By Savanna Scott Leslie
In Accusation (Goose Lane, 2013), you write, “Doubt: once it enters your mind and body, how difficult it is to get rid of it. If not impossible.” Doubt creates a constant tension throughout the novel. Why did you want to explore the concept of doubt?
While working on the novel that came to be called Accusation, I bookmarked Keats’ description of negative capability on my web browser: “that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.”
Obviously women have these capabilities too. But in the Keats quote, doubt sounds like a good thing. It’s allied with being open to uncertainty rather than rushing to judgment. When Sara Wheeler, the journalist who is the protagonist of Accusation, first learns of the accusations of abuse made against Raymond Renaud, the Canadian founder of an Ethiopian children’s circus, she doesn’t want to assume that he’s guilty. At the same time, she doesn’t want to dismiss the allegations made by the teenagers who flee the circus and who may well be Raymond’s victims. As she says, she doesn’t assume innocence but wants to give Raymond the space in which to be possibly innocent. When I describe the novel’s premise before giving a reading, I often say that Sara wants to give Raymond the benefit of the doubt. I then note what a strange expression this is, since we usually view doubt as a form of suspicion. In fact, Sara doesn’t want to doubt Raymond. She wants to give Raymond the benefit of trust. Actually, she wants to reside in precisely that Keatsian space of uncertainty. But then she also wants to find out more.
Why doubt? I was drawn to the situation described in the novel by my own perplexity in response to actual events. I needed to build a narrative house for my uncertainty. That was the best thing I could think to do with it. Doubt is the opposite of trust. What makes us trust someone, believe someone’s story? I wanted to think deeply about the processes by which we judge others and decide to trust another—whether in our intimate relationships or when someone faces an accusation. A novel invites readers to be taken on a journey in which they’ll feel contradictory things. That’s one thing a novel can do and something I want a novel to do. Also, it’s so important, ethically, that we take the time to turn our gaze on ourselves and consider how we judge others, and how we judge others’ stories. I endeavoured to write a novel that asked readers to do that.
In a recent interview with The Rumpus, you explain that these actual events left you “haunted” with the dilemma of what it means to be accused, and that even mentioning an allegation can cause harm. Along with your desire to explore this dilemma, did you feel a need to revisit these specific allegations and their aftermath?
The novel doesn’t exist for me apart from this specific story although I’ve fictionalized the events and characters. On the other hand, the novel only came alive for me when I roped together the story of the accusations against Raymond, the circus founder, with Sara’s story of being falsely accused. I didn’t want Sara simply to be a journalist trying to get to the bottom of a story. There had to be more at stake for her than that. Her experience of being falsely accused, and charged, shapes her response to Raymond’s predicament. She knows what it’s like to be accused, and not to have her own story believed, to be doubted, and this experience shapes the way in which she responds to Raymond, and others. Her history of false accusation is also borrowed from life, from someone else’s life. The whole novel depends on such borrowings. It draws more explicitly from the stories of others than any other novel I’ve written and, I hope, acknowledges the problems of taking, and attempting to tell, others’ stories.
Were you worried about Accusation itself lending weight to an allegation?
I’m absolutely aware that my problem is Sara’s problem, or Sara’s problem is my problem: that in writing about the allegations, I’m giving new voice to them and spreading them. I was so conscious of this while writing. This is partly why Sara has to be aware of and troubled by this dilemma in the novel. In other words, the novel has to be conscious of this problem and articulate it through Sara.
The power of circus arts as performance and social empowerment echoes throughout the novel. Circus Mirak offers many opportunities to the children in Accusation, but it also exposes them to the risk not only of sexual abuse but also of other injury. Yet even when they’re free of the accused director the children and their supporters believe in the power of the circus in “working through trauma.” What makes this kind of performance so powerful? Do initiatives like these necessarily put children at risk?
