A Writer’s Curiosity

Amanda Hale draws on culture and history in her latest book, ‘My Sweet Curiosity’…

“I don’t think most Valley residents have any idea about the reality of homelessness,” says photographer Barry Peterson, with  writer Paula Wild. The Comox Valley Homelessness Report indicates there are approxiately 250 homeless in the area, though Wild and Peterson—and many of the subjects they have profiled—believe that number is low.

Most individuals and organizations working with or advocating for the Comox Valley’s homeless population believe that the population figure of 250 errs on the low side. Paula Wild tends to agree.

Wild, a Courtenay-based author and journalist, has been working with photographer Barry Peterson of Comox since April of this year to create a unique, and indeed powerful, exhibit of portraits and the intimate stories of the community’s disenfranchised denizens.

On the Edge, Putting a Face on Homelessness graphically shows what reality is for those that many would choose to either ignore or look the other way when they come into view—the homeless. These are the people, Wild says, with no real place to call home. They are the ones scrounging cardboard and bits of old tarp in order to make a shelter, or else they are sleeping in tents or cars regardless of the weather. Food is, as often as not, one hot meal a day at the soup kitchen, or whatever can be found in dumpsters.

The public will have the opportunity to experience On the Edge in an exhibit at the Wachiay Friendship Centre (1625 B McPhee Ave.) from October 13-16 and October 19-23 from 9 am-4 pm. There will also be a Saturday opening on October 24 from 1-3 pm for those unable to attend during the week.

The formal opening of the show takes place during Homeless Action Week, with a reception on October 16, from 2-4 pm, which will include a talk by Wild and Peterson.

Wachiay provided support and encouragement for the On the Edge project, and also helped Wild and Peterson get in contact with the people who became their subjects. The organization also provided grocery cards for payment to the participants. Without Wachiay’s help, Wild says, the project wouldn’t have happened.

“On the Edge is a photo-journalism project designed to put a personal face on the homeless and those most at risk of becoming so,” says Wild. “By allowing the homeless to tell their stories in photographs and words, On the Edge hopes to replace prejudice and suspicion with understanding and compassion.”

For Wild and for Peterson, the subject became something of a heartfelt quest as the personalities of the subjects invariably encroached on their own feelings about the issue. Needless to say, as Peterson suggests, it wasn’t a conventional photographic task in terms of subject matter, nor was it mainstream journalism for Wild, she was to find, as the people told their grim tails of deprivation and often fear.

“It made me feel very grateful for what I have,” says Wild. “The main inspiration for the exhibition was to provide an eye-opener for the community and a way to have people realize this is a growing population and these people are not going away. But, more importantly, how did they get there in the first place? What is their story? Statistics are easy to talk about, but homelessness is not just a bunch of numbers. It’s real people. Every face has a story and it’s time those stories were heard.”

Wild says the project also made her examine her own thoughts and she admits that especially before they started, her thoughts weren’t always positive.

“We come with our own attitudes,” she says. “But I came to realize that once you knew people’s stories, your own attitudes change. You realize that there is this whole subclass whose lives are a constant battle to find places to stay and to find food for sustenance. And it’s a dangerous life, especially for women.”

In that context, it’s well to note that a slight majority of the homeless in the Comox Valley are female. This is a sad fact that is virtually unique to the Comox Valley community.

Both Wild and Peterson say they remained highly sensitive to the wants and needs of their subjects and took pains to assure them they would not be exploited. Needless to say, people living on the edge are wary of incursions into their realm. That considered, Wild reports that the majority of the subjects were happy about the prospect of being profiled.

“Most of them were excited,” Wild says. “In fact, some said that they feel honored to be acknowledged.”
As for the realities, most of the subjects interviewed believe that the figure of 250 chronic homeless in the Comox Valley, as cited in the Courtenay-commissioned Homelessness Report, is low.

“Something definitely needs to be done,” Wild says. “Homelessness is a reality in this community and there is a huge need for low-cost housing. I know this was a strong message in the Homelessness Report, but so far little has been done. Another need—and this is especially true for those who sleep outdoors—is a new drop-in centre. The Bridge formerly filled that need, but since it has been gone, there has been nothing to replace it.”

