Daphne Marlatt: Of Mini-Ships and Archives

To think about women’s archives is to think about how recently (say, in the last century and a half) women’s lives in the Western world have moved from the private and domestic sphere to the public cultural-political one, becoming “collectable.” This transit from private to public is embedded in the origin (or at least as far back as written records will reveal) of the word archive in Greek: arkhë, or first place where government records were kept. Despite its ark-like association, arkhë is the word for a process, the process not only of recording and keeping what has been said in the moment but also eventually making it public for posterity (for long-after-the-fact eyes) in a waterless and dust-free atmosphere. Does writing itself, even the writing of women’s “private” journals, inherently contain the possibility of going public? After all, writing is an act of externalizing, of potentially making ideas and thoughts available for other eyes to peruse, even one’s own eyes at a later date. Printing and distributing are steps beyond that. Preserving in amenable conditions is also a step further. It is the reverse of instantly, on an impulse, pressing the “delete” button before pressing “send.”

But then, from a broader perspective, language itself is a living archive. More specifically, the history of a language is an archive of the cultural changes and linguistic borrowings of its speakers through centuries of usage. As a poet, I recognize this fact from hours at my desk behind a closed door (the gift of not just solitary but uninterrupted time) where I trace glimmers of half-erased, half-perceived connections between words and their historic trade routes through time. Nouns, little ships freighted with meaning, fossilized verbs that once sailed their way through seas of speech, language to language. My tracing of these routes will find their way (or not) into sentences composing a larger verbal structure that may (or may not) eventually find its way into print. Often these mini-ships, hand jottings on draft pages of print or nearly illegible scribbles on scraps of paper, get lost in file folders in drawers or boxes, eventually to land, years later, on a library shelf under bright lights in what is termed an archive. Docked, documented. Archivally (re)constructed.

Reconstruction: putting together scattered fragments, putting together what once occurred or was experienced as a gestalt, a whole, but is now available only in shards, odd notes on variously sourced, undated pages or bits of paper. To some degree, the drive behind collecting a writer’s archive is rather like what drives archaeology. It is similar to resurrecting the dead, if such a thing were possible. But then there is also what is lost in the living, layers and layers of memory that are now simply recalled by outline, by the repeated telling of an event that the body’s complex sensoria once experienced fully in all the emotional and mental reverberations of a moment’s impact. Perhaps this desire is the drive behind oral history and its effort to uncover and make public what people have experienced as personal. It is the memories of individual lives that together make up the particular history of a community—another kind of archive—recorded and made public as the unofficial history of the legislated-upon, rather than the official history of the legislators. These memories, often considered too personal to be of public value, when collected and published compose alternative or alternate views of official history, views that deepen our understanding of the impact of past events. So I discovered in 1972, when I first began working on a team collecting the Japanese Canadian oral history of Steveston, which at that point was largely untold outside of the community.

In the early 1970s, Maya Koizumi began interviewing members of the community about their experiences fishing and boat-building on this coast. The oldest, Asamatsu Murakami, then in his late eighties, recalled arriving in Victoria by ship in 1899, and then, once in Vancouver, travelling by stage coach down a still partially forested Granville Street to Steveston, where he began fishing for one of the canneries—in one man’s lifetime, the forest terrain was transformed into something completely urban. He andothers had clear memories of the living conditions in Steveston’s cannery camps, the strikes, the bringing over of picture brides, and the early formation of their Dantai (benevolent society). They recalled the complexities caused by labour disputes with white unions, and feeling the pressure of constant racism, which led up to a series of fishing licence cutbacks and the eventual internment of the entire community during the Second World War. As writer for and editor of the oral history we gathered, Steveston

Recollected, I would go with Maya to meet her interviewees. Not understanding Japanese, I relied on her for both on-the-spot interpreting and translation of the taped interviews and several historical accounts written in Japanese that were lent to us by a community member. But I listened for tonal gestures, watched various emotions shadow faces and disappear. For factual background, I explored the Richmond City Archives and the Historic Photos Archive of the Vancouver Public Library to gain a sense of what was going on in the larger community at various points in time. Gazing at black and white photos by Philip Timms and Dundas F. Todd gave me a remarkable sense of the materiality of Steveston’s booming cannery row and waterfront in its early days. Contemporary photographs by Rex Weyler and Robert Minden, sometimes of the same buildings and streets, gave us all a visual measure of the intervening years.

Certain phrases people used to express their remembering, as well as the visual detail of historic photographs, prompted my own imagining of what it must have felt like, say, to fish by hand at night on a freshet-swollen river, or to find yourself newly arrived in a sea of hip-high marsh grass. Thus began a cycle of poems I wrote in a sustained act of research-fuelled imagination and critique about the history of this multiracial, multicultural boom town at the mouth of what had once been an incredibly fertile salmon river. With Robert Minden’s portraits of people on its contemporary streets, it became our collaborative book, Steveston (1974).

A few years earlier, while writing Vancouver Poems (1972), I had started exploring the Vancouver City Archives, which houses, among other documents, Major Matthews’s collection of accounts by early residents of the settlement known as Granville before the disastrous fire of 1886 wiped out most of its frontier buildings. This curiosity about the origins of my adopted city and what was here before the so-called white civilization arrived to log the coast’s luxuriant forests was sparked by Pauline Johnson’s Legends of Vancouver, a book of stories Chief Joe Capilano told her before his death in 1910. My great uncle gave me a copy of the eighth edition (1913), bound in deer hide with a hand-painted profile of an Indian head in feathered headdress on its cover, soon after my family had immigrated to Vancouver in 1951—it was the first Canadian book I received, and my first encounter with oral history. Pauline’s listening ears in a dugout canoe transformed into a verbal ship of print carrying traditional Squamish stories about one version of pre-contact history, ghosting its way through the written records of white settlers.

