Saturday, May 22, 2010

Barbara Godard (1941-2010)

A remarkable and inspiring intellectual, translator, academic, editor, and teacher, I feel privileged to have known and been a colleague of Barbara Godard.

I wish I could say that I worked very closely with Barbara over the years but, despite having many literary enthusiasms in common, as it happened most of our initial interactions were at a slight distance. For example, I regrettably didn't have the chance to take classes with her, or have her as part of a supervisory committee while a graduate student at York (although she did send me a lengthy and kind email after I defended my dissertation on Coach House Press, detailing some of things I might be interested in investigating further regarding the CH translation series and her willingness to guide me). After I joined York as a faculty member, however, I began to work with Barbara on a more frequent basis, initially on departmental business (I treasure another email that she once sent me complimenting me on some comments I made a meeting that I was feeling a bit embarrassed about at the time ... If you know me, you know I'm not overly vocal at meetings, so Barbara's gesture meant a lot), and later we had several conversations about Open Letter (ex. the Ray Ellenwood festschrift, the recent feminist poetics issue, and possible future issues). My fondest memory, however, is probably our trip to the Windsor Bookfest where we spoke on a panel on translation, and over the weekend there finally had a chance to talk candidly about many issues, including our admiration for Mallarme and bpNichol, as well as discussing her efforts at a troublesome translation in which she was attempting to find the proper French equivalent for "roadkill."

A few posts ago, I commented on feeling that I didn't work hard enough at my writing in reference to Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, but if one really wants to be put to shame, one need only look at the accomplishments of Barbara. This website is still in progress, but if you click on the translation and publication links you'll see the astonishing amount of work Barbara accomplished over the years. At the funeral yesterday Ray told an amazing anecdote about being graduate director and noticing that not only was Barbara supervising more students than any other individual faculty member in the department, she was supervising more than all the faculty members combined!

But it is not just the quantity that is remarkable, it is how important and influential her writing has been. For example, Barbara's translation of L'Amer as These Our Mothers, was the text that first got me excited about Nicole Brossard and, to my mind, is one of the most adventurous and innovative acts of French to English translation produced in this country. Similarly, I was thrilled to finally sit down last Autumn with the hefty and consistently-challenging collection of Barbara's academic writing, Canadian Literature at the Crossroads of Language and Culture.

What stays with me most from this collection is the introductory interview with Smaro Kamboureli, where Barbara recounts her efforts to create many of the subject areas in the academy that we now take for granted. It enlightened me as to how different the academic landscape was back in the 1970s, and how many of the fields that I currently work in wouldn't exist to the same degree without Barbara's contributions. What I mean is that I realized how pivotal she was in defining and constructing the discourses of Contemporary Canadian Literature, Literary Theory, Translation, and Women's Studies, in the academy and in this nation as a whole.

At the same time, the interview suggested how difficult this task was, how antagonizing the academy and its administration can be, how quickly these discursive victories can be eroded, and how we need to be constantly vigilant. Since reading that introduction I've often thought about how the academic terrain has shifted detrimentally and how there are still struggles underway. Considering a few of the areas that Barbara was most passionate about, in recent years I've been witness to attempts to amalgamate Canadian Studies into North American Studies, and seen Canadian Literature courses move from being mandatory to barely optional. I've watched the Harper government cancel funding for women's organizations and attempt to reposition the abortion debate, as well as seen many academic institutions diluting Women's Studies into Gender Studies. Similarly, fewer incoming graduate students appear to be interested in theory and less grants tend to be awarded to theoretical projects by government agencies. And, after all the efforts Barbara made over the years to introduce Quebecois literature to English Canada, when was the last time that you saw an anthology of "Canadian" writing that included both English and French Canadian writers in one volume?

Barbara's passing has made me realize how grateful I am for the work she accomplished, how my intellectual life has been enriched by her pioneering investigations, and has reminded me that, in being inspired by her example, I need to redouble my efforts to sustain the discourses that Barbara fought so hard to develop.


margaret christakos said...

A very generous and appreciated entry, Stephen.

Stephen Cain said...

Thanks Margaret--I'll keep posting news of memorials for Barbara and other notices such as this: