Monday, August 29, 2022

Marcie McCauley on Dale Spender

Dale Spender: Looking Behind, Looking Ahead

Somebody pointed it out to me—somebody on the internet, of course—that hardly any of the books I’d studied in English class were written by women. Women writers were infrequently mentioned when I read books about books too. With one exception: I understood that women’s writing, such as it was, began with Jane Austen.

Then—I learned that Jane Austen had a past, via Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers before Jane Austen (1986). Suddenly I recognized that Jane Austen might have believed that a woman could write novels because she had read other novels by women. Those early women writers’ books—they were her internet: information that illuminates possibility.

Born in 1943 in Australia, Dale Spender started lecturing at James Cook University in 1974, before moving to London and publishing Man Made Language (1980). "Language,” she writes, “helps form the limits of our reality. It is our means of ordering, classifying and manipulating the world.” When I discovered her work, I was just beginning to understand relationships between language and society, beginning to assess complex systems that protect existing power structures, still sussing out the potential to disrupt.

Language and story shaped my understanding; Spender’s work broadened it. She writes about a similar sense of expansion in 1982’s Women of Ideas. In her formal studies, she became aware of the suffragettes, but learned much later that in 1911, there had been twenty-one regular feminist periodicals in Britain, a feminist book shop and press, and a bank administered by and dedicated to women. And not only was the early-20th-century women’s movement “bigger, stronger and more influential” than she had previously understood, but “it might not have been the only such movement.”

Spender glances backward to Mary Beard’s Woman as Force in 1946 and she imagines Beard looking back to Woolf in 1928 with A Room of One’s Own, and Woolf looking back to Matilda Joslyn Gage and Margaret Fuller. If “every generation must begin virtually at the beginning and start again to forge the meanings of women’s existence in a patriarchal world,” existing power structures maintain power. 

This unravelling can be disrupted with knowledge, however, as Spender explains, in her foreword to Feminist Theorists: Three Centuries of Key Women Thinkers (1983): “This then is a glimpse of some of women’s intellectual traditions over the last three centuries. It is a glimpse however, which patriarchy would prefer us to do without. We can see that what we are doing today is not something new but something old: this is a source of strength and power.”

European women comprise the bulk of Women of Ideas’ 800 pages, but in the couple hundred pages dedicated to North Americans, Spender discusses Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, and Josephine Ruffin. In particular, she considers Josephine Ruffin’s speech to a group of women in 1895 Boston, which alluded to an earlier era when white and Black women were united in suffrage work. Just decades later, in Ruffin’s time, women once acting in concert were now in conflict.

Just a few weeks ago, a New York Times Book Review reader notes in a letter to the editor that Honorée Jeffers’s review of Toni Morrison’s Recitatif draws attention to Morrison’s accomplishments and significance but overlooks her literary debt to James Baldwin. It’s another reminder: how quickly we take those our ancestors for granted.

But where does it end, this backwards glance? Must a present-day writer include a bibliography as long as Dale Spender’s in Women of Ideas to acknowledge even some of their predecessors? I’ve read enough now to be able to glimpse just how much is missing—even still—in her eight hundred pages.

Perhaps a better question is, will we begin? Rereading Dale Spender this year has reminded me how readily we overlook the potential that resided in the past. Spender’s work establishing the Pandora Press imprint in Australia brought earlier women writers into my stacks, as did the Virago Modern Classics imprint: narratives that remind contemporary readers that yesterday’s readers also dared and dreamed.

If there is strength and power in recognizing a heritage of resistance and insistence—looking back from Toni Morrison to James Baldwin (Zora Neale Hurston, Ann Petry, and Paule Marshall too), from Josephine Ruffin to Hannah Crafts—reading backlists could transform an ordinary reader into a revolutionary. Through rereading and rediscovering, we illuminate the possibilities both behind and ahead of us, so we might sustain rather than rebuild.




