It began with an image of a woman in a red dress. More visions of women followed, their faces unclear. There were pictures of icons made from metal and tissue paper that glowed when lit from the bottom. And then she saw herself in a red dress. These dreams started coming to writer and performer Anna Camilleri four years ago.
It became clear to her that these were really all the same dream. Then one morning she woke up with the words “I am a red dress,” which became a performance poem.
“This floodgate opened with this poem,” she says, “and then I started to ask myself what the hell is this red dress about?”
Her answer comes in the form of her recent book, I Am A Red Dress: Incantations On A Grandmother, A Mother And A Daughter, a sweet, sad and sincere story based on her 34 years.
“The book isn’t a plot-driven book. It is about a journey, and there’s not one journey, there are several journeys,” she says.
There’s a story of a girl becoming a queer, feminist woman, a story of healing and a story of the ties between a grandmother, mother and daughter. The thread that runs through them is one of redemption.
Six years ago, she says, “I was not ready to sit down and write this book because I was just in a different place.” Now, she adds, “I’m at a point in the journey where I can say yes to the book and yes to writing it. Also I know that I could do that really responsibly, that I wouldn’t write this book with any revenge in my heart. I think that’s really important.”
Camilleri is one of five authors taking part in the national reading tour Wilde About Sappho, which takes place in Ottawa on Thu, Feb 24 at the National Library.
Camilleri’s travels began in a largely working-class, Italian neighbourhood in Toronto. The eldest of two children, she and her brother are first-generation Canadians. After spending four years in Vancouver in her mid-20s, where she started to perform and think of herself as an artist, she returned to Toronto and further pursued her artistic ambitions.
Among other things, she was a member of the Taste This collective, which co-wrote Boys Like Her: Transfictions, published by Press Gang in 1998. She also co-edited, with Chloe Brushwood Rose, the anthology Brazen Femme: Queering Femininity (a finalist for a 2002 Lambda Literary Award). She served as curator of the Strange Sisters cabaret in 2002 and is the program coordinator for the Mayworks Festival. While she’s hardly a first-time author, I Am A Red Dress is the first solo book-length work.
I Am A Red Dress was two years in the making. Initially, Camilleri thought that it would be a mix of short, autobiographically-based fiction, essays and poetry. As she progressed, however, all of the poetry became prose poetry, and the grandmother, mother, daughter structure took shape.
“This story is a lexicon between my grandmother, my mother and I – the stuff that mythology is made of – mother, maiden and crone,” she writes in the prologue. “Grandmother notices a red dress. Mother imagines wearing a red dress. Daughter becomes the red dress.”
Throughout the story, her prose is lyrical, intimate and honest. For example, in the prologue she describes her grandfather as “a character in this story, but he is not the subject. He is at the edge of the photograph, at the seams of the story where the fabric divides, threatening to come undone.”
As the story progresses, she writes about going to his funeral. “I kneel at the casket, and I am only a little afraid that his eyes will open,” she writes. “I expect to feel anger or joy, but neither is present. I am sad – for my grandfather, for myself, for all of us. I wish him a better journey the next time around. I rise and turn to my family, and silently wish each one love, knowing that none of us will love with the brave heart of a child; but we will love, each in our own way. My mother and my grandmother take me by the hand and wrap me with their bodies. Something new takes root. A stretch or road, a circle to stand in, a centre.”
That strength is echoed later, when she writes: “When I was 13 I made a promise to myself that has radically changed the course of my life. I imagined the woman in a red dress, and I made a covenant, not with God, but with myself. I vowed that the violence that has been alive in my family for generations would end on my branch of the family tree; I would not surrender to it. I could not resign myself to believing that the violence I had lived would fade into the background of my life – that the passage of time would somehow miraculously heal me.”