Anne Cameron: a voice like no other
December 02nd, 2022
Anne Cameron, a British Columbia original, was born in Nanaimo, B.C. on August 20, 1938, and she died of bacterial pneumonia on November 30, 2022.
Easily one of the province’s most ground-breaking writers, the 16th recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award and the author of possibly the bestselling work of fiction ever published within British Columbia by a B.C.-born author (Daughters of Copper Woman), she was also an accomplished screenwriter (Dreamspeaker, Ticket to Heaven, Bomb Squad, The Tin Flute, A Matter of Choice, Homecoming and Drying Up The Streets) and a dutiful and doting mother and caretaker for three generations of children.
“I don’t think anyone has captured the idiom of the working-class, B.C., coastal small community as well as she has,” says Howard White, Cameron’s longtime publisher, in a Tyee interview. “I sort of think of her as the William Faulkner of the B.C. coast.”
Cameron was also a ground-breaking feminist. Long before the movie Thelma and Louise, Cameron wrote her cowgirl buddy western The Journey in which 14-year-old Anne, abused by her uncle, sets off on her own and teams up with Sarah, a prostitute who has been tarred and feathered by a vigilante killer and his supporters. The pair ride off into the sunset in the late nineteenth century, defending themselves as necessary.
When she received the aforementioned Woodcock Award, Cameron told Vancouver’s Xtra West, “I didn’t expect I would ever get any kind of award because my work is so political. It is political in the sense that the personal is political. There are queers all through my books, and why not? Their being queer is not why they are in my stories. It’s just part of who they are. There are queers throughout every neighbourhood; being queer colours every minute of every day. That’s who I am.”
Anne Cameron is a “strong voice for the emancipation of women, regardless of their sexual preference,” said Vancouver’s lesbian city councillor Ellen Woodsworth when she presented the Woodcock Award on July 29 and declared Author Appreciation Day in Cameron’s honour. She added, “Anne Cameron is a very powerful character in her own right.”
“Her books are cutting edge,” said Alan Twigg, founder of the Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for B.C. authors. “When we started the award fifteen years ago, it was for people like Anne Cameron who are highly original and deeply British Columbian.”
Anne Cameron’s audacious Daughters of Copper Woman (1981) has been reprinted at least fifteen times and translated into numerous languages. Nonetheless, Cameron was viciously and sometimes jealously vilified by some latter-day Indigenous and LGBTQ2 personnel, most notably the Indigenous author Lee Maracle, who failed to appreciate it was Cameron’s homespun bravado that had laid the groundwork for their own radicalism. (Later, Anne Cameron and Lee Maracle became friends.)
Often her books were comedies of manners, celebrating perseverance in the face of adversity, and she delighted in West Coast culture at-large, capturing the inventive ways people spoke, and the freedom to be unconventional beyond European traditions.
“I always enjoyed Cam’s humour, admired her publications, and respected her serious commitment to good causes,” says fellow Vancouver Island novelist, Jack Hodgins. “She was an extraordinarily compassionate person and a uniquely colourful figure in Nanaimo’s human landscape.”
Some of her funniest and best writing appeared “under the literary radar” in a series of 78, wide-ranging opinion columns under the heading WESTERN EDGE: Letters from Tahsis for this online periodical BCBookLook. These appeared between February of 2006 and March of 2008 and remain freely available. [https://bcbooklook.com/category/westernedge/ ]
The writing voice of Anne Cameron remains as unmistakable as the singing voice of Buffy Sainte-Marie and Joni Mitchell. She wasn’t copying anyone. You’re either a fan or you’re not.
Novels & Short Stories
Dreamspeaker (Clarke, Irwin, 1979; Stoddart, 1999; Harbour, 2005)
Daughters of Copper Woman (Press Gang, 1981, many reprints; Harbour, 2002)
The Journey (Avon Books, 1982; Spinsters Ink, 1986)
Dzelarhons: Mythology of the Northwest Coast (Harbour, 1986)
Child of Her People (Harbour, 1987)
Stubby Amberchuk & The Holy Grail (Harbour, 1987)
Tales of the Cairds (Harbour, 1989)
Women, Kids & Huckleberry Wine (Harbour, 1989)
South of an Unnamed Creek (Harbour, 1989)
Bright’s Crossing (Harbour, 1990)
Escape to Beulah (Harbour, 1990)
Kick the Can (Harbour, 1991)
A Whole Brass Band (Harbour, 1992)
Wedding Cakes, Rats and Rodeo Queens (HarperCollins, 1994)
Deejay and Betty (Harbour, 1994)
The Whole Dam Family (Harbour, 1995)
Selkie (Harbour, 1996)
Aftermath (Harbour, 1999)
Those Lancasters (Harbour, 2000)
Sarah’s Children (Harbour, 2001)
Hardscratch Row (Harbour, 2002)
Family Resemblances (Harbour, 2003
Dahlia Cassidy (Harbour, 2004)
Earth Witch (1983)
The Annie Poems (1987)
How Raven Freed the Moon (Harbour, 1985). Illustrated by Tara Miller.