Marcie McCauley reads, writes, and lives in Toronto (which was built on the homelands of Indigenous peoples – including the Haudenosaunee, Anishnaabeg and the Wendat – land still inhabited by their descendants). Her writing has been published in American, British and Canadian magazines and journals, in print and online.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Kim Fahner on Joan Didion


So many women writers seem to be dying lately, over the last few years especially. Is it because I’m a woman writer that I happen take more notice, or is it just that I have been influenced and formed so strongly by their presence as literary mothers in my head and heart? I’m not sure, to be honest. I just know that my heart sinks when I hear that another woman has gone on. I dig through my bookshelves and revisit their work, feeling comforted by their voices telling me stories in my head. I did this with Maya Angelou and Mary Oliver’s writing after their deaths, reviewing the depth and breadth of their work. The poets always get to me when they go, whether men or women, and I feel as if someone has yanked my heart out of my chest and shoved it back in again, all tattered and worn. I always cry. Always.

Joan Didion was someone I never thought would die. You likely know how that happens inside your head, especially if you’re a writer? There is always a sense of shock and denial that comes from hearing of a writer’s passing, even when you’ve never seen them read in person, but have only ever huddled down with their books on a rainy night. Perhaps it was that I first read Didion—in earnest and not just in passing—after the death of my own mother in December 2008. I was in the middle of a major depressive episode then. Someone, either another woman writer, or maybe even my therapist, suggested that I read The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). I scoffed, thinking ‘It’s just another book about grief and loss, like all of the others I’ve tried, so what good will it do me?’ Thankfully, I disregarded that subversive inside voice and went off to buy a copy of the book.

I often think that stigma swirls around those of us who have lived with and survived mental illness. The other sort of stigma that I’ve noticed in the last fourteen years of my life has to do with death. The western world really doesn’t seem to want to engage in what deep and intense loss can do to a person’s psyche and their way of being in the world afterwards. Death—and grieving—is so sterile and hygienic now that it’s not as naturally woven into our society as it once was. I remember my great aunts telling me, when I was a teenager, that my great-grandfather, James Cornelius Kelly, was given a proper Irish wake in the sunroom of their big red brick house here in Sudbury. They may very well have told me that while I was sitting on the couch in that very same sunroom, looking out the window towards the big back yard with the willow tree, wondering where they would have put the casket in that tiny room with big windows. Would it have been where the couch was now? My great-grandfather died in 1950. Then, death was part of life, and grieving was seen as part of living, too. The act of grieving a loss deeply wasn’t something that was stigmatized or rushed through without too much thought. Now, it’s pinned to a calendar with a certain number of days given away from work, not caring that your heart might take longer to recover from such a final parting of ways. 

Reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking—when I was most missing my mother after she died—I found a voice that sounded so much like the one in my head. When Didion died in December 2021, I wept. She had been with me after my mother’s death, you see, and that meant something to me. I re-read both The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights (2011) in January and found myself transfixed yet again by the Netflix documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. She knew what grief was about, losing her husband and then her daughter. She knew the pain and intensity of that kind of loss. It’s strange, but when you’ve had a great deal of loss in your life, you fear people disappearing—because they always will—but yet you also feel drawn to others who have had to go through difficult times in life. They will not have rushed through the grieving, you think, and so will have let it change them from the inside out in a deeper way, for the better. 

When I first read it, years ago, I underlined the passages that most spoke to me in The Year of Magical Thinking: “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.” Yes. Death can be obliterative. It will fracture a life and then you’ll be left to rebuild it, to make it stronger somehow.

At the very end of The Year of Magical Thinking, I circled and starred some lines that made me cry. The first was “I look for resolution and find none” and the second was “I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.” Ah, I remember thinking—and I still do now, on a dull grey February day in Northern Ontario—the pain of when people go, when they disappear, will always be something that comes without closure. All you can do, when people go, is to know there isn’t such a thing as closure. It’s a fierce and false myth. Joan Didion taught me that through her writing, and it is a lesson for which I will always be most grateful because it’s one that needs to be taken in, to almost be consumed and integrated.

There’s a song by Craig Cardiff that I often listen to when I think of the people I’ve lost. It’s called “When People Go.” So many have disappeared from my life. Some go when they die, and others disappear when their paths diverge from mine. Either way, the grief is still as deep when someone departs from your life, a hole that can’t be filled afterwards. In his song, Cardiff sings plaintively: “When people go, when people leave, makes some people cry, makes some people drink…it’s the saddest thing.” I love the acoustic version that I found on YouTube a few years ago, mostly because the words are so painfully true. The song—his words and voice—makes me think of Joan Didion, who wasn’t afraid to embrace the deep pain of loss. The people who have gone are ones who are like boats at sea, never to come back.

