Friday, November 14, 2008


Seeing Places Through Different Lenses

SHARON BAKAR speaks to novelist CAMILLA GIBB who is fast gaining prominence as one of the most important voices in Canadian literature

WHEN CAMILLA GIBB realised in her teens that what she really wanted to do in life was write, she found herself surrounded by people who tried to talk her out of such an impractical career choice. Among them was her English teacher who told her, “You’re only 18. What are you going to write about? Have a life first. Go to university and study something that will teach you about the world and if you still insist on writing you will have so much more to bring to the page.”

London-born Gibb describes how growing up in multicultural Toronto had already fuelled her curiosity about the wider world, and she decided to study social anthropology, eventually doing a PhD at Oxford University. It wasn’t until 2000 that she finally made the decision to jettison a promising career in academia to become a full-time writer.

Although her fiction is not autobiographical, Gibb says that she drew on her sense of feeling “other,” as an English child growing up in Canada. “I didn’t know where I belonged. My parents divorced when I was quite young and so it was really just my mum and me, and my brother. I felt like I was in this isolated bubble.” This sense of isolation led her to create main characters in her novels who are orphaned, either literally or effectively, and turn towards surrogate families. Her first two novels, Mouthing the Words and The Petty Details of So-and-so’s Life, deal with how children are affected by life in dysfunctional families.

Gibb handles very painful material in these novels, but tempers the darkness with humour. “It’s the only way I could have written them,” she says and is quick to point out that none of her child characters are victims. “They possess their own resources,” she says, adding that resilience is a quality she admires greatly.

Gibb feels comfortable portraying the charm and naivety of children. It’s easy to empathise with them, she says. She says that she was also interested to explore questions about nature versus nurture in the novels. “What makes us who we are? That is probably my fundamental question. With children I’ve had the pleasure of both exploring their childhood and seeing what the effects of the various domestic disasters are.”

Small wonder then that when Gibb set out to write her third novel, Sweetness in the Belly, she began with yet another child protagonist. She wrote 400 pages of a first draft in which her protagonist, Lilly, is dragged from place to place in Southern Europe and to North Africa by her irresponsible Bohemian parents. The family’s nomadic wanderings are brought to an end in Tangier, Morocco, when her parents are killed. Orphaned at eight, Lilly is left in the care of a Sufi sheikh who teaches her the way of Islam through the Qu’ran.

Her editor though had different ideas and pushed her to move out of her comfort zone and tackle Lilly as an adult character instead. “She suggested that there was a lot of stuff that I might want to take on that I couldn’t take on from the perspective of a child.” It was really daunting to abandon that first draft and take on something really grown-up, she says, adding that she also needed to grow up both as a writer and as a person.

She spent a year and a half in Ethiopia carrying out research for her doctorate, living in the ancient walled Muslim city of Harar, where she later set Sweetness in the Belly. She stayed in what she describes as a typical Hariri household albeit significantly more middle-class than the family Lilly lives with.

The house was divided into male and female spaces and she participated in the daily life of the household, she says, as much as a good Muslim daughter of about her age would. The family gradually introduced her to the ritual of Islam and she was fascinated to learn about the proliferation of saints’ shrines, including a large number of them which were dedicated to female saints.

Gibb did not use the material she gathered for her thesis in her fiction until she came to her third novel. “I don’t see how it could have been otherwise. I needed distance to forget certain facts, because too many facts lead to inhibiting the imagination and I needing to look at the experience through a different lens, and to ask different questions. And I needed to figure out if I had the facility with the first two books.”

Gibb is careful not to judge her characters and believes that it’s important for an author not to impose their own values. Cultural relativism, the idea that no one system is perfect, and everything has its intrinsic value is something that she learned from her anthropology training, she says.

“It was a good way to view the world and I came to realise the method of anthropology was not far off the stance that a writer takes, immersing oneself in another time and place but standing at the margins watching, participating to some degree but always an outsider.”

There is a horrific scene of female circumcision in Sweetness in the Belly, which Gibb admits some of her readers are not able to get beyond. “I tried to take the reader through it the same way that Lilly would have experienced it,” she says, saying that she didn’t allow herself to condemn anything.

Sweetness in the Belly is also partially set in Thatcher’s Britain. Why did she choose to set the story in London rather than a Canadian city?

“It would have been boring,” she laughs. London, she says, gave her a more dramatic background to look at race, alienation and discrimination.

“Under Thatcher’s Britain there was a particular brutality that the police were mandated to express towards blacks on council estates. The London sections also gave me a sense of going back to a world my family left. Also I thought that if I set the whole book in Ethiopia it would be very easy in many ways to say ‘Oh this is Ethiopia, and Ethiopian Moslems and it has no connection to me.’ I wanted to take London and make it exotic, showing to Westerners a familiar landscape, but inverting it in some way.”

Gibb feels that although the novel has no explicit Canadian content, it is driven by very Canadian questions. Canadian authors (and here she mentions Rohinton Mistry, M.G. Vassanji and Anne Michaels) are outward-looking and explore international issues. She also says of Canadian authors “We struggle with who we are, not being British, not being American. Living in the shadow of the U.S., there’s a sense of modesty and the tall poppy syndrome.”

Gibb’s fourth novel is set in Vietnam which she visited on her way home from a literary festival in Kuala Lumpur in 2007. “I was so inspired by the place—its vitality, youth and hunger—that I started imagining a book set in contemporary Hanoi. It’s called The Beauty of Humanity Movement, which refers to a group of writers who wrote and spoke out against some of Ho Chi Minh’s policies in the early 1950s (particularly land reform) and were imprisoned and/or killed as a result.” The book examines the legacy of artistic suppression and how that has impacted subsequent generations, and is almost complete.

SHARON BAKAR is a freelance writer and teacher trainer in Kuala Lumpur. Her work has appeared in a number of Malaysian publications, including The Star, Off The Edge, Men’s Review, Quill, and Chrome. She is also the editor of an anthology of short fiction, Collateral Damage, published by Silverfish Books. She teaches creative writing in partnership with the British Council, and organises Readings, a monthly event for local writers, at Seksan’s Gallery in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. Her blog on writing and publishing in Malaysia,, attracts a wide readership.

Reproduced from the special 2008 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival issue of Quill magazine


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