Nicole Brossard: Writing what exists
I want to see in fact the form of women organizing in the trajectory of the species.
- Nicole Brossard These Our Mothers 1983.
I first met Nicole Brossard in an airport departure lounge in Frankfurt in 1988. We were en route to a feminist conference on writing and language in Dubrovnik. As I recall, Brossard gave a talk on the power of the word “lesbian” and I argued, via deconstruction, for a post-gender, post-feminist theory (Rudy Dorscht 1988). I was poststructuralist and straight. She was feminist and lesbian. I was drawn to her and terrified.
In 1988, I was married to a man. I had a PhD. And a baby daughter. I had just taken up a tenure-track position at a university and moved thousands of miles from the rest of my family and friends. My husband had moved with me.
This morning I reread an English translation of the paper Brossard delivered at the Dubrovnik conference. I can’t find the word “lesbian” anywhere.
There are words that return. There are words that always return to find us in the very place we seek for them. […] There are words that are irreducible: to write I am a woman is full of consequences,
- Nicole Brossard “Corps d’énergie / rituels d’écriture,” 1989
This is what I knew in 1988: I wanted connection with other women and I didn’t want to change. I wanted a different life but I didn’t know how to get there. I couldn’t be a lesbian.
For five decades, Nicole Brossard has been investigating questions of multiple identifications, affiliations, and kinships. For her, writing the word “lesbian” was an “exercise in deconditioning,” a means by which to assert her existence and acknowledge her “legitimacy” (These Our Mothers 16).
In the 1970s, Brossard’s site of investigation was her relation, as a lesbian mother, to other bodies. In “Poetic Politics,” she speaks of “living the most common experience in a woman’s life which is motherhood,” at the same time as she is “living the most marginal experience in a woman’s life which is lesbianism”:
[m]otherhood shaped my solidarity with women and gave me a feminist consciousness as lesbianism opened mental space to explore. (77-78)
“If patriarchy can take what is and make it not,” Brossard writes, “surely we can take what exists and make it be” (“From Radical to Integral” The Aerial Letter 103).
53% of white women voted for Donald Trump. I might have been among them.
Nicole Brossard has been a key figure in my intellectual life for thirty years. In 1997, Lynette Hunter, Marta Dvorak, and I co-organised a conference on “Women and Texts: Languages Technologies Communities” under the banner: “Coming together to work on expressing what is valued in our daily lives.”
Our inspiration came from Nicole Brossard and we cited her on the conference poster:
I imagined my thought that day: attentive to movements that spread out in a spiral in books written by women. I was virtually struck by the internal logic which constantly beckons women to merge/to expel themselves.
For Brossard, the spiral opens “and the new circulates, circulates, producing emanations such as those at the gates of an initiatory path” (Translated and quoted by Gould 83; from Le Sens apparent 14).
Even into the mid 1990s, we believed that the new was opening before us. I took the following celebratory photograph: Brossard with her arm around writer Audrey Thomas, alongside Jeannette Armstrong and filmmaker Alanis Obamsawin.
Left to right: Audrey Thomas Nicole Brossard Alanis Obamsawin Jeannette Armstrong at the “Women and Texts: Languages Technologies Communities” Conference University of Leeds 2-5 July 1997. Photograph by Susan Rudy.
In 2017, we again need solidarity yet our trajectories are different. As feminists and/or trans we want to identify as women and yet we want alternatives to the symbolic order in which the category of woman has been so narrowly constructed.
In the 1970s Brossard identified patriarchal motherhood as the place where the concept of woman was most fraught. The problem lay in the fact that, in Brossard’s words, “patriarchal mothers” (18) are “able only to initiate their daughters to a man”:
There is no confidence between us. Sold-out at a loss. Split in two. (18)
In contrast to the misogyny perpetuated by patriarchal motherhood, Brossard’s experience of lesbian motherhood offered an alternative based on loving connections.
On the same day, she “caresses” the body of her lesbian lover and washes the body of her daughter: “[c]yprine juices urine. Orgasm and labour as two sides of the same entity” (18):
I write so I won’t engulf and hurt your bodies and so as to find in them my void my centre. (13)
Instead of reproducing the mother-role of patriarchy, Brossard creates “her own locus of desire,” finds “her own place at a distance” (18):
She who is writing in the present between barbed wires remembers her past. Maybe they’ve been forced to cut the current. She goes through. (These Our Mothers 18)
She goes through.
I think of a photograph on Facebook of an African-American woman at the New York City women’s march. She carried a placard reminding us that 94% of Black women voted against Trump:
Black Women Tried to SAVE Y’ALL!!! #94%
I almost missed meeting Nicole Brossard that day in Frankfurt in 1988. I had read The Aerial Letter in a feminist theory graduate course. But when I spotted it atop a pile of feminist theory books beside a handsome woman on the ottoman across from me I thought, she must be a colleague.
