Dismantling the canon

The fluid, sinuous, reflexive Nathalie Stephens

In each issue of Capital Xtra, a prominent literary Canadian recommends a queer-authored book. In this installment, writer and video artist RM Vaughan recommends Nathalie Stephens’ Touch to Affliction (Coach House, 2006).

I distrust lists. And although this ongoing literary project by Capital Xtra — this creation of a “best queer books” recommendation list — is both laudable and vitally necessary (it’s not like the Canada Council or any other cultural agency under the Harper regime is going to do it for us queers), the project still smells a bit like a “top ten” — so I distrust the very enterprise. Lists, especially cultural compendiums, are inherently flawed, more notable for who and what they miss than whom or what they name.

I hope that Nathalie Stephens will forgive me then for plopping her mesmerizing talent into this big box of assorted chocolates. Especially since hers is a talent that lives and thrives well outside of any constructed canon. Nathalie is, by nature, averse to such conceits, as are the complex works Nathalie creates. But all my favourite writers exist beyond, and indeed resist, categorization.

To wit, let’s jump into Touch to Affliction, the best, in my not so humble opinion, of Nathalie’s recent works. I’ve chosen this book not just because I love it, but also because, as noted above, I distrust canon-building and this book easily defies canonization. That’s what makes it so queer.

Part meditation, part architectural study, part autobiography, part cultural study, part lament for the end of the world, and all, all, all pure gorgeous poetry (a word I apply to any piece of beautiful writing, no matter how it is formatted on the page), Touch to Affliction is a book that makes you feel like you are being led by a ghost through a maze, while hypnotized, after spending several hours spinning in circles with a gang of Sufi dancers. The book turns back on itself more often, and more flexibly, than a ferret with an itchy backside. You will never read it the same way twice.

If I had to testify about Touch to Affliction in court (a thrilling idea!), I would describe the book as a collection of prose poems inspired by various geographical settings. But, my heavens and hells, what a poor witness I would make! That description ain’t the half of it. Geographical settings, as Nathalie teaches us, include not just the rocks and trees, but also our minds, our sexualities, the whispers and songs our tongues cut into the air, our loves, and, most (and best and worst) of all, language itself. Don’t queers know this, in their hearts, that definitions and delineations are inherently untrustworthy, fluid?


Indeed, Touch to Affliction treats the very notion of “place” as if it were quicksilver (which it is), and then proceeds to follow the slippery, glistening idea “hellways and crooked,” as we say in my native New Brunswick. This is not a book “about,” it is a book that questions the reliability of “about,” of all tangible realities and, especially, our sense of self within space. Heavy-going, yes, but worth the weight.

Not that Nathalie will have anything to do with such cheap and fast analyses. I’m ashamed of myself already. As the narrator in Touch to Affliction warns us: “I am no landscape.”

Take that, Susanna Moodie!

RM Vaughan was a Canadian writer and video artist.

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Culture, Arts, Ottawa

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