April 2011

Niranjana Iyer


An Interview with Camilla Gibb

Camilla Gibb’s last novel, Sweetness in the Belly, was set in Ethiopia and Thatcherite Britain, and described the story of a white Muslim woman who self-identified as Ethiopian. Critics praised the work’s authenticity and cultural sensitivity, and Sweetness scooped up a number of honors, including the Trillium Book Award.  

In her new novel, The Beauty of Humanity Movement, Gibb again writes about a country and culture far from her own -- Vietnam. Beauty avoids the regulation West-centric narratives of the country to offer an intimate, richly-detailed account of the forces of history and optimism animating Vietnam today.

Gibb, who earned a Ph.D. in social anthropology from Oxford University, was born in England and now lives in Toronto. She answered Bookslut's questions via e-mail on the eve of her trip to the United Kingdom.

Sweetness in the Belly is set (partly) in Ethiopia, and The Beauty of Humanity Movement is set in Vietnam. Given how a sense of place is so key to your writing, it's intriguing that you’ve said you always enter a novel through a character.

I see the encounter with place always happening through the eyes of an individual. I am interested in place and culture in terms of how they shape an individual life, but what and how one encounters is really determined by individual personality and circumstances. For example, the main character of The Beauty of Humanity Movement is an old, itinerant pho seller named Hung. When I "discovered" him, I wanted to know his life story, what he had lived through in eight decades, what he had experienced and how that might have shaped him. I thus encountered Vietnamese history and culture through his eyes -- taking him back through the decades, from the French colonial era, to the beginning of the communist era, to the war, to the years of poverty following the war that necessitated some liberalization of the Vietnamese economy.

Vietnam has a knotty history with the West -- of colonialism, exploitation and war. Do you, as a Western writer, feel a burden of representation (so to speak) when dealing with Vietnam?

Not burdened, but appropriately challenged. What I wanted to do was tell a story about Vietnam that had very little to do with the war. When I went to Vietnam in 2007, it became immediately apparent the degree to which the war is a Western, rather than Vietnamese preoccupation. Once you put the war aside, the possibility of a thousand other stories comes to light -- stories we have not heard because Vietnam still exercises a stern degree of censorship, individual expression has been discouraged, there is not a strong tradition of novel-writing and there is no publishing industry to speak of beyond the government's own propaganda department. If I, because of the privilege of living and working in the West, have some freedom to shine a light in a hidden corner, I take it as my responsibility to do so, and do it responsibly.

The Vietnam War is still an important cultural and political touchstone for America, but your novel conveys the impression that modern Vietnam doesn’t devote much mindspace to it. In the novel, a young man named Tu’ says “The war was a long time ago… And furthermore, the Vietnamese beat the Americans…” And the matter seems to end there for him.

The legacy persists, the damage done, the scars, but perhaps in part because of a Buddhist sensibility, there seems to be a strong inclination to live in the now.

To write narratives which get deep under the skin of a country, you must have inhabited the private spaces of the people. Did you find this easy to achieve? How do you fold yourself away and become an invisible observer?

I will never be an invisible observer. I will always be an outsider. But that stance can sometimes afford you insight, with the benefit of some distance, some objectivity and some access to private spaces that might otherwise be off-limits. In the research that informed Sweetness in the Belly, for example, I lived and worked in a Muslim community for a year. Because I was non-Muslim, because I was not a woman from that community with all the associated expectations, I had the advantage of being able to move between male and female spaces in the way a woman in that community could not. Being a woman also allowed me access to the private worlds of women in a way that a male writer could never have accessed.

I can see how your training as an anthropologist helps your writing, but does it ever cramp you in the domain of fiction?

It did. The early drafts of Sweetness in the Belly were full of explicit ethnography. But then I was burdened with having written a Ph.D. thesis on the place and its people. I had to purge a lot of detail in the interests of moving along and telling a story. I learned a lot through that process.

I approached this novel very differently, just doing enough research to give me a toehold, then taking the plunge into the imaginative. I let the main character, Hung, take me back through time. I imagined he came from a village, and therefore researched village life in the '20s and '30s. I brought him to work in his uncle’s restaurant in Hanoi in the 1930s, and thus did research about café culture and intellectual life in Hanoi during the '30s-'50s. And in doing so, I discovered the men I refer to as “The Beauty of Humanity Movement.” I did research about the end of the French era, the early days of communism, including the brutal land reform policies of the '50s, and so on, situating Hung in all the eras he had lived through, asking how the universal and political was personally experienced. I encountered history through his eyes.

Is your connection to the setting of your novels primarily literary, or does it extend to other aspects of your life? Once a novel is published and done with, what sort of relationship do/can you maintain with the place?

I don't shy away from the designation "political" writer. There is a politics at work in everything I do -- a humanitarian spirit and a belief in the importance of underrepresented voices being heard. In Sweetness in the Belly, for example, I very much wanted to explore something of Oromo experience. The Oromo are an Ethiopian ethnic group who have been marginalized and denied freedom of cultural and political expression for centuries. An Oromo friend thanked me for speaking to the Oromo situation in a way that she was not at liberty to do. Her life would be in danger if she even attempted to do so.

On the topic of a humanitarian spirit, I heard you helped your Vietnamese tour guide Phuong (who told you about the itinerant pho seller who inspired the character of Hung) set up a pho shop of his own?

My friend Phuong had a dream to open his own pho restaurant. Years ago I had a dream -- to write fiction. Someone -- an anonymous benefactor -- gave me a gift of $6,000 to quit my job and give it a try. It was then that I wrote my first novel. Because someone gave me a chance. I always wondered how and to whom I would pay the gift forward. When I met Phuong, I knew. He opened his first shop in 2008.  

How has The Beauty of Humanity Movement been received in Vietnam? And by Vietnamese Canadians and Americans?

I have sent copies to friends in Vietnam, but have yet to hear their reactions. So far, I have had lovely responses from Vietnamese Canadians and Americans, most of whom left Vietnam as children. There is some relief, it seems, in reading a happy story about Vietnam, of reading about Vietnam as a modern country, and of hearing a story that is not preoccupied with the war.

Who is the one Vietnamese writer we should all be reading?

Dương Thu Hương, a Hanoin writer born in 1947, is considered something of a hero of the Đổi Mới era. Đổi Mới, an official platform adopted in the mid-1980s in order to liberalize a crippled economy, saw some degree of relaxation in social and political policing as well. At least for a time. Dương was imprisoned in 1991 after having published two novels openly critical of the Communist Party – The Other Side of the Illusion and Paradise of the Blind. She is an outspoken and vocal critic who continues to live and write in Hanoi, though her work is banned in Vietnam. Her subsequent novels, Novel Without a Name and Memories of a Pure Spring, have both only been published abroad in translation. All her works offer rare insight into post-war Vietnam, an era largely hidden from (and ignored by) Western eyes.

What are you working on now?

I edited a collection of Canadian memoir that is coming out this April -- The Penguin Book of Memoir. As a consequence of spending three years reading memoir, I'm leaning toward writing one myself.

One of the main themes of your fiction is, in fact, the power -- and unreliability -- of memory. Could you elaborate on the latter in the context of your novels as well as this anthology? What draws you to memoir?

I don’t know that I make clear distinctions between fiction and memoir. They both seek to elucidate some truth about human experience and employ narrative devices in order to tell a story. Fiction often has the advantage of reading truer than nonfiction, ironically. The draw toward nonfiction at the moment seems to be rooted in a desire to explore a more direct means of storytelling.  

Niranjana Iyer is a freelance writer from Canada. She maintains the Women Doing Literary Things site.