Unbroken Affections: An Interview with Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer


Kuitenbrouwer pic

By Shawn Syms  

In different ways, we all must fight in order to survive. This primal urge is central to Toronto author Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s surreal and dazzling third novel All the Broken Things. For fourteen-year-old Bo, a boat person from Vietnam, fisticuffs become a form of elemental communication, a way of finding his place in the world—first grappling with other boys in his Toronto Junction neighbourhood, and eventually wrestling a full-grown bear when he finds his way into the carnival circuit as a way to support his family. His baby sister Orange, exposed to toxins in the womb during the Vietnam War, struggles to be truly seen—and to escape the shadow of their mother’s embarrassment and shame. In a world that would ascribe them both status as “freaks,” brother and sister come to new understandings of one another—and of the strange world that surrounds them.

I recently had the opportunity to speak to Kuitenbrouwer about the joys of bawdy, sensual writing, the notion of spectacle, and tensions between the desire for readership and the quest for innovation. We met for lunch one wintery day at a cafe in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood, where All the Broken Things is set.

Your latest novel, All the Broken Things, has been greeted with significant critical acclaim and commercial attention. That said, the contents of this book—in which a Vietnamese-Canadian teenage boy wrestles with bears when he isn’t watching over his younger sister, who has survived the mutagenic effects of the notorious wartime defoliant Agent Orange—are hardly what I would consider paint-by-numbers commercial fodder.

Well, I believe that for every literary author there are at least two things at play from a conceptual perspective that inevitably intersect with how you write a book, or with even what you think might be a good idea. The first is obviously audience reception. You’re never really writing for yourself; anybody who’s writing seriously is always to an extent anticipating response in a shrinking market. You’re always taking a risk that no one will be interested in your book. But you’re also always thinking about innovation. You don’t want to write the book that somebody else has already written, or that three billion people have already written. It’s very tricky to keep the two polarities of innovation and receptivity in mind when you’re writing a novel—because as soon as you start to innovate, you move further and further away from readership. Even though readers want something original, they don’t want it to be too “far out” either—they aren’t looking for Finnegan’s Wake when they have been led to expect the accepted conventions of bestselling fiction.

This book is contemporary, yet still somewhat otherworldly. Like most of your body of work to date, the impact of folk and fairy tales is clearly present.

I read an essay somewhere, maybe in Canadian Notes and Queries, that argued that Canadian writers don’t have enduring projects, they just write discrete books. And I don’t think the essayist could have done a proper survey of Canadian literature and come to that conclusion. All of my own work has been in a way the same project, one that is always interested in the old tales. Everything I do torques around retellings or hopefully innovative inspections of old stories, or to some extent the poaching of ancient narrative structures, playing around with how myth operates. And this story is no different; it is a sort of mythic inspection. It’s interesting, some of the critical response to the novel so far has described it as an enchanted realist novel—which is an impossibility. Realism, in its inspection of the everyday, can’t hold the space of enchantment. But that meld is precisely what I was aiming for—to take realism and then to stretch it.

Your first three titles were published by respected East Coast indie press Goose Lane Editions. And now, All the Broken Things has been picked up by Random House. The past decade has seen many writers move in the opposite direction. The shift to a larger house is often framed as a “breakout” move for an author. What has your experience been so far?

Frankly, the difference between being with a small or large press on some levels has more to do with public perception than anything else. That said, one of the things that has been really crucial for my confidence about this book has been the volume of advance praise. With a smaller press, a book comes out and you wait for anyone to notice it. The media seems to plow through all of the titles of all of the bigger presses first and then perhaps, luckily, its eye just may happen to land upon yours. This time around, I could go into the process at least feeling like there was some appetite for this novel and what I am trying to do in it.

Which must be a comfort given that your aims—from setting to theme to narrative composition—are fairly ambitious. This book brings together many disparate elements: the Ontario carnival circuit, the parks and neighbourhoods of Toronto, the generational aftermath of the Vietnam War, wrestling with bears. Tell me about the genesis of this novel. How did these outwardly incongruous images coalesce and assemble themselves before you?

I always find that at the tail end of one novel, another presents itself. Finishing a draft of my previous novel Perfecting, I sat on my parents’ porch reading The Packet [a small-town Ontario newspaper]. I came upon an editorial written by a man who had been a bear wrestler. I’d never heard of this, and had no idea bear wrestling happened in Ontario. I completely froze, just knowing I would write about this, though I wasn’t sure yet about the details. I continued with Perfecting for another year, while in the back of my mind trying to configure how a bear-wrestling novel might look. I began to immerse myself in the idea, watching films like Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005), about a man who spends time with bears in Alaska, and the NFB doc Project Grizzly (1996), about one man’s obsession with the Canadian grizzly bear. I rented Project Grizzly on VHS, which gives you a sense of how long ago it was, from a local video store on Annette Street. A man in line behind me saw my rental and struck up a conversation, telling me he used to wrestle bears. He mentioned a man who ran this bear-wrestling circuit in Ontario, and recounted how the man’s fiancee had been mauled by a bear.

Because the backstory of Perfecting deals with a span of time between Vietnam and 9/11, I’d also been researching various aspects of the Vietnam War. And I encountered a wiki with the tiniest footnote saying Agent Orange had been manufactured in Elmira, Ontario, and sold to the US military under contract between 1961 and 1971. Whereupon my heart broke—I’d been under the false impression that Canada had nothing to do with Vietnam. As a young person I’d felt righteous that Canada had no culpability in that heinous war. So then I had these two things situated in Ontario: bear wrestling and Agent Orange.

