Catherine Bush challenges belief with ‘Accusation’

Catherine Bush, Canadian Writers in Person presenter

Recently, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author Catherine Bush reading from her book Accusation. Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.

She pushed her chair back from the desk as the awful word on the screen entered her, and the name of the man linked to that word. 

from Accusation
by Catherine Bush

What makes you believe in a story? In her fourth novel, Accusation, Catherine Bush takes it a step further to question what we believe about a person who has been accused of a terrible crime.

author Catherine Bush
Catherine Bush

In Accusation, a journalist named Sara Wheeler confronts a man, Raymond Renaud, who may or may not have assaulted children in an Ethiopian circus. “This is a novel that is lifelike in the sense that people don’t always show up to speak when you want them to; they vanish, they refuse to speak,” she told the audience gathered for her recent presentation Jan. 27 as part of the Canadian Writers in Person series. “Someone may be guilty of something but not necessarily of what they’ve been accused of.” Bush intentionally creates this ambiguity in her novel to place readers in the challenging position of having to determine their own judgments with incomplete information. “I don’t want to tell the reader what to believe,” she said.

In the story, each character enters Raymond’s story in a different way, depending on their perspective. This mirrors what Bush believes happens in real life, that “we map ourselves onto stories of accusation.” Even as she was writing her own novel, Bush felt that her opinion about Raymond kept changing, following the experiences of the fictional journalist who attempts to uncover the truth.

In addition to the perceptions surrounding them, Bush was also interested in what it feels like to be accused and “the emotional life of accusations,” she said. “Even a small false accusation can have a powerful internal life and live on as trauma.” She pairs the larger story of the circus allegations with Sara’s memory of being falsely accused of stealing a wallet, an incident that continues to haunt her long after. This possibility of innocence complicates what might be an easy judgment of Raymond, and her power as a journalist to spread the accusation is an uneasy dilemma.

Cover of Catherine Bush's novel Accusation

The novel is based partly on real events and the author’s own experience of discovering a children’s circus in Addis Ababa, as well as stories told by others. In fact, “an accusation is like a story,” she noted. “An accusation is a story told to influence another, while often being overheard by many. Like a story, an accusation demands that we enter or entertain its version of reality, if only for a moment. Even if it’s false, like a fiction, it’s capable of being imagined. Then, as with other stories, we must decide whether to believe it.”

The idea of belief becomes even more interesting when applied to writing itself. Building on the thoughts of essayist John Gardner, Bush applies three possibilities to our experience of reading stories: the writer documents a believable world and offers details as proof; the writer creates a believable voice, one so strong that the reader wants to believe it and is willing to suspend disbelief; or the story is not believable but is delivered so well that the reader enjoys the absurdity and outrageousness. As is often said of good stories, the heart of the experience, and perhaps its changeable truth, lies not on the page but in the relationship between author and reader: “The writer invites belief in the reader and the reader arrives with a desire to believe, though doubt is always possible. The believing relationship between writer and reader isn’t static but must be realized and confirmed again and again with every sentence. It is energetic and transforming.”

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. For a full schedule of upcoming writers this year, see YFile Sept. 9, 2014.