Canadian writer Elly Danica is the author of Don't: A Woman's Word (Gynergy Books, 1988), a short book of prose poetry which charts her experience growing up in a violent family, her entrapment in an oppressive marriage, and eventual solitary existence. My life experience also includes a history of family violence. Full-length published poetry books on surviving family violence are hard to find and, as a young poet, I was thrilled to discover Danica's work and a kinship with another poet.
After reading Danica's book, I felt a stronger sense of direction in my poetry writing. Not having a supportive relationship with my own mother I looked for other women, other mentors, for guidance. Like Danica, my experience of family violence includes sexual violence (though not gang rape). I wrote a short chapbook called adventures of amelia about my experience of childhood sexual violence and departure from home.
Danica is an extraordinary writer. It takes a lot of fortitude, strength of mind, psychological insight, and skill to produce such a lucid, readable, and educational account of an experience of domestic violence. Some published literary writings on incest over-emphasize forgiveness and avoid a deep exploration of normal feelings of hate and rage. Danica's book Don’t, in contrast, acknowledges and works through negative feelings and shows why this is important in developing a greater capacity for love. Her book reflects emotional realism and psychological depth. I also strive to manifest these literary qualities in my poems on child abuse issues.
In Don't Danica is always mindful of never presenting the young Danica as a passive victim and always as a thoughtful, reasonable, and creative person, making intelligent choices despite severe constraints. I too have sought to present girls in an empowering way in my poems.
Don't received a lot of media attention and Danica became engaged with public speaking on child abuse issues. In Beyond Don't: Dreaming Past the Dark (Gynergy Books,1996), she notes a struggle with the dilemma of how to divide her energy between helping society with child welfare issues and doing creative work (p. 100). This is a problem that I too struggle with, and also with deciding how much attention to devote to child welfare issues in my poetry and essay-writing.
In Beyond Don't, Danica movingly explores her relationship with her mother. As a girl she had sympathized with her mother's difficulties as a new immigrant lacking the regular support of her Dutch mother living in Holland and had promoted communication between them. She also discusses her own plight of being stranded between two cultures and of not feeling at home in either. I too have explored cultural and immigration issues in my writing. My book Noble Orphan (Demeter Press, 2012) includes several poems about an ESL class of immigrant women. I explore some of their adaptation challenges and those of their children, whom I privately tutored.
In Beyond Don't, Danica writes about the public's reception of her book Don't. Some reviewers treated her book Don't more as a self-help or therapeutic book than as a book of prose poetry, calling it courageous, inspirational, and healing. Others saw it as a lurid sex book or, finding the book aggressive, saw her as a man-hater. Most did not engage with the issues and feminist perspectives presented in the book or situate it within the context of Canadian or North American literature and discuss it in relation to other books.
I received some similar responses to my first book of poetry, Welcoming (Inanna Publications, 2009), which explores diverse topics and includes some poems on incest and surviving chronic childhood trauma. Despite good blurbs from other poets, a reviewer wrote that because I had dedicated the book to incest survivors, (people with whom I feel a strong kinship), and it contained some poems on incest, the book was more therapeutic than literary. Many poets explore family relationships and experiences, and so why should poems about very harmful experiences in the family be treated differently?
I hope that by honouring Danica here as a literary mother other survivors of family violence will feel that they too have a right to write about their life experiences and be included in Canadian literature.
Andrea Nicki is a poet, essayist, philosophy professor and disability activist who lives in Vancouver. She has two poetry books published by Toronto presses: Noble Orphan by Demeter Press (2012) and Welcoming by Inanna Press (2009). She is currently finalizing a new collection. Her poetry explores social, cultural, and environmental issues and has been published in Canadian and American journals, such as Rampike, The Goose, The Brock Review and Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature. She teaches graduate courses on professional ethics and human rights issues in the workplace. She is a member of the editorial board of Understorey Magazine, which publishes literary writing and visual art by and about Canadian women and seeks out underrepresented stories and voices.