And there were always settlers who spoke languages other than English. Those settlers of diverse ethnicities who brought their cultures with them, made up the poly-linguistic fabric of Strathcona, the earliest residential area of Vancouver, a hilly piece of terrain lying north of the original shore of False Creek, south of the harbour, and east of Main Street. When I first moved into the area in 1976, I wanted to find out more about its history, as did the artist Carole Itter, who lived a couple of blocks away. Together we began another oral history project, and for this purpose we interviewed people from various communities that, in successive waves of immigration, had established themselves in these few blocks: Chinese, Italian, Jewish, Irish, Japanese, black, Ukrainian, and Yugoslav, with the neighbourhood elementary school described as a sort of mini United Nations in the thirties. Photographs in interviewees’ albums or from the city archives would prompt memories. In turn, the stories that arose prompted archival research to try to establish period context and the unrecalled names of people involved in particular events. Newspaper clipping files in the Vancouver Public Library, books about the city’s history by various authors, photographs of East End streets through the years, city directories (who lived where in what years), maps with earlier names for streets that had been subsequently renamed—all these sources proved useful.

By the time I began writing Ana Historic, I was used to archival research and enjoyed doing it so much that hours went by devoted to my study of the city’s early history. The Major Matthews collection, with its eyewitness accounts and anecdotal details, its hand-drawn maps and early photographs, gave me a time-telescope sense of the small frontier settlement and mill surrounded first by woods and then stumps in the early 1870s, before the fire. No one appointed Major Matthews to undertake this task, he apparently decided to do this on his own initiative, recognizing that the lived experiences of people vividly recreate the feel of an event that most official versions reduce to facts. Thus, the tradition of an alternative and somewhat renegade history for this city began. Consequently, Vancouver has one of the best-documented histories of any city in the world (of course, despite its short life thus far, it also has managed to erase much of the architectural evidence from its earlier phases—wood frame buildings in what was once a rain forest don’t last long, especially when the boom town mentality constantly seeks to reinvent itself).

The Major Matthews collection gave me a sense of the friendships and community stratifications already beginning in Granville in the 1870s. But the “squibs,” basically satirical male gossip and in-jokes of a column protectively titled “Falsehoods of the Hour” that appeared in The Moodyville Tickler (1878), delighted me because they imparted the humour and irritations of daily life in the water-based communities on the edge of Burrard Inlet. The Tickler was the Inlet’s first newspaper, based in the sawmill at Moodyville in what is now North Vancouver. Its editor, lumber clerk William Colbeck, had a gift for sending up his fellow workers and airing his political views in delightfully sarcastic terms while also reporting on events of the day like the fourth of July boat race. His was a distinctly individual voice, educated and literary, yet steeped in his community and locale. Reading his columns opened a further window into the meshwork of memories and anecdotes that Major Matthews had collected, along with his considerable array of carefully notated historic photographs. Then there was Ralph Andrews’s chattily descriptive voice in his Glory Days of Logging (1956), which opened another window. Whether in Vancouver’s city archives or its public library, these voices were available in print. Women’s voices, like the women themselves, were much harder to find from that period. So I decided to invent the voice of Mrs. Richards, writing her diary entries and thoughts to herself about that frontier settlement. I did so using Keats’ letters as a model, particularly their dash-heavy punctuation and the immediacy of syntax, freighted with nineteenth-century diction and phrasing. I wasn’t sure this method had succeeded until someone asked me where to find Mrs. Richards’ diaries in the city archives.

This sense of the life of an event or community, the feel of it, the intermeshed relationships that build community, perhaps that is what certain kinds of archives best offer. I wanted more than the often-repeated outlines of a series of events that make up most historical accounts. I wanted the daily feel of a lifetime in a now-vanished period that underlies, as the underwater hull of a boat frames its deck, what we now inhabit. Without that awareness, it seems to me, we don’t understand the full shape of our own present.

As a writer whose archive is slowly accumulating in Library and Archives Canada, I struggle with a sense of invaded privacy around more personal documents. I have not delivered any of my journals to LAC, partly because I still have to access them from time to time, but mainly because the working out of certain ideas and notes on reading have as much to do with the working out of my psyche through various relationships and periods of disquiet as it has to do with my writing. In this sense, they feel “private.” But is this a failure to recognize my own disquiet as a reflection of the larger feminist issues of the decades in which I’ve lived thus far? Is it a hanging onto what seems personal, despite the recognition that “the personal is political,” or the further awareness that each one of us who so prizes individuality is actually a knot in a vast mesh of interdependent circumstances and events, constantly shifting our collective culture in and out of focus?

Perhaps the distinction between a writer’s private life and her writing life is a false one, particularly for a poet and novelist who works at crossing the limits of what can be designated as fiction and what can be designated as memoir. And yet I find that, to write at all, I need to maintain a sense of silence and invisibility. That seems to be the source out of which arises the improvisational act of composition, its little ships darting through a wordless sea of pure possibility.


from Basements and Attics, Closets and Cyberspace: Explorations in Canadian Women’s Archives (edited by Linda M. Morra and Jessica Schagerl)

Daphne Marlatt  is a Vancouver poet and novelist whose work spans four decades. Her long poem in prose fragments, The Given, received the 2009 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Award. In 2009, she collaborated with film-maker Aerlyn Weissman on a short drama, The Portside, which premiered at Vancouver’s 2009 Gay Film Festival. This is her first film script. On the coast and in Ontario, she has performed her poetry with the Minden Duo. Talonbooks recently released her award-winning contemporary Noh play, The Gull, in a bilingual edition with a selection of photographs from the 2006 Pangaea Arts bi-national, bi-cultural production in Richmond.

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