Lately, Canadian woman writers have been assigned a new, maddening writing prompt – that is, the telling of their stories of abuse. In the case of the Concordia University scandal, the first of these was Emma Healy’s, published in 2014 with the title “Stories like Passwords.” The essay describes an abusive romantic relationship she had with a faculty member of the school’s Creative Writing Department, and with it, she initiated a discussion that frustratingly took years (and a male voice) to truly ignite. The writing and sharing of these stories is deeply impressive - they are personal and visceral and brave, though most importantly, they ask too much of survivors.
Women are tasked with their own representation because they are failed on so many fronts – by the police system, the courts, and countless other institutions presumably meant to protect them. When these mediating entities fail to react, women are forced to transcend them, and bare themselves in speaking directly to the public through various channels such as online publications, blogs, and twitter, where informal testimonies are expected to bear an institutional burden. We’re observing what happens when the prevalence of sexual assault outpaces the systems supposedly meant to expose and incriminate it. Remember: Harvey Weinstein, the man whose downfall signifies the destructive (read: constructive) power of the #MeToo campaign, didn’t fall because the Weinstein company found out he was a sexual predator. He fell because we found out. And we found out because women spoke to us directly, without the protection of anonymity that is so often granted to the accused, and in so doing took countless personal risks, from reigniting trauma to suffering losses large as their work, their aspirations, their very livelihoods. The good news is that the public is listening. The bad news is that women continue to bear the procedural responsibility for what has happened to them. Women should not be forced to broadcast their stories. Women are not a legal system.
Women feeling they have no other option but to represent themselves further reinforces their vulnerability in a society where their livelihood is often already precarious. Those who have been victim to it tell us that Concordia’s Creative Writing department has been a breeding ground for toxic, abusive behaviour since the eighties. Now we ask: what made this untouched, entrenched patriarchy possible? Writers often accept the conceit that their labour is steeped in a higher purpose than that of others; writing is no mere job, but a truth-pursuit. But everything is written within a marketplace – rarely is something published before it interacts with one or several funding bodies. Literary culture is mired in the machinery of marketing, promotion, prizes, awards, and brand recognition, and in the end, consists of people trying to survive. Too often, when we talk about literature and writing, we talk about examining and enriching life. Perhaps for the moment, we should talk about the material concerns of the writer, or, to be more succinct – the member of the precariat.
The ‘precariat’ refers to the swelling population of those in precarious work, which is the result of changing means of production, deindustrialization, outsourcing, the decline of unions, and a shift from full-time, salaried work to flexible arrangements with weak to non-existent protections for workers. The principal psychic state of a member of the precariat involves a deepening feeling of insecurity and uncertainty, because those exchanges that fund and ensure their survival are scarce and temporary. Writers are, and always have been, members of the precariat - they have no protections or full-time work, and as such are most often beholden firstly to government grants, but also to other nebulous dependencies on individuals with social and cultural clout within the literary community. This is not a meritocratic system - in Canlit, power still equals publication, and the power still largely remains in the hands of men. When opportunities for funding are precarious in particular for those who are not white men, we lay the grounds for exploitation. According to Judith Butler, “precarity names both the necessity and the difficulty of ethics”.
In early January, Mike Spry published a blog post titled “No Names, Only Monsters” which details the behaviour of self-important, inappropriate literary men (a sadly unremarkable trope) who preyed upon their students. Spry was a Creative Writing student himself, and allegedly not only observed the power dynamics within the department, but participated in and benefited from them too. While Spry's seemingly accountable and confessional article belatedly incited national attention, still we must read between the lines. Nameless professors requested meetings off school grounds, pressured women into drinking, booked hotel rooms to coerce them into, and created various situations that may not fit the conventional definitions of rape or assault but still reflect a gendered power dynamic that makes women sexually vulnerable. These relationships are further complicated by the nature of the work which itself is highly personal, which further blurs professional boundaries, and makes them easier to cross. The power these literary men yield over their students is exceptionally dangerous for women whose bodies, attention, and besideness are available as both product and object.
Spry claims that students were harassed, but remained silent for fear of losing a grade, a recommendation, or an internship at the professor’s publisher. This is to say that writers keep quiet because they fear the loss of scarce professional opportunities. Spry goes on to say that ‘‘within the dynamic of Canlit, the established own the aspiring.” This ownership is increasingly facilitated by the haunts of precarity, and is all too reflective of inequality in our society at large. The threat posed by the loss of opportunity should not be underestimated, especially for women and other minorities; it’s a threat that influenced how women navigated Concordia’s Creative Writing Department, and kept them silent. The calculations surrounding telling your story of abuse are complex, and intimate, and too often include matters of survival.
We have no idea how many female voices we’ve lost to the state of our literary scenes. Our women writers “have been lost before they could be found, and encouraged,” to use a sentiment expressed by Adrienne Rich in her poem “A Poet Needs to Know.” The infuriating truth is that our women are burdened by the fact and the writing of their stories of abuse, while men remain voraciously productive, likely fuelled by the feminine energy in their lives. In failing to protect and project the voices of women, we are impoverishing ourselves as a country and as a culture. As precarity continues to define the lives of so many, let’s mourn how often we are misshapen by our economic reality, and work towards healthy dependencies upon one another. Let our women tell stories that call for a better future, not ones that expose a dreadful past.
Rebecca Dawe is an occasional writer currently organizing her furies and living in Berlin.