Canada's Oldest Feminst Mag Explores Canadian Gothic
“Literature, art, and feminism since 1975,” Room claims title to being Canada’s oldest feminist literary journal. Their name comes from Virginia Woolf’s famous essay, A Room of One’s Own, where she states that a woman must have “… a room with a lock on the door if [she is] to write fiction or poetry.”
While unapologetically claiming their feminist agenda – they exclusively publish work by women (with the term including trans persons, gender-variant and two-spirit women, and women of non-binary sexual orientations) – the issue did not feel polemic or political. True to the idea of a room of one’s own, this journal simply feels like a space where, “women can speak, connect, and showcase their creativity.”
Overall, I found this issue to be a well-balanced mix of writing that would appeal to readers regardless of gender. There are twenty-two poems by fourteen poets, nine works of fiction, half a dozen book reviews, an interview, and a couple regular columns. Each quarterly issue is themed. This one was titled “Canadian Gothic.” And, indeed, this issue had a distinct voice and sense of place. Of course Canada is a big, diverse nation and the variety of work in this slim volume certainly did not feel constrained, it was instead, a refreshing take on well-worn gothic tropes.
In the featured author interview, Eden Robinson, says: “[I]n Canadian Gothic, our landscape is our haunted castle. The monster in the background is the sheer scale of non-human landscape surrounding our characters… [O]nce you wander away from the cities, you realize how intimidating our wilds are in scope.”
This description is beautifully delivered on in “The Grange,” a commissioned story by Aislinn Hunter that opens this issue. A woman checks into a refurbished hotel in order to review it. The place is unfamiliar at first, filled with strangers. But, it turns out she has been here before, long ago as a child. Throughout the story she does an edgy dance with memories she would rather not relive, like so many ghosts, they pursue her relentlessly. The hotel sits on the edge of a vast, feral landscape, which looms just beyond the lawns and parking lots offering a kind of uneasy, fathomless solace.
“Insomnia” by Jen Currin is a lively flash fiction piece that opens with “She is gorgeous: Insomnia. She was born one day out of the shadows of my closet.” The narrator goes on to tell the brief biography of this condition – who’s been made literal. As you might imagine, insomnia is not a great roommate. The story includes the delightfully ironic: “After being fired, Insomnia came back to my apartment, back to my bed, and slept. She slept all day, and she slept all night.”
The poetry continued to offer variations on the gothic themes. Maybe because of the mood that the fiction put me in, I was most struck by the poems that spoke to both our interior lives and to the vast unknowable natural world that surrounds us. I especially enjoyed “Clinting in the Woods …” by Cassidy McFadzean, which reads like a weird fairytale and begins:
… I found a pair of velvet-coated antlers,
three fingers reaching from an open palm
still throbbing with platelet’s hot breath
Like a good fairytale, the narrator has wandered into the woods where the divide between human and animal is murky. Despite taking place outside, the tone is dark, visceral, and haunting; a ghost story where you squint into the dark corners but can’t quite parse the ghosts. It concludes with a mysterious transformation.
a harbor seal converges
with an invisible litter
of rings gumming longingly
at the absent necks of beer cans.
Paula Jane Remlinger’s “The Girl Who Dances with Bears” opens with, “Winter is a bear leashed to a rusted chain.” Time, seasons, survival, and captivity are all explored in a kind of serious play in this dense and lovely prose poem.
Four artists are featured, a photographer, a sculptor and two painters. They were all strong choices and the work fit with the theme. Unfortunately, except for the cover, all of the art is in black and white, which was fine for the photography, but the paintings and sculpture were not served so well. I’m assuming the photography is originally black and white, but I don’t know. Overall, the treatment of the art felt reductive, especially since they have a solid website to showcase artwork in full color. If the magazine does not want to go to the expense of color plates, I think they would be better served featuring only artwork that is originally rendered in black in white in their print editions.
Room winds up with half a dozen book reviews of poetry collections along with some small press fiction. These were brief, informative, and passionate – just the right mix to make the reader want to check out these books.
In the end, I found this lit magazine with a specific mission to be generally appealing. Room boldly carves out its place in a large, often too random landscape of general interest literary magazines, and it does so without feeling exclusionary. This is no small accomplishment. And while the print magazine’s circulation may not be enormous, they have a handsome website that features a large selection of work both past and present.
For writers looking to submit their work, this is a specific market. As noted above, they are limited to women (under their inclusive definition), and publish mostly Canadian writers and artists. According to their Poets & Writers listing 90 percent of their content comes from unsolicited submissions. Their general submissions are free but open to Canadians only. They run a variety contests that are open to international writers, but the contest entry fees are steep ($30 and up), even if it does include a subscription to the magazine. Both contests and submissions have rolling reading dates. Check their website for guidelines and submission dates and stick around to read from their archive to get a sense Room’s distinctive voice.