I returned two books to the library yesterday; The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon and The Selector of Souls by Shauna Singh Baldwin. At first glance you’d think the books couldn’t be more different. Lyon’s story of Aristotle’s daughter Pythias, set in ancient Greece just after the death of Alexander the Great, is written with her usual spare style – clear direct sentences, simple telling details, gaps in the narrative that often reveal more than the narrative itself. Baldwin’s epic story of two Hindu women – one seeking escape in the Catholic church, the other with one braceleted arm reaching out to the Sikh community – is twice as long and stuffed with description, characters, scenery and almost all the issues of twenty-first century India: domestic violence, the killing of infant girls, abortion rights, religious strife, AIDS, Hindu nationalism, test bombs, and terrorism.
But they are both stories of women struggling to find a way to live their own lives in a time and place that refuses to see past the fact of their femaleness and subsequently shuts down most options. When they either lose or leave the patriarchy that both supports and oppresses them, they try on different guises to determine which suits them best. Or rather, which guise allows them to be themselves. They are all women of great resourcefulness and courage. They are both books worth reading.
In a Globe and Mail article, Annabel Lyon wrote: “Sometimes it seems there are only two veins in ancient storytelling left to be mined: the parodic and the morally righteous. We enjoy clever anachronism or historical revisionism….We also enjoy the sensation of moral superiority we gain by looking back at less enlightened times. Weren’t women treated horribly back then! Wasn’t that outrageous!”
The same can be said of stories we read about countries like India. We lament the injustice and feel at least a twinge of righteousness. But on December 6, we would do well to swallow that feeling. On that day in 1989, 14 women were killed at the École Polytechnique in Montreal:
- Geneviève Bergeron (born 1968), civil engineering student
- Hélène Colgan (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
- Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
- Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
- Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student
- Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student
- Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk
- Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student
- Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
- Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student
- Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student
- Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
- Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student
- Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (born 1958), nursing student
Marc Lépine killed them he said, because they were women. He did not know his victims. But most assaults against women are carried out by men they do know. In fact, one or more women are killed every week in Canada by their husbands, boyfriends or former partners.
There is a pivotal scene in Baldwin’s novel where the women of the community bring a female god out of her cave and insist their husbands listen to what she has to say. Because the women have united across caste and religious divisions, they are able to reveal that the men are often as oppressed by community expectations as the women are. Entrenched traditions begin to shift.
Our efforts to change thinking around gender roles and around domestic violence are continuing; stories like Lyon’s and Baldwin’s are welcome additions to this discussion.