“Make the Circle Bigger”: An Interview with Angie Abdou


By Mason Hanrahan 

Angie Abdou is an acclaimed Canadian writer whose first novel, The Bone Cage, was a finalist for Canada Reads. Her fifth book, In Case I Go, tells the story of Eli, a ten-year-old boy who is haunted by the ghosts of his family’s past after he moves to a coal-mining town with his parents. Angie sat down to talk about this novel during a recent visit to Ottawa for the Ottawa International Writers Festival.

In your acknowledgements, you said this novel started as a horror story but morphed into something else. What made you want to tell a horror story?

I had discovered the work of Andrew Pyper, author of The Demonologist and The Only Child. His novels are very smart, well-written and intertexual. They reminded me of my obsession with Stephen King when I was 14 and would stay up all night reading him. It reminded me of something really fun about my relationship with books, reading and writing.

So I wanted to try to do something similar. But I was misguided in thinking, like a lot of writers, that genre fiction will be easy. I had an outline and it just wasn’t coming to life, so I decided to throw out my outline and write the kind of book I normally write.

What stayed with it from the beginning was a looser attitude toward realism. Some people called this novel magic realism. That wasn’t a term I thought of while I was writing, but the novel is not restricted by what could or might actually happen and that was really fun.

You also said you didn’t originally intend to write a novel about Indigenous characters.

I would have never set out to write a truth-and-reconciliation novel. It’s just so fraught right now for [non-Indigenous] writers to be talking about Indigenous characters at all. I wouldn’t have deliberately gone into that territory, but I don’t censor myself when I’m writing. I follow the story where it goes.

Also, I’d written about the East Kootenays before in The Canterbury Trail. In that novel, there are no Ktunaxa characters—and that to me seems racist by exclusion. It’s Ktunaxa territory. So with In Case I Go, I include the Ktunaxa because it’s a novel about their territory.

It’s interesting that you say it was problematic not writing about the Ktunaxa. A lot of people think it’s problematic for you to write about them.

It’s a tricky time. I tried to do the best I could to write about the Ktunaxa in a respectful way. I got feedback on early drafts from my cousin, Frank Busch, a Cree novelist. And I got feedback from the cultural liaison for the Ktunaxa Nation. She read three drafts—and I revised each time. I presented the final draft to the elders and got their okay before proceeding with publication. I’m glad I went about it this way—not only because it was the right thing to do, but because it made it a better book.

If you asked the Ktunaxa for permission but didn’t get it, what would you have done?

I wouldn’t have put it out into the world without permission. I would have felt sick about it, especially after I had met the people. We were quite far into the process by the time I stood in front of the elders. I cared about the people involved. I respected their opinions.

I had invested a lot of effort into the book by that point—and I had a publishing contract. At the time, I told myself and the elders that if they were not happy with the use of the Ktunaxa name, I could make up a fictitious Indigenous people. But the reality is that I don’t think it would have been a very good book. It would have taken every bit of meaning out of the novel—because the novel is an apology. As soon as I fictionalize the people to whom I am apologizing, what I’m apologizing for, the novel is robbed of any heart or meaning. So it might have stayed in my drawer if I didn’t get permission.

What do you mean when you say the book is an apology?

The story of In Case I Go apologizes on a small scale—one white boy figuring out how his family wronged one Ktunaxa girl, and finding a way forward from that injustice. I hope the story also serves as a much larger apology for the wrongs European settlers and their descendants have committed against Indigenous peoples. In those terms, In Case I Go is my apology to the Ktunaxa people, and to all Indigenous peoples.

Does this apology have anything to do with the family history you’ve said is threaded through the novel?

I don’t want to ruin any plot twists for the reader—but Eli’s family history has a lot of similarities to my own. My grandfather moved to Canada from Syria when he was 12 years old, and worked in Ontario coal mines. His name was Abdullah Fateh—but in crossing the border his name became Frank Abdou. His first wife was Lakota. They had three kids in Saskatchewan. She left and he married my grandmother and they had two more. My grandfather died when my dad was only four.

My dad remembers very little of his father, but I know a few things about him from My dad’s older sister, a wonderful Lakota-Syrian woman. He pretended to be Catholic to fit in the small prairie community where he owned a general store, but then he would teach his children about Allah.

This family history of changed names and repressed identity, of pretending to fit in, influences the book. Ultimately, In Case I Go is about the damage of certain notions of belonging. And if you want to know more than that, you’ll just have to read the novel!

What’s the reaction been so far?

Despite the work I did, the novel still caused controversy within the community. I wrote an article in Quill & Quire talking about the consultation process. I wanted to say that the work I did with the cultural liaison at the Ktunaxa Nation Council was an interesting process and I learned a lot from our collaboration. I think most people read the article that way, but some still took offence and said they preferred that white people not write about Indigenous people at all, with or without consultation.

That was really hard and upsetting. This novel really comes from my heart. But I think the reaction is also, on a small scale, reflective of truth and reconciliation. We’re up against generations of pain and genocide. There are going to be hard feelings and anger. The way forward is going to be emotionally fraught no matter what.

Do you think those objections are fair? Or do you bristle at the idea that a white woman shouldn’t write about the Ktunaxa or any other Indigenous group?

