Breathing into the Canon
ONE YEAR OF FEMINIST READING
Did you know that a book has a head, spine and tail? A back, and also joints
Some say, books even have shoulders and faces
Books as bodies
Bodies that are born and age
Bodies being carried around through time
Surviving, disappearing, dying
Transcending through writing
New generations adding up
Unceasingly more bodies
Manically and obsessively: we need to write this body down!
Written bodies of all kinds
Stored in libraries and archives
Many thrown away
Some burnt, some saved
From trash hills, flea markets, attics
All those bodies, all that writing
Too many thoughts that don’t want to die
In the summer of 2017, I organized a small side project called OpenCanon.  The idea was to collect pictures of readers with books that had been important to them in relation to the subject of gender. In spite of what the title of the project might insinuate, the purpose of the project was not the creation of an anti-canon based on the topics of gender or feminism. Rather, OpenCanon was a way to start a conversation about these topics, and more specifically, open a conversation around the canons we make for ourselves: the self-compiled, ever changing list of books that we feel close to, relate to and need to have around in order to survive.
The word ‘survive’ might sound dramatic, but books have literally saved me from several unpleasant human conditions, such as boredom, ignorance, broken hearts, depression and menstrual cramps. Sometimes, I go on a strike and read, just to oppose the pressing expectation of being resilient and to remind myself that salvation is but an arm’s length away. During those striking days, you will find my body reclined in a couch or bed, motionless, reading the weirdest books.
Reading as resistance is a way of being generous with time. Or, as the writer Ali Smith puts it, “Books themselves take time, more time than most of us are used to giving them. Books demand time. Sometimes they take and demand more time than we’re ready or yet know how to grant them; they go at their own speed regardless of the cultural speed or slowness of their reader’s zeitgeist”.
One thing I especially like about books is that you can put them down. We can reach out to them, without being afraid that they will invade or control our lives or even our senses. However, not all books reach back to us. I remember reading The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, and how deeply I started hating the book. I hated the characters and the world they inhabited – a place where everyone seemed to be desperately boxed in by psychological games. I know it is a bestseller and that many people love Franzen (and especially this book), but sometimes we just need to accept a fact when we feel it: This book is not the depression I need right now.
What is a canon?
When I concluded that whatever I was feeding myself wasn’t nourishing me anymore, I decided to visit a doctor. The doctor listened to my story and advised me to see a psychologist, but I wasn’t wild about the suggestion. The prospect of more talking and self-reflection felt claustrophobic. So I asked her what she thought of ‘feminist reading’ as therapy. It’s cheaper, and you don’t have to make appointments, I said. She laughed. I haven’t seen her since.
According to Oxford Thesaurus dictionary of English, a canon is defined as a list of works by a particular author or artist which is recognized as “genuine”. What is meant by this is that these works are “truly what they say they are”. As in, they are “authentic”, “sincere”. It is true that dictionaries tend to be slightly pompous, but such claims are not only laughable, they are also violent. Imagine them making that selection. Two towers of books piling up: one with the genuine books, another one with what? A bunch of lies? Next thing you know, you hear someone shouting at you: “Here, an important book! It is a genuine one. You should read it. You should love it.” Maybe that is where the problem starts; people and things telling you that you should love it, that loving it is the goal. Under this relentless siege of voices, it makes sense that the idea of a canon is not only confusing, it’s troublesome. Wherever you walk, it becomes clear: this world belongs to certain prominent voices; a list of already set preferences, a clear notion of what is seen as “genuine”.
Finding good literature is like finding good friends. It's not easy, and it might take a while. Also, books change, just like people. Naturally, ‘good literature’ means different things to different readers. For me personally, I found many of my friends in the feminist department, and it happens to be that I lean towards women writers who are vocal about liking other women. Because yes, indeed, and thank you, Virginia Woolf: “Sometimes women do like women”. Once I discovered how important it was to insist on this interest in womxn,  I realized how tiring it was to follow up on things I was expected to find interesting but didn’t find interesting at all. In that sense, OpenCanon grew out of the realization that if one’s curiosity is in danger, you might actually be in danger yourself.
Reading of books as a public project
When I think of canons, I also think of preference and taste. A teacher that I admired once told me that becoming an artist comes down to the passionate development of one’s own taste to the point where one can trust it. I think that’s a wonderful thought, but what is one’s own taste when so much of taste stems from things one doesn’t agree with? Strangely enough, there might also be some kind of relief in the thought that elsewhere, they know things better. Because, honestly, who wants to be held entirely responsible for their own taste? Or, rather, who believes they can be held accountable to such degrees? All individual liberties aside, there is something both substantially social and generous about loving the books that have been loved by other humans before us. Or even to praise something collectively, instead of holding personal taste to its highest account. That being said, your taste will change depending on how you navigate your personal canon. Accountability in that sense comes down to a willingness to allow change to take place – to make space for it. The fact that you are not entirely responsible for your own taste doesn't mean that you shouldn't be critical of the books you surround yourself with. If you have never read a book written by a womxn and/or a person of color, then you have work to do.