What I love about Joan Didion’s writing on grief—which feels like poetry to me most days when I read her memoirs—is that she didn’t avoid the pain of it all as so many try to do. She sat with it, wondering what to do with her husband John Gregory Dunne’s clothing and shoes after he died. Best not to give away his shoes in case he happened to return. In Blue Nights, too, a book that speaks to the death of her daughter, Quintana, Didion further explores illness, aging, and death. All of these things dance with grief, as we come to grips with the fact that we are—indeed—more mortal than we’d ever like to admit.

I think of Joan Didion quite often these days. When I miss her being on the planet, I think of the raw and genuine truths found in The Year of Magical Thinking. I revisit her face and her voice as she speaks of the rich beauty of her life in that brilliant documentary—her hands rising like birds as she speaks, and then falling to rest in her lap. Grief is like that, rising and falling, and then resting in your heart and memory. She taught me that through her writing and I’ll be forever grateful to her for that gift.




Kim Fahner lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario. She was poet laureate in Sudbury from 2016-18, and was the first woman appointed to the role. Kim's latest book of poems is These Wings (Pedlar Press, 2019). She's a member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Ontario representative of The Writers' Union of Canada (2020-22), and a supporting member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Kim can be reached via her author website at

Monday, January 3, 2022

Pearl Pirie on E. Pauline Johnson


Making her own path

When my cousin Laura Ireton was in high school she won the Modern History Prize. The prize that year (1927) was a copy of Pauline Johnsons Flint & Feather, a hardcover embossed, with photo plates within. Ireton went on to be a teacher. Our lifetimes barely overlapped. When I was in primary school, at her estate sale, I bought boxes of her books. I read the primary readers of that generation. The top prize of the grab lot was Pauline Johnson.

I had books of Tennyson and Shakespeare, Burns, and  Rudyard Kipling but this poetry was something different. This was writing in a way I could easily understand. She was not only not in Europe, but in Ontario near roads I had travelled, writing about forests and rivers with passion. You can write of corn and paddling and pathos and storms. Landscape could be a subject.

This was a writer who needed no man and child, a writer who travelled far on her own terms. This was a woman who fit into no world, her father being one group and her mother another. I too felt in neither world of either parent myself an had to make a new path that they could not lead me to.

As a teen I memorized some of her poems, and pacing the night fields, recited them to the stars,

soulless is all humanity to me tonight
my keenest longing is to be alone,
alone with gods grey earth that seems
pulse of my pulse, consort of my dreams…
crave but I to slip through space on space
till flesh no more can bind…

It was perfectly heartfelt for the emotional swells of teenage years…

The lost wind wandering, forever grieves
  Low overhead,
Above grey mosses whispering of leaves
  Fallen and dead.

Poetry books were not easy to come by and hers became well-thumbed. I wanted to attend her performances where she flung from identity to identity, like a magician changing onstage from those high upper class whalebone clothes to the equally camp concoction of Indian clothes” thats she whipped up from her imagination and what cloth and leather she could find. She invented as she went, with a quick ear, made improv.

At the white salons she told of the dramas of Indian braves and to the miners she did satire of the upper class ladies, fitting in well enough with either.

Pauline was impulsive, having no budgeting skills and giving away all her money at one point. Although her dad was chief, she lived in a house with servants and slaves and probably never went to the reservation. She ran off to do her one-woman show instead.  What was a young woman, unmarried to do to earn her living? Her sister and brother worked in town, passing as white clerks, but then her sister Evelyn was a different temperament, careful and diligent. Her memoir was more detailed than Paulines poems. (I wonder what she would have written.)

In case you arent familiar, Pauline's poems are online here. (At that site it explains her Mohawk name, Tekahionwake, is pronounced dageh-eeon-wageh, meaning literally: double-life). She billed herself as the Indian Princess, being a daughter of a Mohawk chief. She had her black and white publicity photos coloured, for her to look more indigenous, than her wavy brown haired and blue eyes.

