"Well, here you are at last. We've been puzzled about you for so long;
although you left behind much love and devotion, you bequeathed us very
few facts." -- Nathalie Babel, 1964
The Audacious Kathleen Winter
What follows is an excerpt from an hour-long conversation with award-winning novelist Kathleen Winter that took place on stage at the Knowlton WordFest in Knowlton, Quebec, on Sunday, July 17, 2011.
The event began with Winter reading from her popular and critically acclaimed first novel, Annabel (House of Anansi, 2010), which is set in a small Labrador community. The intersex child Wayne is attempting to convince his mother to let him have a swimsuit like the pretty one he has seen worn by synchronized swimmers.
Kathleen Winter: When I wrote this, I had no idea that the sport of competitive synchronized swimming began as a male sport. I had no idea about that. So the thing in the book is that Treadway, the macho Dad, is really unnerved by Wayne wanting to do this and tries to talk him out of it. So, Wayne is talking to his mother. His mother acknowledges the secret girl inside her son in a way that her husband doesn’t. The child has no idea about this part of himself. It’s been hidden from him.
I think that what really helped me to write that passage was having a daughter who was the same age as Wayne. That persistence, that logical mind, that mind that is so literal in a child’s development was what I wanted to portray there, so that no matter what subterfuge the poor woman is trying to engage in to get through this, she cannot do anything except come face to face with that basic, literal enquiry for the truth. So that’s where that scene came from.
Linda Leith: The landscape of Annabel is haunting, it’s beautiful, it’s very harsh. Wayne’s father, Treadway, is very much at home in that landscape. Whereas it seems as though the women for the most part are indoors. Do you see this as a landscape for men?
KW: In truth, if this were a work of non-fiction, there are a lot of outdoor Labrador women. Many women go in the canoes and do the things the men do. I wanted to have some roles that were not so rigidly defined. But in order to make this story be what it is, I had to find ways of talking about that dichotomy between socially-accepted maleness and femaleness. So I might have exaggerated somewhat for the sake of the story. But the landscape itself, Labrador – the reason I chose it is that I went there to do a documentary and to teach a little bit. And I think this happens in many northern landscapes: a lot of people get completely hypnotized and bowled by the real North. That happened to me, there, the sense of the expansiveness of the land. That it had magnetic power; that the sky had a luminosity it doesn’t have in more southerly places; that the people in Labrador are a mixture of Scottish and Inuit and Innu. I stayed in the tents of the Innu when they were hunting in the place where they really live, away from the wretched, nasty, shameful government housing. So I spent some time there, and I wrote journals that I never intended to turn into a novel, but they were sitting around in my house, and when I was looking for a setting for this story, I knew that I had that material. I wanted a powerful landscape. The North – and the whole North of Canada – is something I would like to explore more.
LL: Labrador seems to me a terribly poignant place to set the story of Annabel. I think Wayne’s life might have been difficult regardless of his home, but I wonder is it not the more difficult because his home is an isolated community and in many ways a very traditional community.
KW: I really secretly think that his life might have been easier there than in a small town. Because he was in a village, and my own experience has been that tolerance and open-mindedness and happiness about many ways of living can be gotten in two places. They can be gotten in a huge city, or they can be gotten in a place that is closer to the wilderness. Because I think that the wilderness of Labrador engenders an open mind. You cannot help but learn from it. You cannot help but be expanded by the majesty of it. And the wildness and the unpredictability of it.
LL: Is there a world in which Wayne would be at home?
KW: I set this in 1968, because I wanted that reality of there being no place, really, unless you moved to the city. I was thinking, when I set it there, Oh, now we’re much more enlightened. But as I told people that I was writing this book, and after it was published and even today, I still have people come up to me and say, Oh, I have a niece whose baby was just born with both genders, and they have to make a choice. Even now. That still happens. The child is still turned surgically into the more believable gender. I was really surprised at that.
In my research – because I continue to look this up – the only people like Wayne I can find who are truly happy with themselves there are those few whose parents knew, when the child was born, that it wasn’t cut and dried, that there were other options. I read one beautiful account by an intersex person who had grown up and who still had everything she was born with. No one had removed anything, no one had ever done surgery. Her mother was a doctor, and her father was a scientist. She said, I’m so happy they didn’t do surgery. I’m really happy it’s other people who have to put up with their unease.
Because one of the things that happens – and I cannot believe we do this as a society – is that there’s a decision: Is this a penis or a clitoris? If it’s decided it shouldn’t be a penis, then it’s removed. So, whatever it was, it could feel stuff, right? Whatever it was, it was the source of sexual ecstasy for that child’s future. And as part of our comfort level with being a society that wants to have no ambiguity, we don’t even think about that. So this child who had grown up without this happening to her, basically she was saying, I can still have orgasms. I can still be a fully sexual being, thanks to my parents who let me decide when I grew older. I was amazed that that does not happen more.
So, to answer your question, the child would be at home not in a geographic location but in a family or social environment where there was openness to ambiguity. And that can happen everywhere or nowhere.
LL: It seems to me audacious of you to have written realistically about the issues around this child. Did you have the sense that you were being audacious?
KW: I did. I had the question of what right do I have to write about an intersex child, who is part of a whole way of being that I in one way know nothing about. What gives me the right? Shouldn’t we leave this topic to people who have experienced this very profound reality?
All writers feel like that about everybody they write about, because you’re always stepping into somebody’s reality. But this was particularly so, because it wasn’t like writing form a gay or transgendered point of view, the point of view of someone on the highly politicized and vocal gender political spectrum. It wasn’t like that. This was about a voiceless group that is still really silenced. So I did have that sense of oh, maybe I should not be trying to do this. But I did it anyway.
And I am more moved than anything by things that have happened since. At one of my readings, this woman came up to me, and I realized after listening to her for a while that she was intersex. She was the first intersex reader that I met. I had not met any intersex people, I didn’t go and interview any. My research and my way of writing happen in other ways. I had seen pictures, and I had seen videos. And there’s no one way that it looks. It’s amazing. You could never tell.
So this woman in all dolled up, she’s all in pink, and she’s got beautiful blonde hair piled up on her head, and she had a pair of pants on. She was at the reading, and when I had done, she said, I really loved your book. And she said, It was fun getting here on my motorcycle. And she talked about her life on her motorcycle.
And I kept thinking – I’m really slow sometimes – I kept thinking, this is a really fascinating woman. She’s all pink and pretty and feminine, and she’s really strong and “motorcycley.” I didn’t think she was a lesbian. I just thought she was a really interesting combination of male and female. And then she took a battered version of my book out of her bag and said, You know, I want to thank you for writing this. And then she started to cry, and she said, Nobody knows how difficult it really is. That it’s a relentless tragedy to be this way. She talked a little bit about that.
Some people think this book has a happy ending, and some people think it has a sad ending, so I get pleased or not pleased responses. And she said, I’m glad there was hope at the end, because there isn’t really any hope. So that was one of the times when I felt really happy about the decision that I made to end the book in the way that I did.
LL: How do you see the ending of the novel?
KW: I see the ending of the novel opening out into a hopeful future for Wayne/Annabel. I see it as not being a closed ending. I see it as a redemptive ending. Because I needed that to happen. I needed my book not to be one more piece of relentless despair in this world. And I don’t make any apologies for that. Some people can’t stand that. They want just relentless despair right to the bitter end. But we have enough of that. I want there to be a window in my book.
With thanks to CIDI radio in Knowlton and Knowlton WordFest.
First posted on the Globe & Mail's In Other Words column, August 15, 2011.