canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Anna Camilleri 

Anna Camilleri is the author of I Am a Red Dress: Incantations on a Grandmother, a Mother and a Daughter (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004), editor of Red Light: Superheroes, Saints and Sluts (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2005), co-author of Boys Like Her: Transfictions (Press Gang Publishers, 1998), and co-editor of Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2002). 

Her writing has been alternately described as "potent, fresh, and imbued with powerful imagery" (Quill and Quire); "brave and necessary" (Books in Canada); "provocative and evocative" (Xtra); "genuine and unflinching," and as "speaking eloquently of the need for civil rights for all of us" (Lambda Book Report). 

Anna is currently writing a novel, and touring her full-length one-woman show Sounds Siren Red. Her website: 

Dani Couture interviewed Anna via email in June 2005.


TDR: I know that many writers often have difficulty labeling themselves as that, a writer. When did you first admit to yourself that you were a writer?

AC: I began to call myself a writer a couple of years after the release of Boys Like Her, when I realized that I wanted to pursue writing. But calling yourself something, and admitting to something are different things. In my quietest moments, I know that I am a writer - that spending any time debating with myself is silly, but it is in that same quiet place that I'm humbled every time I sit sown to write, and I think I know nothing about writing, and I'm a lousy typist. My feelings of entitlement (or lack of), and stress about money, intersect with naming myself a writer.  But sure, I'm a writer. Then the stranger sitting next to me on the train to Ottawa glances at the papers in my lap and says, "What's your line of work?" I consider lying, just for fun, but I say, I'm a writer. He yanks at his tie and says, "Do you earn a living at it?" The amount of time I spend working, and remuneration for that work, isn't exactly proportional, and that messes with my head.

TDR: Do you write differently for print and performance?

AC: Yes and no, but I don't always know whether I'm writing for the page, or the stage. For performance, I pay particular attention to rhythm, and because the work is embodied, some things that work on the page are redundant in performance. And I've learned to read all of my work for the page aloud - it takes the words out of my head, and gives me a sense of whether they flow.

TDR: I was at the Toronto launch of I am a red dress at the Toronto Women's Bookstore. When you signed my copy of your book, you wrote: "How can anything [begin] without a vision of it first?" What vision promoted the creation of your book?

AC: I had been seeing images of a woman in red dress for years before it dawned on me that I might need to do something about it . . . I interpreted the image as an embodiment of freedom, and in my case, freedom from violence. Aside from the specific cultural locations (Italian-Canadian) of the woman in a red dress I write about, our culture at large projects a lot onto women, and the woman in the red dress is a known female icon, but she is without voice or story. She turns up in music videos playing air-guitar, wearing pencil skirts and severely bound hair - she is the powerless dominatrix. This is the vision that prompted the creation of I Am a Red Dress: a woman in a red dress who is fully embodied, and at the service of (no one but) her own divinity.

TDR: In the epilogue, you say that there's a thousand ways to tell one story. How did you decide to tell this, your story?

AC: I considered writing the book in fiction form, as a novel, but only briefly.

In the end, the story lead me to memoir, and I decided to go with it even though I was aware that I would not be able to hide behind the veil of fiction. And that is, in part, the point of the book - to refuse the boundaries between public and private, to tell an awful story that is redeemed by the telling. Memoir is also a hybrid form that suits my slip and slide between narrative, poetry, and poetic prose.

TDR: You are known as an accomplished performance artist. Was it second-nature for you to take the narratives of "I am a red dress" and turn them into the radio documentary "Red dress" that was aired on the CBC show Outfront?

AC: Thanks, Dani. What happens for me is I develop a piece as performance, but it doesn't feel complete, so I write it for the page, and then I explore it visually. I work with the same ideas, until I find the limit of the form (or my limitations within the form) and then I move to another form.  The writing in I Am a Red Dress provided the framework for a full-length performance titled Sounds Siren Red (directed by Tristan Whiston), which will have a full theatrical run next spring. After the premiere of Sounds Siren Red, I made the experimental radio documentary Red Dress, which draws on text and performance from both works. I have been trying to satisfy some obsession with red, which is really an obsession with femininity (personally and culturally). I have taken some of threads from these works, and pursued a visual exploration in linocut (print work), and then I made a graphic poem called Red Light. I think all of this (back and forth) is less about first or second nature and more about reaching for something that privileges poetry and narrative, and is, at the same time, three dimensional - not containable or complete in any discipline.

TDR: In the story "Girls run circles", you write that "girl" is a country that you both wish to revisit and forget. Was the creation of this book an effort to remember the past or to lay it to rest? Can the past ever truly be laid to rest?

AC: Writing the book was an effort to reconcile with the spirit of the woman in the red dress who had been haunting me for the better part of four years. The idea that the past can be laid to rest assumes that time is linear, that there is a clearly demarcated beginning, and end, of events. I think of memory as being less like solid matter, and more like vapour, or liquid. I don't think the past can be put to rest, but it can be reconciled.

TDR: I recently heard Dionne Brand speak on her latest novel, What we all long for. When asked how her prose and poetry affect one another, she replied that the poetry is good for the prose, but the prose terrifies the poetry. You work in both poetry and prose. Let me ask the same question of you: How do your prose writing and poetry affect one another, if at all?

AC: There is a tension between the two that feels counter-productive sometimes.

As a poet I try to distill moments, and as a prose writer, there is a broader landscape to work with.

TDR: Why do you think it's important for women to share their stories of struggle?

AC: Any woman's story is inherently valuable, and sharing stories changes the world - that's what I hope for, anyhow. Every story is about some kind of struggle or conflict, but when men tell stories of struggle, they tend to be recognized as "universal," and when women tell those same stories, they're conflated with personal experience (and therefore, less "literary").

TDR: On a lighter note, what books are on your bedside table right now?

AC: I just finished reading Stay by Nicola Griffiths; I love her work. And I'm just at the beginning of Nalo Hopkinson's Salt Roads.

TDR: Lastly, I've heard that you're currently working on a novel? Can you share anything about that work in progress?

I am writing a novel! I can't say much about it yet; I'm heading back into an intensive writing period after a long hiatus from it. I started writing it about four years ago.

Dani Couture is TDR's managing editor.







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