders, Arachne, with her assertive sexual roguishness, comes close to finding her nomadic consciousness as she flees from her sexual mishaps into the North.

"Northern is a state of mind" becomes the trope of van Herk's fourth novel Places Far From Ellesmere and is sequentially modified to Europe, the world, and home in Calgary in the fifth novel Restlessness (Dargent interview). In each novel, gender representation and identity include middle-aged women with important feminist questions about serving in the community. The narrator's stories explore their changing experiences, their awareness of other people, cultures, rules, and roles that lead them to recognize their age and place. Confronting a variety of personal attitudes, the narrators move from the local to the urban, from prairie to town, across western Canada into the North in Ellesmere, to Europe, and home to Calgary.

The construction of the subject's feminist identity in Places changes from a Biblical or mythological subject to becoming a fictive unseen narrator who talks to and about a second person "you"-the author--in different stages of her life. Modeled on van Herk, this second person speaker has become a published author, moved from her birthplace of Edberg to her university city of Edmonton and to Calgary, where she is a professor, a pro-activist feminist, and a prolific reader of contemporary novels and post-colonial literary theory. In effect, feminist women rebel against men's subjugating knowledge of women's lives. As she admits: "novels and life open cautiously" (Places 91).

Relentlessly focused on reading and writing, van Herk's ingenious narrator in Places challenges Leo Tolstoy's determination to have his illustrious fictive lover Anna Karenin commit suicide. Thus, she wonders if she can "dream Tolstoy a sister or a lover beyond his flawed imaginings, the characters that shape the body and brains of a woman more and less than his benighted Anna?" (Places 81-82). In effect, these narrating subjects ("you" and the author) take a camping trip to Ellesmere with van Herk's geologist husband Bob. In the twenty-four-hour sun she reads Tolstoy's novel that presents Anna as an unfaithful wife that must throw herself on the railroad tracks to die. As feminists, the narrator and author cannot accept that Anna is the kind of woman who has a despairing and suicidal character. Moreover, they want to read about love"even love as doomed as you know Anna's to be" (82).

Thereby, they feel the need to rewrite her ultimate outcome. Recognizing in Tolstoy's text that Anna is a reader of fiction, the narrators discover a handle on her mythical development. Their nomadic style is about possibilities, about transitions that readers can make which lack "predetermined destinations" such as Tolstoy's use of the death-drive for Anna's end (Braidotti 25). In effect, the second person narrator notices that Anna is "not the expected feminine principle, not a slim, streamlined adolescent, but a woman on the verge of flesh, solid. She cannot be a sapling because of her moral corruption; only adolescents are permitted to be virginal. Her flesh has appetite" (van Herk, Places 96). The narrator realizes that she will have to live with Anna as "islands neither preach nor convert" (82). Also as an island, Ellesmere replicates woman's body--a "fat island, the tenth largest in the world, fat with the flesh of heated snow, of dazzling cold. Fat with distance, with un-reachability, with mystery" (96-97). The narrator discovers the connection between the island's and Anna's physical positionality. In effect, both are embodied: the island is afloat in the sea and the fictive female gains consciousness of women's ways of knowing by reading novels. More important, "the real novel (about Anna [Karenin] reading [romance fiction in Tolstoy's text] begins in the north). The narrator says "it is about you reading Anna, it is about all Annas and reading of themselves" (132).

Van Herk's "counter autobiographical writing [that] 'knows itself fictive' ... is 'the necessary invention' to bring into being a female subjectivity outside the 'I' of current autobiographical writing, [so as] to close the gap between the 'I' and 'other' of patriarchal discourse (Madeleine Gagnon qtd. in Neuman 216). The second person narrator and the author and the fictive Anna come full circle from Judith's first adventure of leaving home for the city only to return to becoming a female farmer, for they use home as a "place to leave from. Return implied" (van Herk, Places 61). In Places, the intertextual narrating author meets Anna Karenin in the Canadian North and reconstructs Anna's choices in Tolstoy's dictum.

