Author Interview

I am transferring over some of the published author interviews I posted on my Facebook page. This piece appeared in the Calgary Herald more than a decade ago. Camilla Gibb recently published a memoir called This is Happy. She is a fascinating, brilliant woman and I can’t wait to read it.

Gibb finds her mature voice:
Political tale needed adult narrator

For the Calgary Herald
Saturday, April 2, 2005

By Candice G. Ball
After writing the original draft of Sweetness in the Belly from a child’s perspective, Canadian writer Camilla Gibb arrived at a devastating conclusion — she had to write an entirely new book. When she discussed the novel with her editor at Doubleday, it became clear that the story needed to be told by an adult narrator.

“I was trying to comment on grownup politics. I couldn’t do that from a child’s perspective,” she says. So the original draft of Sweetness in the Belly (Doubleday Canada, 420 pages, $32.95) became the “back story” — only about five sentences of it ended up in the final version. But much as she says she kicked and screamed and resisted, the rigorous re-write helped her grow up as a writer.

In Gibb’s previous internationally acclaimed novels, Mouthing the Words and The Petty Details of So-and-so’s Life, she mastered young voices. In her latest book, she examines the racially charged world of Thatcher’s London and Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia from an adult perspective.

The protagonist, Lilly, is a nurse, who grapples with her identity or “otherness.” As a white Muslim nurse raised in Africa and forced to flee to London, Lilly exists “somewhere between what they know and what they fear, somewhere between the past and the future, which is not quite the present.”

As the daughter of two solitary renegades who’d met at Trinity College in Dublin in the 1950s and were drawn together “by the magnet of shared disenchantment,” Lilly spent her childhood living a nomadic existence in Europe and Africa. But her Bohemian existence came to an abrupt end when she learned her parents were killed.

During Lilly’s parents’ last journey back to Tangier, she received an introduction to the Qur’an from the Great Abdal at a Sufi shrine, where her parents left her, on the Moroccan edge of the Sahara. Although she wasn’t born a Muslim, once she experienced absorption in prayer and the mysteries of the Qur’an, something troubled in her became still.

Her faith leads her on a pilgrimage to Ethiopia, where she struggles to gain acceptance as a white Muslim. In Harar, she also falls in love with an idealistic young doctor, Aziz. Just as their fondness transforms into love, the political upheavals wrench the lovers apart. Lilly flees to England while Aziz remains and vows to make a difference.

In London, Lilly becomes an integral part of the Ethiopian refugee community. As a volunteer for a community organization dedicated to reuniting exiled families, Lilly reads through the lists sent from Rome of recent arrivals who may have relatives in London. While she’s committed to family reunification, she admits her motives aren’t entirely altruistic: she wants to find Aziz and never stops yearning for him. Gibb, 37, recently spoke to the Herald about her new novel and shared her views on literature.

Candice Ball: Why did you want to write about Ethiopia?
Camilla Gibb: Ethiopia is a country we know so little about. Our exposure is largely limited to stereotypical images of famine. I lived in Ethiopia in 1994 and 1995 when I was conducting field research for my PhD in social anthropology. I was interested in the intersections between religious practices and political processes.
I always knew I wanted to come back to the material as a writer, but I had to become a writer first. You ask different questions as an academic, you look for different things; you attach yourself to “facts,” but in order to create fiction you really need to forget facts and create the space to imagine and invent.

CB: Why did you leave anthropology to pursue a writing career?
CG: I always knew I wanted to be a writer and have always written. In high school, a well-meaning English teacher suggested that perhaps I go and live a little before I started to write seriously.
In university, I was drawn to anthropology because it turns everything you think you know on its head. After finishing my PhD, the desire to write was still there, but now I was a trained anthropologist and supposed to be looking for a proper job. I kept the writing as a hobby — almost a dirty secret — but then it began to spill out and contaminate my days. I left academia to write full time in 2000.

CB: What impact does your academic background have on your writing?
CG: It informs everything I do as a writer. I’m concerned with the same themes as I was as an anthropologist — questions about identity, culture, relationships and meaning. Both writers and anthropologists are observers who stand at a certain remove from life around them and try and make connections and associations that are difficult to see when you’re otherwise busy living life.

CB: As an anthropologist, what’s your view of literature?
CG: I think it’s the most civilizing thing we create. I think it’s a mirror of our intimate lives; we gain access to people’s interior monologues and thoughts. In this way, we can learn what it is to be someone else, and that can enable us to have empathy and compassion for others as well as reassuring us that we are not alone.

CB: As you launch the book across Canada what do you hope to achieve?
CG: I think literature is a great starting point for dialogue about bigger ideas. For the past three years I’ve been so close to the text. I want to know if readers find it interesting, relevant or horrible. I look forward to those conversations. Canada is a good country for literary readings. People, especially in communities outside Toronto, make the effort to come out and engage.
In Calgary, in particular, I’ve had some amazing experiences — at Wordfest, at Banff, at the University of Calgary and the Alberta College of Art and Design. There’s a welcoming, vibrant community of writers, readers, patrons of the arts and academics interested in literature.

CB: What do you hope readers take away from Sweetness in the Belly?
CG: First and foremost, I hope people just enjoy it as a good read, one where you’re compelled by the plot and care about the characters. I don’t think literature should have a “point” or be pushing an agenda, but it can expose people to new things and ideas. I hope I’ve offered readers some interesting insights into Islam, Ethiopia and refugee experience. I hope I’ve undone some of the stereotypes we tend to be fed by the media.

CB: Tell me about the novel you’re currently working on.
CG: I am currently working on a novel that explores a community bound by isolation and “otherness.” The members of this community have an illness which I don’t fully describe or label. I examine the idea that these people have a legitimate culture. For instance, there’s a movement within the deaf community of people who argue that deafness is a legitimate culture and reject the idea of cochlear implants so that they can join the land of the hearing. I’m exploring the whole idea of normalcy.