6 min

Anger at the core

Anne Cameron's novels explore the tough stuff

CHOSEN FAMILY. Anne Cameron 's works explore chosen family. Biological family gives us life she says, and chosen family makes that life worth living. Credit: Xtra West files

As she walks up to meet me, the first thing I think is, “But she’s beautiful!” Leaning on her cane, 65-year-old Anne Cameron still appears tall and strong and her white hair and blue eyes are truly lovely. The photos on the jackets of her many novels, stories, poems, and legends do not do her justice.

The second surprise comes when I begin to talk with her. Contrary to her reputation, Anne Cameron is not scary at all.

Her work is filled with tough, no-nonsense characters living hard, working class lives on the rural West Coast. Many of these characters are people who exist in a hell of injustice, abuse, and domestic violence and they grow up angry, barbed, and wary. I guess I’d thought that Cameron might be a little this way herself. And she is.

But just like her work, Cameron is also filled with love. Her novels repeatedly point to the importance of chosen family and the love, healing and safety that can be found there. It is evident that Cameron has found this kind of chosen family in her own life. Along with her expected toughness, Cameron exudes a grandmotherly tenderness that puts me at ease.

Cameron is nothing if not opinionated. She spirals out into diatribes and rants on everything from the folly of academics to the luck of being “hard wired” for monogamy. Though her words are often harsh, she says them with humour and an obvious concern for the state of the world. She is eminently quotable.

Here, then, slightly out of order, is Anne Cameron speaking for herself.

Xtra West: In your novels, you often write about child abuse and the abuse of women. Obviously that’s something that’s very important to you. Why?

Anne Cameron: Because I’m a feminist. Because my grandfather was a socialist and his line was, “Nobody is free if someone walks in chains,” and I believe that. There’s not a woman in the world who is free as long as there is a two-year-old girl somewhere who’s going to have her clit sliced off tonight.

XW: What about abuse in our own culture?

AC: We don’t cut the clits off. We cut the souls out of little girls. Eight-year-old girls, nine-year-old girls, 10-year-old girls in this culture dressed up like Britney Spears. They’re going down the road, they look like two-bit hookers on the stroll and that is sex abuse. Their heads are twisted before they’re into puberty. They think that being fucked is the most wonderful thing that will ever happen to them. Boy are they ever set up for a disappointment! Sexual abuse of any child should be a capital crime. That’s it. Sorry.

XW: How do you find the emotional courage to write about such difficult topics as child sexual abuse?

AC: Desperation, sweetheart. You carry that shit around in your head and you gotta get it out somewhere. I spent a lot of time in my life thinking, “It’s just me who’s seen this, heard this. It’s just me. I’m the only one.” And as a child, I thought it was all my fault because kids always do. “I must be doing something wrong. If I was a good little girl.”

Because of the women’s movement. I’m 65 this year, so I had the opportunity to see the start of this exciting and life-changing and life-affirming thing that we have experienced. Women started talking, like whispering at first, and then it was like, “Shit, I am not the only one.” And if we don’t [talk about it], our granddaughters will have to and right now I have a granddaughter who’s a year-and-a-half old and I would rather she not have to, that it be done for her. I feel like I owe her at least that much.

XW: Why is chosen family so important in your work?

AC: Our biological family gives us life and our chosen family makes that life worth living.

XW: Who is Eleanor?

AC: Eleanor’s my sweetie!

XW: How long have you been together?

AC: Twenty years. If you want me to describe her, I’ll tell you go to Roget’s thesaurus and look up the superlatives. In the 20 years that I have been involved with Eleanor, in the 20 years that I have loved Eleanor, I haven’t had a single, solitary temptation and it’s not that I think that I’m a moral person. It’s just that I am lucky [to be naturally monogamous]. That’s how I’m hard wired. For 20 years, the only person that I’ve been fascinated by-and I think fascination is a big part of sexuality-is Eleanor. She’s still the only one that I’m the least bit interested in. I have to tell you that it cuts a whole pile of shit out of your life.