When the official canon meets the personal canon meets the critical view, a conversation takes place. It is against this backdrop that I would like to propose a more intimate understanding of how books influence the way we (the people who are privileged by the skill of reading) walk through life and, more importantly, how our efforts to read not only influence our perception and imagination but also leave significant traces in the lives of people around us. As in: we do not only read for ourselves but also for others – and for the times and the people to come. When the reading of books is approached as a public project, it is easier to undermine the exclusive parameters that are built into any kind of canon-making. When we collectively read and read beyond the constraints of a fixed canon, we expand the notion of what it is to have a worldview. The act of reading does not only provide food for the individual mind, it nourishes the collective one. Which leaves me with the following questions: How do we get to the books we’ll end up loving, the ones that bring us life? Which books will we read again and again, so that a next generation will read them as well? How do we pass on books and make sure they are not merely known but also actively read? How are books being passed on already? Can the canon be changed by the collective act of reading itself? Or am I just an idealist?
It is confrontational when you think of gender in relation to the Western canon and one’s personal history to reading. The first significant book I read that was written by a woman was Het Achterhuis by Anne Frank. I must have been eleven when I found the dusty copy on a bookshelf in the attic. My mother told me that she had read it as a teenager, which gave it a certain status of excitement considering that the teenage years were still something to look forward to. One of the images imprinted in my brain shows the hiding place behind a bookcase: Anne being hidden behind books, sitting in her room writing her book, her thoughts, her world, her-story.
Later, when I became a lazy teenager and only read books when it was expected of me, I don’t remember ever discussing female authors in literature class – except for one Flemish beguine called Hadewijch who wrote mystic poetry in the Middle Ages and who spoke about God as if she was having an intense love affair with him. Brave New World, Animal Farm, Haroun And The Sea Of Stories were all wonderful books, but obviously they are all written by men. No one seemed to be bothered by this. No one rebelled, everyone (including myself) accepted this as normal.
But what is normal? In my early adult years, I discovered Jeanette Winterson, who at that point already belonged to an Anglo-Saxon contemporary canon, but at the same time felt to me like an entirely new voice. She became my on-the-road-companion and the first writer who made me aware of the relation between gender, writing and imagination. When a colleague introduced me to Written on the Body, a most beautiful love story told by a narrator whose gender is undefined, I couldn’t resist falling in love with that colleague. This might be because I find it hard to separate people from books, and books from life, as an immediate intimacy is often created between people simply because of a shared love for a particular book or author. Sometimes, a book presented as a gift also turns the person presenting it into a gift. Of course, we might at times change our minds about gifts. I did change my mind about Jeanette Winterson several times, and so I did about the person I fell in love with.
Sometimes you need more time – sometimes years
After that, there was a period where all my peers read nothing but theory. Fiction, it seemed, was something to hide under your bed. I remember finding guilty pleasure and even comfort in No One Belongs Here More Than You, the quirky short stories by Miranda July. When you simply like something, there is an immediate reflex in thinking of it as trivial. Actually, it was July who lead me to the writing of Lydia Davis. After hearing July in several interviews repeatedly referring to Davis as an inspiration for her own writing, my curiosity was piqued. This points towards another important part of discovering one’s personal canon: writers are gatekeepers for other writers – simply by mentioning and crediting their influences. Reading Davis was like maturing, or better, it was like moving on. The Collected Stories Of Lydia Davis and her one and only novel The End Of The Story became landmarks in my personal canon. In the latter, Davis’ metaphysical investigation about how we remember our past loves will resonate in many female identifying minds who are often judged as being ‘overly analytical’. It turned personal analysis into poetry and vice versa. Her novel even convinced me to start reading In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. Davis did the last translation, and it’s interesting to see how Proust’s style echoes in her own stories. I think it is in those echoes, translations, adaptations and transformations that canonized writers might make sense again and might be passed on. That said, In Search of Lost Time is still lying on my bedroom table.
Sometimes the canon remains too far removed. Sometimes you need more time – sometimes years. Putting down a book – temporarily or forever – belongs to the act of collective reading.
Sitting through someone listing all the books that in one way or another were meaningful to them might be tiring. It’s like listening to someone telling you their dreams: it’s too personal, too anecdotal, and even with the best effort still feels entirely unrelated to you. It’s hard to care. But seen in a different way, it may also be an invitation to take a better look at the books in your own life. When I did this exercise prior to the doctor’s advice, the conclusion was clear: I needed a radical shift.