Around 2010 I did a Schrödingers poet presentation at the Tree Reading Series on Pauline. In 2014,  PurdyFest #8 held a symposium on Pauline Johnson.  Although Id read her poems and four books about her, I didnt present, feeling myself under-equipped. At the time I realized I could have things to say. Thats what Johnson keeps teaching, step up. Speak where you are at.





Pearl Pirie (she/her) is a queer poet living in rural Quebec. Her fourth collection is the well-received footlights (Radiant Press, 2020). Follow her at @pesbo on twitter and @pearlpiriepoet on Patreon and Instagram.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Cheyenne Siles on Maira Kalman


When I first saw the name Maira Kalman, it was while browsing around a book warehouse—the kind of store where many older books are kept and treasured until their next owner comes by, someone like me. I was only about fifteen at the time, but my eyes always gravitated to the ‘kooky’ or aesthetically pleasing book covers, even if I thought an ‘aesthetic’ was more on the side of fashion and cosmetics. For me, any book that could keep my focus from the outside deserved a read on the inside. And the Pursuit of Happiness did just that—it lured me in. The mimicry of a graphic novel approach from the front cover made me quickly purchase it with no regard for what may be inside; the title, a famous line from the Declaration of Independence, and the front photo of Benjamin Franklin were enough. Little did I know the author’s foremost love of being an illustrator at the time.

Being a Canadian teenager with a love of American history and politics wasn’t necessarily the most popular ideal growing up. I learned to love it because of my family’s love of all things America—we would visit Florida and various other states multiple times a year for vacations, so I grew up with a deep attachment for the country I considered a second home. For being fifteen, my assumptions of why this book would be in a warehouse rather than prominently displayed at a bookstore chain lied in the fact that this text was, at face value, for Americans. If it’s American, then it isn’t ‘patriotic’ enough to be considered a sellable item in Canada. However, thanks to Maira Kalman, I have a new appreciation of the democracy that lives in me, as a Canadian, just as much as my neighbouring American.

And the Pursuit of Happiness makes me want to learn about the country I live in—it plays with the idea of democracy and how life can be better if we open our eyes to the details and possibilities around us. The book mainly revolves around Kalman’s journey over a year to discover democracy in all its adequacy and inadequacy. Though this yearlong adventure trip took Kalman around different states, her starting point for the book stems from the location of all things American—Washington, D.C. Kalman has an impeccable way of describing thoughts, feelings, and emotions through just a few words on each page—making the imagery she draws the focal point of the book.

Though “The Inauguration. At Last.” is the first chapter of the book, I already felt a sense of pride from the author’s drawings—they are each describing a scene where a motion of change occurs or can occur because of the 2008 presidential election—Barack Obama won, so Americans were entering a different chapter of life. How would this new voting result affect the country already partially divided on cultural issues? As my family and I watched the voting results happen, I was met with various thoughts from all sides of the political border. I grew up in a predominantly Conservative political view—so, the Canadian version of a Republican. I think it’s safe to say that most of my family’s view on the 2008 presidential election was more out of the disappointment of their American “comrade” losing to a Democrat. Since I wasn’t of voting age, I watched more to see the reactions from both my family and the news media. This is another reason why I was so curious to see what Kalman had to say on the idea of American democracy.

That first chapter spoke so much to my masked vision of politics I was so familiar with. The focus of “The Inauguration. At Last.” was simple—the word Hallelujah. Throughout each page, Kalman dove me in, letting me feel like I am alongside her on this journey of discovery. For example, one of the pages involves a straightforward drawing of a pink chair with books stacked on it—the writing is simple, yet prolific regarding the image shown: “Hallelujah for knowledge and for the honor of language and ideas. And books. For Jefferson’s glorious library full of Cicero and Spinoza and Aeschylus and Thomas More and books on bees and trees and harpsichords all intact in the Library of Congress” (Kalman 22). Though the imagery on each page is captivating, it’s simply a starting point of how Kalman’s ideas are portrayed to the reading audience. For me, the inner pages of the book never disappoint from the front cover I was so entranced by.

