Author reclaims women’s role in history

You could say Ami McKay is supplementing history, infusing male-centric historical facts with fictitious – yet intrinsically accurate – feminine tales.

“There’s both a difficulty and a joy that comes with chasing down women’s stories in history because so much of our history that’s been traced is from a male perspective,” said McKay, who spoke at last week’s Jeanne Adamson Memorial Lecture at Brescia University College.

“Digging up women’s history – easier than it used to be – is still a challenge. I’m finding a connection between the past and the present, trying to make sense of what’s happening in the present by going back and looking at how we got here, what things have changed or what things haven’t, and are we making the same mistakes again.”

An award-winning author, McKay’s writing explores the past and issues that continue to affect women by way of formerly silent female voices and perspectives that for her, came out of research and serendipity.

“With both my books, I sort of landed in the story,” McKay explained.

The inspiration for her first book, The Birth House, set in rural Nova Scotia in the early 20th Century, came from finding out the house she lived in had been a midwife’s home and, quite literally, a birth house for many women in the rural community. The main character, Dora Rare, an apprentice to a midwife, helps see women through difficult and complicated labours, unwanted pregnancies as well as unfulfilling sex lives. The novel showcases enduring traditions as well as struggles women have endured to gain control over their bodies.

“I explored the history (of my house) and what it meant to the community where I lived and what of those traditions still existed today,” McKay noted, adding a recipe for ‘groaning cake,’ mentioned in the novel as a restorative birthing meal for a woman, likely garners the most hits on her website.

“Today, even women who have a medical birth in a hospital, they love that tradition. It’s been so interesting to see how much we crave (the past). We think we’re so high-tech and that we’re so connected as we’re texting one another, but there’s a real sense that we want to be connected to history and tradition,” she said.

What’s more, McKay’s story-telling is remarkably feminine, delivering past accounts with authenticity, sentimentality and nostalgia.

“I (include) sidebars or notes – the idea was to make literary scrapbooks. When I look at things that belonged to my mother or grandmother – they kept scrapbooks, journals – even their cookbooks are filled with things they’ve stuck in the pages or written in the margins,” McKay noted.

“That’s the way women pass on their knowledge – we tell stories, we put notes in the margins, we fill in the gaps and that’s how things gets passed on, generation to generation. I wanted to reflect that in my work.”

McKay’s second novel, The Virgin Cure, came out of learning her great-great-grandmother, a ‘lady doctor’ in the 19th Century, working on the streets of New York City, had written her PhD thesis on cases of syphilis in young girls, results of ‘the virgin cure,’ the practice of having sexual relations with a virgin to eradicate disease.

By way of Moth, the novel’s female protagonist, McKay explores issues still affecting women today – rape in sub-Saharan Africa as a cure for AIDS and ongoing trafficking of girls, happening today, even in Canada.

“The trafficking of underage girls still going on. I’ll have people say they’ve read the book and say ‘I’m so glad I’m living now.’ We need to look harder and look after these girls. It’s just not registering, even though it’s on the news,” McKay said.

“These are the issues I follow up on, but it takes all of us.”

Prior to writing novels, McKay worked as a freelancer for CBC radio. Her documentary, Daughter of Family G, won an Excellence in Journalism Medallion at the 2003 Atlantic Journalism Awards. The Birth House was No. 1 on Canadian bestseller lists, won three CBA Libris Awards, was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and is a book club favourite around the world. The Birth House knocked Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code from the No. 1 spot on The Globe and Mail’s bestseller list.