Essays & Fragments: Barbara Godard

Reading: “Excentriques, Ex-centric, Avant-Garde: Women and Modernism in the Literatures of Canada” by Barbara Godard.

In 1984 Barbara Godard posited that the creation of a thorough literary history in Canada would require understanding women. Well, guess what? That still holds true. Specifically, in this article Godard calls for a rearticulation of literary history that takes into account women’s transgressions. She writes “ex-centriques, ‘telling it slant,’ in Emily Dickinson’s words, they are transgressing literary codes in a manner approximating madness—hence eccentric.” Citing the early revisionist feminist literary work of Elaine Showalter, Gilbert and Gubar, and others Godard suggests that the history of positioning women writers as colonial subjects in relation to patriarchal culture is of especial import when attempting to understand the literary history of Canada. Given that Canadian and Quebec literatures “are in themselves expressions of colonized peoples, women’s writing is a model” for Canada’s two literatures in general.”

Godard’s thesis is that there is a “causal link between [women’s relationship to established literary discourse] and the pioneering role of women writers in this country, most specifically to the advent of Modernism and Post-Modernism in this country’s literary tradition. The more forcefully they have asserted their feminism, the more disruptive their literary productions have been. Ex-centriques, this avant garde.” In short, Godard proposes a genealogy of women’s writing in Canada that is both viscerally connected to oral tradition’s marginalized status in relation to the archive, and between Canadian women’s literary production in relation to the Modern and Post-Modern. Importantly, Godard underscores the problematics of creating this genealogical literary history that is specific to Canada. The problem is that unlike the United States, France, and other countries whose feminist literary and theoretical production has been formative and visible—because reacting against the overt exclusion of women from the national canon, in Canada women have been uncannily present. Rather than being a cause for celebration, however, this presence has created a false sense of equality and valuation where there is not one. While the work of some women writers in Canada has certainly achieved recognition (Godard cites Atwood, Laurence, Blais, Hébert and Maillet) the country has “its’ hidden corpses as well.”

As Godard suggests, “ex-centricity implies many things—bizarre, fantastic, unconventional, incomprehensible, other—all subsumed by the concept of difference.” Godard is intent first on tracing a genealogy of innovative writing in Canada, and while this is crucial it is not the path I want to tread here. Suffice to say for the moment that women’s ex-centric positioning positions them as always-already poised to be avant-garde.

Find it: Godard, Barbara “Excentriques, eccentric, avant-garde.” A Room of One’s Own 8, 4 (Fall, 1984): 57-75.