Marian Engel

Five years ago, Branching Out asked me to write an article on pornography for their law column. The issue was still fairly new on the feminist agenda although some women were beginning to explore and map its ramifications. But it was pre-“Not a Love Story”, the Fraser Commission, and Red Hot Video, so the topic hadn’t yet percolated into mainstream media.

My article was long, tentative, and legalistic. As chair of the Canadian Periodical Publishers’ Association policy committee at the time, I was very wary of existing diverse forms of censorship, the ways in which laws were enforced (viz., against such publications as The Body Politic), and the potential to suppress legitimate expression. So I concluded hesitantly, supporting but not giving the needed precision to the rallying cries of ‘we ought to do something’ and ‘we need to redress the social power imbalance’ or some such thing.

Marian Engel responded. She wrote a lietter articulating her strong opposition to any form of censorship. It affects the literary climate, she argued, and inevitably is used against even such serious Canadian writers as Margaret Laurence. This was the time when chunks of The Diviners were being underlined and displayed in church foyers in southern Ontario. (It was also not that long since the publication of Engel’s own remarkable work of imagina­ tion and fantasy, Bear.)

Time passes; calendar pages flip. Pornography becomes a hotly discussed topic both in feminist circles and in the press. Marian and I find ourselves on a panel, not to discuss pornography but professional writing associations, at the Women and Words conference in Vancouver, June 1983. Sharon Batt, former editor of Branching Out and perceptive gadfly, is in the room and she raises the subject. To our mutual amazement, Marian and I find that we have arrived over the intervening period at identical positions. Still a little uncertain and troubled, we’ve clarified our views to the extent that we both feel that violent pornography in visual media is the place to start. Leave words alone. Do not censor print. But because of the powerful imprinting and role modelling that video and pictorial magazines can effect, where sex is used as a vehicle to promote violence against women, that is where the thrust against ‘hate literature’ should begin. (This position too is fraught as is evidenced by the recent raid of the Ontario Censor Board against A Space Gallery’s videos.)

I’ve been remembering those encounters not only because it’s gratifying to discover a commonality of viewpoint with someone one admires, but also because they are illustrative of Marian’s commitment to writing and to women. She not only reads feminist magazines but will engage with them. She is willing to make herself accessible, as through her presence at Women and Words, talking about writing and motherhood, or in her participation on the panel for the Writers’ Union. And she is one of the few writers of fiction in Canada to tackle feminist issues head on, in such books as The Glassy Sea.

When we decided to do a special issue on Marian Engel, we hardly imagined that it would become a kind of festschrift, that so many writers would greet the undertaking with such enthusiasm, and as an occasion to appreciate Marian’s work. This coupled with Marian’s own graciousness and generosity make it understatement to remark what a pleasure the project has been, a pleasure which we can finally share with you the reader.




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