1820 Caring ferociously
A Sentimental Education
by Hannah McGregor
Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University, 2022
$24.95 / 9781771125574
Reviewed by Suzanne James
In her introductory “Author’s Note,” Hannah McGregor half-apologizes/half-explains this work, a collection of essays which blends memoir, “collective feminist meaning-making” and – most significantly – a discourse on what it means to care “deeply” and “ferociously.” In these personal (and at times confessional) essays, narration is creatively intertwined with reflections on popular culture and explorations of theoretical concepts. Although the writing occasionally becomes unwieldy, and the deliberate conflation of prosaic/personal concerns with a socially progressive and culturally sensitive theoretical positioning may seem forced, for the most part these essays effectively straddle the domains of academic and popular discourse.
After her brief author’s note, McGregor opens, not surprisingly, with a “Territory Acknowledgement.” Of course, given her position as a white settler, the author cannot not identify the specific Indigenous rights to the land on which she lives and works. Yet producing an effective statement of land acknowledgement – one which demonstrates the speaker’s genuine commitment and is fresh enough to be heeded by a reader – can be a daunting task. McGregor handles this challenge by shifting the focus to herself and her heritage. After listing the unceded territories on which she writes, she declares: “But what good is it for me to say so?” and “what is my relationship to this land? How did I get here, and what am I doing with my presence?” What follows is a fascinating account of her familial roots, hearkening back to the homes of her grandparents (Russia and Scotland) and to the places she has called home: Ottawa, Edmonton and now Vancouver. And although she addresses the “impossible contradiction” of living as a white settler on unceded Indigenous lands, McGregor chooses to ground her writing in personal experience, arguing that one must do so in order to honestly confront the legacy of colonization.
The “sentimental education” of the work’s title is introduced in the first essay, and then becomes a recurring motif in the collection. Although an allusion to Flaubert’s novel is implicit, McGregor is more concerned with sentimental narratives in British and North American culture, and with sentimentality as a general mindset. Refreshingly, she becomes less self-conscious and self-judgemental in this essay, allowing herself to relax into reminiscing about books she read as a child – about the appeal of Pride and Prejudice, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women and The Little Mermaid, for example. McGregor confronts the classicism, heteronormativity and underlying racism in these texts, admitting that her almost gluttonous embrace of their idealized worlds leaves her “deeply implicated.” Yet rather than “trying to decide if sentimental stories are good or bad” she opts “to dwell, instead, in the gloriously messy process of collective meaning-making.”
In the next essay in the collection, “Caring Ferociously,” McGregor returns to the traditional ground of memoir, exploring her relationship with her mother and her path to self-identification as a “feminist, and as a woman who is fat and white, queer and asexual.” Following this, “# Relatable” extends the Bildungsroman motif to a discussion of her engagement with social media and memoir writing, practices which may be considered both anathema to traditional scholarly discourse and an essential part of the “intimate public spaces” essential to feminist community building. McGregor opts for the potential of social media and the “relatability” of an online self, though not without ambivalence.
“Words with Friends and “Getting to Know You” provide a fascinating insider’s perspective on podcasting. Along with her friend Marcelle Kosman, McGregor prepared her first podcast in 2015, an experience which drew her into the “pleasures and risks of digital life-writing.” Although these two essays are replete with the rhetorical questions we have come to expect from this author, they also exude a quiet confidence and a joy in recounting the delights, challenges and learning experiences of creating several successful podcast series.
McGregor closes this relatively short collection (140 pages, plus notes) with a personal essay (“Coming Back to Care”) grounded in her own body and sexuality, and with a discussion of how we envisage care in an ethical context, of the problematic institutional context of unreasonable demands for caring involved in emotional labour, and of an imagined care “as tending and as attending to.”
In spite of a few initial reservations, I found myself closely “attending to” McGregor’s essays. During my initial reading of the Author’s Note and the opening essay, I was very aware of her repeated, self-conscious positioning as a white settler, alongside her obvious anxiety about whether one can identify as such without being offensive and insensitive, and I was concerned that this would dominate the collection and stifle her voice. But her words transcend these potential constraints and once I reached the end, I returned to the opening pages, happily rereading McGregor’s essays with renewed appreciation.
Suzanne James has taught at UBC Vancouver since 2006. Prior to this she worked and lived in Bucharest, Dar es Salaam, and rural Zimbabwe. Suzanne teaches literatures of migration, African literature, children’s literature and contemporary Canadian writing. When not working at the university, Suzanne can be found reading to her cat, trekking in Nepal, or haunting bookstores in Cape Town.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
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