Q&A with award winning author-in-residence Camilla Gibb

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This fall, the Peter Wall Institute is pleased to welcome prize-winning Canadian author Camilla Gibb as our 2014 author-in-residence. Gibb is has written four critically acclaimed novels— Mouthing the Words, The Petty Details of So-and-so’s Life, Sweetness in the Belly and The Beauty of Humanity Movement— and is published around the world in fourteen languages. She has been shortlisted for the Giller Prize, twice long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and is a past winner of the City of Toronto Book Award, the Trillium Book Award (for best book in Ontario) and the CBC Canadian Literary Award.

Ahead of her visit at UBC from November 1-12, 2014, The Wall Papers caught up with Camilla Gibb to ask a few questions. 

Wall Papers (WP): Many authors say that they write from what they know. How is this true for you?

Camilla Gibb (CG): I write from what I know in search of an answer to something I don’t know. That something is usually the quality of an emotional experience– what does it feel like to be in this particular position, how does one build a meaningful new life after this particular kind of trauma, those sorts of questions.

WP: You will be publishing an upcoming memoir next year in 2015, entitled, This Is Happy. What can you tell us about this book? Why write a memoir at this point in your life and career?

CG: I edited a collection of Canadian memoirs for Penguin a few years ago. I felt an obligation to read as much and as widely as I could in order to select the excerpts for that book. I found myself engaged in a lot of silent conversation with these authors and their stories and it inevitably led me to reflect on my own life. Many of the excerpts in the collection are immigrant stories— narratives common to Canadian experience. My own family immigrated to Canada from England when I was small and I grew up with this sense of disconnect from my environment— we had no family history or stories located here, no extended family or continuity. When my daughter was born four years ago I realized her experience of this place would be radically different. I could offer her continuity and connection through stories of my own life set here, on ground that would be familiar to her.   

Alongside an upcoming memoir due out in 2015, Canadian author Camilla Gibb's recent publications include the critically acclaimed novels Sweetness in the Belly (2005) and The Beauty of Humanity Movement (2010).

WP: In one of your interviews a few years ago, you mentioned that you have been preoccupied with issues of identity and belonging. Last year, the Institute hosted British author and playwright Caryl Phillips, whose work revolves around the same themes. Can you tell us a bit about your thoughts on the “outsider” experience?

CG: It seems to be endemic to writers. Perhaps it’s what makes us writers in the first place. Existing at some remove is a lonely place at times but also a vantage point that allows you to make observations about human life that you would otherwise completely miss. 

WP: You have a PhD from Oxford University in social anthropology. How has social anthropology and your academic background informed your writing?

CG: Anthropology is another discipline that seems to attract outsiders so there is some continuity for me in terms of where we situate ourselves in relation to our material. I’m also asking many of the same broad questions about who we are and how we live. Where the disjuncture occurs is principally in language— what and how things are conveyed.   

WP: Your novel, Sweetness in the Belly, is based largely on your PhD thesis and time spent in Ethiopia. How much of it is fiction and how much is non-fiction? How did you strike a balance between the two?

CG: The whole novel is fiction in the sense that it is a story drawn from imagination. Whatever “facts” are conveyed are embedded in a fictional narrative and only arise in service of the characters lives. The characters are located in a historical and cultural context that is unfamiliar to many readers and so it demands of me some rendering of their world, but only in terms of how these particular forces impact upon their lives. It’s a kind of bottom-up rather than top-down approach to history. It’s essential in fiction to show rather than tell and to avoid being didactic or using your characters as spokespeople for political views. Ultimately, you are attempting to offer readers an emotional experience above all.  

WP: Your books that are perhaps most well-known to Canadians, Sweetness in the Belly and The Beauty of Humanity Movement, are set in Ethiopia and Vietnam, respectively. As a novelist and social anthropologist, how have you been able to write about those cultures essentially as an “outsider," yet be able to write about them so deeply and so richly?

CG: I think convincing fiction of any kind is rooted in empathy– both the desire and ability to inhabit the emotional landscape of another who might have lived a life very different from your own.

Wall Papers: What do you hope to gain from your time in residence with us in an interdisciplinary setting?

CG: As a writer, I largely work in isolation. I like to be unsettled, to be exposed to different ways of thinking about or approaching a subject, but most of that happens in silence for me, through reading. What a rare privilege it will be to be among humans! Among people who are passionate and inquiring, from whom I can learn things I know nothing about or with whom I can talk about shared terrain from different perspectives.

WP: What do you plan on working on during your time at the Institute and UBC?

CG: I seem to be working on essays at the moment. Perhaps reading and writing memoirs might have ruined me for fiction for the time being. I’m interested in so many things about human experience—affect, empathy, spirituality, exile, trauma— and how we find narrative form for the expression of things that seem to fight against language in some ways.   

WP: The abstract for your November 5 talk at UBC insinuates that perhaps “empathy” was somehow missing from your previous books. How so?

CG: In fact, my books have been attempts to overcome empathic failures in life! Occasions where I have failed to understand someone’s perspective or projected onto them my own expectations.

WP: How do you think your explorations of empathy inform your work moving forward?

CG: I don’t yet know. And I don’t mind not knowing. I write my way toward knowing anything, really. 

WP: For students at UBC who might be aspiring novelists, what words of advice would you give them?

CG: I’m not sure I would presume to give advice, particularly here, where you have one of the strongest creative writing programs in the country. I suppose one truism I might offer is that to be a writer is to be, first and foremost, a reader.    

WP: What books would we find on your bookstand today?

CG: Eva Hoffman’s memoir Lost in Translation. The Bone Clocks – the new David Mitchell novel. And Middlemarch, which I keep keep keep meaning to read.