5 Questions with Catherine Bush

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March 13, 2014

“I always wanted to make something with language,” Catherine Bush once commented about her early love for reading and writing.  Bush’s four acclaimed novels include Accusation, Claire’s Head, The Rules of Engagement and Minus Time.  Bush, who has also worked as an arts journalist, has taught creative writing at several universities.  She is the co-ordinator of the Creative Writing MFA at the University of Guelph.  Recently, Lynne Van Luven held an e-mail conversation with Bush about her 2013 novel Accusation, published by Goose Lane.

Catherine, as a former journalist, I love reading novels about the ethical conundrums journalists face, and that subject matter drew me to Accusation.  Can you talk a bit about what event or events sparked the novel?

The novel draws upon some actual incidents from the mid-1990s that touched me. While visiting my sister in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I and my then-partner spent some time with a children’s circus founded by a Canadian man, whom I interviewed. I wrote about the circus for The Globe and Mail; my partner made a low-budget documentary film. A few years later, some of the teenaged performers fled the circus while on tour in Australia and made an asylum claim, citing the circus director’s sexual and physical abuse of them. I felt caught up in the story, wondering what we had missed. The case became more tangled when another journalist, who happened to be an old friend of my sister, tracked the director down after he’d left the circus and vanished. He denied the allegations and claimed that the teenagers had been coached to say what they’d said in order to make a stronger asylum claim. In the novel I’ve taken events from life and reshaped them, including what the man does once found, which has a harrowing effect on the journalist. My characters are all fictional, however. What interested me was the way others responded to what happened: the assumptions and judgments we all bring to bear when accusations of this extremity are leveled against someone. I wanted to explore the complexities of the case, the difficulties of writing about such a case as a journalist, and the way in which we all judge others and decide whose story to believe.

Your character, the journalist Sara Wheeler, a gets drawn to an exciting story – the hopeful narrative of an Ethiopian children’s circus, Cirkus Mirak – which tells a “good news” story about a part of the world so often the source of sad news.  Do you find yourself frequently reading news about “developing countries” with a sinking feeling?

Stories of calamity tend to attract attention no matter where in the world they occur. Think of weather porn: we are all drawn to natural disasters. Also, acts of sexual predation can and do happen anywhere, across geography, across class, in the houses of affluent North Americans as often as in orphanages in Africa. I feel frustrated when heartening stories from the developing world don’t get told or told as loudly. I was lucky enough to be in Kenya two years after the post-election violence of 2008 and to observe the remarkable artistic response to the violence, the way artists did so much witnessing through writing and film and photographs to make sure that such terrible fracturing and killing along ethnic lines, driven primarily by economic stress, didn’t happen again. Globe and Mail journalist Stephanie Nolen did some amazingly in-depth reportage while posted in Africa, as she did subsequently from India – for instance, her stirring work on the education of dalit girls – and is now doing from Brazil. Philip Gourevitch has done some fantastic long-form journalism on Rwanda for The New Yorker, including a brilliant piece on young Rwandan racing cyclists which was simultaneously an examination of the legacy of the genocide in the generation that had been children at the time. What’s frustrating about much newspaper reporting is how little room it leaves for conveying complexity. This is Sara’s quandary in the novel. One of my aims as a novelist is to convey human experience with some depth and ambiguity.

I have noted that now and then critics claim that Canadian novelists are too dull or too parochial or too-something-not-cutting edge.   I have always felt your novels are critical of the sheltered and insular unexamined lives.   How would you reply to those critiques about Canadian writing?

There’s a strain of domestic, realist fiction that tends not to look beyond the interior life of the self, sexual and social relationships, the world that ends somewhere beyond the street where the characters live. You find it in British and American fiction, too. And yes I find that way of looking at the world limiting. At the same time, I wouldn’t want Alice Munro to do anything other than what she does best. Yet there’s plenty of Canadian fiction that doesn’t fit this description. A large part of the problem is that critics don’t see or don’t know what else is there. They operate according to self-confirming assumptions. If you don’t look for the outward reaching or the beautifully strange, you won’t find it. Among the work of my peers, there’s Michael Helm’s thrillingly smart novel, Cities of Refuge, which is a profound act of sympathetic imagination and links Toronto with the politics of Central America. There’s Martha Baillie’s formally odd and alluring The Incident Report. Madeleine Thien’s Dogs at the Perimeter tackles the legacy of the Cambodian genocide. My novels take in a world that expands beyond the domestic: it’s very important to me to link here, which in my case is usually Toronto, with various states of elsewhere.

In Accusation, Sara begins her story with what we might call good intentions.  But as her research and interviews progress, she begins to learn that the story is deeply complex, more nuanced, than she thinks, and that  Raymond Reneau, the leader of Circus Mirak, may not be purely heroic after all.  Can you comment on the “cautionary” aspect of your narrative, as it applies to writers of all sorts of stories?

The novel opens with Sara’s discovery on-line of the allegations against Raymond Renaud. Because she’s been falsely accused herself in the past of a much smaller crime and she’s spent time in Raymond’s company, she doesn’t want to leap to conclusions about him. She doesn’t want to assume he’s innocent but give him the space in which to be potentially innocent. This is one god intention. She also sets out in pursuit of him, ostensibly so that she can find him and give him a chance to respond to the allegations, another good intention, yet her pursuit brings further complication and harm. Any writing about an accusation risks spreading the allegation further. Yet keeping silent can be a problem. And the voices of those making serious accusations, such as of sexual abuse, must be listened to and taken seriously. While journalism attempts neutrality, fiction doesn’t pretend to it: it enacts our subjective struggle to make sense of the world, a world in which we can’t always find out clearly everything we want yet one in which we still have to act and make choices. We’re always judging others and trying to decide whether or not to believe the stories they tell us. Accusations intensify this condition.

I’m always shocked, even dismayed, when students express a disinterest in anything related to “politics,” if they think the political process is boring.  Do you think this aversion is just a phase the youthful pass through, or is there truly a disconnect between the under-25 demographic and the political process in Canada?

There are some incredibly engaged under-25-year-olds. Witness the Occupy movement. I talk to students who give voice to a great yearning for more meaning. The political process may have failed most of us. One of the problems with democracy is that its attention span exists in election cycles. The life of the planet, for instance, does not exist in election cycles. Our relentless preoccupation with purely human affairs may be the cause of our destruction. I’d like to teach 25-year-olds how to pay attention to the world. To frame the question not as being about politics or being political but about the practice and ethics of attention. How do we pay attention to the world around us? What is the world, your world, here and now? Name its particularities. Think about what gets left out. Every act of attention that focuses on one thing leaves out something else. How can we make those absences felt? In a writing class, with graduate students who similarly resist the political, I use questions like these as our starting point.

 

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