How the Loon Lost her Voice (Harbour, 1985). Illustrated by Tara Miller.
Raven Returns the Water (Harbour, 1987). Illustrated by Nelle Olsen.
Orca’s Song (Harbour, 1987). Illustrated by Nelle Olsen.
Lazy Boy (Harbour, 1988). Illustrated by Nelle Olsen.
Spider Woman (Harbour, 1988). Illustrated by Nelle Olsen.
Raven & Snipe (Harbour, 1991). Illustrated by Gaye Hammond.
Raven Goes Berrypicking (Harbour, 1991). Illustrated by Gaye Hammond.
The Gumboot Geese (Harbour, 1992). Illustrated by Jane Huber.
Pielle, Sue & Anne Cameron: T’aal: The One Who Takes Bad Children (Harbour, 1998). Illustrated by Greta Guzek.
Loon and Raven Tales (1996)
Ticket to Heaven (1981)
Drying Up the Streets
A Matter of Choice
The Tin Flute (adaptation of a novel by Gabrielle Roy)
Cantata: The Story of Sylvia Stark (1989)
Alberta Poetry Competition (1972)
Bliss Carman Award for Poetry, Banff School of Fine Arts (1973)
Alberta Poetry Competition (1973)
Etrog for best Screenplay – Dreamspeaker (screen) [In 1968, a bronze award statuette was designed by sculptor Sorel Etrog and the award was often referred to as an “Etrog”. The awards were formally renamed Genie Awards in 1980.] (1979)
Gibson Award for Literature – Dreamspeaker (novel) (1979)
Gemini Award for Best Pay Television Dramatic Series- Mistress Madeline (1987)
George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award (2010)
Press Gang, 603 Powell Street, former headquarters of Press Gang Publishing: First issued here by the feminist collective called Press Gang, Anne Cameron’s much-reprinted Daughters of Copper Woman (1981) is possibly the bestselling book of B.C. fiction from a B.C. publishing house. Press Grang was originally a combined printing and publishing enterprise that operated across from a strip bar at the Drake Hotel, from 1978 until 1989, until the group amicably split into Press Gang Printers Ltd. and Press Gang Publishers Feminist Cooperative. The publishing operation moved to 1723 Grant Street, near Commercial Drive, and folded in 2002. Sales from Daughters of Copper Woman had helped keep the women-only, anti-capitalist collective afloat. The idealistic organization had its origins at 821 East Hastings Street in 1974. Cameron subsequently arranged with Howard White for further editions to be printed by Harbour Publishing.
Born in Nanaimo in 1938, and raised halfway between Chinatown and the Snuneymuxw First Nation reserve, Anne Cameron said that the only place where she found order was in books, or her imagination. At age twenty, she met a French Canadian pilot who wanted to be an actor; they married and she soon had three children.
Having eventually gained her grade twelve education (“except in Math, and in that I have grade ten”), she began writing theatre scripts and screenplays under her legally-changed name Cam Hubert. Her stage adaptation of a documentary poem developed into a play about racism, Windigo, which in 1974 was the inaugural presentation of Tillicum Theatre, the first aboriginal-based theatre group in Canada.
Divorced after about fifteen years of marriage, she fell in love with a woman on the mainland soon afterward. In 1979, her film Dreamspeaker, directed by Claude Jutra, won seven Canadian Film Awards, including best script. It is the story of an emotionally disturbed boy who runs away from hospital and finds refuge with a First Nations elder, portrayed by George Clutesi, and his mute companion. Published as a novel that same year, Dreamspeaker won the Gibson Award for Literature.