Even the pages which contain only notes from Kalman are written in such a way that keeps the aesthetic of imagery intact. The author’s approach to democracy is almost like a memoir, especially on the discussion of the goings-on if Kalman knew Lincoln: “I would confess to him that I would love to live in the Lincoln Memorial. Just a simple cot in the center of the space. I would make my bed and sweep. Drink tea. My neatness and happy aspect would amuse him. In the evening I would embroider his words onto fabric. Words that seem so apt today” (Kalman 90).

Through both images and words, Kalman adds a touch of humour in everything she says while still keeping the overall idea of the work intact: will we ever true the true pursuit of happiness?

Where is happiness? What is happiness? What did Thomas Jefferson mean? The pursuit of happiness. I visit Dr. James Watson. Maybe there is a genetic explanation for happiness. And all we need to do is take a pill that puts it into action. I asked him. He could not tell me because no one really knows. And anyway, everyone has to be sad part of the time; otherwise, you would be insane. I looked at him. He takes walks. Plays tennis. He works. He looks at trees. Those are good ways to find happiness. To find peace of mind. Me? I work. And walk. And go to museums. (Kalman 458-461)

Though Kalman spends an entire year investigating American democracy, her happiness still lies in simple things. This ideal spoke volumes to me: though there are many political views and cultural issues around me, I am still Canadian. I still go for walks, play Scrabble, and go on scenic drives around the city I live in. Maybe my idea of happiness isn’t a pursuit. I’m now able to see that my happiness lies in the simple moments that leave a lasting significance as I continue my journey of self-discovery. Thanks to Maira Kalman with And the Pursuit of Happiness, I’m able to see that the freedom to be who I am is what democracy is all about.



Cheyenne Siles was born in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada & graduated from Brock University with a Bachelor of Arts in Writing, Rhetoric, & Discourse Studies. She is a book editor for a ghostwriting company. Cheyenne considers herself to be a driven woman with a love of all things literacy. She also has an Associate of Science in Computer Information Systems. If she isn't editing a book, you can find her reading for leisure, spending time with her husband, or finding new treasures for her skull collection.

Monday, November 8, 2021

M.W. Jaeggle on Denise Levertov


I first encountered the name Denise Levertov when I was in my early twenties. Reading accounts of twentieth-century poetry, I noticed that she was almost always the only female writer linked with Black Mountain Poetry, the influential school of mid-century American poetry centered on Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Levertov was frequently mentioned alongside Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan. Admittedly, this gender disparity didn’t prompt a trip to the library to peruse her writing. It would take her presence in a mid-century educational series to lead me to engaging with her work in a meaningful way.

The 1960s saw the production and release of Richard O. Moore’s USA: Poetry, a documentary series showcasing the work of those that have since become pivotal figures in modern poetry. Episodes were devoted almost exclusively to men: William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, John Ashbery, Robert Lowell, Frank O’Hara, Olson, Creeley, Duncan, and many others were featured. (As of this writing, many of the episodes are available online.) What had me excited about this series when I discovered its existence was the prospect of seeing and hearing Olson read his poetry. What little I knew of the 6’8” man responsible for “Projective Verse,” the 1950 essay-manifesto that declared poetry must be a “high energy-construct” in sync with the kinetic possibilities of the body, had me convinced it would be a lively show. I remember it being just that: Olson gregarious, wide-eyed, loud, perhaps a little bit drunk.

But what made a greater impression was Levertov, the woman spotlighted in the first half of the episode. Unlike Olson, whose reading had linked a voice and face to a name, Levertov’s reading had me enthralled by her words. Sure, I noticed her voice, an English accent through a missing front tooth. I noticed, too, her cat-eye glasses and bee-hive hair. But these things receded from attention when she began reading her poetry, especially when she read the poem “Losing Track.” Here it is in full:

Long after you have swung back

away from me

I think you are still with me:


you come in close to the shore

on the tide

and nudge me awake the way


a boat adrift nudges the pier:

am I a pier

half-in half-out of the water?


and in that pleasure of that communion

I lose track,

the moon I watch goes down, the


tide swings you away before

I know I’m

alone again long since,


mud sucking at gray and black

timbers of me,

a light growth of green dreams drying.

Acknowledging the line breaks and enjambment by slightly pausing or changing her tone, Levertov carried me gently to the poem’s final line. Here, I remember thinking, was a poet who was aware of the tactility of language and the function of the line, how they could be shaped to convey a nuance like the swaying sense of proximity and distance sometimes experienced between people.

