Recommended Read of the Month: Bridget Canning’s What’s Written in the Ladies

Like the graffiti it celebrates, What’s Written in the Ladies’ is nonconformist – it flouts cultural expectations and exists as far outside capitalist modes of production as possible.

On the cover of Bridget Canning’s What’s Written in the Ladies’, there’s a picture of latrinalia (aka bathroom graffiti) that reads “I hate that guy.” Inside, another image reveals that “Ryan is the worst.”

Both photos are reminiscent of the “shit lists” that began appearing on the walls of Toronto bathroom stalls in 2015. The lists identified sexual predators and other abusers, and were meant to serve as warnings from one woman to another. In a culture that keeps would-be accusers from sharing such info through legal means, public washrooms become spaces of anonymous sisterhood.

Canning compiled What’s Written in the Ladies’ after years of photographing graffiti in women’s washrooms around St. John’s. Later, she used the photos as prompts in her writing group. The book, presented as a zine, combines her photography and the writing inspired by it.

A lot of Canning’s photos demonstrate the female solidarity signified by the shit list. But the book also gestures toward other inspiration for latrinalia – it can be a cry for help (see Sarah Bennett’s “The Writing on the Wall”) or a coy renegotiation of power, as in Jennifer McVeigh’s “Red.”

Other photos subvert the stereotype that women’s toilet scribbles are always uplifting and unifying. One reads “You are not a special unique snowflake,” while another notes that “Janet smells like a kettle of fish.”Some women refuse to be pigeonholed as motivators or nurturers.

Like the graffiti it celebrates, What’s Written in the Ladies’ is nonconformist – it flouts cultural expectations and exists as far outside capitalist modes of production as possible. Its independent distribution subtly gives the finger to traditional publishing practices. With all proceeds going to the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (S.H.O.P.), an advocacy program for sex workers in the province, the book asserts its position at the margins.

Yet as a pretty, consumable product that’ll look great on your coffee table, the collection can never quite capture the spirit of the graffiti it celebrates – the book is neither ephemeral nor fully anonymous, since it’s been curated by Canning and includes the work of seven other named writers. As a collection of stories and images explicitly focused on ladies’ washrooms – a hint at the need for more gender-neutral spaces in St. John’s – it can’t fully explore the nuances of the margins, where latrinalia can be most harmful (last year, a gender-neutral washroom in Portland was tagged with homophobic slurs and a death threat).

This is all part of Canning’s point.There’s anger within her glossy photos and between the lines, starting with the opening story, “Bradley and Molly,” where the protagonist’s quiet act of defiance sets the tone for the whole collection.

Though it models and probes a variety of emotions, What’s Written in the Ladies’ is mostly pissed off – as it should be. The graffiti it showcases– an expressive form so often and easily erased – loses some of its subversive power through the act of being preserved in a printed image. The book shows how hard it is to make change in the space between the bathroom stall and official channels of power. It sucks that, within this gap the book can’t – without legal repercussion – tell us “Ryan’s” last name.

Find a copy at Broken Books, Johnny Ruth, Fogtown, and Baddy Vinyl (in Posie Row).

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