canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Camilla Gibb 

Camilla Gibb was born in London, England, and grew up in Toronto. She is the author of three novels, numerous short stories, articles and reviews and the winner of the City of Toronto Book Award in 2000 and the CBC Canadian Literary Award for short fiction in 2001. Camilla's new novel is Sweetness in the Belly (Doubleday, 2005). Camilla's debut novel, Mouthing the Words, was first published by Pedlar Press in 1999. Her second novel was The Petty Details of So-and-so's Life (Doubleday, 2002). Website:

Nathaniel G. Moore conducted this interview electronically in June 2005.


TDR: Can you tell us a bit about your education, background, upbringing?

I was born in England but moved to Toronto when I was very young and was raised by a single and very hardworking mother. Neither of my parents went to university and there was never any expectation that I would, so in many ways I had to chart my own course. I went to U of T to study anthropology - I was curious about the world and the myriad ways in which we live in it - and became particularly interested in the Middle East. I spent a year of my undergrad at university in Cairo, and that led to me looking at Muslim practices in Africa - particularly the Sudan and Ethiopia - as a PhD student at Oxford. I spent 1994/95 conducting research in Ethiopia and wrote a big, boring, dry, dispassionate thesis which earned me my PhD but left me feeling rather hollow. I started writing fiction to fill some of that hollow, though continued working as academic until my first book had been published abroad and I had some alternative income. Then I packed it all in - left academia in 2000 and decided this was it. I wanted to write to the exclusion of all other things.

TDR: Who are some of your influences, and if you were to suggest a reading list for the summer, or if you have one, what would be on it?

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 piercing 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 and Oscar Hijuelos. But specific influences? In the writing of Sweetness in the Belly Kapuscinski was huge. As was the Qur'an. There's also a bit of Paul Bowles and Reza Bahareni. And the next book? A bit of Saramago, a bit of sci-fi Atwood and a bit of Camus.

Summer reading: Orhan Pamuk's Snow, D. C. B. Pierre's Vernon God Little, Allan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, Ishiguru's latest.

TDR: Are you looking forward to your upcoming Writer-in-Residence at the University of Toronto in 2006? What do you expect to be up to after that?

It's like a homecoming for me. Having left academia it's enormously satisfying to return in this new incarnation. I'll be running a fiction workshop with about 12 students, which is the part I'm most looking forward to.

This might be followed by another residency - I'm waiting to hear about that.

TDR: Your work has been translated into 14 languages. That’s a lot. Do you ever get fan mail from other countries, and how does this impact you in terms of motivation, inspiration.

I do get mail from people in other countries on occasion - I particularly did with the first book, which was quite raw and seemed to strike something quite raw in others that they then felt they wanted or needed to share. I'm always very moved by that. I suppose, as a writer, you hope to get at some emotional truth, and it's very validating when you get feedback that suggests that truth is important and universal.

TDR: What motivated you to concentrate on Ethiopia? And when did you decide this was a novel, and not non-fiction? Did you ever feel like it could have been non-fiction, like a travel memoir?

Part of what depressed me about my thesis was that I felt all the humanity had been expunged in the name of bigger theoretical statements. All the colour and texture and flavour of the place was missing. As were the people and their stories - the things that moved me while I lived there for a year with a local family.

I knew I wanted to "revisit" Ethiopia, but I didn't know the form this would take. I could have adopted a child from Ethiopia, or started an NGO, I thought and still think of doing both, but being a fiction writer, I suppose I did the thing that was most natural to me and wrote a novel. If it was going to be text, it was going to be a novel.

TDR: When you are knee-deep in a writing project, what is the writing process like for you?

There's the euphoric initial flood of ideas, where the fingers won't keep up and the story is unfolding on the page and dragging you along with it but that eventually yields to the slow and methodical work of editing and rewriting and persisting through the confusion and frustration. I am impossible to communicate with in the initial instance - lost to the story - and then engaged in something much more routine, which I view as the "job" part.

TDR: Was the white Muslim nurse protagonist Lilly drawn from any particular experience or interaction?

I've never met anyone with a story like Lilly's. I knew that because I'd encountered Ethiopia as an outsider my main character would do the same, though I made her a Muslim, which I am not.

TDR: Because I want to create a possible web interference by mentioning a popular novel, and perhaps some random Dan Brown fan will happen upon our conversation, have you read The Da Vinci Code?

HAH! I'm afraid not. I don't think I could bear it. I will, however, admit to reading HELLO Magazine (although there isn't enough text in it to actually call it "reading") and INSTYLE. I've read one popular novel in the last twenty years - one of the Precious Ramotswe books by Alexander McCall Smith, because I was curious as to how this old white guy could portray a Botswanan lady detective. I found it charming, but one was plenty enough.

TDR: How does the writers relationship to the text change as the book is published and promoted? Or does it? Are you thinking about this book a lot, working on a new project? Or am I completely off?

You care about your book in a vaguely parental way - you want it to do well on its own in the world because it is no longer living in your house.

Certain characters stay with you, I think. In each book there's been one and I continue to think about those characters and, however ridiculous it sounds, hope they're ok. It's Yusuf in Sweetness - he's just beginning to emerge and I feel very protective of him.

While they stay with you, you move on to the next book. I did begin something last fall and am now trying to carve out some time to work on it. I'm not quite ready yet, but it's waiting for me.

TDR: Define “otherness” you use this word in other interviews. To achieve otherness we need to create at least two cultures, two dynamics… Can you expand on your idea of “otherness”.

I think where otherness becomes the stuff of hatred and violence is often between people where the smallest, rather than the biggest differences exist. Hutus and Tutsis, for example. I'm interested in the way differences are artificially constructed to serve certain political agendas or social aims.

Race, ethnicity, nationality, and anything "normative" - all these things are socially constructed and potentially destructive because they can be manipulated and used to exclude others and discriminate.

TDR: Do you think Canadian writers need to go outside of Canada to achieve something that is actually about something, I mean, at the Tim Horton’s chain # 3253 we are not going to experience the missing years of Ethiopia's Mengistu regime, or stumble upon tales of asylum seekers or refugees roaming contemporary first-world cities.

But there might be a guy sitting in Tim Horton's, taking a coffee break from driving a taxi, who has exactly these stories to tell. In fact, not might be, I'm sure there is.

Nathaniel G. Moore is TDR’s features editor. He has a sense of humour that doesn’t expire until July 2009. He dreams of one day owning his very own mandolin. Despite no obvious geographic or charismatic handicap, he has been rejected by Taddle Creek for the past five years straight. For publicity inquiries, legal action, or outright challenges visit







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