Late last semester, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author Camilla Gibb reading from her latest book The Beauty of Humanity Movement (Doubleday, 2010). Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.
The history of Vietnam lies in this bowl, for it is in Hanoi, the Vietnamese heart, that pho was born, a combination of the rice noodles that predominated after a thousand years of Chinese occupation and the taste for beef the Vietnamese acquired under the French, who turned their cows away from ploughs and into bifteck and pot-au-feu. The name of their national soup is pronounced like this French word for fire, as Hung’s Uncle Chien explained to him long ago…
from The Beauty of Humanity Movement
by Camilla Gibb
While most people come home from vacations with inspiring photographs, writers often return with the inspiration for their next novel. This is what happened to Camilla Gibb (right) when she traveled to North Vietnam for a much-needed holiday. The result was The Beauty of Humanity Movement, a novel that was on the short list for the Giller Award. Gibb recently shared her thoughts on this book and the writing experience at the Canadian Writers in Person series.
Gibb said she was initially “blown away” by the youth culture of Vietnam. Her first point of contact was a young man named Phuong who became her tour guide and friend. In some ways, she said, he was not much different than a North American person in his mid-20s: he wore Nikes, watched MTV, and was up to date on Western pop culture. Unlike those of previous generations, he had grown up with a different frame of reference, one based not on war but on consumer desire and entrepreneurial spirit. As one of her characters states, “we’re not looking for forgiveness, we’re looking for a way forward.”
Gibb said that Phuong was nonetheless aware that many Western visitors come with expectations based on the war of 40 years ago. As a tour guide, he had to take the resulting feelings of guilt and discomfort and make his guests feel at ease. In fact, Vietnam has a thriving war tour industry, where one can visit old battlegrounds, fire an old Kalashnikov rifle, or even crawl through the same tunnels the Vietnamese soldiers had used. Gibb recounted to students with some amusement that the tunnels are not exactly the same because they have since been widened to accommodate the North American posterior.
When Gibb began to write her novel, she deliberately didn’t make it about the war: “When you set aside the war, you realize you know nothing. I wanted to start from nothing because then opportunities for other stories open up,” she said. One of these stories is about Hung, an elderly pho-maker who bridges the gap between the present and the past. Through his eyes, the reader experiences the vibrant cafe culture of 1950’s Hanoi where artists and intellectuals discussed art and politics. Because of the lack of resource material, Gibb found herself liberated to explore and imagine how this world was rendered.
Gibb nonetheless had to do some research on the traumatizing land reforms that affected village life in North Vietnam. She did this because she said that she “needed Hung to go back, to witness the aftermath. Otherwise, it would read like a news story and I needed to personalize the history and politics by putting him there.” By doing this, the reader also feels the impact and the story is not felt from the “top down but from character out.”
The story has a reasonably happy ending as does the real-life friendship between Gibb and her tour guide Phuong who became the template for a similar character in her book. As he consulted on the details of her novel, she helped him fulfill his dream of opening his own family pho restaurant. When he had his first child, he asked Gibb for an English name and he likewise offered a Gibb a Vietnamese name when her child was born, cementing the link between their two cultures.
Through this friendship and the process of writing her novel, Viet Nam became for Gibb “a country I love. I can’t claim to know it or its history but I know the characters very well, my ultimate defense as a novelist. They feel very, very real to me. Hung in particular is a man I love. I hope he’s still there, doing what he does, and serving pho. He feels like everyman to me, every man who has a right to have a story.”
The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. Readings take place on Tuesdays at 7pm in Room 206 of the Accolade West Building. On Feb. 7, poet and author Sheniz Janmohamed will read from her first book Bleeding Light (TSAR Publications, 2010).
For more information and a detailed schedule, visit the Canadian Writers in Person website.