Cameron’s other credits as a screenwriter include Ticket to Heaven, The Tin Flute and Drying up the Streets, but she remained most widely known for the first of her two feminist renderings of Coast Salish and Nuu-chah-nulth legends, Daughters of Copper Woman. Her publisher from the Press Gang collective, Della McCreary, later told an interviewer, “Women from all over the world write to describe how reading Daughters of Copper Woman has changed their lives.”
More than 25 books followed, mainly novels about so-called working-class life in coastal communities such as Powell River or Nanaimo. Most of her stories involve transformation and healing.
Cameron was primarily concerned with the lives of women who keep the world turning, or dare to assert their independence with non-conformist behaviour. For many years Anne Cameron and a partner lived near Powell River on a 30-acre farm. An exceedingly funny social critic, Cameron relocated to Tahsis where she lived in a trailer, minding her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, estranged from, and overlooked by, literary tastemakers. Her readership is international, her work remains uncompromising. She mystified some, alienated others, while fiercely protecting children and the weak, refusing to kowtow to authority, swearing freely and standing up to bullying. She didn’t give a rat’s ass about political correctness—only justice.
Born as Barbara Anne Cameron, and raised in Nanaimo as the daughter of Annie Cameron (née Graham) and Matthew Angus Cameron, the writer known first as Cam Hubert never lived on the right side of the tracks. Her father was a coal miner–until the mines closed. Her mother Annie became a Jehovah’s Witness when her daughter was 13 and was forced to attend sessions with her mother at the local Kingdom Hall (her brother didn’t). As a youngster she kept scribbling notes on toilet paper until she received the gift of a typewriter from her mother at age 14.
While living in Nanaimo, New Westminster and Cloverdale, she supported herself with a variety of jobs, including BC Tel operator and medical assistant with the RCAF, while starting her own family. As Cam Hubert, she adapted her own documentary poem into a play about racism, Windigo. It was the first presentation of Tillicum Theatre, possibly the first Indian-based theatre group in Canada, in 1974. “Tillicum Theatre was started in Nanaimo under a LIP grant,” she says, “and, with a cast of native teenagers, it toured the province presenting dramatizations of legends and a theatre piece based on the death of Fred Quilt, a Chilcotin man who died of ruptured guts after an encounter with two RCMP on a back road at night.” A Matsqui Prison production of Windigo also toured B.C. with a cast of Indian prison inmates.
After Dreamspeaker, her other film credits as a screenwriter included Ticket to Heaven, Bomb Squad, The Tin Flute, A Matter of Choice, Homecoming and Drying Up The Streets. Many of her radio plays were aired on CBC Radio. Her works for the stage have included Cantata: The Story of Sylvia Stark, about a black, Salt Spring Island pioneer. It was produced by the Black Actors Workshop in Montreal in 1989.
Cameron’s varied output included one of Canada’s best-selling books of poetry, Earth Witch, reprinted five times. She became most widely known for the first of her two feminist renderings of Coast Salish and Nuu-chah-nulth legends, Daughters of Copper Woman, followed by Dzelarhons: Mythology of the Northwest Coast. Cameron published fiction at almost a novel-per-year pace, mainly released by Harbour Publishing.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Cameron angrily identified the patriarchal system of North America as blameworthy for much despair and poverty. Since the 1990s, she concentrated on portraying the so-called working class lives of people in coastal communities such as Powell River or Nanaimo; although her perspective remained passionate, she gradually became less accusatory and didactic in her approach. Show, don’t tell, etc.
Most of her stories involve transformation and healing. Some of her subject matter was audacious. In Selkie, she writes, “Selkies or Sealkies or Silkies are capable of leaving their seal skins behind and walking on earth as women or men. They often live with or marry humans, and have children who are both human and not. The women are beautiful, the men have enormous organs, and both female and male have almost insatiable sexual appetites.”
As the mother of five children (Alex Hubert, Erin Hubert, Pierre Hubert, Marianne Hubert Jones, and Tara Hubert Miller), Cameron was primarily concerned with the lives of women who keep the godforsaken world turning, looking after ‘gomers and lugans and dock-whallopers’ and women assert their independence with non-conformist behaviour.
South of an Unnamed Creek is the story of six women who operate a Klondike gold rush hotel while caring for two children and one another. Three of the women are entertainers who meet in New Westminster, a fourth comrade joins the group in the Chilkoot Pass, and another is a ‘celestial’ — a Chinese woman sold into North American prostitution.
