Most novelists who decide to write about a foreign culture begin by plunging themselves into an orgy of research. But Camilla Gibb, a Canadian ethnographer with a doctorate in anthropology from Oxford University, is not most novelists. Preparing to write about Vietnam, a country she knew only from one visit as a tourist, she methodically set about "unlearning" much of the little she knew about the place.
Concerned about "inhaling and regurgitating information in ways that aren't necessarily original," Gibb explains, she deliberately avoided reading any fiction set in the region, including David Bergen's Giller Prize-winning The Time in Between and Kim Echlin's Giller-nominated The Disappeared. She avoided knowing anything about the infamous Vietnam War of the 1960s, made no serious attempt to learn the language and kept the academic ethnographies - her former stock in trade - at arm's length.
Even the new book's title, The Beauty of Humanity Movement, reflects a kind of willful ignorance, based as it is on a bad Wikipedia translation of a historic event that was never close to being an actual movement, according to the author.
"It really was liberating to not be burdened with too much knowledge," says Gibb, gloriously pregnant with her first child and strikingly "media-friendly" (publisher-speak for beautiful), relishing the air conditioning in her own publisher's downtown office. Not knowing set her imagination free.
I want to sink my teeth into a bigger world Camilla Gibb
Now 42, Gibb spent 15 years researching her last novel, Sweetness in the Belly, which grew out of graduate field work in Ethiopia, ultimately living with an Ethiopian family for a year and writing her dissertation on the experience. In Vietnam, she applied her training to a project that willfully violated the principles it taught.
But not intentionally, perhaps. "I was completely immersed in another novel and hadn't thought I would ever dare to take on another culture that I wasn't familiar with," she says. But the Vietnam she encountered by chance captivated her - at first by confounding her typically Western expectations, shaped as they were by the legacy of a war that contemporary Vietnamese society appeared to have left far behind.
"I remember being so struck by how vital and alive the economy was and how young and optimistic the population was," she says. "It made the West feel awfully stagnant in some ways. I thought, 'This really is the new world. It's on fire. What does it mean to be a participant in that?' "
Answers appeared in the person of an aspiring young tour guide she befriended, and in a story he told her about an ancient street vendor said to make the best pho (noodles) in Hanoi, chased from place to place by the police but always rediscovered by faithful customers. Reflecting on the possible life histories of such a figure "just set my imagination racing," Gibb says. "And there I had my two characters."
With her editor's encouragement, she threw away the big-ideas novel and plunged headlong into The Beauty of Humanity Movement.
The beauty of the novel is that its uneducated vendor hero, Hung, is such a fully realized and believable character. In Gibb's imagination, he becomes a cook in a restaurant favoured by a loose group of dissenting artists and intellectuals in revolutionary Hanoi, publishers of the newspaper Nanh Van (Humanity), who were brutally repressed by the then-new Communist regime of "Uncle" Ho Chi Minh. Living in squalor and occasional terror over the decades that followed - the so-called American War one chapter among many - Hung alone keeps their legacy alive.
How's that for cultural appropriation? Today's ivory towers rain lead on such audacity, but Gibb is unrepentant. "It's just what possessed me," she says. "I couldn't stop it. It's risky, certainly, but I have such love and compassion for this man."
The novelist felt no such confidence prior to the publication of Sweetness in the Belly, instead worrying about a backlash of the same sort that had made her old academic specialty, "really conventional ethnography," so disreputable to postmodern minds. "I worried less this time around," she says. "I don't know why that is. And I know Vietnam so much less than I know Ethiopia."
She made two trips there, staying a total of a month, "which is nothing," absorbing "a language I can't speak and a culture I can't possible know." But her characters, Gibb adds, she knows intimately.
"There is something so fundamentally human about them that regardless of circumstances and setting they are intelligible to me. And I care about them a great deal." And that's enough.
In making such imaginative leaps across cultural boundaries, the Toronto novelist joins what appears to be a new Canadian movement. Call them the New Orientalists. This year alone, Steven Heighton, Katherine Govier and Miguel Syjuco have all published memorable new novels set in Asia. Another 2010 inductee is Carole Enahoro, whose terrific debut novel, Doing Dangerously Well, is an African farce. Bergen and Echlin have gone before.
Having already done so much to defeat the theories that once dominated her mind, Gibb is reluctant to speculate about common motives propelling this new native movement. Perhaps, she says, the outward (and eastward) view "demonstrates a certain confidence in who we are as Canadians, as Canadian writers." The colonial mentality an earlier generation of nationalist writers struggled against was never part of her experience, she says. Nor is she driven by the need to engage an international audience.
"For me it's more that I have the appetite. I want to sink my teeth into a bigger world."
That Gibb will do again come September, when her child is born and she embarks on the challenging new path of a single mother. With typical panache - and knowing little about it - she is planning a book on motherhood.
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