Making your own personal canon is about discovering interests; it is about recognizing your needs; and yes, it is also about developing your own taste. When I began to see reading as nourishment – an act of resistance and healing – it made total sense to me to stop reading male authors, at least for a while. Another person might need another kind of detox to keep their sanity, but this was the one that suited me. In order to build new intellectual, psychological and imaginative synapses, I turned to female writers who had an interest in questioning the world from a gendered perspective. And for once, it did feel like the world could shift.
“Words can pick you up when you are down”
In my one year of feminist reading, my understanding of reading changed entirely. Every single book that I would encounter was a stepping stone to another one. It was like shaping an undercurrent logic, one that was based on intuitive leads and insider suggestions. Most feminist writers will refer to other feminist writers because they know that if they don’t do it, no one else will do it for them. It’s a way of building an alternative canon, a legitimation of the feminist lineage from a place that is still seen as the margin. Feminist writers live off feminist writers. Or as Sara Ahmed puts it: “You need your feminist books close to hand; your feminist books need to be handy. You need to take them with you; make them with you. Words can pick you up when you are down. And note: it is often books that name the problem that helps us handle the problem. Kick-ass feminist books have special agency, all of their own. I feel propelled by their kick.”
My first real feminist kick came from the writer, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit. Men Explain Things to Me is by now a well-known collection of short essays, and I can imagine how this book might have been a new starting point for many other (re-)awakening feminists as well. The book contains one of the boldest statements on gender: “Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender.” It’s a statement, which I imagine, many will be provoked by, but when reading Solnit’s thorough argument, I am not sure how one would reason against it.
Solnit, I would say, is one of Virginia Woolf’s gatekeepers as she mentions the modernist pioneer in several of her books. When I read Woolf’s famous essay, A Room of One’s Own, I was reminded of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Of course, I was aware of Jane Eyre – already part of other canons – but I would never have read it unless someone had framed it as part of a feminist lineage. When I then read Woolf’s Orlando, a novel that is often described as a story about gender fluidity avant la lettre, I was again reminded of Jeanette Winterson. It had been a decade since I read her, and so with new eyes I picked up The Passion. The text immediately felt both familiar and alienating. It indirectly brought me back to an older version of my reading self, as if I was almost literally picking up a past passion. The rediscovery of Jeanette Winterson brought me – again, because of a cross-mentioning – to Ali Smith. One day, Smith’s collection of short stories, Public Library and Other Stories, lay on my desk. It was another gift, not only a metaphorical one. My partner had seen me pick up the book and put it back, and being a more impulsive book-buyer, made the decision for me. And so, on one of my striking days, I read Public Library and Other Stories, and I was sold.
Allowing the body to breathe more voices
Since then, my personal canon has kept expanding. It's funny how books keep appearing in your line of vision for a while before they decide to jump into your hands. I start my canon with everything I’ve read. Then it becomes a list of the books that have stuck around for reasons beyond any conventional notion of ‘quality’. It’s an open, unfinished list, often linked to personal anecdotes. There is a summer with the page-turner Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There is a winter with the science fiction stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, who wrote the wonderful sentence: “Truth is a matter of imagination”. There are nights with The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson and thoughts about processes of transformation. There is a train ride with Zwijg, Allochtoon! by Rachida Lamrabet and its layered, yet personal analysis concerning a Belgian law criminalizing women who wear a burqa. There is breakfast with Niemand zal hier slapen vanacht by Rachida Aziz, a book that has supported a further understanding of what it means to think ‘intersectional feminism’ in Belgium.
Yesterday, I received a belated birthday present from one of my closest friends. It was Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks. Starting to read the book while finishing this text, it reminded me of how we nourish and how we create. In the same way as the books and authors I mentioned above, hooks’ words have a place in me. They belong to my thinking and my views, to my sensorial experiences and imagination, to my subconscious, my dreams, and also to my physical body. It’s like breathing. If we allow the body to breathe more voices, then indirectly we make the canons breathe as well.
Go back to the beginning of a book by remembering its movement
Two hands and the weight of pages
There it is, body to body, opening up and unfolding
Quietly with calm. Word by word, on every single page
As if all these centuries of frantic writing are about to settle down
Gracefully and exclusively. For you only, the reader
A book in print, what a gift. I know that trees are precious
But I need to touch these bodies of words
I want to lie with them, on my lap and on my chest
I want to store them on a shelf nearby, within reach
Just close enough to know that they are there
My books, my shelf, breathing
- ^ https://www.instagram.com/opencanon/
- ^ Urban Dictionary defines womxn as follows: A spelling of "women" that is a more inclusive, progressive term that not only sheds light on the prejudice, discrimination, and institutional barriers womxn have faced, but to also show that womxn are not the extension of men (as hinted by the classic Bible story of Adam and Eve) but their own free and separate entities. More intersectional than womyn because it includes trans-women and women of color.