James Polk, the former House of Anansi Press editorial director, first encountered Helen Weinzweig’s writing in 1972, when a typed manuscript arrived in a box at the Toronto publisher with the instructions, “Throw the pages up in the air and arrange them as they fall.”
Polk read the manuscript (in order) and found the writing to be “very, very exceptional, very sharp and unusual.” After Anansi agreed to publish the book, Weinzweig visited the publisher’s office, which Polk describes as a “pall of illegal smoke and chaos; it was very much a hippie press then.” He recalls his first impression of Weinzweig as “impeccably dressed and coiffed.”
The next year, Anansi published Weinzweig’s debut novel, Passing Ceremony, about an unconventional Rosedale wedding as told through the inner voices of the guests in attendance. The novel was Polk’s introduction to literary-fiction editing, having worked exclusively with poetry to that point. “I was very lucky that I drew Helen,” he says. “She was smart, funny, and very erudite – she knew literature. She was very interested in the French New Novel and the latest happenings in Europe.”
When Weinzweig approached Anansi with an idea for her second book, about a middle-aged Toronto woman looking for coded signs from her lover in the pages of National Geographic, Polk admits he initially hesitated, but was intrigued by one of her influences: Michael Snow’s Walking Woman sculpture series. Weinzweig was moved by the concept of a one-dimensional woman moving nowhere. She told Polk, “That’s what I want to capture in prose.”
Basic Black with Pearls was released in 1980, and went on to receive positive reviews in major media outlets such as The New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times, and was awarded the Toronto Book Award. The novel established Weinzweig, who died in 2010, as one of Canada’s most innovative feminist writers, and yet today, her small body of work has been out of print, and difficult to track down – until now.
For years, Polk, Weinzweig’s sons, Daniel and Paul, and lawyer Marian Hebb have been working to convince publishers to reissue her books. Polk hopes that Anansi’s 35th-anniversary edition of Basic Black with Pearls, released this month under its A List imprint and celebrated on Aug. 27 at a centenary event for Weinzweig at the Toronto Reference Library, will lead to reissues of Passing Ceremony and her 1989 Governor-General’s Literary Award–nominated story collection, A View from the Roof (Goose Lane Editions).
Initially, much attention was paid to the Polish-born Toronto author’s age – she was 58 when her first novel was released – and the fact that she was the wife of classical composer John Weinzwieg. But critics soon looked beyond her “housewife” status and recognized her work as wry and surreal, born out of an established tradition of French experimentalism.
Ryerson University English professor Ruth Panofsky became acquainted with Weinzweig’s writing as a graduate student at York, and would later interview her for several publications. Panofsky says Weinzweig’s fragmented writing and stylistic daringness set her apart from other Canadian authors of the time.
“Her work is really spare,” Panofsky says. “It isn’t traditional in that it doesn’t focus on character development and it’s not plot driven. There’s tremendous psychological analysis – the character doesn’t develop from point A to Z in a realistic way. I guess she felt that she could do that because, first of all, she started writing so late. She didn’t really have anything to lose.”
In fact, Panofsky believes that Weinzweig’s feminist writing is more likely to resonate with contemporary readers. “She writes about the institution of marriage and the role of women within that institution and it’s really not a pretty one. Her women are troubled but they’re really troubling figures as well,” she says. “That’s also why her work endures. It has precision in the way that she looks at relationships with a very clear eye. I don’t know anyone else who writes with such clarity – her work feels deadly in a way.”