Wednesday, July 07, 2010
An Interview with Kathleen Winter About Her New Novel Annabel
Annabel is the story of an intersex baby, born in a Labrador village in 1968. Mother Jacinta and her friend Thomasina, also present at the birth, initially avoid assigning the baby a pronoun, wanting to keep all possibilities open. But father Treadway decides that the baby will be raised as a boy, Wayne. Medical intervention and relentless socialization by Treadway in the very masculine hunting culture of Labrador render Wayne visibly male. But Jacinta and Thomasina quietly nurture Wayne's hidden female self, Thomasina even bestowing on Wayne the name of the daughter she has recently lost, Annabel. The novel spans twenty years, tracing Wayne's sometimes harrowing voyage of self-discovery, and also those of Jacinta, Thomasina, and Treadway as they come to terms with Wayne's identity and their own.
Annabel is a very powerful and thought-provoking novel. I have not stopped pondering it since I finished reading, so I was very pleased when author Kathleen Winter agreed to answer some of my questions. My interview with her is posted below.
KS: One of the epigraphs with which the novel opens is from Virginia Woolf's Orlando. That’s one of my favourite books, and I think I would have thought of it as I read even without the epigraph given that you explore some of the same questions about gender identity across time and space in Annabel. Can you tell me about some of the influences or inspirations, literary or otherwise, behind Annabel?
KW: I have had a lot of literary inspiration: Heinrich Boll, for his tenderness and humanity in books like The Bread of those Early Years; Virginia Woolf for her novels but also her diaries; E.M. Forster for his explorations of the barricades of class and gender; Roald Dahl for his explosive insistence on dark truth with one hairline fracture of golden light; Katherine Mansfield for her attention to detail and, again, her tenderness – I'm thinking here of "I seen the little lamp" in Mansfield's The Doll's House.
KS: Annabel is deeply rooted in the Labrador landscape. There's a lovely line near the beginning about the relationship of people to land there: "No one minded being an extra in the land's story." What drew you to this landscape in your writing?
KW: In Annabel I depicted the Labrador landscape as a magnetic force that gives off its own energy and seems to have visible light emanating from the ground. This is what I saw when I was there. I also saw people who are expansive in their thinking, and I think the big land and sky and rock and water are inside the people in a way that doesn't happen everywhere. And the land is generous. If you go there you can partake of this breathing between flesh, spirit and ground, if you are open to it. I felt this when I was there, and I tried to put it in the book.
KS: That rootedness notwithstanding, there's a lot of travel in Annabel, with characters moving between Labrador, St. John's, Boston and Europe. Travel often represents reinvention in literature, but nearly all of the characters in Annabel seem to become more themselves away from home. Every journey is somehow an inward one. Can you reflect a bit on the connection drawn here between travel and self-knowledge?
KW: I hadn't thought of this consciously but I guess Wayne, Thomasina and Treadway do become more themselves away from home. It isn't that they don't change – they shift their inner cogs considerably – but you are right, those shifts are shifts toward greater self-expression, not towards something unlikely or discontinuous with their earlier selves. I have traveled a lot so maybe this is a facet of travel that has entered the writing unbeknownst to myself. Maybe I'd have to go on a trip and read the book to see it!
KS: There's a reference early in Wayne's childhood to his knowledge of his authentic self as contrasted with the child that his father requires him to be. (Of course, this is sorely tested later.) Do you think all children begin with a sense of authentic self, or is Wayne unique in this, developing it in response to the unusually intense pressure he's under to assume a rigid, ill-fitting identity?
KW: I think each child is fiercely authentic from the beginning and that it is up to the people around that child to find out who has come into the world by listening as well as through insightful teaching. Of course this doesn't always happen, and we suppress whole generations of children through ineffective methods of socialization. But the authentic self in each person is very strong, and sometimes it survives and even flourishes, and that individual becomes a blessing to others.
KS: Later, Wayne seeks not authenticity but wholeness. Is that another word for the same thing, or is it something different?
KW: For me authenticity happens within the individual and includes things like the development of talents and the ability to speak one's truth anywhere. Wholeness would include authenticity but would also encompass the health of the physical and the emotional body; the ability to feel and receive love, and to have a sense of belonging.
KS: Annabel is your first novel, but your previously published work includes a novella, short stories, and creative non-fiction. How does your writing process change (or does it) as you move across genres?
KW: I think my writing process changes as I gain more life experience, and maybe that is part of how I have moved through shorter to longer genres. It has taken me many years to be able to write a novel that shows the points of view of people of different ages and personalities. I like that Madeleine L'Engle has said the great thing about getting older is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been. But I remain thrilled about the radical possibilities of short stories.
Thanks to Kathleen for her generous and illuminating responses to my questions!
I highly recommend Annabel. You can learn more about it and about Kathleen Winter at the Anansi website here.