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Detective stories

Discovering — and applying — feminist theory in unexpected places

Teaching and Learning

By Janet Harron

Like detectives, graduate students sift through mountains of evidence and use their finely tuned powers of observation to answer questions and come to conclusions.

Now an award-winning teacher has taken that comparison one step further.

Feminist detectives

The Words Assemble: An Anthology of Feminist Detective Fiction, is a collection of stories written by eight students in Dr. Sonja Boon’s fall 2016 graduate seminar in feminist theory.

Dr. Boon’s innovative approaches to teaching have resulted in student assignments such as spoken word poetry, sculpture, dance, in-class free writing, reflective essays and a groundbreaking collaborative project that resulted in a knitted bikini bottom tailor-made for a piece of art, the Arts building’s Red Trench.

The 165-page book includes an introduction by Dr. Boon, who is the 2014 Dean’s Award for Teaching Excellence in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences recipient, a bibliography and an ISBN. Each student received two author copies. Additional copies may be printed in the future, depending on demand.

The anthology includes stories by Daze Jefferies, Emily Murphy, Lesley Butler, Harriet Amoah, Krysta Fitzpatrick, Heer Nanavati, Patrick Squires and Irene Velentzas.

From left, Dr. Boon, Barb Flint (auditor), Emily Murphy, Lesley Butler, Harriet Amoah, Irene Velentzas, Patrick Squires, Daze Jefferies and Heer Nanavati. Krysta Fitzpatrick is at front.
From left, Dr. Boon, Barb Flint (auditor), Emily Murphy, Lesley Butler, Harriet Amoah, Irene Velentzas, Patrick Squires, Daze Jefferies and Heer Nanavati. Krysta Fitzpatrick is at front.

“Writing is never neutral”

Interested in broadening out the notion of “scholarly writing,” Dr. Boon says she was inspired by the work of writer and academic Andrea Petö, who developed a similar assignment for a feminist history course.

“Writing is an intrinsic component of knowledge production. Like feminist theory itself, writing is never neutral,” Dr. Boon writes in the book’s introduction.

“Feminist theory is about new ways of thinking, of extending feminism into various modes of discourse and in so doing, explaining social and political inequalities.”

Changing the narrative

Among other readings, the class read a chapter from bestselling crime writer Sara Paretsky’s memoir, Writing in an Age of Silence.

The link between feminism and crime fiction is a political one, Paretsky argues, with traditional crime fiction usually using a dead female body or a femme fatale to advance the plot.

According to Dr. Boon, Paretsky has changed this traditional narrative with her indomitable and tough-talking, no-crap-taking, protagonist V.I. Warshawski. In her books, she answers the questions: What happens when women are detectives? What happens when you bring class, sexuality, race and ability more actively into play?

“Theory can be found in unexpected places.” — Dr. Sonja Boon

“In her novels Paretsky tackles all sorts of feminist issues: bodily agency, reproductive justice, war and the politics of the nation state, gender performance, sexual violence and more,” said Dr. Boon.

“Her work is explicitly feminist in approach, politics, character, and theme, but her work is never placed in the “feminist literature” section of a bookstore — it’s just with the other mysteries. Theory can be found in unexpected places.”

Dr. Boon also used bestselling Canadian crime writer Louise Penny’s proposition that crime novels are about large themes and big ideas rather than the nitty gritty details of a crime as a foundation for the project.

Process and product

The process of writing the stories was built into the syllabus from the start, operating from Dr. Boon’s premise of story as both process and product.

The students were asked to consider what constituted a crime and to think about who could be a detective. They were also asked to think carefully about the nature of an investigation and how they might effectively conduct one.

A copy of The Words Assemble: An Anthology of Feminist Detective Fiction.
A copy of The Words Assemble: An Anthology of Feminist Detective Fiction.
Photo: Submitted

Stories were constructed with close attention paid to feminist theory while utilizing character, dialogue, setting and plot — the tools of a creative writer.

Re-thinking research

Dr. Boon herself is currently enrolled in the final course of a certificate in creative writing offered by the University of Toronto. She believes the class project and her own coursework are connected by the shared concept of re-thinking of what it means to write and share research.

“My thinking is that if I — as a researcher — find scholarly writing boring, then imagine what that must be like for my students and for the general public?” asked Dr. Boon, who entered academia after a professional background as a performing artist.

“If we open up what constitutes so-called knowledge mobilization, imagine the possibilities of engaging audiences on the topics and ideas that matter most to us? I have been looking for different ways to share my research, to work with the ideas that are important to me. I’m also always looking for ways to make student learning more critically engaging, more politically and socially relevant, more creative.”

With that in mind, Dr. Boon says she also wants her students to challenge themselves, and she has found that, invariably, the vast majority rise to the challenge.

Turns out learning how to write a story, rather than an academic paper, was a challenge that students were ready and willing to take on.

“I agonized over whether my incorporation of the theory was too subtle or not subtle enough.” — Emily Murphy

Emily Murphy, a master’s student in gender studies, says the project was initially out of her comfort zone.

“I agonized over whether my incorporation of the theory was too subtle or not subtle enough, but in the end I was happier with it than I had anticipated,” says Ms. Murphy, whose story Worlds of Difference focuses on how a female detective’s response to a murder suspect raises issues about privilege.

“This is the third course I’ve done with Sonja. She’s brilliant. I’ve learned so much from her.”

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