I looked again and recalled seeing the photo of Brossard with translator Marlene Wildeman at the end of The Aerial Letter. Could it be her?
She caught my eye and smiled. I was tongue-tied and brave. I took her hand and said what I could. She listened and spoke. We became friends and moved forward, at first haltingly, then with confidence, over many years, together.
I’ve been thinking recently about what we – in our radical differences – are going through now. In 2006, I finally came out. I have very short grey hair and am middle-aged. I’m often addressed as sir. Yet the pull of family and motherhood, the privileges of middle-class whiteness and cisgender, and conventional ideas about what women are supposed to be still shape me.
I didn’t attend the women’s march in London because of a long-standing family commitment.
It was my lesbian partner’s mother’s 70th birthday and a gathering in Shropshire the weekend of January 21, 2017 had been planned months ago, when the idea of a Donald Trump presidency was still a sick joke.
Trump’s presidency is now a terrifying reality. And the pull of family still shapes my queer life. To what extent am I still overdetermined by patriarchal structures? What role have my choices played in the election of Donald Trump?
More overtly than I have seen in my lifetime, patriarchy is taking what exists and making it not. Yet as I reread the work of Nicole Brossard in 2017, I no longer feel terrified or alone. We will get through.
For the ongoing global feminist work of the artists, writers, and academics who participated in the 1997 Leeds “Women and Texts” conference including:
Virginie Alba & Flora Alexander
Marie H. Clements,
Carole Gerson & Veronica Strong-Boag
Maria Henriquez Betancor
Coral Ann Howells
Isabel Huggan & Connie Steenman Marcuse
Janet M Paterson
Louise Saldanha & Aruna Srivastava
Lesley Semmens & Lynette Willoughby
Anirudh P. Trivedi
Aritha van Herk
Coomi S. Vevaina
Louise von Flowtow
Note: This incomplete list of participants is taken from the Abstracts published by the University of Leeds. My memory tells me that Caroline Bergvall and Daphne Marlatt were also in attendance. Please email me at S.Rudy@qmul.ac.uk if you attended the conference and are not listed above. I am preparing an archive of conference materials and for the historical record will add your name to the list.
Brossard Nicole. The Aerial Letter. Trans. Marlene Wildeman. Toronto: The Women’s Press 1988.
---. Fluid Arguments. Edited and with an introduction by Susan Rudy. With translations by Nicole Brossard Anne-Marie Wheeler Alice Parker Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood Patricia Claxton and Marlene Wildeman. Toronto: Mercury Press 2005.
---. Le Sens apparent. Paris: Flammarion, 1980.
---. “Poetic Politics.” In The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Roof 1990.
---. “Rituels d’écriture: L’écriture comme trajectoire du désir et de la conscience.” Writing and Language: The Politics and Poetics of Feminist Critical Practice and Theory. The Inter-University Centre for Postgraduate Studies Dubrovnik Yugoslavia 1988. An early translation by Alice Parker appeared under the title “Corps d’énergie / rituels d’écriture” (1989). A later translation appears in Brossard Fluid Arguments 101-107.
--. These Our Mothers. Trans. Barbara Godard. Toronto: Coach House Quebec Translations 1983. Translation of L’amèr ou le Chapitre effrité. Montreal: Les Editions Quinze 1977.
Gould, Karen. Writing in the Feminine: Feminism and Experimental Writing in Quebec. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.
Rudy Susan. “Nicole Brossard.” The Literary Encyclopedia. 5 December 2005. [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=5302] Accessed 18 January 2017.
Rudy Dorscht Susan. “Telling the Difference: Postfeminist Theory and Practice.” Writing and Language: The Politics and Poetics of Feminist Critical Practice and Theory. The Inter-University Centre for Postgraduate Studies Dubrovnik Yugoslavia 1988. Published in revised form as a chapter in Women Reading Kroetsch: Telling the Difference. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press 1991.
Susan Rudy is a London-based researcher, writer, and editor. Currently a Senior Research Fellow in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary University of London, she taught in the Department of English at the University of Calgary from 1988-2011. Susan’s research expertise is in contemporary experimental writing and feminist theory and she has published widely in these areas. In 2016, she published blogs at The New Statesman on what gender and gender equality mean in the twenty-first century. She and Georgina Colby are developing a Salon for Experimental Women’s Writing (SEWW) in London. This piece is from Queer Openings, Rudy’s new book. For more, go to http://www.sed.qmul.ac.uk/staff/rudys.html.
Nicole Brossard (left) and Susan Rudy at the “Women and Texts: Languages Technologies Communities” Conference, University of Leeds, 2-5 July 1997.
Photograph of Nicole Brossard provided by Nicole Brossard. Used with permission.
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