Life is full of risk. Childhood is full of risk. Circus, any circus, accentuates the physical risk that life brings us and gives it form. Pure circus focuses on feats of the human body. The shows of Cirque du Soleil did this amazingly until they got caught up in a funhouse of high-tech. The fact is you don’t need much to create a sense of wonder and awe. Circus can be fabulously low-tech and portable, and it’s into this space that social circus organizations have moved in various parts of the world, in Ethiopia, in Afghanistan, in the Palestinian Territories, and closer to home. They work with underprivileged populations, often children. For children, there can be something thrillingly empowering about learning to use your body in this way—to make human pyramids, towers of bodies, to create beautiful, daring physical feats, to build something out of nearly nothing. Also, you have to work cooperatively with others. You build trust and self-confidence. In a place like Addis Ababa, the social circus gives children something to do other than hang out in the street. Shows can become an audience-friendly vehicle for social messages. There are risks to acrobatics, and circus training, sure, but children who play on hockey teams here in Toronto also face the risk of injury, or concussion, or encountering a sexual predator.
Sara seems to struggle not only to find the truth of the charges against the circus director but also to understand and be understood by her lover, David. The two seem to fear each other’s judgement as well as the discovery of their affair. “He did not want all of her; nor did she wish to give all of herself to him,” you write. We see similar walls built up between Sara and her old friend, Juliet. Does writing—as a journalist like Sara or a novelist like yourself—challenge or exacerbate fears of being judged?
Writing a novel, perhaps unlike a piece of journalism, requires inevitable self-exposure. I don’t write confessionally but I do bare my soul, which certainly makes me feel hugely vulnerable. Sara’s predicament, as someone who has been falsely accused of a crime, heightens conditions we all face. She doesn’t want to tell her lover, David, about the false accusation because she doesn’t want to confront the moment in which he has to decide whether or not to believe her. We probably all harbour secrets that we fear exposing. We fear judgment, not only around questions of belief but fearing that, once exposed, our secrets will seem ugly and unappealing to others. As a novelist, I am exposing my own secrets, if indirectly, in the form of a story, and readers have to decide whether or not they want to hear my story and then whether or not they are convinced by it. This is both exhilarating and terrifying.
There’s been discussion at CWILA and beyond lately about negative book reviews and what they might achieve. Can negative reviews carry the destructive power of allegations that you describe in Accusation?
First off, it is essential to make a distinction between a bad review and a negative review. Bad reviews are those that make no attempt to consider what the writer was trying to do and why. The review is dismissive. The reviewer makes himself (or herself) feel more powerful and smarter than the writer by telling the writer why what she did was wrong and what she should have done. Bad reviews can be fun to write and give off an expulsion of energy, which in turn can attract readers. They smart the writer because they’re meant to, precisely because they’re about asserting power. Yet a reviewer can be critical and empathetic. This is more difficult, of course. By “empathetic,” I mean able to enter the world of the book and consider why the writer makes the choices she has made. The reviewer may not agree with these choices but is able to present and consider them. The frame of reference is thus dialogic: the reviewer isn’t trying to best the writer but enter a dialogue of peers. This is crucial to good criticism. Daniel Mendelsohn, the American writer/critic, is someone who does this in his reviews and it’s one of his gifts. Steven Heighton has some great quotes on this matter in Workbook (ECW, 2011), his epigrammatic book on writing, in the section called “On Criticism”: “Bad reviewers like only what they can imagine writing themselves and lash out at anything they can’t understand or which threatens their vision.” And also: “The bad reviewer’s art involves universalizing, in authoritative, pseudo-objective language, a totally subjective response to a book.” I totally agree.
My starting point for any discussion of negative reviewing is that we first have to make this distinction between bad reviews and negative ones. We shouldn’t be afraid of owning the subjectivity of our responses either.
Do writers and reviewers have any responsibility for harm that might follow from their works?
That’s tricky. The parameters of possible harm are so huge. We have a responsibility to write well. What does that mean? To pay attention to language and the world, and the world and people that we represent in language. There’s an ethic inherent in paying attention. Avoid solipsism. See above for the dangers of bad reviewing. And yes, we need to acknowledge the potential for harm from what we write. We should run the risk knowingly and with as much empathy as possible for those we may harm.
Have reviews been important in your career?
The reviews that have been most satisfying have been those in which I felt the reviewer understood what I was trying to do in the novel and was able to articulate this. It feels fantastic to be told that you’re brilliant but true satisfaction comes when someone gets inside your novel’s skin and has a deep and complex encounter with its matter. I’ve been lucky enough to have received reviews like this, but I do rue the fact that there are fewer venues particularly for longer and more in-depth reviews. I’ll always remember being in New York when the Sunday New York Times ran a full-page, glowing review of my second novel, The Rules of Engagement, in the Book Review and walking out to a newsstand to buy the paper on the Saturday night.