Photographer Peterson concurs with Wild’s feelings on the issue and also notes that to date “there has been lots of talk, but little action.

“I don’t think most Valley residents have any idea about the reality of homelessness,” Peterson says. “There’s an area called Maple Pool off Headquarters Road and the conditions there are unbelievable.”

Aside from being a highly-credentialed freelance photographer and instructor, and founding member of two art galleries in Winnipeg, Peterson also has a masters of social work, so with the project he was drawing on his experience in two realms.

A significant aspect of the homeless reality, he says, is that many are dealing with major psychiatric issues and a notable majority are also substance addicted. This reality only compounds the misery of those with whom they spoke.

As Wild indicated earlier, Peterson says it was essential for the two of them to show respect for those with whom they were dealing. They put a definite process into place.

“The first meeting was always difficult,” he says. “They were on their guard and their trust level, for good reason, was low. They were so used to being exploited. We met each subject at least three times and each time we met we brought photographs to show them. We established a relationship and that made it work.”

At the same time, rather than being a depressing project, Peterson found it to be quite the opposite. “I really like these kinds of projects,” he says. “You interact with people you normally wouldn’t, and I am really gratified by the positive feedback we’ve received so far. After the exhibition at Wachiay, however, I would like to see it go farther. I’d like to put it in various media to try and keep it current. These kinds of photographs are essentially timeless and they could have impact in years hence.”

As On the Edge is a hard-hitting photo-journalism exhibition, it is only appropriate that we see, in the words of one of the subjects of the exhibit, what homelessness really is like for one who must deal with it on a daily basis. See sidebar below for Ruby’s story.

On the Edge… Ruby’s Story

“Being homeless is no slice of ice,” says Ruby, 51. “Living in cardboard, sleeping on cement, no coat, cold, never knowing who’s going to attack you. It’s dangerous and really scary, especially for women.”

Ruby used to be a caterer. She had a freezer full of food and was always cooking for friends. But two and a half years ago she got double pneumonia and was hospitalized. She was in critical condition for six weeks and has no memory of that time. When released from the hospital she discovered her landlord had sold her belongings and rented out her apartment. “Everything I had was gone,” she whispers. “I cried and cried.”

Now Ruby lives in a tent and collects bottles and cans earning $20 to $40 a day. “I only get $268 a month from social assistance,” she notes. “Without the bottles and cans I couldn’t survive.” Her shopping cart is her life and she takes it everywhere. But she has to be careful, while eating lunch at the soup kitchen her bottles have been stolen.

In the summer Ruby tries to keep an eye on young girls in the park; she knows the scars being molested leaves behind. She’s been arrested—“I kicked a guy in the nuts because he wouldn’t give me a peanut butter sandwich and I was hungry”—and admits she’s an alcoholic. “It eases the pain,” she explains. “My mother was an alcoholic and died when I was young and my stepfather abused me. The rest of my relatives gave up on me years ago. I don’t consider myself as having a family any more.

“Being homeless has been a learning experience,” she adds. “I’ve figured out how to fight my way through life, be tough and look after myself. I try not to think about the past and have a sense of humour but I’m a very angry woman. I’m full of anger.”

Ruby acknowledges there is lots of support and resources for the homeless. “What we need is low income housing,” she states. “We hear lots of promises but never see anything concrete. Five homeless people died last winter. It’s a rough life. I’m a survivor but won’t be if I have to spend one more winter outside.”

Learn more about Ruby and the realities of other homeless people like her at the On the Edge exhibit starting October 13 at the Wachiay Friendship Centre, 1625B McPhee Avenue, Courtenay.

Amanda Hale’s third novel (right) could be descrived as part historical fiction, <a href=

part contemporary urban romance and part immigrant saga, with a poetic sensibility infusing the prose throughout.” width=”290″ height=”435″ />

Amanda Hale is not daunted by borders. In fact, this Hornby Island writer, who recently published her third novel, seems to thrive on crossing them.

As a creative person, Hale has travelled back and forth between visual art, theatre and writing, not just crossing borders but also forging paths, bringing ideas and inspiration from one genre to another with prolific ease.

