Culture & Conversation

Mining for Meaning

Last week as part of the Residual Reading series, Wanda O’Connor introduced two visiting writers to read from their new releases at Drawn and Quarterly. Authors Marguerite Pigeon and Natalee Caple have penned stories with women leads in traditionally male-dominated genres. The first to read was Pigeon, who has written a political thriller set in Central America, while Peterborough-based Caple gave an inspired reading from In Calamity’s Wake, a fictionalization of the life of Calamity Jane.

Pigeon, a former journalist, has drawn on her past work in Central America to create Open Pit, a story of five Canadian human-rights activists who are taken hostage by a former revolutionary in El Salvador. This transpires just as NorthOre, a Canadian gold-mining company, has begun mining operations. The revolutionary is not interested in any kind of ransom. Instead, he wants NorthOre to cease operations so that his family’s remains can be exhumed from the mining site. While the other four activists find the kidnapping traumatic, 50-year-old Danielle Byrd, the main character, finds the situation eerily familiar, as she worked as an embedded journalist during El Salvador’s decade-long civil war.

After the reading, Pigeon said that publishers did not initially warm to Open Pit. The fact that it was a political thriller with a woman lead was not easy. “I had to up the political and thriller aspects to find a publisher,” said Pigeon. For many of us who have worked in Latin America, women human rights activists are pretty common, as are Canadian mining companies operating in countries with questionable human rights records. It would appear that Open Pit has a highly realistic premise, an added plus for any political thriller.

So why was there a reluctance to publish this book? Is it because a woman in a non-traditional role is not a sure sell or is it because the public is not yet aware of the many spheres women successfully work in?

Natalee Caple might argue the latter. The author of In Calamity’s Wake wrote her PhD dissertation on Calamity Jane, and in her research, discovered a lot of things she’d long suspected. “Women occupied a wide range of jobs in the West,” said Caple. However, this fact is not reflected in pop culture. Instead, when we think of women in the wild west, the saloon hooker with a heart of gold and the long-suffering farmer’s wife are the two stereotypes that immediately come to mind. This might also explain why a cowboy film or theme is not always a popular choice. The lack of diversity makes for a highly predictable story. However, according to the author, this too is myth. “The West was a lot more diverse than we are led to believe,” said Caple. There were apparently people of colour in frontier towns, and in Deadwood, South Dakota, a town long-associated with Calamity Jane, there was even a Chinese quarter.

Trying to rectify long-held misconceptions is a gutsy undertaking, but not for Caple. In Calamity’s Wake is the 37-year-old’s seventh book. To move completely away from the male-dominated west scenario, Caple has made bad-girl Calamity Jane and her fictional daughter Miette the two leads, with male characters playing only supporting roles.

What’s next for this trailblazer? “I’m going to write a book about women pirates,” said Caple. “There were a lot of those.” I guess they just never made their way into pop culture.

At any rate, a greater diversity of women characters is always welcome, especially the woman anti-hero.

Heather Leighton blogs at the Unexpected Twists and Turns.

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