Later in the documentary, when Levertov recalls her frustration in being unable to write a poem about the Vietnam War and gestures toward the difficulty of representing violence in a way that satisfies both aesthetic and documentary exigencies, a bitter-sweet feeling washed over me. I was at once disappointed with myself in having repeatedly overlooked Levertov and delighted by the prospect of learning from the work of a technically proficient and politically conscious poet. I remember checking out several of her books from the library, worried that even if the poetry was good my reading would feel like penance for my past inattention. Wonder toward her depictions of the natural world (especially that of the Pacific Northwest), awe toward her intelligence shown in treatment of the Vietnam War and Gulf War, respect toward her honest interactions with doubt and the numinous: these feelings were present while reading her poetry. It would be wrong to describe such an experience as anything like penance.

Immersing oneself in the poetry of Denise Levertov is to become acquainted with a unique creative being, one who consistently brought to her writing a belief in the restorative power of the environment, a deep concern for social justice, and an interest in how people experience wonder, joy, grief, and pain. I return to Levertov often for these qualities, for how her imagery subtly plays with thought and feeling, and because her poems leave my spirit feeling lighter.

I could cite many poems for what they have taught me, but I’ll note one I hold to be among the most important. It’s one of the first poems I encountered by her back in my early twenties. It’s also one of several poems that made me realize reading poetry can be more than an academic exercise. It helped me realize that reading poetry can be a way of being emphatically present in the world. What do I mean by this? I’ll get to this shortly. First, here’s “The Five-Day Rain,” as it appeared in Donald Allen’s influential anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960:

The washing hanging from the lemon tree

in the rain

and the grass long and coarse.


Sequence broke, tension

of bitter-orange sunlight

frayed off.

              So light a rain


fine shreds

pending above the rigid leaves.


Wear scarlet! Tear the green lemons

off the tree!    I don’t want

to forget who I am, what has burned me,

and hang limp and clean, an empty dress –

Levertov creates a scene through unaffected language, then gives us two emphatic imperatives (“Wear Scarlet! Tear the green lemons / off the tree!”) and ends with a self-inquisitive voice. I feel much the same about this poem as I did upon reading it for the first time. The suddenness of the imperatives encourages us to reread the poem and pay attention to what precedes the emergence of a voice concerned with her identity. In my case, I focus on the presence of “washing” in the important first line. Then I note the words “broke,” “tension,” and “pending” as prefiguring the exclamations in the final four lines. Based on these cues, all of which seem to relate to being worn down, I think the poem depicts a woman on the verge of lifelessness, strongly urging herself to wear scarlet and rip lemons off trees to fend off the feeling that domestic life is extinguishing her spirit.

By pointing to the status of women in history in such a compelling way, “The Five-Day Rain” joined a circle of poems that helped twenty-something me realize that the imagination is co-extensive with empathy. To write in such a way as to make a lived reality even partially known is to create an object capable of transforming another person. To be a reader receptive toward this object is to allow another person to become part of your pregiven world, the meanings that underpin your way of being around others. I am grateful to Levertov for helping me come to this realization and for the ongoing nourishment that is her writing. I’m a better reader, writer, and person because of both.





M.W. Jaeggle’s newest chapbook is Choreography for a Falling Blouse (Frog Hollow, 2021). His poetry has appeared in The Antigonish Review, CV2, The Dalhousie Review, Vallum, and elsewhere. He lives in Buffalo, New York, where he is a PhD student in the English department at SUNY Buffalo. He tweets rarely @underapricity

Monday, July 26, 2021

Genevieve Zimantas on Diana Athill

On Not Meeting Diana Athill


Why don't you find a way to get in contact and see if she'll meet with you? My partner asks, after I explain that Diana Athill, aged 99, whose memoir I have just put down on his bed, lives less than an hour’s train journey away and served as Jean Rhys's editor for the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea. It is 2017. I am living in the United Kingdom, writing a graduate thesis on Rhys’s early novels, and using Athill as cheat reading—relevant, but really more for pleasure than study.

The prospect of contacting Athill is thrilling, but I quickly push the idea aside. She feels too known and yet unknowable. She is someone I admire immensely, and yet would be too embarrassed to meet. Not that I would have had a way to contact her, or that she would have met with me.