Picking up a thread from her prize-winning first novel Dreamspeaker and enlarging the theme of her 1995 novel The Whole Fam Damily, Anne Cameron took a hard look at what’s gone wrong with kids in our society and who is responsible in Aftermath. We meet Anna Fleming, a weary social worker with an impossible caseload. Welfare systems cover the butts of everyone except the kids in this technicolour nightmare of hand-me-down dysfunction. “Jo-Beth looked like she’d been dragged through a hedge backwards,” Cameron writes. “She was holding a mickey of rye, from which she studiously took dainty ladylike sips. God forbid Jo-Beth should guzzle, she just had a lot of sips, one after the other, without ice or chaser.” Vancouver Island cousins Fran and Liz find opposite ways to survive the horror of their violent childhoods. Liz thinks it’s better to put it all behind them. Fran, who was ten years old when she found out her father wasn’t her father at all, realizes just how troubled her family is when she starts writing down her family’s history
Stubby Amberchuk and the Holy Grail is about baseball, poker, women’s wrestling and magic. A little logging town becomes a mythical kingdom and a tiny lizard turns into a dragon. Comfortable in the realm of mythology, Cameron followed her two collections of stories based on coastal Indigenous stories with Tales of the Cairds, a reworking of Celtic legends in her inimitable West Coast style.
In Family Resemblances, Cedar Campbell, born after a shotgun wedding, rejects her violent father and her overly forgiving mother, opting for her neighbour’s farm by age ten. It explores estrangement and love in a mother-daughter relationship.
A pregnant woman with visible tattoos but no name wends up the coast, first by ferry, then fishboat, to a village name Maklarnaclata, in Kick the Can, reviewed by Ron Stewart for B.C. BookWorld in 1991. “The woman dies in childbirth. A native woman raises Rowan until fate lands a welfare officer in their bay. Ingested by The System, Rowan ricochets through foster homes until she is rescued by her grandmother, Mary Milligan. With much effort, including a major change in lifestyle, Mary wins full custody of the girl. An economic down swing pushes Mary and Rowan from the urban terrarium to the floating logging camps up the coast. Working as a cook, Mary reveals to Rowan several secrets of living, but not the mysteries of human reproduction and birth control, which Rowan discovers for herself. They return to the city, where Rowan works for the SPCA while trying to divine her purpose in life. As she saves a beautiful dog, she watches Mary die from the accumulated ravages of her lifestyle. Mary’s life insurance enables Rowan to buy a home up the coast. She finds a job on the ferry, and plans to settle into her new life. But a man she meets on the shuttle turns the pond choppy. The man is going through a divorce and custody fight, and expects Rowan, with her large house and spare time, to respond to his situation. She deftly refuses. Rowan meets the man’s ex-wife Sue, who says the man has not kept up support payments and has been two-timing. When men go sour, women turn to one another for comfort and love. Sue and offspring move into Rowan’s new house. Rowan helps raise Sue’s brood, then, hopping a few pages, Sue’s grandkids. The story peaks at Rowan’s efforts to rescue four kids from the maw of doom. Anne Cameron’s story centres on character with telling accuracy, and with the gift of covering much broken ground without breaking pace.”
Sexual abuse, mistreatment of children, foster families and poverty are prevalent in many of her novels and stories, such as Deejay and Betty, which reviewer Angela Hryniuk commended as ‘piercingly blunt’, and a short story collection entitled Bright’s Crossing in which eleven women provide various perspectives of the same Vancouver Island town.
In the novel Sarah’s Children, after Sarah Carson suffers a stroke, her children and grandchildren end up examining the nature of family while Sarah slowly recovers. Similarly, in Hardscratch Row, six grown-up siblings grapple with the meaning of family, but Cameron adds a character known as the ‘squeyanx‘, part-trickster, part-ghost, part-Greek chorus. It’s visible only to those who want to see.
Escape to Beulah concerns the combined efforts of women to escape from a merciless plantation boss in the pre-Civil War American South.
The heroine of Anne Cameron’s Dahlia Cassidy hasn’t been lucky in picking the fathers of her kids. “For years she clung to the hope that she’d just been fishing in the wrong bay and if she moved around often enough, sooner or later, with or without the help of God and the angels, she’d happen upon a man who had more in mind than some friction.” As a follow-up to Family Resemblances, this satire on relationship is another stirring and funny portrait of a female survivor who earns her independence in a small town on Vancouver Island.
