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Nora Stovel
University of Alberta
Vol. 3 (2013), Articles
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Carol Shields’s last novel, Unless (2002), was a finalist for the Canada Reads contest for the best Canadian novel of the first decade of the 20th century. It would have been an ideal winner, not only because it is a brilliant novel, but also because it is distinctively Canadian in combining English and French. Protagonist-narrator Reta Winters, née Summers, daughter of a Francophone mother and Anglophone father, combines Canada’s official languages. Reta, like Shields, is bilingue and a translator and fiction writer. The opening segment of Unless focuses on the politics and poetics of her translations from French to English. She makes particular use of French: whenever Reta, or Shields, wants to emphasize a point, such as women’s powerlessness, she employs French translation.Shields employs three levels of translation in Unless. First, Reta’s literal translations of the texts of Danielle Westerman, French “feminist pioneer,” introduce the narrative. Second, Shields translates her breast cancer narrative into a novel about her daughter’s disappearance: Norah sits on a street corner with a sign reading “GOODNESS.” To discover her daughter, Reta embarks on an ethical quest. Third, Reta transfers her realization about women’s powerlessness, which she suspects instigated Norah’s disappearance, to her theory of fiction in this metafictional text. Finally, Reta's reflection on fiction is transformed into a feminist manifesto. Her awakening inspires a new understanding of the moral responsibility of fiction to reflect reality, especially the relationship between gender and power in this millennial novel. Reta practices “bean-counting,” noting the all-male lists of the world’s greatest thinkers and writers—“testicular hit-list[s] of literary big cats.” Reta writes six letters of protest, but doesn’t send them. If Reta is afraid to publish her views on inequality, Shields is not: she believes in “blurt[ing] bravely.”“Unless” is the pivotal concept of the novel, offering alternative narratives. Reta emphasizes the concept by noting, “Ironically, unless, the lever that finally shifts reality into a new perspective, cannot be expressed in French.”Unless women’s voices, including the silent voice of “a Muslim woman” who self-immolated on the street corner where Norah appeals for goodness, our society cannot become ethical.This essay explores Shields’s use of French language and translation to challenge the inextricable connection between gender and power in our society generally and literary culture particularly, to examine the ethics of egalitarianism regarding women and cultural “others,” and to explore the interrelationships between existence and fiction.

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