Home, as well, takes her across borders. Hale lives part of the year in her sunny cottage overlooking the beach on Hornby Island, part of the year in Toronto, where she teaches creative writing, and part of the year in Cuba, home to the man she loves and a new-found community of artists and writers.

And on top of that, she’s an avid traveller. When I meet with Hale to talk about her latest novel, she is getting ready to head off to Europe, where she will be writer-in-residence at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic.

This penchant for border crossing shows up in her novels—perhaps even defines them. The new novel, My Sweet Curiosity, published by Thistledown Press, has multiple plot lines located in different parts of the world and different centuries.

If you were forced to identify it by genre, you could say it’s part well-researched historical fiction, part contemporary urban gay romance, and part immigrant saga, with a poetic sensibility infusing the prose throughout. You could also call it a philosophical meditation on science, love, music, the medical profession, and the ways in which our family heritage both does and doesn’t define who we are.

If you found that description a bit overwhelming, don’t worry. The novel is held together beautifully by strongly wrought characters who easily slip under your skin, so you soon feel that you know and care about them.

There’s Talya, a brilliant, charismatic and often maddeningly self-absorbed medical student, who, when we meet her, is falling deeply and passionately in love, while at the same time falling just as profoundly into grief, as her mother lies dying of cancer. There’s Dai Ling, the gifted and dedicated musician Talya falls in love with, who surprises herself—but even more so, her traditional Chinese immigrant parents—by her choice of a woman partner. There are Talya’s glamorous Russian émigré parents and there are Dai Ling’s Chinese parents and grandparents, their stories entwined with China’s complex history.

And there is Andreas Vesalius, the real-life 16-century doctor who revolutionized medicine by being one of the first to dissect the human body. The fictionalized story of his dramatic work and his passionate yet troubled marriage runs alongside the story of the two women. Vesalius shows up in the contemporary section of the book as well: Talya and Dai Ling first meet in the library, where Talya has gone to find Vesalius’ book of anatomical drawings, with which she is obsessed.

It was Vesalius who planted the first seed of the novel for Hale, she says.

“Back in the early 1990s I was on Hornby and I was only doing visual art. I had a book from the library on anatomy drawing, and there was an illustration by Andreas Vesalius—who at the time I’d never heard of—in the book. There was a bit written about him—about his passion to understand the human body, about his clandestine activity and how he used to rob graves, and how he was the father of anatomy.

“He captured my imagination,” she says. “I thought, ‘What a wonderful character.’ I toyed with the idea of writing a play about him, because I’d been trained as a playwright, but didn’t go anywhere with the idea then.”

Through Vesalius, My Sweet Curiosity sheds light on the history of medicine. As well, the novel offers a number of windows into modern medicine, through Talya’s experience as a medical student, her mother’s treatment for cancer, and especially through Talya’s fascination with the reproductive technology that gave her life. This piece of the novel, says Hale, can trace its origin back to her earlier work in politically engaged theatre. “I was living in Toronto in the 1980s and was involved in an agit-prop theatre collective. We did things for conferences, union conventions, schools, women’s centres and so on. There was all this stuff in the press then about reproductive technology, and we were asked to provide some entertainment for a conference of the National Association for Women and the Law. I did a lot of research into repro-tech and we took that and did some really fun, absurd skits. Back then it all seemed like science fiction, but now much of it is just normal,” says Hale.

Hale’s fictionalized character, Vesalius, is obsessed with finding the soul, the very seat of life, as he dissects bodies. He looks for it in the tissues, but in vain. ‘Where is it?’ he wonders, and prays fervently for an answer to be revealed. His obsession steals his attention and energy, so much so that he loses touch with his own heart. Similarly, Hale seems to be saying, modern medical technology seeks to know and control the genesis of life itself, but risks losing touch with its own heart.

“Something that intrigues me is the journey the medical profession has had. Like many people I resent the control the medical professional and the pharmaceutical industry has over us. I try to show that in the book. I didn’t want to rant about it, but rather tried to embed some of those issues in the story. After all, the story is how you engage people,” she says.

