I’ve been thinking of Daphne Marlatt for while now. Partly because I’ve been thinking of the west coast, because I’m longing to go back there, but also because I’m trying to decide how one might explain, or describe Canadian fiction, and to me, Marlatt is an essential element. Somehow I doubt that many would include her in so-called nationalist anthologies—I’m thinking of the Penguin anthology of writing by Canadian women for example. Marlatt is not of the Alice Munro school, nor the Margaret Laurence school, nor the Atwood school, she can’t be linked to Alistair McLeod, or any of the new schools of fiction we see coming out of UBC (thanks to Linda Svendsen and Keith Mallard), or off the Rock (ie: Michael Winter, Lisa Moore), or even out of Banff (where Marlatt has served as poetry faculty). In fact Marlatt is primarily known as a poet. Her experimental novels are considered “difficult.” Yet, I think of her as primarily a novelist whose poetry might be considered “difficult.” At least I have considered it, at various points in my life, difficult. But for arguments sake I would like my parallel point to stand, and to suggest that Marlatt’s influence, quiet as it might be, is as vital as these others I have mentioned above.
But wait, isn’t Marlatt primarily known as a critical writer? A writer for whom the act of writing, from letters to journals, is a continuation or expansion of her work in the way that Nicole Brossard extends her body into the critical world?
No. In fact, isn’t Marlatt most known as a language writer?
Or, isn’t she primarily known as a feminist/lesbian writer?
Marlatt has an uncanny knack for being at the most interesting crossroads in westcoast literature. Her ties to Duncan/Tallman, her friendships with Fred Wah and George Bowering, her presence at the 1983 West Coast Women and Words Conference, her part in Tessera, her connection to Quebecoise and feminist language writing.
My favorite Marlatt work is Taken, a lyrical novel that gets better I think, with each reading, and depending on the companion reads (I’m a big fan of simultaneous reading). The book goes well with Mrs. Dalloway, for instance, Nicole Brossard, Gail Scott or Cixous, but read along side someone like Annie Ernaux (Le Honte…), reveals the latter’s emotional paucity. Partly this is because each line in Marlatt’s work reverberates with a historical/emotional pulse, not unlike a Woolfian line, while a line from Ernaux becomes brittle, snaps under its own craftedness (not craftiness, though what I want to suggest is the attention to thinking, not “knowing”).
Coming into Marlatt is sudden. She condenses, excises, suggests, leaps, allows for many gaps, many generous readings and space, it is a luxurious pace, Taken. There is something so formal about her writing, something of a delicate timber, and yet its power is clear, its force, clear.
Mysterious strength in these ruptures and formality: like Mrs. Richards in Ana Historic Marlatt “can’t quite escape her own conditioning…” and yet it is this narrative impulse that offers the best chance of untangling, and perhaps that is what is most alluring about Marlatt’s work for me: not the sureness of it, but the sense of a self in a whir of fragmented memories. Aware of disconnect.
Daphne Marlatt was recently awarded the Order of Canada for her contributions to our literature.
Daphne Marlatt was born in Melbourne, Australia and spent her formative years in Penang, Malaysia. She immigrated to Canada with her family in 1951. She studied writing and English at the University of British Columbia (B.A., 1964), and comparative literature at Indiana University (M.A., 1968). Marlatt’s work includes numerous published books including: Salvage, Ana Historic, Touch to my Tongue, Steveston and Taken. She is the founding co-editor of Tessera, a magazine that played an important role in sustaining the strong feminist/language discourse in women’s writing in Canada. Marlatt recently wrote The Gull a Noh drama performed in Steveston. Marlatt is a writer whose work resists all categorization.
You can find a good bibliography here.