How does feminism inform your work as a writer?
I feel hugely indebted to the women writers who’ve gone before me, and for the sense of lineage and possibility they’ve offered. I have always tried to write novels that make space for female experience that I haven’t seen represented or well-represented on the page: a female astronaut who is also a mother; a woman who writes about war. My sister said there was a quality to Sara’s experiences of uncertainty and self-doubt in Accusation that felt particularly female and how important it was for her as a female reader to encounter this, which moved me. Yet my ethical concerns these days extend beyond the human. It’s so important that our thinking about both rights and consciousness reaches to include the non-human, the life of other creatures, the life of the planet. Making space for women’s issues is crucial work and an ongoing necessity, and yet it is absolutely vital that we take on the challenge, as writers, as novelists, of how to imagine and represent a world that isn’t wholly centred on human concerns yet one that human activity may destroy.
You work not only as a writer, but also as the coordinator of the University of Guelph’s Creative Writing MFA. Is there a gender gap among creative writing MFA students?
There may be more women than men applying to creative writing graduate programs. That’s probably true for my MFA. As coordinator, I try, guided by our admissions committee, to create a cohort each year that’s diverse in all the ways in which you might imagine diversity: gender, sexuality, racial, cultural, geographic, experiential. The actual numbers within the program are relatively balanced by gender. Having a range of voices from a variety of backgrounds is crucial to the life of the program. It’s an aspect of the experience of complexity that good writing generates and that all writers need exposure to. I don’t teach workshops but a discussion-based class that draws on a series of readings. Part of my job in the classroom is to make space for a range of voices and voices that may disagree, and to allow us as a class to hold and debate our differences. That said, we’re a pretty female-centred program on the administrative end: the coordinator is a woman (me), as is my administrative assistant (poet Meaghan Strimas), and our two core faculty members (Dionne Brand and Judith Thompson) are both women. Our teaching faculty and associated faculty are fairly evenly divided by gender.
You’ve held writer-in-residence positions at the universities of Alberta, Guelph, and New Brunswick as well as McMaster University, and you thank those programs in the acknowledgements at the end of Accusation. How have those experiences shaped your career? How do residency programs contribute to Canada’s literary culture?
I wrote the first draft of Accusation while holding writer-in-residence positions. I’d previously had an academic job at Concordia and left it and was teaching for the UBC low-residency MFA, but I didn’t have quite enough money to live, and the residencies saved me, offered me the support and time to write. They provide a vital function to writers in this regard. They also gave me an opportunity to live in communities where I would never otherwise have spent time. Living in a place offers such a different texture and sense of community than just dropping in for a reading, and my sense of my own country has deepened because of the residencies I’ve done. Sometimes I felt like training in psychotherapy would have been far more useful than any knowledge of narrative structure. People offer you their trauma along with their words. I’m there to affirm, not that you’ll make a million dollars off your memoir, but that this activity is meaningful. What I loved most was the exchange of stories, the strange details of people’s lives that may never be written down, or published, but to which I bore witness. How someone’s great aunt in New Brunswick hid her morphine addiction. A West African immigrant in Edmonton trying to help his wife tell her story in order to recover from brutality suffered in her homeland. I gained a country of stories.
Catherine Bush is the author of four novels, including the newly released Accusation, one of NOW Magazine’s Best Ten Books of the Year, Amazon.ca’s Best 100 Books of 2013, and a Canada Reads Top 40 pick. Her fiction, praised for its intelligence and daring, often plumbs moral quandaries in which the public and private lives of its characters collide. Her first novel, Minus Time, was short-listed for the Books in Canada/SmithBooks First Novel Award. Her second novel, The Rules of Engagement, was a national bestseller and chosen as a New York Times Notable Book and one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books of the Year. Her third novel, Claire’s Head, was shortlisted for Ontario’s Trillium Award and a Globe Best Book of the Year. Her nonfiction has been published in publications including The Globe and Mail, New York Times Magazine, and the anthology The Heart Does Break. She lives in Toronto and is Coordinator of the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA. For more information, go to www.catherinebush.com.
Savanna Scott Leslie is a freelance editor with diverse digital and print experience. She has a BA in philosophy and Russian literature from the University of Toronto and she studies publishing at Ryerson University.