There is a third generation of victims of Agent Orange now. It’s in the groundwater in Vietnam and that’s a problem that was initiated, at least in part, here—so I wanted to bring this problem into the actual geographic space of Canada. And I think partly because this guy in the Junction told me that he was a bear wrestler, I also felt strongly that I wanted it to be an urban story, and a local one. It seems to me after living in Toronto for so many years that Toronto is a chain of little villages—so I wanted to set it in “my Toronto,” which is the Junction/High Park area. The character of Orange, a young Vietnamese girl, an immigrant to Canada who was born with incredible disfigurement because of Agent Orange—she just appeared to me and it suddenly became really clear that she was the novel’s centre. In fact, my earliest attempts to write the novel were first-person narrations from her point of view.

Your characterization of Orange is one of the book’s most compelling—and challenging—features, and the fact she is so young makes it even harder. This character doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but rather within the overarching context of the whole history of representations of people with disabilities. There’s a tightrope between objectification and agency that must be negotiated over the course of the novel. There is a parallel in cultural criticism with the appearance of the “Magical Negro” in a narrative—this unusual Black person who shows up and changes everything and provides magical insights. I think there can be a real risk with a disabled character of doing the same thing, wherein a character such as Orange risks becoming a sort of bedazzling talisman rather than simply a person.

When I was growing up, my mom was a swimming instructor who worked with disabled kids and adults. We would sometimes go with her and end up spending time in the change room. In that sort of “hippie era,” I think that my mother thought it would be very good for us to be introduced to different kinds of people. But there were also so many constraints—you weren’t supposed to stare, for instance, you weren’t supposed to “look”—and as a result I was actually kind of terrified throughout the whole experience, and became shamefully afraid of disabled people as a result. And so as soon as I knew I was writing this disabled character, I also knew it would be the biggest risk in the book for me, to really see that position and that my own gaze upon that character would be the most challenging, and so this was the part of the book for which I did the most research.

One of the big game changers for me was that one of my sons did volunteer work with disabled children with a community organization that put on plays. We went to this community centre in Swansea, and a woman from the agency said, “Yeah, come in, they really like to be watched.” And at that moment, everything had to be reorganized in my mind about the relationship between so-called “normal” people without disabilities and people with disabilities. So we watched the play, and the performers loved having a crowd. Then I realized, like, of course they would want to be watched putting on a play…

Of course. What performer doesn’t want attention?

Indeed. Who wouldn’t want that attention, to have somebody really gazing upon you and respecting what you are doing? This really influenced my perspective—I began to really look at the character of Orange as fully human and to no longer be afraid to do that. And that sort of opened up the door for me to be able to look at all kinds of disability and really inspect the ways that we as humans gaze upon “the other”—not just the disabled other, but every “other.” How one can have expectations that are completely self-constructed, that have nothing to do with the way the other person actually sees himself or herself. Which fed into the character of Bo as well.

Yes. Again, the responsibility and accountability involved when considering a character very different from oneself, particularly across lines of power and privilege.

When I realized that I would write this novel from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old Vietnamese boy, I freaked out. First I thought, How dare I? Next I thought, How can I? I realized quickly the only way to do it honestly was simply to be as completely effaced as any human could be and to be totally open-hearted to it.

I tried as hard as I could to enter the space of that character. It made sense to do that too, because the book is about looking, and the notion of spectacle. So if I was going to properly address this young character’s worldview—which is one that’s always learning and always open to the pressures and confrontations that he faces—then I’d also have to be fully engaged in that act of looking, myself.

I wanted to see how honest my gaze could be upon him, and hopefully by doing that I would get into an unconscious, liminal space of his interiority, so that I’m really seeing him and energetically representing him rather than representing him as an “exotic” Vietnamese character. To exoticize him didn’t particularly interest me—and would also have felt really dishonest in my quest to represent him as a deeply human character.

Obviously you must have done some research about the Vietnamese immigrant experience to influence your portrayal of him.

Honestly, I didn’t really do much at all—purposefully. I mean, I didn’t completely neglect it either; I did talk to some Vietnamese Canadians about their experiences. But you know, the heartbeat of Toronto is very multicultural, so you’re just witnessing and imbibing it every day. If you live in a city of immigrants, you can start to see similarities of experience.

You can avert your gaze, or you can look. And part of what you will see is experiences of marginalization. Even when I first came to Toronto myself—you don’t know where anything is, you don’t know any of the neighbourhoods and their contours, you don’t know how it all fits together. It took me many years to even be able to write about Toronto for those reasons. I remember feeling lost and alienated in Toronto at first. I can only imagine what an immigrant coming from Nigeria or Vietnam or Nepal must feel like entering into this space and trying to make a home.

The book is as much about spectacle as it is about sensuality more generally—it’s not just a story of sights but one of smells and blood and physicality. Bo is a fighter—even before he is seduced into the bear-wrestling circuit. Fighting becomes his way to survive in, and make sense of, Canada. He is picked on by a schoolmate, Ernie, but he fights back.

There is a kind of erotic charge to the physicality of their fights tooI hope so anyway. I’ve been told that I write sex quite well, so one of the constraints that I made for myself in this novel was that I was going to hold back from writing about sex—and I think the eroticism transferred quite naturally over into these very bawdy fights that happened, both between Bo and Ernie and eventually between Bo and Bear herself when they wrestle one another.

Yes, there is blood and snot and barf, and smells in particular… there must a particular joy for you in writing about those things.

I love the visceral, and smell was a natural for this novel. Because if you have ever smelled a bear it’s really unavoidable, and it would be a disservice to the animal if you didn’t bring the carnality, the whole gamut of senses into the space of the novel. I think a lot of writing forgets the sense of smell and consequently, it can become quite amplified when it appears. I think writers should use smell more often. It’s just so provocative.


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Shawn Syms

Shawn Syms is an Associate Editor of the Winnipeg Review.