Interview with Sandra Sabatini
What compelled you to investigate the representation of infants in Canadian fiction?
It was a strange combination of the practical and the theoretical. Having given birth to my own five babies, I was
fascinated by their instant calm and curiosity in the delivery room. Their organic development, their consideration of and
adaptation to their environment was compelling to me. It seemed to me that they were born with tactics for survival and that
they came readily equipped with inquisitiveness and engagement. Moreover, and while I understand that this doesn’t happen
to everyone, I found their capacity to engender love awesome and life changing, distinct from anything I had ever
experienced. I had observed mothers with babies and often felt very sorry for them, for the noise and disarray of their
apparently narrow lives. Now that seems ridiculous to me.
Secondly, when I went to graduate school for English literature, I was exposed for the first time to Freudian and Lacanian theories about infancy that were reductive in the extreme. Both theorists posited a notion of infancy as a blank slate, barely significant in the formation of identity and subjectivity, which, they both argue, comes only with language. There seemed to be no documentation of a contrary and much more vibrant and complex view of infancy and of adult responses to babies.
Why Canadian fiction?
I chose a Canadian literary perspective because of my interest as a writer and a critic in the literature that is closest to me. One does not necessarily come to Canadian literature with a notion of “baby;” rather we think of connections to northerness, to space, settlement, survival, and so forth. Nevertheless, the fact that there were so many babies in Canadian fiction, in both canonical and extra-canonical texts, that no one had ever noticed seemed strange to me and required address. This study is the first of its kind, marking new territory that I hope to expand upon in a future investigation that crosses cultural and national boundaries. In the meantime, I can offer a view of Canadian fictional babies along a literary continuum that begins with Anne of Green Gables and ends with the writing of Terry Griggs. A through line emerges that demonstrates the measurable difference in the amount of space infants occupy and also, and more importantly, their emergence as agents or subjects in the texts.
What kinds of tensions emerge from an historical tracking of infant representation in Canada?
Infant representation changes over the century both quantitatively and qualitatively. In early texts infants barely make
an appearance. The infant phase is often contained within a sentence or two before the babies become toddlers or
adolescents. Part of the reason for this is the high infant mortality rate even in the early 20th century. Infancy was an
unreliable state. Infants were, of course, alarmingly susceptible to disease and death. As the 20th century progresses, we
see state measures taken to reduce infant and maternal mortality rates with the institution of state-run pre-natal education
and the increased medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth. Up until about the 1960’s, infants in Canadian fiction are
valuable almost exclusively as progeny, the notion that especially among immigrants and farm families that a dynasty is
being established. They are not valuable in and of themselves.
After 1960, more and more infants form the subject matter of fiction. And more space is taken up in the text with explorations of parent-infant relationships. This is particularly true in writing about women. With the emergence of the feminist movement, women begin to explore the very thing that has constituted them as other and inferior to men: pregnancy and childbirth. The women authors highlight the push-pull of the relationship where babies are both a site of longing and love and a source of strife and constraint. Most dramatically, after about 1980, after fathers have been invited into delivery rooms, there is a drastic change in the way men write about babies. For them the infant becomes a site of extreme value and worth, unique and almost miraculous in its capacity to engage men in a vital and redemptive relationship of tenderness, connection, and love.
Why are infants such an important area of literary inquiry?
The infant is a figure whose construction is ideologically charged, inflected most by how we feel about ourselves. While in the last thirty years or so cognitive development psychologists have begun to investigate infant behaviour, most of what we know is grounded in our own social and cultural context and this is a context freely and compellingly rendered in our fiction. Babies may very well constitute the last frontier of voice appropriation as adult writers enter imaginatively into infant consciousness, construct infant characters as agents in their narratives. And ultimately, it seemed strange to me that so intrinsic a part of so many people’s lives and of the art they create should have gone unnoticed in criticism. Annie Dillard writes in For the Time Being about the maternity ward of a hospital: “Should we not remove our shoes, drink potions, take baths? For this is surely the wildest deep-sea vent on earth: This is where the people come out” (36). Dillard offers a sense that infants are awe-inspiring, that they change lives dramatically. I can’t think of anything more important.