Throughout much of her life, Athill was exactly the kind of person you would expect to become a literary celebrity. She was of old British stock, solidly middle class. She studied at Oxford in the 1930s and then became, through her work with writers like Rhys, V. S. Naipaul, Molly Keane, Mordecai Richler and more, one of the twentieth century’s most significant literary editors. She was brilliant and stubborn, knowing just when to step in, and when to leave her writers alone, to help them bring their most important works to publication. She published her own works of fiction and nonfiction starting in the 1960s and, though, she did not really experience acclaim until quite late in life, was unwavering in dispelling gestures of pity. “I can't think many centenarians are still living by their pen,” she exclaimed often in later life. I can’t either.

Charming, un-precious, resolutely cheerful, and determined, in sentences as streamlined and ornate as the consciousness they transcribe, Athill’s memoirs detail episodes of heartbreak and triumph, how she had two abortions, when the procedures were still illegal, and later a near-fatal miscarriage. She writes of her long and, at the time controversial, inter-racial relationship with the playwright, Barry Reckord, and how they opened their relationship—or rather he did, with her consent and later encouragement—to a vibrant and intelligent younger woman when Athill gradually, but not too sadly, felt her sexual appetites fade with age.

“Loyalty is not a favourite virtue of mine,” she asserts in one passage, taking her own life as her subject, as Rhys did, and proving herself much more interested in deconstructing social expectations than in conforming to them. Honesty she valued, but not ownership or obligation. “And whereas I was ashamed of my limitations within the office,” she clarifies in Stet, “I was not ashamed of valuing my private life more highly than my work.” She put herself first, not in a selfish, but in a self-respecting, self-affirming way. “That, to my mind, is what everyone ought to do.”


Later that spring and summer, as I completed my work at the university and my Visa permission neared its end, my life pitched into a sudden, if predictable, tumult of despair. I had begun to suspect that academia might not get me where I most want to be and my still-new romantic relationship had begun to feel both impossible and urgently important. I imagined Athill nodding. This is a common enough story. Writing and even reading for pleasure became unbearable, but I kept turning Athill’s pages like life vests that were keeping me afloat. “There was one sleepless night of real sorrow,” she writes of a particular period of change, “but only one night.” My period of sadness lasted considerably longer, but then, just as it had for Athill, “another voice began to sound in my head.” Importantly, not Athill’s but a version of my own.

Athill offers no platitudes. She teaches no lessons, excepting, perhaps, to “avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness.” Her writing didn’t save me, but it provided important perspective and a model for courage when I needed it most. After all, Athill is always fully herself, in her use of language as in the interactions she recounts on the page. No matter what losses she suffers. No matter what does or does not come to pass. And I realised that I would be too: fully myself, not in a philosophical, but in a real and practical sense. Whether the relationship ended or didn’t. Whether I figured out how to write and teach and pursue the life I wanted right away, or not for another fifty years.


I never did meet Athill, of course. Just under a year after leaving the UK, I moved back again, Visa situation (temporarily) resolved and feeling high with recklessness, choosing sex and love and an invigorating sense of self-determination over the safety of academic progression, or even a concrete plan. Athill died in 2019, aged 101.

Shortly after her passing, I made my way to an iconic Cambridge bookstore and picked up a copy of Athill’s final book, having borrowed it from libraries on two continents again and again. The alley onto which the bookstore faces was bright with new green leaves. The gentleman behind the counter accepted my selection with usual reserve, but then caught sight of Athill’s cover and positively beamed. “Have you read her before?” he asked. “She writes the most exquisite sentences.”

He handed me back my change and Athill’s memoir, permission, in my life, to keep reading and writing. More than that, permission never to compromise of the self in between.




Genevieve Zimantas is a writer and educator from Montreal. She holds degrees from McGill University, Dalhousie University, and the University of Cambridge, has volunteered as a correspondent for the OWP, served as an associate editor for the Dalhousie Review, and was the QWF’s 2018 poetry mentee. Her poems and essays have appeared in journals across North America including Event Magazine, Prairie Fire, Contemporary Verse 2, Rhino Poetry, Arc Poetry Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in the United Kingdom.