At first, I do bristle at that idea. I’m a fiction writer. I can imagine my way into other people’s existence; that’s what I do. If we say that we cannot write our way into other people’s point of view, that’s the death of the novel. If I can only write from the perspective of a white, middle-aged woman, then writing becomes an act of narcissism.

But we’re learning a lot about power dynamics and how a long history of oppression influences the decisions we make. The question for me is, “How can I write beyond my experience in a way that is respectful?” I’m really changing the way I think about these things. I’m trying my best and I’m learning.

Some suggest privileged writers should just stop publishing, or publish less. 

I heard an acclaimed Cree novelist speak at a conference and she said, it’s white people’s time to sit down, to give up publishing contracts and festival spots to Indigenous writers. This is a woman I respect and admire a great deal, so I’m listening. But it fills me with anxiety, because this is my one and only life, and this is what I do: I write.

Another well-respected Indigenous writer said white writers don’t have to sit down. She said that instead, we can make the circle bigger and let everyone in. I have to admit that appeals to me more. But I’m trying to think of what I can do to promote Indigenous voices. I’m trying to think of ways I can contribute to a way forward without totally shutting up because I do like writing. I’m compelled to write.

Do you think there will be a positive resolution ultimately?

I hope so. One reviewer complained the novel didn’t offer a solution. [Laughs] I forgot to put in the part where I solve our country’s history of genocide.

Do you think the supernatural elements in In Case I Go help to put some distance between the novel and the truth of what happened in your family’s past?

No, I thought it would but it doesn’t. Even though I wasn’t constrained by realism—there were ghosts and characters who were multiple people at the same time—the story didn’t feel any less real to me.

A lot of writers, when they borrow from real life, tend to “mask” the reality of their lives so that they can write about their experiences in a way that feels safer and less revealing. But you don’t seem to worry much about that.

When I look back on my books, they follow the arc of my life so closely that, as much as I thought I was masking at the time, they stuck relatively close to home.

A lot of my books have that autobiographical bit. In The Bone Cage I wrote about Olympic swimmers and Olympic wrestlers. My brother was an Olympic wrestler; I spent my whole life swimming. In The Canterbury Trail I wrote about ski culture and I live right in the heart of that. I wrote Between, a book about a mother having kids and struggling and having a Filipina nanny, which is not that far removed from my own experience. I always start with the real and then go out to wherever fiction takes me. For In Case I Go, it’s a bit different because there’s the supernatural element, but for me, it’s just as autobiographical.

I like what Alistair McLeod said: “You write about what worries you.” I do take the anxieties of my own life and turn them into novels. There are worse things you could turn anxieties into.

It’s interesting Eli is such a young character, since he’s so weighed down with guilt for his great-great-grandfather’s misdeeds. This idea that children can be born into this ancestral legacy, to me it echoes of original sin. Do you think that’s true of the relationship between white and Indigenous peoples in Canada, that there is an original sin we [whites] have to atone for?

That’s not the language I would have used at the time; but it does resonate. I was thinking at the time about Carl Jung and how he says, “We live to be the answers to our ancestors’ questions.” So I was thinking how we need to live out resolution to our ancestors’ mistakes.

I think children right now are anxious. They face anxiety and stress that they’re too young for. I think about my own kids and how they carry the burden of atrocious mistakes made so long ago.

Do you think you could have dealt with this idea of taking responsibility for ancestors’ misdeeds with an older and perhaps less innocent character? Why ten years old?

Originally, I wanted to experiment with voice. I’d never written anything in first person and I’d never written from a young character’s point of view. There’s a kind of wisdom that comes with that youth. I started with the idea of how Indigo kids—the novel was called Indigo Kids in a first draft—are wise beyond their years and super-sensitive. Eli can see spirits and has access to this other world and I wanted to explore that as a starting point.

It did feel weird to me, the point of view and how centuries swirled around, characters were sometimes one person and sometimes another person. I had fun writing characters with such fluid identity.

Part of the reason I wanted a young character is, Eli’s not that different from my son, Oli—the name isn’t even that different, that’s poor masking! My son Oli is highly sensitive and really prone to stress about problems in the past.

So that part was interesting to me but then I also realized Eli’s possessed by his great-great grandfather, then his kid’s voice could morph into an older voice and that was helpful to me. I know some people do write a whole novel in a child’s voice, but for me that didn’t give me the space I needed to talk about things I wanted to talk about, infidelity mostly.

An interviewer asked me why I’m so obsessed with infidelity. I think that’s different for every book but I thought about it and it’s about desire—both on the one hand about these people cheating on each other and on the other hand it’s about wanting something that doesn’t belong to you. It’s about how wanting something is not the only prerequisite to having it. And it’s about the destructive power of unchecked desire.

I didn’t think in reading the novel that infidelity was connected in any way with Truth and Reconciliation.

It took me a long time to make that connection. I was writing about these political issues and I was writing about people cheating and I asked myself, “Where’s the connection?” And it just came to me one day. It’s about unchecked desire.

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Mason Hanrahan

Mason Hanrahan is a writer, editor, arborist and bicycle mechanic living in Ottawa. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. He was second twice in the Carleton University Writing Competition.