Anne Cameron also wrote a series of “native legends” (as they were called in the early 1990s) for children. In her Raven and Snipe and Raven Goes Berrypicking, the character of Raven is her usual foolish and greedy self. The latter concludes: “I’m sorry,” Raven repeated, but nobody listened to her. “I’ll be good,” she promised, but nobody listened. “I’ve learned my lesson,” she vowed, but the three friends looked at each other and then at Raven. “She’s up to something,” said Puffin. “She’s already figuring out another trick,” said Gull. “She’s got that look in her eye,” said Cormorant. Raven flew to the top of a tree and sat in it feeling very lonely and sad. “Nobody trusts me,” she cawed to herself. “Nobody trusts me at all.”
In terms of her coastal subject matter, Cameron often expressed affinity for Vancouver Island novelist Jack Hodgins, whose earlier work incorporates fantastical elements and humour, even though their manners in person were worlds apart. Perhaps Cameron’s closest equivalents in Canadian fiction are Lynn Coady for Cape Breton Island and David Adams Richards for New Brunswick, but Cameron was always unfashionable and mostly ignored in Ontario literary circles during her many decades as an estranged West Coaster who could write like an angel but swear like a trooper.
For many years Anne Cameron and partner Eleanor Miller lived near Powell River, B.C. on a 30-acre farm (with beef cattle, 153 rabbits, 103 chickens, 2 cats, 2 turtles, a horse, a donkey, a dog and various combinations of children), but, ultimately, she fled to the extreme western edge of Canada, as far away from Toronto as could be, in seldom-visited Tahsis, not far from where Captain Juan Perez in 1774 and Captain Cook in 1778 made contact with the Nuu-chah-nulth (formerly referred to as the Nootka). There she served one term as a city councillor before being sidelined from politics for health concerns.
According to her daughter and executor, Erin, Anne Cameron underwent three back surgeries, a titanium hip replacement, two cancer scares and twelve-hour abdominal aortic surgery (that eventually led to a fatal bout of bacterial pneumonia) at the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria in 2021. “The blood supply to the left side of her body was impeded. She survived the surgery access via her left shoulder but came out of surgery with Compartment Syndrome in her left arm and damage to her spleen and left kidney. Very shortly afterwards, when she had anesthetic delirium, she was given experimental inoculations for COVID. Four days later she suffered a heart attack. She never regained her balance to be able to walk again. She consequently spent the last year and five months in a wheelchair with no use of her left arm and a loss of her vocabulary and memory. She had such a huge vocabulary and an incredible genius mind. She knew it had been damaged and was very upset about it.”
A self-taught violinist, Anne Cameron frequently played and co-wrote Celtic music with Gareth Hurwood, leader of the group called Black Angus, the house band at the Irish Times Pub in Victoria. It is hoped that a gathering in appreciation of Anne Cameron can be arranged at that location and information about such an event can be gleaned from a soon-to-be-updated website at annecameron.ca (currently under re-development). Anne Cameron had countless admirers of her personalities and writing. In due course, it is anticipated that those who wish to offer their reminiscences will be able to do so at that website address.
BC BookWorld: What are the origins for Daughters of Copper Woman?
Anne Cameron: Daughters of Copper Woman is a gift that was passed to us from some wonderful, gentle, tough and enduring old women. It has been classed as ‘fiction’ by some but for me it is as true as the Bible is true. These stories were told to me a few at a time, in no particular order, over several years. I didn’t even tell them. The native storytelling tradition holds that a story belongs to the one who tells it, not to the one who hears it, and so I listened, and I retained and I made no move to tell what had been shared with me. Later on, the women who had shared stories with me told me to put them in some kind of order, get them published, put them out to the world at large. So, I did. I had no idea what a shit-storm THAT would create!
BCBW: The appropriation of voice debate.
AC: Yes. But AT NO TIME did any elder speak out against the stories, or the publication of Daughters of Copper Woman, or my part in any of it. Annie Yorke, one of the all-time treasures of native oral history, gave the book her blessing. George Clutesi, who wrote Son of Raven Son of Deer, used it as a teaching tool in his work with young men. The Traditional Council of Elders approves of it. But I listened. I let the people with their political agenda have their say. For more than a dozen years I ‘stepped aside.’ I made a point of not including any ‘native content’ in my work. I waited for any of the noisemakers to start doing what they claimed I had been keeping them from doing. Well, I’m still waiting.