My Sweet Curiosity is Hale’s third novel and, although it is entirely unique, it could be called a ‘typical Amanda Hale novel,’ with multiple points of view and intersecting stories.

Hale’s first novel, Sounding the Blood, is set in BC on Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands).

“It came about when I went to that place. The history and the feeling of the place just grabbed me. But I was well into it before I realized it was a novel. I had started out to write a travel journal,” she explains.

Her second novel, The Reddening Path, has a similar structure to My Sweet Curiosity. There is a contemporary plot about a woman named Pamela, who has been adopted from Guatemala and brought up by a lesbian couple in Canada. The book centres on her return to Guatemala and her discovery of her own heritage. There is a secondary plot about Cortez and the conquest of the Aztec, focusing on Cortez’ translator, an indigenous woman. “She is a fascinating character,” says Hale. “In a way, she enabled the whole conquest.”

In all three books, Hale takes on the point of view of characters from cultures not her own.

“I seem to always write out of my culture,” says Hale, adding that writing from multiple cultural and historical perspectives is a way of affirming our commonalities as humans, while at the same time exploring the richness of our variety.

“I’ve travelled a lot and I don’t like to acknowledge the boundaries between us. I’ve always felt at home wherever I go,” she says. Not everyone is entirely comfortable with this literary culture crossing, Hale adds.
“In the 80s there was this huge insistence on political correctness,” she says. Part of that was the conviction that it was potentially oppressive for a white woman to write in the voice of someone from another culture.

When Hale published The Reddening Path, where the main character is a Mayan woman adopted into a Canadian family, the Women’s Bookstore refused to stock the book. “I was quite surprised,” she says. “This is where most of my friends would have gone to buy it.” When she asked the management why, they said they had a policy not to sell books about adoptees written by someone outside the culture of that character.

“And yet, they stocked Memoirs of a Geisha, which is written by a man!” says Hale wonderingly.

These sorts of attitudes have never deterred Hale from telling the stories that, to her, call out to be told.
“I understand where those kinds of concerns come from. But Canada is such a multicultural society, and it’s hard to write in a multi-cultural society without including a multiplicity of voices.”

Besides, she says, she doesn’t really choose her characters. They come to her—often, she says, fully complete and with stories to be told. And sometimes, real-life people ask her to tell their stories as well.

“When I was in Guatemala to paint a mural and do art installations we were interviewing women and children from destroyed villages, hiding out in churches. They said please, please go back to your country and tell people what we have told you. They wanted their stories told and had no way to get them out into the world.”

Because she writes outside of her own culture, Hale relies on extensive research in order to create convincing voices and worlds for her characters.

“For instance, my first novel had five voices, including a Chinese Canadian immigrant and a Japanese Canadian immigrant. I had to do lots of research and also to enlist the help of readers from those traditions. There are many things I can’t learn from [book] research; I need to learn from people.

“When I first moved to BC I got to know a Mayan family in Surrey and learned a huge amount from them. I took two trips to Guatemala to stay in my friend`s village. That gave a much stronger sense of place to that book.”

For My Sweet Curiosity, Hale’s biggest challenge was the character of Vesalius. She began by absorbing his anatomical drawings, then read and re-read his autobiography. But that was not enough, so she got on a plane and went to Italy.

“I was able to go to Padua [where Vesalius lived and worked] and to the university where he held the chair of anatomy. To stand in the operating theatre where he did his dissections was absolutely thrilling! To stand there, feeling the same sunlight, seeing the same pillars, knowing that there across the courtyard was where Galileo had lectured, there was the same wooden lectern he’d stood in front of.

“Being there and walking the streets is so important. It gave me a sense of confidence and it re-inspired me, because after that, when I am writing, I feel I am there.”

Hale’s next novel, which she has just sent out to her publisher, is set in Cuba, and she has another one in the works set in Europe during World War II. “I’ve been working on that one intermittently for many years and now that I’m on my way to Europe, it feels very timely. I really want to immerse myself in the European atmosphere and history.”

The Europe trip came about because Hale’s work has a following in academia. Both of her earlier novels show up on university reading lists, even as far away as Brno, Czech Republic.

