The Elders Series

Readings and events guest-hosted by some of our favorite writers who’ve invited writers who influence and inspire them

November 2008 through June 2009

For this special series we have published a limited edition, series of eight perfect-bound books. Each book is an anthology and a conversation between the guest curator and the elder(s) she hosts. Subscriptions to all eight books of The Elders Series are sold out.

2009 marked the tenth anniversary of our mission to promote the work of women writers who are adventurous, experimental, politically involved, multi-form, multicultural, multi-gendered, impossible to define, delicious to talk about, unpredictable, and dangerous with language. Belladonna* has featured over 150 writers of wildly diverse age and origin, writers who work in conversation and collaboration within and between multiple forms, languages, and critical fields. As performance and as printed text, the work collects, gathers over time and space, and forms a kind of conversation about the feminist avantgarde: what it is and how it comes to be. Our anniversary Elders Series is a continuation of this conversation, which highlights the fact of influence and continuity of the ideas, poetics, and concerns we circle through.

The Elder Function

Preface to The Belladonna Elders Series #6

Kate Eichhorn

The Belladonna Elders Series has proven far more controversial than anticipated. Some critics have charged that the term “elder” is inherently ageist. Others have suggested that the structure of the series reifies problematic notions of artistic lineage. A few detractors have even implied that the Elders Series is symptomatic of a generation of writers unable to invent anew, choosing instead to linger indefinitely as a parasitic presence on their “host” (an older and apparently more vital generation of writers). These objections have arrived from critics speaking across generations and genders. But as Belladonna* curators Rachel Levitsky and Erica Kaufman have repeatedly explained, running counter to prevailing definitions in our culture, the term “elder” is neither synonymous with “old” nor does it signify a stable identitary position.

I came to appreciate the complexity of the elder function during one of my first interviews with a writer in the early 1990s. Maria Campbell, a Métis writer and storyteller, had been invited to speak at a Native elders conference hosted by my university. She graciously offered to spare a few minutes of her time but explained that this was an elder’s conference, so I would have to conduct the interview in the presence of her elders, and because they would potentially be better positioned to respond, she might not speak at all. In the end, this was not an interview with an author but rather an encounter with a writer/storyteller speaking amongst others. I had arrived well prepared, or so I thought, to navigate the complexities of power and appropriation this encounter was bound to raise. I left perplexed, wondering whether I had carried out an interview at all (I don’t recall asking any questions). This, of course, is precisely the kind of productive trouble wrought by elders, and for this reason, adopting the category for an avant-garde reading and book series may be surprising, but it is by no means antithetical to the work of a project such as Belladonna*.

Elder, with its radically different ascendency than author, provides an opportunity to pay tribute without demarcating a specific lineage or definitive arrival. Elder and author are both subject positions linked to one’s epistemic status, but the conditions under which they are sanctioned to speak, as well as the extent to which they serve legitimizing functions, differ. Neither are universal nor constant, but unlike the elder, the author is a position that can only be realized through an attachment to a text or body of work. The author functions to legitimize texts, determining where and how they can circulate. By contrast, the elder is determined by one’s interlocutors. Elder is a position marked by relationality and contingency, welcomingly open to error and slippage. Attentive to the rhythms and realities of everyday life, the elder functions across many and varied terrains. Although it may connote “old” to some, understood in a broader cultural context, its connotations also point to collaborative approaches to knowledge, the possibility of narrative(s) circulating without a single author or origin, and understandings of subjectivity that are not inherently bound up in the individual—in many respects, a set of epistemological and narrative practices far more compatible with avant-garde writing than often appreciated. Significantly, the “elders” featured in this volume, M. NourbeSe Philip and Gail Scott, not only speak to such convergences in the interviews that follow but also exploit them in their contributions to this volume.

Reflecting on the experimental writing community’s response to her investigations of imperialism and colonialism through linguistic innovation, Philip observes, “the Caribbean had postmodernism before the so-called postmodern… in terms of things like bricolage and different discourses… [The writing] comes out of the Caribbean where you have all those interruptions historically. Massive interruptions.” Writing from a different geography, but one also profoundly shaped by histories of colonization, Scott’s writing reflects a preoccupation with cusps and peculiar fusions. Her new novel, The Obituary, investigates the necessity and impossibility of dwelling in such sites. Varied and repeated rituals of contact reverberate at the level of the sentence as French expressions seep into English and English dialogue is delivered carrying traces of an Algonquin language. There are many layers and forms of contamination here; Scott has no investment in purities of grammar or genre.

To be clear, neither Philip nor Scott are exclusively interested in recovering histories that have been placed under erasure or crafting narratives that seek to reify fixed identitary positions. Rather, both writers recognize that colonization naturally gives rise to all sorts of fractured subjects, hybrid forms and polyvalent linguistic registers. By coincidence, their contributions to this volume even share some notable similarities. In their new novels, both writers appropriate popular cinematic and literary genres (Philip adopts the mystery novel and Scott uses film noir as a template). These popular genres are brought into contact with linguistic practices and forms filtered through oral traditions and with discourses pilfered from the ubiquitous canon (Philip’s novel is framed by an epigraph from The Tempest; the section of Scott’s novel included in this volume recasts lines from Macbeth). In the way that contact zones often foster narratives marked of interruption, collision and perverse confluences, these texts raise essential considerations about the overlaps between avant-garde writing and some of the other places where fragmentation, parataxis and disjunction are commonplace, and linear narrative and singularity of voice are difficult, if not impossible, to sustain. Perhaps, these surprising parallels reflect the fact that both Philip and Scott write from places where it is more difficult than it is here to ignore the prevalence of such overlaps, reminding us that the centre of Empire has never offered the most critical vantage point. I welcome them to the Elders Series as fellow travellers, and as writers whose work has consistently demonstrated to me the immense possibilities pried open when familiar forms and rehearsed paths through the sentence are ruptured.

The nomenclatural debate over the Elders Series may be partially related to a prevailing cultural myopia in experimental writing communities. It may also reflect a reluctance to recognize the achievements of avant-garde women writers who often continue to write despite their writing having little currency in the mainstream publishing world—the apparatus through which authors are produced and sustained. Extending and responding to Michel Foucault’s theorizing on the author function, Giorgio Agamben observes that “If we call ‘gesture’ what remains unexpressed in each expressive act, we can say that… the author is present in the text only as a gesture” (66), but this “illegible gesture” is what makes reading possible (70). Whereas reading is a possibility opened up by an “illegible gesture,” writing, Agamben suggests, is an “apparatus,” and so too is the entire “history of human beings [. . .] nothing other than the hand-to-hand confrontation with the apparatuses they have produced—above all with language” (72). My own contribution to this volume traces these illegible gestures within a distinctly tenuous apparatus—a community of innovative women writers (not unlike the one in which Belladonna* persists). Naturally, my gestures resist representation, and my community lacks any of the geographic or historical specificity that would make this a proper account. My gestures are knowable only through a series of fleeting choreographed encounters. In this scenario, the “elder” functions as stealth vehicle—author and writer, body and imaginary, site where possibilities are both nurtured and subject to interrogation, reminding us that illegibility saturates history and language.

—Kate Eichhorn March 2009, New York City

Works Cited:

Agamben, Giorgio. “The Author as Gesture.” Profanations. New York: Zone Books, 2007.

Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.