A recent trip to my doctor’s office yielded something I value greatly — an article that could prompt me to start writing. I had been mulling over how to address one of the main themes of WordCity’s March 2022 edition: living and writing during the pandemic. It was pure luck that while waiting for my appointment I had picked up an issue of Elle Canada from June, 2017 (there was nothing more current, perhaps unsurprisingly). Flipping through this bit of fashion’s old news, I found it: Sarah Laing’s “What A Girl Wants: Could prioritizing the happiness of women save the world?” It’s one of those well thought out articles that ladies’ fashion magazines make a point of including because they reflect the fact that women who look at fashion mags are neither ditzy nor frivolous. As it happens, the article’s contents were not outdated in any shape or form.
In her article, Laing references two books, both published in 2017, both by feminist authors: The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness by Jill Filipovic, and Attack of the 50 Ft. Women: How Gender Equality Can Save The World by Catherine Mayer. These two books cover much of the same ground; both deal with the persistence of gender inequality as barriers to self-actualization. With regard to happiness or that coveted sense of fulfillment, Laing argues that it is unattainable for the majority women under current conditions. She looks at Filipovic’s discussion of structural and institutional barriers, still holding strong in Western countries, that prevent women from reaching their full potential — either because of lack of representation, sexist hiring practices, or the enduring expectation that women remain what Filipovic calls “the sacrificial do-everything-else-for-others types.” Carrying most of the burden of child care and housework is one aspiration-crushing consequence of such attitudes.
Clearly, in an article of this length, Laing couldn’t even begin to assess the quantitative and qualitative impact of gender inequality — along with the vast scholarship that now documents it — on women’s lives; to be clear, I’m referring to patriarchal and binary-type thinking about gender, sex, and the roles invariably allotted to women and men in most societies. To her credit, Laing picks her way across this complex, sometimes barbed terrain judiciously. For example, she defers to Lauren Ravon, director of policy and campaigns at Oxfam Canada. It is Ravon who raised the issue of violence against women, and explained her organization’s Feminist Scorecard, which keeps track of policy-driven progress (or lack thereof) across eight categories measuring different — albeit related — types of oppression. Government initiatives must be multi-pronged, Ravon pointed out; resolving pay inequity, for instance, will generally benefit only a small number of women — those who are educated, relatively successful career-wise, and who are able in the first place to “pay other women to keep their children.”
So far, I’ve attempted simply to provide an overview of Laing’s piece and the issues it foregrounds. I would like to offer some additional comments now, especially as I’m writing this in March of 2022, five years after the publication of Laing’s article, and two years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The questions Laing asks regarding women’s happiness and the conditions that can make it more attainable surely invite elaboration; they are also undoubtedly germane to a magazine issue in which contributors open up about their personal experiences during COVID. One might add here that this issue is the brainchild of a female editor, who is the founding editor of WordCity, a magazine with an all-woman editorial board, whose members hail from nearly every corner of the world. WordCity was born mere months after the start of the pandemic. This is to say that our editorial team had been working with diverse perspectives and experiences from the get-go; WordCity’s editors, and the literary contacts they drew on, were already attesting to the pandemic’s effects on different continents, or countries, and distinct social, cultural, and linguistic milieus. Importantly, many of the accounts we published were marked by women’s sensibilities, as well as by the editors’ and contributors’ various identities as denizens of particular nations, communities, traditions, and socio-economic circumstances.
How is this relevant to happiness or feelings that are predominantly those of satisfaction with one’s life? The particular context of a literary magazine inviting contributions about writing/creating during a period that is globally acknowledged as an emergency must underscore the salient fact that for some people writing is bound up with personal fulfillment — either as a means to economic autonomy or as artistic and intellectual self-expression (or both). This is one reason that Laing’s article functions well as a springboard. It helps us acknowledge that COVID creates a different kind of sociological dimension by disrupting entire populations, on macro and micro levels. Sadly, it’s one that tends to reinforce the small and large ways that many women are denied agency or self-direction — in other words, denied both happiness and wellbeing. This certainly requires grappling with. As I see it, surveys or studies aiming to capture these realities should include women from as many different parts of the world as possible — reflecting on personal experience (as women and creators), as well as the pandemic’s effects on their communities. I attempted to do this kind of work with a Q&A I sent out to my fellow editors. Their answers are reviewed in a corresponding piece I’ve put together for the March issue.
Among other things, I’m interested in expanding on the connection Laing highlights between violence against women and the mitigating effects of female networks (Laing learns from Ravon that “a study about violence against women that was conducted in 70 countries over 40 years found that the strongest indicator of progress in ending the violence is the strength of the local feminist movement”). A two-year-long pandemic, it seems to me, justifies giving attention to what I call the non-economics of trust (see Janet Tai Landa for reference), and ways that symbiotic relationships are operationalized in response to large-scale events via social networks in general, and WordCity’s own female network of editors and contributors, in particular.
There are other ways that lives are profoundly and irrevocably disrupted, of course. Illness is one. Another is war. How profoundly sad it is for me to be writing this editorial with an awareness that Russian aggression is once again threatening international order and stability. However, current events do render timely Maxim Matusevich’s “The ‘Jaws’ of Victory,” a memoir about the early days of glasnost and perestroika (generally pegged to the mid- to late 1980s). Matusevich’s account gives us a fascinating glimpse of what it felt like to be in Russia during what looked like the start of new era in the nation’s history. It was a period of intense excitement and promise. It was — not to inject this point with melodrama — 10 to 15 years of hope that Vladimir Putin effectively extinguished by becoming head of state in 1999.
Cal Freeman’s “A Bird-While” describes a Michigan’s writer’s experience of living through a pandemic winter. This beautiful memoir is a mediation on walking, spring, nature, birds, and Edgar Allen Poe — which is to say, on poetry and meta-poetic prescriptions for writing poetry. “Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen,” Poe declared. “Poe characterizes the raven as ‘the bird of ill-omen,’” writes Freeman, and suddenly we’re in a space infused with ancient myths, magic, and the machinations of a powerful but detached god. It’s hard to tell whether Freeman himself followed Poe’s “anti-romantic” advice in penning this piece, for the ending feels like a sweet surprise for both writer and reader.
Finally, Anjum Wasim Dar and Suzanne Steele describe lives of creativity interrupted by a combination of illness and COVID. The former is a Pakistani writer, while Steele is a Vancouverite. Yet each speaks a universal language expressing multiple kinds of loss. COVID and loss seem to be synonymous.
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Olga Stein holds a PhD in English, and is a university and college instructor. She has taught writing, communications, modern and contemporary Canadian and American literature. Her research focuses on the sociology of literary prizes. A manuscript of her book, The Scotiabank Giller Prize: How Canadian is now with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Stein is working on her next book, tentatively titled, Wordly Fiction: Literary Transnationalism in Canada. Before embarking on a PhD, Stein served as the chief editor of the literary review magazine, Books in Canada, and from 2001 to 2008 managed the amazon.com-Books in Canada First Novel Award (now administered by Walrus magazine). Stein herself contributed some 150 reviews, 60 editorials, and numerous author interviews to Books in Canada (the online version is available at http://www.booksincanada.com). A literary editor and academic, Stein has relationships with writers and scholars from diverse communities across Canada, as well as in the US. Stein is interested in World Literature, and authors who address the concerns that are now central to this literary category: the plight of migrants, exiles, and the displaced, and the ‘unbelonging’ of Indigenous peoples and immigrants. More specifically, Stein is interested in literary dissidents, and the voices of dissent, those who challenge the current political, social, and economic status quo. Stein is the editor of the memoir, Playing Under The Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile by Hernán E. Humaña.
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