Hale says she’s very happy with this academic acceptance, not just because it is a marker of literary success, but also because it brings her books to a community of passionate readers—people who read and re-read, discuss, write about and deeply engage with the books. “Who is going to read a book more closely than someone who is going to write an essay on it?” she asks.

Hale didn’t go looking for academic attention, however. “It was something that came out of the blue,” she says. “It happened serendipitously.

“I was doing a reading of Sounding the Blood on Commercial Drive in Vancouver and when I finished, this man came up to me and handed me an envelope and said ‘read this later.’ It turned out he was a professor at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia. He had reviewed the book for a literary magazine and liked it so much he put it on his reading lists. I was thrilled.” From there it spread to other universities.

The recognition for her work is gratifying, but Hale’s motivation for writing doesn’t hinge on it. Like most writers, Hale writes because she must.

“It’s a passion,” she says simply. “As an artist, running creativity has always been something I needed to do. It hasn’t always been writing for me. I started in my late 20s. As soon as I took a creative writing course it became a way of making sense of my personal existence, and then as I matured it became wider and wider, as I started wanting to make sense of history and the phenomena of the modern world.

“Without going into it much, I would say that I had a pretty bad childhood. The world outside was not acceptable so I went into the world of the imagination. It was essential for my survival. So I’ve always had fantasies, inner dialogues, stories coming from my imagination. Writing is a way of giving voice to all that,” she says.

“As a result, I am a very complex writer. I have all these tangles and all these threads that I’ve been interested in and explored in other realms, and they all coalesce in the novels. I try to keep things simple, and I never can; I just can’t do it,” she says with a laugh.

Shaping the expression of that complex inner world into a finished novel is a long and demanding process. Hale often works on a novel for years, focusing intensely on it for a while, then taking breaks to get distance and work on something else, then returning for re-writing and re-shaping, then more distance, and then another re-write, and so on.

“Typically, I need about nine drafts till a novel is finished,” says Hale.

She keeps to a fairly stringent writing routine, sitting down at her desk at eight or nine in the morning and writing until mid-afternoon. Once she’s immersed in a project, she doesn’t like to take breaks, because she begins to feel disconnected from the characters and story. However, these days she has to take time off to promote My Sweet Curiosity. And then there is travel and teaching.

Hale’s semi-nomadic life evolved naturally out of her passions, and at the same time feeds those passions. In the spring and summer, she is on Hornby, where she loves the peace and beauty, as well as the vibrant community of artists and writers.

In Toronto, where she spends each fall, she enjoys the urban cultural energy and the contact with her creative writing students. And in Cuba, where she lives from Christmastime into spring—well, there is much she enjoys about Cuba.

Hales’ Cuban connection came out of her visual art. She first went there eight years ago when her friend and fellow artist Lynn Hutchinson invited her to come to Havana to paint a mural. During that trip she made contacts in the Havana art world and was invited back a year and a half later to create an art installation about colonialism, slavery and sugar.

“At the end of that I had two weeks on my own and I wanted to see more of Cuba,” she says. She decided to take the 21-hour bus trip down to Baracoa on the Southeastern tip of the island. To explain why she chose Baracoa, she navigates the conversation back to Hornby Island and its renowned summer festival.

“There’s a wonderful Cuban folkloric dance and music troupe called Bara Rumba who has performed at the festival twice now. They are from Baracoa,” she explains, adding that she’d had a chance to meet them on Hornby and talk to them about their home.

Baracoa is a small seaside community filled with musicians and artists, says Hale. “If you’ve been there three months, you start to recognize everyone. It starts to feel very similar to the community here on Hornby, and yet very different.”

On her first night in Baracoa she went to see Bara Rumba perform. A friend introduced her to a man named Victor, a writer who works for the Casa de la Cultura. “I just fell totally in love with this man and have been going back to Cuba to spend as much time as I can with him,” says Hale.

It’s not surprising at all, really, that for Hale, love means crossing borders. In her life, as in her writing, she continues to happily step right past the artificial boundaries humans create, to inhabit a world where it is the connections—not the divisions—that matter.

Luckily for her readers, Hale knows no bounds.

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