BCBW: Are you changing your stance?
AC: Yes. I am not going to deliberately avoid Native content in my stories anymore. For this new edition, permission was given to me to include some stories that were not available at the time of the first publication. My reality includes a Native reality. Five of my grandchildren are ‘registered status’ Natives. It is my obligation to speak for them until they are big enough and old enough to speak for themselves. I would betray them if I neglected their First Nations background. I have other grandchildren who are not registered status as defined by the laws of this fair land, and to them, too, I have an obligation. And that obligation includes melding and merging Native and non-Native reality as it is lived on this coast. And anyone who doesn’t like it can get in line to kiss my arse.
BCBW: How did Copper Woman first get published?
AC: I took it to the Press Gang Collective. We did not have a written contract; we had an understanding. I retained ‘control’ in that no translations, no foreign publications, etc., could be done without my permission. For years I did not allow translations because I had no way of checking how well the work was done, and part of the job I had, as writer, was to try hard to retain the oral storytelling flavour.
BCBW: What are some of the causes you’ve underwritten from selling 200,000 copies?
AC: The royalties have gone towards funding the defense of Meares Island and Lyell Island. And for four years they kept the Stein Rediscovery Program running. It bought a big roto-tiller so Native women in Washington State could prepare ground and transfer healing plants that would have otherwise been destroyed by bulldozers that were clearing what ought to have been their sacred land for a subdivision. It has kept money going into transition houses and shelters for women and kids. The list goes on. Along the way I hope it has encouraged, in some small measure, a re-examination of non-Native ‘pre-history,’ the stories which we have been denied. Because it has been read by so many people, it’s safe to say Daughters of Copper Woman has helped the Ainu people of Japan, the Sami people, the Maori. And see if I apologize for any of that. The line forms for those who wish to kiss my arse.
BCBW: Do you ever scratch your head and say, ‘Jeez, if only I’d kept all those royalties for myself…’
AC: Not really. Daughters of Copper Woman has been like a ‘gift which goes on giving,’ It has prompted people to tell me stories from their ‘lost’ backgrounds, their lost cultures. When I went to England on a reading thing sponsored by, I think, the Canadian government, I swapped Celtic stories with some of the Travelling People, and from that came The Tales of the Cairds. They’re similar but in a different tone, more mocking, more irreverent. I think we heal ourselves with our stories. Little kids are bombarded on all sides by TV, by video games, by CD ranting, and yet let one person start to tell a story and the noise is ignored, the kids are there, wide-eyed and breathless.
BCBW: Is that why you’ve done about 10 kids books?
AC: Sure. Right now I’m working on a story called ‘Freedom Ride’ with Ms. Lynn Aspden’s grade 3-4 class at James Thomson Elementary. It is such fun! I go down the road there, to the school, every now and again, always unscheduled, and we review what we’ve put together. It’s about a polar bear cub born in a zoo and how she decides to find ‘north.’ They let their ideas pour forth. They seem to really want the polar bear to go to Hawaii. I tell them it’s too hot. They say, “She could go swimming all the time.” I say she doesn’t have any money, all she has is a rickety old bicycle, how would she get there? One wonderful kid wants the polar bear to find an abandoned rowboat, set the bike over the back, put shingles on the rear wheel, then pedal to Hawaii by using the shingles as paddles.
I have this theory about kids and their imaginations. When you stop and think about it, every kid gets eased into automobile ownership in some pretty wonderful ways, practically seduced into it. Baby, go, bye-bye. Baby, go to Dairy Queen for soft ice cream. Baby, get taken to the municipal pool to swim. Baby, see Grandma. If that kid had to be able to take apart, fix, and put back together the engine of the car before she ever got a chance to ride in the car, I betcha she’d never bother buying one. So just look at the way we teach our kids to write. We ask kids where is the noun? Where is the verb? What’s the subject? The theme? And so, by the time we get around to telling kids to INVENT something, to IMAGINE, they’ve been pretty much turned off.
BCBW: So you’re busy being a revolutionary inside the school system?
AC: [laughter] Well, it gets me lots of hugs.
