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Camilla Gibb’s long and winding road

Richard Burnett
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Richard Burnett

One of the finest writers of her generation, British-born, Toronto-raised Camilla Gibb has been nominated for and won tons of literary awards, beginning with her debut novel Mouthing the Words in 1999. That was around the time I first met her, on a Lambda Literary Tour that pit stopped in Montreal. Gibb was a dynamo back then, and proved to be just as thoughtful and engaging when I met her again recently on her book tour to promote her just-published memoir This is Happy, some 15 years after our first encounter. Plenty has happened to Gibb during the intervening years: In 2009, Gibb separated from her wife, Heather Conway, VP of English services at the CBC (and called Anna in This is Happy). Gibb was pregnant at the time and later gave birth to a daughter. This is Happy looks back on a full life well-lived.

You originally wanted to write your memoir as a novel …
Yes! It was going to be told from alternating perspectives, from a Filipino nanny and the woman who hired her, and I thought, ‘My God this book has already been written by a big America writer!’ At that stage I was in Montreal and I wasn’t writing. I emailed (Canadian journalist and author) Ian Brown and asked him, ‘How do I find that light?’ He told me, ‘You just write.’ So I did, with a notebook on one side and a baby on the other. It was pure over-the-top emotion, and that’s how I got my muscles back.
 
Is there a difference between writing a memoir and writing fiction?
The nuts and bolts are the same, but I found with my first two novels there was this aspect of ‘Can you actually put them out there?’ A lot of the material I was drawing on was autobiographical. I grafted the template on my life. There was something cathartic about writing that first book. Like someone said, first novels have a lifetime of gestation. Second novels are tricky. I was totally scared because the pressure was unbelievable. I moved to a bigger publishing house where the editing was more interrogatory and it forced me in the direction of plot, which hadn’t been my thing – I had been more about language and poetry. I learned a lot writing that second book, became a grown-up writer. 
 
Did you censor yourself in your memoir, afraid of what people might think of you and your real life?
Some days I’m ‘Fuck it!’ and other days I ask myself, ‘Jesus Christ, what have I done?’ There are all sorts of reasons why one might censor oneself.  Will people think I’m a whack job because I have a mental health history? There was that concern. But, you know, the stuff about my own life, I have to put that out there. With everybody else’s lives, I have to do that with caution and respect. I had a good editor, who told me when she thought I was being evasive or disingenuous (in my memoir). There were moments she asked me to go deeper, be more bare. There is something quite therapeutic about finding the language about things that you don’t even know and have never articulated before.
 
How thick a skin do you have? Are you pretty tough?
No, but the response (to This is Happy) has been really generous. I think at this point in mid-life we care less about what others think. If someone wants to dismiss me because of the mental health stuff, I really don’t give a shit. Maybe I am tougher than I know.
 
Why did you make the jump from anthropology to writing?
My preoccupations as an anthropologist were gender, religion, sexuality, but more broadly how we construct relationships and meaning in our lives, and what marks an outsider in a community. All those questions are the same questions I look at in fiction, except in fiction – and non-fiction – you can use emotive language. You can be expressive and use sensual detail. That language wasn’t legitimate (in anthropology), the academic language was increasingly constricting. So I rebelled and wrote stories. I was even going to publish my first novel under a pseudonym!
 
Growing up were you more a fan of fiction or non-fiction?
Fiction! But I loved to read celebrity biographies. Bette Davis, Joan Crawford! The marriages, the children, the trauma, the drugs, the drink, career highs and lows. It was only recently that I remembered that. My mom and I would share those books. Otherwise I was a fiction reader.
 
Has your mom read your memoir yet?
The draft form was more digestible than the published version. I had to tell her that it would be painful, but that she comes off as a mysterious and foxy lady who once used to work for MI5. She admitted it was painful. There is that scene – I remember it so well – where she is trying to change a washer on the bathtub and she is kneeling, and I’m standing right behind her, and I’m 11 and totally contemptuous because she started to cry. (Today) I know exactly what that is: it’s just one more thing, and you have to fix the washer or change the lightbulb, and there’s no one around to help. I have so much more compassion for what she must have endured quite silently.
 
Camilla Gibb’s long and winding roadHow was your coming out?
Well, I’ve done it more than once, because there were men in the mix too! When I was in my twenties, my mom said to me, ‘If that’s a phase you want to go through …” And I asked, ‘What if it’s a phase I want to go through for the rest of my life?’ And she replied, ‘That’s fine, darling.’ Then she told me a story about when she had been in public school in England, a girl’s school, and it was perfectly acceptable for a younger girl to have a crush on an older girl. They called it a “rave.” So you had a rave on an older student. Then my mom started to recite a poem that she had written to her rave. She was trying to find a context for love between two women. She could understand, and I found that very moving that she would share that. .
 
I ask every queer writer if they see themselves as a queer writer, or a writer who happens to be queer. Are you a lesbian or queer writer?
I hate labels. I’m a writer. I’m a Canadian writer. I don’t even want to go that far. I’m just a writer. And that’s also kind of the way I feel when it comes to my sexual identity. I’m just a human. Am I a queer human? I don’t even know if that’s right. I’m an unconventional human. 
 
I assume you don’t identify as lesbian?
I hate that word. I hate the sound of it. 
 
How devastating was your break-up?
It completely shattered not just me, but the world around me. I was absolutely terrified. My world was unrecognizable. Even my body was unrecognizable – I was pregnant … But I rebuilt my family nucleus by accident. People started to arrive, not by invitation, they just turned up.
 
What is it like to raise your five-year-old daughter? After all, your family is not like other families.
You respond to (your child’s) questions as honestly as possible, but knowing the answers must also be age-appropriate. It comes out in stages. The first question was ‘Why don’t I have a dad?’ It didn’t matter that she had two moms who were divorced. ‘Why don’t I have a dad?’ That was a big absence for her. I worried about this. Then when she was in her pre-school, Father’s Day was coming up and I expressed some concern to her teacher and the teacher said, ‘Don’t worry, darling, I’ve already dealt with it.’ So my daughter piped up, ‘I don’t have a dad.’ And a friend in her class said, ‘My dad’s in jail!’ So she got trumped! (Gibb laughs.) It is exhausting being a mom, but I love it. 
 
This is Happy  (Doubleday Canada) is available in all bookstores. 
 
Read Richard Burnett’s POP TART blog for The Montreal Gazette at 
www.montrealgazette.com/tag/pop-tart 
 
Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.