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Championing women in Canadian literature

A Ryerson award honours the research of poet and scholar Ruth Panofsky
By: Will Sloan
September 12, 2017
From left: Usha George, Ruth Panofsky and Sarwan Sahota

Photo: Ryerson English Professor Ruth Panofsky received the Sarwan Sahota Ryerson Distinguished Scholar Award at Ryerson Awards Night earlier this year. From left: Usha George; Panofsky; retired Professor Sarwan Sahota. Photo by Clifton Li.

“One of the things I discovered as an undergraduate was that there were women writers,” remembered Ruth Panofsky, professor of English at Ryerson University and a scholar of Canadian literature. Looking back at her time studying literature in the ’70s, Panofsky adds, “It was a time when they didn’t have a public profile, so if I were to read them I would have to somehow dig them out. That has completely changed. Canadian women writers and poets are very well known now.”

That’s thanks in no small part to scholars like Panofsky. At last March’s Ryerson Awards Night, Panofsky received the Sarwan Sahota Ryerson Distinguished Scholar Award in recognition of a career spent studying and championing Canadian women writers. (This year's award nominations are now open.)

Panofsky solidified her love for literature as an undergraduate. “It was a time when there was a real vibrancy around Canadian literature. I had professors at Carleton who gave me an opportunity to read broadly and locate myself in my own geographic, cultural, and ideological milieu.”

One of her professors at York University, where she pursued graduate studies, was Miriam Waddington--the poet and short story author whose poem “Jacques Cartier in Toronto” would later be featured on Canada’s $100 bill. Panofsky came to know Waddington first as a mentor, then as the subject of her major research paper. Panofsky later edited The Collected Poems of Miriam Waddington, published in 2014.

“I think that the relationship I had with her allowed me to pursue her work more deeply. I knew her, and I knew her work on a certain level, but then the more I read, the more I really found her work engaging. In my case, I think the personal encouraged the scholarly appreciation and investigation of her work.”

Panofsky is also closely associated with Adele Wiseman, whose 1974 novel Crackpot—about an obese Jewish woman who becomes a prostitute—is one of Panofsky’s touchstones. “Hoda is a character I’ve carried around with me ever since I read her,” she said.

“I’ve always been interested in Jewish women writers, specifically Canadian—it ties into my own background,” she said, “and the female experience has always been secondary to the dominant Jewish culture. I started hunting around and looking for as many writers as I could possibly find, and came across Wiseman's second novel, Crackpot, which I think is one of the foundational works of Canadian literature.”

Though Wiseman’s earlier novel The Sacrifice earned a Governor General’s Award, Panofsky finds that the more challenging follow-up has aged even better. “Wiseman was very committed to an independent vision, and she didn’t kowtow to the publishing industry, which meant that she didn’t have the kind of long-term success that might have come otherwise. But that independence of mind and vision was something that I really wanted to explore, which is why I've spent so much time studying and writing about her.”

In addition, Panofsky is a distinguished poet in her own right. She counts her volume of poetry, external,Laike and Nahum, as her proudest achievement. Based on the lives of her own maternal grandparents, this narrative poem follows the lives of two Russian-Jewish immigrants in Montreal over their courtship and 60-year marriage, and is told in two voices.

Asked about the Sarwan Sahota Ryerson Distinguished Scholar Award, Panofsky said, “It was a great honour. It was wonderful to be recognized by my own institution for all my scholarly work. It was recognition by Ryerson for the work that I’ve done in and for Ryerson, and it’s very meaningful for me both academically and personally.”

Ryerson Awards Night is an annual celebration of the highest achievements of Ryerson employees, and recognizes excellence in teaching, research, administration, service, and leadership.

Nominations are now open for next year’s awards in the categories of Service and Leadership; Scholarly, Research and Creative Activity; and Teaching and Education. The deadline for submitting your complete nomination package, including the nominee's online consent, is noon on November 8, 2017. For more information, go to Recognition and Awards.