Nonfiction Review by Tanis MacDonald

Christina Baillie and Martha Baillie, Sister Language (St. John's: Pedlar, 2019). Paperbound, 217 pp., $24.

Sister LanguageYou could describe Sister Language in many ways, and all of those ways would be as right as they are wrong. The book is a joint project between two sisters who are writers: the novelist Martha Baillie and her prolific poet sister Christina. Martha is a published writer, Christina is not; yet it is Christina’s writing—her poems and her theories about meaning-making and language as an entity—that takes the lead in the exchange between the sisters, as they present to each other (as to us as readers) not only drafts of their work, but also a heartfelt discussion of what language does for and to them. This capacious dialogue
shapes Sister Language into its fascinating form: part archive,
part “agreement of desires,” and part ongoing family discussion about
how to listen to each other.

We could call the book a meeting of the minds, a literary partnership, or a “playful duet” as Kyo Maclear’s back-cover blurb suggests, but Sister Language is most importantly a conversation with a sense of its own splendour and scope, always supplemental to itself. A book as generous as this one makes a welcome change from other writers’ sometimes-sparse discussions of creative process, and seeing the permission these sister-writers give each other as they spool out discussions of their work is one of the many pleasures of this book. Another way to describe Sister Language would be to call it a guided walk through the creative archives of two writers, with the bonus of listening to them discuss their doubts and discoveries in loving and copious detail.

Drawing from decades of her poems and other experimental writing pulled from various binders and boxes and folders, Christina muses at length about what powers her own writing, noting early in Sister Language that she is restraining herself, or at least retraining herself to focus on writing to and for her sister: “I’m writing for our conversation rather than going wild with the possibilities of language in total isolation.” Isolation, literal and historical, is a complication in this book: a personal gap to be bridged and an artistic position to be defended. Martha notes that she and her sister have agreed “to discuss language, the many ways it rescues and fails” Christina in particular, but it’s not long before Martha begins to add her own concerns about failing at and being failed by language. Her reticence, what she calls
her “law-abiding, linguistic prudery,” is thrown into sharp relief by Christina’s fierce language play in which she wants nothing less than to immerse herself fully in the “linguophagous am.” While the book starts with Christina’s sense that her connections with language are more reliable on a day-to-day basis than her relationships with most other human beings, the book’s concerns are both broad and deep: like a box stuffed with papers, bristling with the many attempts at a long conversation about language as generative, and evidence also of the two humans who undertake that conversation.

Christina’s typed and handwritten letters, meticulously reproduced complete with xxxxing out and scribbled clarifications in the margins, enhance the book’s archival tone. The distinction between the two writers’ voices is vital to the dynamic of the exchange, and Christina’s typed language poems—some of them, like the multi-page
poem “As,” date back decades—link her to the experimental poetics of the 1970s via the typewriter poems of bpNichol, among others. Seeing this connection also reminded me that a writing life carries forward its influences, commonalities, and interruptions, as well as missed chances. Creative lives are sometimes lived in isolation, and sometimes not. Martha’s “Topographies,” linked pieces of Borgesian
flash fiction spliced with scientific oddities, and a long letter that describes in wry detail how Martha carried a backpack full of stones and then evaded the police at the G20 protests in Toronto, are highlights. But every page of Sister Language is rich, and singling out portions for special praise seems antithetical to the book’s intention to show work in dialogue rather than as a single finished form. So too, all attempts to categorize Sister Language as a single genre of writing seem to be inadequate. It is undeniably nonfiction, but I want to argue for its poetry, for its productive and pleasurable slippage between genres, strung together by two women writers in a line of papers about what matters through two lifetimes of making meaning. The ingrained feminist value of this book should not be missed or dismissed.

Referring to Christina, Martha writes “Language is the whale that, swallowed, she inhabits.” The task of co-writing demands a precarious balance at the best of times, and I expected that Sister Language would address the struggle for an adequate language to describe personal reality. Just the opposite happens in this book, which asserts that language is more than adequate if there is a listener. Sister language, a language between sisters, also means sistering via language, and even places the figure of language as the third sister that links the two writers. I don’t have a sister, and if you’re like me, you may read these pages with a kind of wondering envy at the care that these sisters display for each other’s work. Maybe you’ll be envious even if you have a sister.

—Tanis MacDonald

As in The Malahat Review, 211, summer 2020