Straggle: Adventures in Walking While Female
Wolsak and Wynn
Tanis MacDonald’s writing is filled with references. Culture explodes on the pages of her new book Straggle: Adventures in Walking While Female, but the most interesting reference in the book isn’t to Walden, John Berger, or even The Carol Burnett Show.
It’s to the 1987 ultra-violent, ultra-macho action film RoboCop.
It sounds weird coming from MacDonald — a notable feminist writer, poet, and professor of literature at Wilfrid Laurier University (and birder!) — at first. But it couldn’t be more perfect. Much like how RoboCop is about a man trapped in a corrupt corporation’s killing machine, Straggle is about what it means to be trapped in a female body in our imperfect society.
MacDonald uses the reference (in “Vigil” on page 149) as a metaphor: that she has transformed her point of view to one similar to RoboCop when she walks down the street. RoboCop walks down the street scanning people, objects, anything, for threats — and never stopping. RoboCop is inhuman, but we’re not.
Yes — this sort of laceratingly funny-sad identification with culture is laced throughout Straggle. But it’s not just a non-fiction book about what it means to be a woman walking home alone at night (or repositioning ‘80s action films as feminist allegories). Though it flirts with the horrors of walking, and bravely asks who is privileged to walk, it’s ultimately a tribute to walking, no matter what form it takes.
MacDonald shows through this collection that no walk is the same. She shows that we walk to think. We walk to laugh. We walk to feel nature around us. Think of Straggle as scanning MacDonald’s feminist brain, printed into text in the spirit of TikTok (minus the “doomscroll”).
You open the app (Straggle). You scroll (read). There’s poetry. Scroll. Personal story. Scroll. There’s something witty — a story about falls (“Falling”). Scroll. There’s something cutting — a story about misogyny and grief (“Ricochet”). Scroll.
As with any anthology, not all pieces are created equal. MacDonald’s best are her most conversational and least literary — like “Walk this Way,” and “Veil, Valley, Viaduct.” MacDonald’s distinctive, friendly voice is present throughout the whole book, but stories like “Vigil” feel like they are extracted from her heart with a ballpoint pen. The more it feels like MacDonald is speaking from her emotions, rather than from an intellectual perspective, the easier it is to get her point.
Poetry shows up throughout the book. MacDonald’s poetic devices use scholarly language in the same sentence as modern slang like “Netflix and chill” (41). While they are stimulating and draw thought-provoking comparisons, they can make the reader (at least this one) feel like they’re being kept at a distance.
This may be because her poetry isn’t meant to be understood so much as felt. To respond with my own modern slang, her poetry is “VIBES.” Like Planet Earth by way of Euphoria, she creates free-flowing thoughts, instead of concrete ones, on what it means to be a part of nature.
When MacDonald’s poetry and perspective come together, it creates riveting essays. “Walk This Way” stands out because of how it combines all of MacDonald’s elements (including another quirky reference to Run-DMC and Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”) to make a fascinating point: our individual, physical ways of walking — which, we really don’t choose — are as much a part of our identity as our eyes or hairstyle.
But there are moments in Straggle where MacDonald tells the reader exactly what she wants them to think while simultaneously asking them to expand their mind. On a single page (32) in “Animal Presence,” she goes from asking a heady question like “how do we recognize animals as themselves?” to a forceful statement: “All zoo stories are about colonialism.”
At a time when we are all so scattered, and always scrolling our confusing funny-sad-angry internet worlds, MacDonald’s perfectly imperfect writing has the power to create a catharsis. She can be wise and strong, but still read as vulnerable and scared. As specific as her viewpoint may be, her writing has universal power.
Early in Straggle, there’s a poem (in paragraph form) called “How to Get Lost in the Woods.” MacDonald writes in second-person and describes walking a well-known path. But then you turn around, see a new perspective in nature, and everything has changed: “When you turn to go back, nothing’s familiar. No birdsong. The path like a basted ribbon, pulled up and gone,” (23).
MacDonald shows it’s not bad to be lost — because even when we’re feeling lost, under duress, or trapped in our gendered bodies, walking can be a form of self-medication. Many of us walk because we’re trying to find ourselves. Straggle may appear as a bunch of scattered puzzle pieces, but reading it might just help you find a piece you’ve been looking for.