As Restlessness opens, Dorcas a privileged fortyish, self-reflexive and self-conscious traveling courier opens her story with "I am alone in a room [in the Palliser Hotel in Calgary] with [Derrick Atman] the man who has agreed to kill me" within twenty-four hours (7, 83, 76). Contemplating her Canadian immigrant's life in discourse with Derrick forces Dorcas to differentiate sex from love, travel from home, and identity from death. Like van Herk's older siblings, Dorcas arrives in Canada from the Netherlands with her parents--who recently decided to return to Holland, while she stayed in Calgary. Dorcas admits she is a privileged subject in need of critiquing that privilege which boils down to understanding why she wants to make Calgary her home and yet is unwilling to accept that decision. Betwixt and between locations with maps and stories, Dorcas admits: "traveling has become my version of self-punishment. I ache with grief, I relive my angry losses. I travel to avoid forgiving myself. To avoid my dear one, who would love me back to life. My dear one. I asked him to kill me, but he refused. My dear one, whom I leave. But gently" (189). Hers is a dark vision that needs revising with the help of the assassin she selects to put her away.

Culturally, nomadism encourages people to think geopolitically about what it means to live in a nation like Canada that was formerly colonized by England and France. While feminists recognize that all women partake of the condition of "the second sex," bilingual Dorcas "yearn[s] for a female uninvented language that will give women's difference a chance" (Viscera 133). On the other hand, she is a loner--more interested in art, architecture, religion, and death than expressing political feminist attitudes expressed by the narrators in van Herk's four prior novels.

Dorcas needs her chosen assassin in order to tell her story about her quest to find an equitable psychic attitude about herself as a dead body that will articulate her own ending (Braidotti 163). On her walk from the Palliser Hotel around downtown Calgary with her appointed assassin Derrick, she tells him of fainting in the Egyptian pyramids and being placed on a slab. Derrick asked "So you had a wish to die there?" Her quick response is "I hadn't yet confronted my desire to die" (139). Restless toward life and eager for death, she chooses to forego a new identity. True to her naivete, Dorcas does not realize that willing something to happen-such as dying--is neither empowering nor desirable; for empowerment, desire, and agency are integral parts of subjectivity. Nevertheless, Dorcas engages with the notion of choosing to be killed as a conscious act, so she wonders what, as a dead body, would remain of her consciousness. It is as if Dorcas sees woman's life on a "two-tiered level of becoming. One is the longer linear model of historical teleology, and the other is the more discontinuous timing of personal genealogy and unconscious desire" (Julia Kristeva qtd. in Braidotti 121). Dorcas's experiences in the world help her know women's historical trends. But she desires to understand her personal genealogy.

As an international courier, she is in Europe more than at home in Calgary. What she claims she understands-agency over her voice, mind, and body--is presumptuous. Her questions reveal her confusion over who and what she loves, why she travels, and where home is. In effect, life is problematic for this immigrant who rejects the notion of permanently returning to Holland. If not Amsterdam, then why Calgary? Not able to decide where, she fantasizes about her dead body as she thinks about the historical linking of women who take risks in their adventurous lives, such as Van Herk's JL named for the biblical Jael who killed the Canaanite captain Sisera by driving a tent peg through his temple while he slept, and the mythical spider Arachne who is stuck in nature as prior narrating female subjects before selecting the biblical Dorcas who died and was returned to life by Peter in Acts 9.36-40. In this sense, Dorcas thinks of herself as a dead female corpse as well as a living woman possessed by the desire to understand the process of dying. Cleverly, Dorcas plays with the notion of speaking from her body while simultaneously imaging her body as a corpse. In fact, she claims to travel to life's edge to find her locus-to locate herself in culture and to understand why her identity must be transformed. Her ego wants to discredit her knowledge of European culture by dismantling her early identity as a Dutch child.

The gap between the then and the now causes her to be possessed by the notion of dying. Hiring a killer for a day provides her with the psychological time to define what a woman wants. While memory and language make her feel human, she follows a long tradition of characters, authors, or critics for whom solitary exile is either "voluntarily expatriated or involuntarily displaced (Kaplan, Questions of Travel 4). Unfortunately, while Dorcas insists her mind controls her body, her "'unconsciousness' marks the structural non-coincidence of the subject with ... her consciousness" (Braidotti 164).

Toward the end of the night, Dorcas is warned to be careful by the woman who she meets in the Hotel's Women's Powder Room. While van Herk does not focus in Restlessness as in Places on a "common sisterhood in oppression" (Braidotti 163), she explores instead the politics of location-or attention to Dorcas' situated experiences in time and history. Her possessed focus is on the wearisome travel anxieties that result in her resolution to die at home in Calgary. As a first person double-voiced fictive subject, Dorcas confronts an essential question about the inevitable movement toward death. She speaks for herself and the author who represents herself as the redheaded woman she sees in the elevator and the powder room. "Thus, I will arrive at last I will step into new places eagerly, strain my ears to decipher a newly heard language. Perhaps my pyramid mystic was prescient, and the perfect destination will deafen me" (Restlessness 191).