The following interview was conducted at Cameron’s home, nine miles north of Powell River, located up a gravel road and only recently wired for electricity. After neighborhood petitions failed to convince B.C. Hydro to service her area, Cameron took her typewriter down to the local Hydro office, plugged it in, and began working until B.C. Hydro relented. Cameron was publishing five new books during the year this interview was conducted.
BCBW: People have no difficulty agreeing there is a Newfie culture. Or that Quebec has a separate culture. But there are no generally observed definitions of what we have become in B.C.
CAMERON: That’s because the same thing has happened to B.C. and our provincial identity and psyche as happened to women. ‘They’ have been defining us. Back in Toronto they make jokes like, “The continent slopes to the west and all the nuts roll to the West Coast.” That’s a crock. We know the nuts roll as far as the Rocky Mountains. That’s why we put them there. Only the crafty ones make it through to this side.
BCBW: You really have an ‘us’ and ‘them’ sense of the East and West.
CAMERON: Because I lived back there for over a year. It further convinced me that people out here are not really part of their country. My mother grew up here. My father grew up here. I was born here. Anything that I am is because of that. I think many people in B. C. feel this way. We identify with British Columbia much more than we identify as Canadians.
BCBW: In a way ‘They’ gave us the name of our province. Do you think it’s inappropriate?
CAMERON: Oh, for sure. We should just call ourselves The Coast. And across the water is The Island. And once we get the names straightened out we can go back to square one and decide if The Coast is joining The Island. ‘Cuz I’m originally an Islander. And we’re not joining you again. You guys join us next time. It didn’t work out this time.
A lot of people don’t realize we had a language and a culture on Vancouver Island that was as unique as the one Newfoundland still has. But where Newfoundland held out until 1949, we got sucked in a hundred years before that. We lost a very unique way of talking. For instance, I can remember we used to say ‘I amn’t’ as a normal word. Now my publisher has given me this computer to finish this new novel and this computer has a built-in dictionary on a disc to check spelling. Well, I mean, Jesus! We didn’t get to page two of Stubby Amberchuck and the Holy Grail before the West Coast terms started coming up. The computer kept getting stuck. The computer nearly burned itself out when it came to arseltart. (Laughter)
BCBW: What’s an arseltart?
CAMERON: An arseltart is along the lines of a nerd. We hadn’t even got to buggerlugs yet. (Laughter) A buggerlugs is often a kid, as in “Hey, Bug-gerlugs, bring in an armload a’ wood for the stove.”
BCBW: In some societies it’s been standard practice to consult the major writers about major social issues. But in B.C. I’d say most of the people working for B.C.’s newspapers and tv stations don’t even know who the leading B.C. writers are.
CAMERON: That’s true. But look at who has taken control of the newspapers here. Southam News. I mean, Jesus. Southam News wouldn’t know truth if it kicked them up the arse. They’re not in it for news. It’s just part of the thing that makes them some money. And yet most people don’t even realize that Southam News almost has a stranglehold on what is news around here. They don’t just own The Sun and The Province. Here in Powell River we have this Powell River News and the Town Crier. It’s virtually the same goddam newspaper out of the same goddam office but it comes under two different titles. They’re both owned by the Southam News chain. And with all due respect to everybody who works there, there’s none of them can write. Even with their computers a proofreader is needed. And who do they hire? Kids out of grade twelve. (Because) Those kids don’t know any better. It’s much the same at our local radio station. They talk on the news about Marcel Mace (Masse) and Jean Sove (Sauve). I can’t even listen to it anymore. I heard one guy on there talking about something called a ‘jillnetter’ (gillnetter).
BCBW: I’ve talked to Brian Fawcett about this. We agreed that for any writer to interpret B.C. in any depth, he or she ends up feeling like a subversive against the global village culture.
CAMERON: Well, I’m not socially acceptable anyway. But look at Jack Hodgins. I mean, he taught high school in Nanaimo and won the Christly Governor GeneraI’s Award. And those pizmyers at Malaspina College couldn’t even get it together to get the guy to go up there and read his stories. Instead they bring in Northrop Frye or that guy from Montreal who’s always whining about how awful it is to be a Jew in Canada. They bring Mordecai all the way to Nanaimo and ignore Jack. So finally Jack leaves Nanaimo and goes to Carelton University and everybody in Ottawa is kissing his feet but he’s dying of homesickness. I used to send him care packages. We sent ‘im a souvenir of Bath-tub Day. A picture of Frank Ney in his pirate’s costume.