XW: What’s it like to be gay or lesbian in small town BC?

AC: I’ve never had any trouble at all. None.

XW: Total acceptance?

AC: I don’t know. But at least they were polite enough not to get into an argument about it with me.

XW: In many of your novels, there are female characters for whom sexual preference is not something they need to state. For example, Sarah in The Journey, has a rewarding and gentle sexual relationship with a man and then she has a rewarding, gentle sexual relationship with a woman. You don’t sense that it’s because Sarah prefers women so much as that she prefers Anne.

AC: I think that most women who wind up playing on our team join the team because there was one particular woman that they fell madly in love with and then found out that’s it’s no different than it is on the other team.

You’re going to get betrayed sooner or later. I don’t believe that anybody knew anything when they were three. I don’t believe that anybody knew anything when they were five, except maybe that you peed in a different way than the kid next door. I’m not even sure there were many people that knew prior to puberty and then right around puberty I think is where it clicks in.

XW: So what about a character like Sarah? It feels like she’s fallen for people, regardless of their plumbing. It feels like there are women in your novels who, at least on a sexual level, imply a kind of universal bisexuality.

AC: No. I think pansexuality, non-sexuality. I don’t know how true it was but I watched a thing on PBS, you know the XX and XY and now they know that there’s XXY and X broken Y and they’re up to something like 27 different combinations.

Until we understand more of that, we have no right to even wonder about a person’s particular sexual interest.

XW: Why do you write?

AC: I have to. I become physically ill if I don’t write. It’s the one place in the world where I know I’m going to get the unbiased truth! Asking a writer why they write is like stopping someone on the street and asking why they breathe.

I think one of the reasons that I haven’t had more [attention] from the eastern purveyors of culturney is because in the very style that I have chosen as my voice, I try to demystify the process and act of writing and I really, really try for a casual, almost oral-storytelling yarn. When people write like that, there’s no room for the PhDs who live in the ivory tower to come along and interpret your [work].

XW: But someone did try?

AC: Yes. Before they published his thing, and it was his thing, somebody sent me a copy and asked for my comment and across the bottom I wrote, “This is bullshit.” Can we not just stop all that cowshit? It was just: [here Cameron makes a gesture of masturbation] on paper. “What the hell else can I jerk myself off to?”

They published it and somebody else wrote a thing about his thing and pretty soon you get a fucking circle-jerk and it’s like musical chairs only instead of changing chairs, they switch dicks but they’re still just playing with each other and getting $85,000 a year for doing it. Fuck forbid that we should put these people back on basic minimum wage until they prove that they are of some worth to the community and take their over-inflated salaries and open up some apartment buildings for these people [now living in Tent City].

XW: I’m going to ask this question because I have to ask this question. I know that you had some detractors when you were writing about native spirituality and I want to ask: What is the importance of that spirituality in your own life? And also how have you answered the detractors?

AC: The importance of that spirituality in my life is that that’s how I live my life. Those are the standards I set for myself, those are the standards by which I raised my kids and then raised my grandkids. It’s a spirituality that grew from this coast and I was born here. I mean, why are we trying to pretend that we’re a Mediterranean people with Greek and Roman gods and a Judeo-Christian religion which is Middle Eastern? All of that is the Old World and it may have worked for and fit in Europe but it doesn’t work for me and it doesn’t fit on this coast. I’m a pagan.

I do think that a lot of the people [who accused me of cultural appropriation] were trying for political points. I do know that their grandmothers would not have been that racist. It must have been a minority because I got a whole other book full of stories [from Native storytellers, with permission to publish] that I’m working on that I have been given since.

I’m a Celtic pagan and that religion is the same. We had the honouring of the four directions. We had sweat lodge. It was an earth-honouring, woman-accepting, child-protecting, natural thing and I don’t consider that I go out of my way to follow “Native Indian.” I just go out of my way to follow what I consider to be the only sane spirituality that I’ve encountered.

* Anne Cameron’s latest novel, Family Resemblances, has just been released by Harbour Publishing.