Our May Book Club pick is Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb, the story of an English girl brought up by African Muslims and trying to find her place in the world. We chatted with the author about Ethiopia, 9/11, and why she waited to write this story.
Canadian Living: You spent a year in Ethiopia during your PhD. What sparked your initial interest in the country?
Camilla Gibb: It started with a friendship. When I was an undergraduate, I met and became very good friends with a young Ethiopian woman who had just arrived in Toronto by way of a refugee camp in Kenya.
The friendship was important and enlightening, opening my eyes to a part of the world I'd had no contact with before. For most of us, our introduction to Ethiopia is through pictures of famine victims in the media. This friendship opened the door to the complexities of a world beyond those pictures.
CL: Why did you wait so long after your time in Ethiopia to write this book?
CG: My thesis depressed me because 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 were 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, but being a fiction writer, I suppose I did the thing that was most natural to me and wrote a novel.
It took time though, to forget some of the “facts” and learn a new way, a nonacademic way of telling stories. I had to write two novels first and figure out who I was as a writer before I was ready to take on something this big and complex.
CL: How hard was it to separate yourself from your thesis enough to write a fictional story, but not enough to hinder telling a realistic story?
CG: I had to really work against the impulse to “explain” everything and figure out how to convey information (historical, ethnographic) through the lived experiences of the characters. It was as simple (and as difficult) as asking myself: how can I "show” rather than “tell” this?
CL: How did September 11, 2001, affect the way you wanted the reader to understand Islam?
CG: I started this book in 2000, and I would have been writing about Islam and Muslims, regardless of September 11th. As I was writing and the events of the world unfolded, I began to think that what I was writing was so much “softer” and loving and more colourful and complex than any depiction of Islam I was seeing in the media. Islam, like any religion, is a moral code, a set of guidelines for being good in the world, a shared set of values and beliefs for living in groups. The Muslim world is immensely diverse, and I have simply tried to illustrate some of that diversity by describing how it is practiced and understood in one place in a particular time. One's relationship to faith also changes over time, and over geography, particularly when one is forced into a non-Muslim environment. So I explore how several characters have to renegotiate that relationship in exile.
CL: The original story was written from a child's perspective. What was lost and/or gained by making Lilly older?
CG: A child doesn't have to have opinions, be knowledgeable or informed, or make decisions. I was avoiding making comment on serious issues by keeping Lilly as a child. Forcing her to grow up forced me to grow up as a writer and, I think, as a person. Up until that point I had always retreated with the defence “but I'm just an artist” -- meaning not a spokesperson, but a neutral filter. But that was a cop-out. Art is often a comment on the world. My characters are not spokespeople for me -- they have varied opinions, not all of which I agree with -- but they are engaged in important debates.
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CL: Why was it essential to the story that Lilly be an outsider experiencing the culture in Harar?
CG: I wanted the “foreign” to be experienced, rather than explained or judged. The reader is being introduced to this culture along with Lilly.
CL: How did you prepare in order to tell the juxtaposed storyline of LillyÂ¹s
experience as a refugee and immigrant in London?
CG: I wrote most of the Ethiopian sections first. I was in Ethiopia in the mid 1990s, but the events in the story take place 20 years earlier. I did a lot of historical research, but I also spoke to a lot of people about their memories of those years. Then I asked myself who Lilly would turn out to be as a result of the experience of living through this turbulent time. She became an exile in London. And so I had to write that story.
After I finished my PhD I did two years of research amongst Ethiopians living in North America, some of that specifically among Hararis in Toronto. I took what I knew of their experiences and imposed it on a different landscape -- Thatcher's Britain in the 1980s -- because I wanted a more dramatic backdrop for stories of refugees and racism than Canada in the 2000s could provide.
CL: You were born in England but grew up in Canada -- how did this dual identity influence your treatment of Lilly's character?
CG: I'm preoccupied with the idea of the outsider and questions of belongingness and identity. I know what it is to grow up in a place you have no historical connection to, no family beyond the immediate, no real attachment to a place beyond what you experience in the here and now. I'm in good company -â€“ 50 per cent of Toronto's residents are foreign-born.
CL: The book doesn't take place in Canada. What, if anything, makes it Canadian?
CG: Who are we? is a very Canadian question.
I think of Lilly as the ultimate outsider, but in some ways her life is representative of a contemporary political reality where so many people, certainly so many Canadians, are living as refugees, in exile, as part of new diasporas, and struggling to rebuild their lives and their communities now scattered across the globe.
CL: What do you want readers to take away from this novel?
CG: Above all, I'd like readers to feel it was a worthwhile and satisfying read. A good story with characters one can care about.
I also wanted to take readers into a new world by telling a story about the intimate lives of a people from a city with an incredibly rich history, and about people from a complex and troubled country we know so little about beyond these stereotypical images of famine and poverty we see in the media. It's also a story about the complexities of racism, about Muslims who practice Islam in ways the Taliban and other fundamentalists would consider heretical, and a story about what it is to be forced from a place and to live in exile.
CL: What are some of your favourite scenes from the novel?
CG: I have favourite sentences, more than scenes. I'm more attached to language than I am to plot.
Lilly describing her lover Aziz: He's like rrata. A piece of meat stuck between my teeth. But English doesn't allow for such possibilities.
Lilly comparing her appearance to Amina's: My body is a whisper, where hers is a shout.
The rhythm of a sentence like: Bodies lacerated and mutilated and broken.
CL: And your favourite characters?
CG: My favourite character, the one I continue to think and worry about, is Amina's husband, Yusuf. He breaks my heart. He's traumatized by his experiences and not quite ready to move on. He's says little about how he feels both because he's a man and from a culture that doesn't encourage expression of feeling, especially negative feeling. Interestingly, he's the character that Ethiopian men I've spoken to about the book identify with most. I've been asked: “This guy, Yusuf. I know him. Was he working at x place when x happened?”
CL: If you were organizing a book club meeting about your book, what would you want readers to discuss?
CG: I don't like to direct the conversation, I'm interested in what readers feel worthy of discussion. I've attended a lot of book clubs and certain questions and issues for discussion arise consistently. The top 5 would probably be:
1. The issue of female circumcision
2. The notion of jihad
3. Aspects of Ethiopian history
4. Variations in Islam
5. The complexities of Lilly as a character
CL: What are you reading right now?
CG: I'm editing an anthology of contemporary Canadian memoir, so I'm reading every contemporary Canadian memoir ever written! I've just finished James Chatto's The Greek for Love and am now reading Ken Wiwa's memoir about his father, In the Shadow of a Saint.
CL: Do you plan on returning to Ethiopia?
CG: I remain interested in Ethiopia and very connected to Ethiopian friends, but the book has finally offered some closure to issues that have been preoccupying me for 18 years -â€“ my entire adult life. I am ultimately a novelist and I'm interested in new challenges and the new directions that can take me.
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