By referring to loss and how death is transfigured through the creative act of talking about her feelings and thoughts, she attempts to create her own elegy without dying. Her real burden is that the attention she receives in this text of one day in the life of Dorcas is inflammatory. Moreover, assassination is an ignoble act for women-whose bodies are always representative of desire--for in death all that is left is the image of an inert female body. In this sense, the aesthetic representation of death lets us repress our knowledge of the reality of death precisely because death occurs as someone else's body, and as an image" (Bronfen x). The coup de grace for Dorcas is a slow gaining of knowledge that her corpse as a fantastic image need not become a real fact. Thus, by making it comprehensible, she diffuses it of some of its power (Bronfen 4).

While van Herk claims that she has killed none of her subjects, it is also a fact that these biotexts explicate fundamental aspects of the author's language and feminist prowess. Hence, Dorcas's desire to acquire a new identity incorporates her multiple worldly cultural travels that end in Calgary where the author resides with her "dear one" and teaches at the university. Dorcas's obsessive travels and discussions of cemeteries and funereal rites in Europe substantiate her painful fears. Instead of being brought back from the grave, she is talking and writing her embodied feminist genealogy in a complex feminist narrative. In Restlessness, Dorcas assumes she wants to be killed, but discovers her real desires are to repress her immigrant past, only to recognize the power of her bilingual talents and make her dash from Calgary to Amsterdam. She admits "Amsterdam succeeds every time ... as if it recognizes my blood connection, my accent tilted but manageable, my vocabulary old-fashioned but adequate" (10).

Each of the novels explores aspects of women's developing feminist consciousness from their twenties to their fifties in the second half of the twentieth century. In Places, the secondperson narrator as author and Anna Karenin are readers of fiction who develop the social imagination of embodied and empowered women. In Restlessness through self-confessions, Dorcas realizes that adding English to her Dutch provides her with multicultural identities. Through the gynocentric politics of parody, van Herk's feminist narrators learn that their language derives from their developing consciousness of their unique situations that begin at home. "Return implied."






Braidotti, Rosa. Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Routledge UP, 1994.

Bronfen, Elisabeth. Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity, and the Aesthetic. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Dargent, Nicole, et al. "Interview with Aritha van Herk." The Aritha van HerkPage. 15 May 1994. Web. 1 June 2010.

de Lauretis, Teresa. "The Essence of the Triangle or, Taking the Risk of Essentialism Seriously: Feminist Theory in Italy, the U.S., and Britain." Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 1 (1989): 3-37.

Goldman, Marlene. "Earth-Quaking the Kingdom of the Male Virgin: A Deleuzian Analysis of Aritha van Herk's No Fixed Address and Places Far from Ellesmere." Canadian Literature 137 (1993): 21-38.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Canadian Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English Canadian Fiction. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1988.

Jones, Dorothy. "Restoring the Temples: The Fiction of Aritha van Herk." Kunapipi 6.1 (1994): 416-31.

Kaplan, Caren. "Deterritorializations: The Rewriting of Home and Exile in Western Feminist Discourse." Cultural Critique 6 (1987): 187-98.

--. Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement. Durham: Duke UP, 1996.

Lutz, Harmut. "'Meat and Bones Don't Matter': Mythology in The Tent Peg." Ariel 20.2 (1989): 4-67. Neuman, Shirley. "Writing the Reader, Writing the Self in Aritha van Herk's Places Far from Ellesmere." Essays on Canadian Writing 60 (1996): 215-34.

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenin. Trans. Rosemary Edmonds. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977. van Herk, Aritha. A Frozen Tongue. Sydney: Dangeroo, 1992.

--. InVisible Ink: Crypto Frictions. The Writer as Critics: III. Edmonton: NeWest, 1991.

--. Judith. Toronto: McClelland, 1978.

--. No Fixed Address: An Amorous Journey. Toronto: McClelland, 1986.

--. Places Far From Ellesmere, A Geografictione: Explorations on Site. Red Deer AB: Red Deer College P, 1990.

--. Restlessness: A Novel. Red Deer, AB: Red Deer College P, 1998.

--. The Tent Peg. Toronto: McClelland, 1981.
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Author:Sellery, J'Nan Morse
Publication:West Virginia University Philological Papers
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:May 1, 2011
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