Ethiopia has haunted Camilla Gibb for a decade. As a graduate student working on her PhD in anthro-pology at Oxford, she lived for a time in the ancient walled Muslim city of Harar, collecting research for her thesis with a dry and dispassionate eye.
“I had no way yet of telling a story as a story,” she says. “And I had always felt that I had done the place and the people a disservice and that I had left my heart behind. But I wasn’t yet a writer. [I hadn’t] developed the skills I needed to tell the story I wanted to tell.”
Those skills would come later, back in Toronto, where she had first completed her BA and then ended up as a post-doctoral student at the University Of Toronto. An increasingly unhappy and unfulfilled academic, she leapt into her longtime dream of writing fiction with the help of her younger brother who put her up in his trailer for six months. A generous acquaintance chipped in with a no-strings-attached gift of $6,000 in cash to live off of while she wrote her award-winning and critically acclaimed debut novel Mouthing The Words – a painful and darkly funny story about an incest survivor – which was published in 1999.
That was followed up in 2002 by the equally accomplished The Petty Details Of So-And-So’s Life, the wrenching tale of a pair of siblings struggling to overcome a singularly dysfunctional family.
After writing two books that Gibb describes as “closer to me and more autobiographical [in some ways],” only then could she finally return to Ethiopia.
But in order to get it right, she says, “I had to separate myself from the academic life I had led. I didn’t reread my thesis. I stayed away from libraries and universities and immersed myself in fiction. [It] required a lot of forgetting. Being too attached to the facts stops you from opening up that space you need to really create and invent.”
The result is Sweetness In The Belly, a richly textured novel set in the traumatized refugee communities and grim housing estates of Thatcher’s London, where Lilly, a white Muslim nurse, grieves the people she left behind in the chaos and civil unrest of Ethiopia. Deeply committed to the faith she adopted after her ex-pat, hippie parents were killed in Morocco, the rootless Lilly had only just begun to find a sense of home in Harar, when she was forced to abandon the city and her nascent love affair with Aziz, a political young doctor, for a lonely exile in England.
The novel is filled with the lush detail – from the shocking gore of female circumcision to the sumptuous rituals of roasting coffee beans and chewing qat – that Gibb says was missing in her thesis.
“There’s a real attempt in anthropology to work against the exotic. There is much in [Sweetness In The Belly] that is sensuous and exotic detail that, as a writer, I feel that I am allowed to make use of in order to really give a sense of what it means to be in that place.
“This has feelings. It’s about people’s feelings about politics and how they are affected by politics. And it’s a love story. And that’s really what was missing from my thesis: A love story.”
Most striking is Gibb’s tender, almost idealized rendering of Lilly’s faith. Though an atheist herself (“I don’t have a shred of [religious feeling] in me”), Gibb says she has “a reverence for Islam. My character could not have been anything but Muslim to tell this story.
“As much as there is concern or fear about what being Muslim is these days, there’s also a desire to understand it from an insider’s perspective. I am not Muslim. That’s taking a certain liberty, I know, but it comes from a familiarity from having lived with Muslims and having studied Arabic. And an envy of having a faith that is so strong, strong in the best possible sense. I’ve always had this fundamental intellectual curiousity [about religion] because I lack the department in my head and my heart for spiritual capacity.”
A departure in details and location, but not in its essence, Sweetness In The Belly continues Gibb’s literary probing of the big, existential issues: loss, dislocation, alienation, abandonment. But unlike Mouthing The Words and The Petty Details Of So-And-So’s Life, there are no lesbian relationships in the story.
It’s a difference that Gibb, who lives in Toronto with her female partner, notes at the end of the interview, when she jokes, “You haven’t asked me any gay questions yet.”
But love in Sweetness In The Belly does take many unexpected and boundary-crossing forms. And like Gibb’s previous protagonists, Lilly is a classic outsider, struggling to find comfort in her own skin – a condition to which Gibb says she can relate.
“It seems very writerly to me to exist on the margins and be an observer rather than the observed. I sometimes trace it back to having come from Britain as a child and grown up here, but I can’t really put it down to that because I’ve been here a good 30 years, so I’m busily constructing my own fiction about why I stand on the outside.
“It’s an uncomfortable place to be, being on the outside, so I’m not sure anyone would choose it. There is a privilege to being here once you recognize you have no choice. You get to see things that if you are too busy living life you sometimes miss.”