Writer Camilla Gibb opened doorways at York

On March 15, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented author Camilla Gibb. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

This is why the Sufis try to erase the body, I realized in that moment. Not because it is a host for parasites, not because it demands food and water and sleep, but because one mouth to one finger can override the most sacred sentiment, the most pious intention. One mouth to one finger can lead to a kiss and that kiss can change the world.

from Sweetness in the Belly
by Camilla Gibb

As a child with a typical British upbringing, Camilla Gibb (right) was told that she was meant to be seen and not heard. A well-meaning high-school teacher later reinforced that message by telling her to "have a life" before attempting a writing career. Years later, at the Canadian Writers in Person series presentation on March 15 at York University, Gibb was both seen and heard discussing life and her latest novel. 

Though Sweetness in the Belly is her third novel, it had a long gestation. As a child who pursued her curiosity through books, she progressively made her way through literature that was acceptable and then unacceptable by her mother’s standards. It’s a taste for literature that Gibb carried into adult life, for books that lead the reader through doorways into unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory. 

One door was opened by her Lebanese step-father who introduced her to the colour and vibrancy of Middle Eastern culture. University studies in anthropology led to a sojourn in Cairo and subsequently Harar, Ethiopia, for her PhD fieldwork. However, the end result, says Gibb, was a dry, dispassionate thesis where the stories of the people she had lived with, their colour, texture and humanity did not even make it into the footnotes.

She turned to creative writing and it took two novels, said Gibb, to "unlearn and disarticulate the material from the academic language" before she could return to her experience in Harar. She also re-evaluated her old friendship with Agitu, an Ethiopian refugee student from her undergrad days at the University of Toronto. While a student, Gibb had been eager to "know the world through her" but later realized how little she understood Agitu’s internal experience of exile. She was shocked to learn that rather than being as excited as she was to engage with a different culture, Agitu had felt like a ghost during her first year in Canada. When Agitu eventually left for California, it led Gibb to the question, "When it becomes possible to return home, do you?"

In finding her own voice, Gibb was also learning to speak through others’. Agitu’s people had been prevented from writing literature, leading Agitu to say of her friend’s novel, "You can do this, where we can’t."  It’s therefore not surprising that the title, Sweetness in the Belly, refers to the ability to carry the essence of someone inside you.

In regards to the writing life, Gibb warned her audience, "Never job-shadow a writer. It’s really boring. They sit in a chair for hours on end and are generally useless to other people during the initial rush of ideas." After that rush, a lot of the work is editing and discarding. She arrives at her desk at 9am and rereads everything she’s written so far, even though it can take seven hours to read 300 pages before she begins writing page 301. For this reason each day of a finished piece, her first page is usually "immaculate" because it’s been re-red several times.

The sad part of becoming a writer, says Gibb,  is that she has lost, in part, the ability to read for pleasure. When she does, Gibb says she still likes to read about other cultures and to be made uncomfortable by the unfamiliar. Though Gibb is a mature writer and presenter, there was a glimmer of the curious child in the way she rocked back on her heels while reading from her own work, seen and no longer unheard.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The series is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the ArtsLarissa Lai read from her novel Salt Fish Girl on March 29.