canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Sign After the X
By Marina Roy
Advance Editions/Arsenal Pulp Press 2001

Reviewed by Anne Borden

In the post-bellum South, “X” was used as a signature by semi-literate tenant farmers to sign contracts with white landowners, who misrepresented the content of the contracts to establish a system of debt peonage. Through this administrative sleight-of-hand, Southern landowners effectively undermined federal postwar land-reform programs, with devastating economic and social consequences that persist today.

In this context the letter X symbolizes erasure, absence, landlessness and homelessness. Malcolm “Little” signified on the American uses of X when he adopted the name Malcolm X. His last name was the mathematical equivalent to an unknown, and also spoke to the alienation (invisibility) experienced by African Americans in the racial caste system of the mid-century. Dropping the X later in his life, Malik El-Shabazz chose a name that forged beyond the consciousness-raising X to invent a new name and a newer man, with a chosen name reflecting the strong sense of identity that has historically run beneath the “X”.

Opening Roy’s book, I anticipated an analysis of the role of this grapheme in Western culture encompassing the semiotic significance of the letter from a historically rigorous position. But there was little in-depth discussion of signing after Xs, signing with X’s, appropriating the X, reclaiming and renaming. I found instead a compendium of words that contain the letter X, bounded by critical essays in post-modern patois.

Roy opens a dialogue on the myriad uses of X, but the book offers only teasing glimpses into the significance of Xanadu, X-treme sports, Gen-X, sex chromosomes, X-ratings, prefixes and suffixes. Roy’s ideas are very compelling; it is the lack of narrative cohesion that holds the reader back from making the critical connections that Roy suggests.

Given the scope of the book’s project, it was more than slightly unsatisfying to have to struggle through the mire of semio-texty prose to get to the real information and thought-provoking ideas held therein. A great editor and more research would help to create a cohesive work that will withstand the test of time and speak to the broader audience which the subject matter deserves.

Anne Borden lives in Toronto, where she works as a writer and editor.







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.