An Interview with Camilla Gibb
Toronto author Camilla Gibb is a University of Toronto graduate and the author of three novels, Mouthing the Words (1999), which won the Toronto Book Award; The Petty Details of So-and-so’s Life (2003); and most recently, Sweetness in the Belly (2005), a Giller Prize finalist and winner of the Trillium Book Award. Ms. Gibb, who is currently writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, recently talked toecholocation about her influences, inspirations, and future plans.
– Lauren Kirshner
LK: What inspired you to write your latest, Sweetness in the Belly?
CG: A combination of friendship, research, experience and imagination. It began with a curiosity about the Middle East and North Africa, which led me to study anthropology and Middle Eastern studies as an undergraduate. After spending a year in Cairo studying Arabic, I returned to Toronto, and, feeling quite unsettled and out of place, I developed a friendship with an Ethiopian woman who had just arrived in Canada. She taught me a great deal, and it’s largely because of her that as graduate student in social anthropology I went to Ethiopia to do my fieldwork.
I lived with a Muslim family in the city of Harar. This is where Sweetness is set, in large part. I was there in the mid 1990s, but the book is set twenty years earlier, in the early 1970s, just before the revolution that toppled Emperor Haile Selassie.
I later did post-doctoral research with Ethiopian refugees and immigrants that informed the parts of the book that are set in London.
LK: How much influence do you take from politics, from cultural affairs, or, more generally, from newspapers?
CG: For the past six years, I’ve read the newspaper every day as a guide to current political, economic, and cultural affairs. After writing two novels that were small and intimate in feel, I found myself interested in situating stories against bigger backdrops. My preoccupations are questions of identity and belongingness and, where I am always concerned with how we are shaped by family and domestic life, I am as concerned with the individual as shaped and situated vis-a-vis cultural, religious, national, economic, and political bodies and movements. And so I read the paper. But in a loose way – in order to get a feel for the preoccupations and trends of a given historical moment. Particularly “our” moment. It is generally the contemporary and the “next” that interests me.
LK: Could you have told the story of Sweetness in the Belly from the point of view of a character other than Lilly? How do you choose your narrator?
CG: The narrator emerges for me before the story does. A character develops, one whose story needs telling. It has never been a question for me of choosing between potential narrators. I don’t always “like” my narrators, but I do understand them. I felt comfortable with Lilly as a narrator because she straddles worlds – she is the ultimate insider/outsider – and for whatever reason, that’s a stance that feels very natural to me.
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LK: Your first two novels, Mouthing the Words and The Petty Details of So-and-so’s Life, both deal with family relations, kinship, and trauma. These are dark themes, admittedly, but the novels also manage to be witty and at times even hilarious. Do you find it a challenge to balance these very different tones?
CG: No, I find it a relief. There’s a point at which things can tip – either irretrievably into an abyss, or at the other end of the spectrum, into sentimentality. You can take yourself as the author, your character, and the reader to the edge, but you risk losing everyone if you poke them to go one step further.
LK: Young writers are often told to “write what you know.” How do you feel about this adage?
CG: If there’s any wisdom in this, it’s that you probably know a hell of a lot more than you think you do. It also implies that if you want to write about something you don’t know, you can go about getting to know it.
My writing is largely motivated by the desire to understand things. I might “know” the facts, the story, but not understand the how and the why. I write my way into “knowing.”
LK: Do you plot your novels beforehand or learn your plot as you go?
CG: My narrator/protagonist is the boss of that.
LK: Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
CG: My influences have shifted as I have grown as a writer. Early on I was drawn by language and emotion, not by plot – the lyricism of early Jeannette Winterson, the poetry of Dionne Brand and Nicole Brossard, the angst of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Dorothy Allison, and, just for some relief, the raw cheekiness of certain British female writers like Kate Atkinson and Esther Freud.
Now? I read about the external world more, I enjoy good plot, I value the work of male writers much more than I did early on and I enjoy a great deal of work in translation – people like William Boyd, Haruki Murakami, Oscar Hijuelos, J.M. Coetzee, and Louis de Bernieres.
Specific influences? In the writing of Sweetness in the Belly, [Ryszard] Kapuscinski was huge. And the next book? A bit of [Jose] Saramago, a bit of sci-fi [Margaret] Atwood, and a bit of [Albert] Camus.
LK: What book are you reading now?
CG: For pleasure I’m reading Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night and the stories in Annabel Lyon’s collection Oxygen. I’m also editing an anthology of Canadian memoir for Penguin, so I’m reading a lot of non-fiction, which I don’t ordinarily do.
LK: Could you tell echolocation anything about your next project?
CG: It’s the story of a community of people exiled to an island because of some unknown illness.