BCBW: So the universities are not much further ahead than the major media outlets.
CAMERON: Well, when I had three kids under school age and I was living in Queensborough (New Westminster), Simon Fraser University was advertising for mature students. I was just about ready to come out of my gourd. I was bored. I was having an identity crisis all over everybody’s life. I thought, well, I can get a babysitter for the kids. I’ll go to university. So I applied. Somewhere in all my junk I keep lugging around 1 still have this letter from Simon Fraser saying I didn’t have the academic qualifications even to go as a mature student.
So twenty years later, with no more academic qualifications than I ever had, they had me teaching out there. My kids were rolling in the aisles! Mum’s too stupid to go as a student but they’ll take her as a teacher. For me, that just says it all. It’s like you have to prove that you’re mentally competent before you vote but you don’t have to prove the same thing before you run for office.
BCBW: So if you were suddenly Education Minister, how would you change things?
CAMERON: I’d have some classes only for girls. So that the girls don’t get overshadowed by the boys vying for the teacher’s attention. Because those are things still as a society we don’t allow girls to do. I find it really interesting the number of really incredibly bright women who have come out of convent schools. Also, I’d want much more sex education. And I would want much more physical stuff for the girls in the first three grades. Balancing. Dance exercises. Softball. Competition can be good, really good, when you realize that you are the one you’re in competition with.
BCBW: What about simply having sexually segregated schools?
CAMERON: No, I think we’re strangers enough now.
BCBW: As a British Columbian, what do you think we aspire to in this place? What’s your definition of who we are?
CAMERON: I think basically our main aspiration is to be left alone. I think that is what most of us out here want. ‘Get those bastards to leave us alone.’ We’ve got this belief, a belief that is probably totally illogical, that we are not the ones who raped the for-est. And now they’re doing it to the ocean with their fish farms. ‘They’ are doing it. And they are companies from somewhere else. And we want ‘Them’ to go away, to take their goddam money with them, and to leave ‘Us’ alone with our beaches the way they used to be.
BCBW: So anarchism, beyond a mere theoretical base, is a real force in this society. Psychologically but not politically.
CAMERON: Well, I think that people out here have never really trusted the government. And I think that oddly enough that’s why we get the Social Credit so much. We don’t expect anybody to do any better and at least we know those guys. Whereas the one time we put in the NDP they did a whole bunch of stuff and didn’t do the stuff they were put in to do. Barrett stood up in the Okanagan and said, yes, he had promised certain things to the women’s movement but once he got to Victoria he had seen that he, as a social worker, was much more concerned about the future of the children. Well, who the hell did he think has them and looks after them? If he had improved social-anything-at-all for women, kids would have automatically benefited. But he just put on fifteen pounds and got himself voted out again. All that was missing from his showboat schtick was a little straw hat and a cane.
BCBW: But Barrett was perceived by many other people as someone who was doing too much. Ironically, Bill Vander Zalm might be vulnerable for the same reason Barrett was vulnerable.
CAMERON: No. I think where Vander Zalm is vulnerable is that this has always been a racist and classist society. “It was good enough for our grand-fathers…” And this guy’s got an accent. Every time he says, “Britiss Columbia,” the necks get a little bit redder. People will say, “Oh, Jesus, that guy’s a D.P.” That’s what he’s got to look out for.
BCBW: One of the most important and strange things about B.C. is that probably more people are born elsewhere than here.
CAMERON: And what I find really weird about that is that people come here, usually first on holiday, and they wander around saying how beautiful it is. How marvelous. Then they go home. Then they retire here. They no more than retire here than they set about agitating for the things they had back home where they admitted it was ugly! During the Lyell Island controversy, I wound up stamping my foot and saying that as far as I was concerned if you haven’t been born on this goddam coast for at least two generations you keep your mouth shut. And, of course, that would include Bill Vander Zalm who only came snuffling in here at age twelve. And I was halfway around the bend and totally illogical and I even hurt some of my friends’ feelings but I didn’t want to hear opinions from any folks from Saskatchewan who hadn’t see a tree before they retired out here anyway. We’ve learned bugger-nothing. The Indians had a lousy immigration policy.
T: Looking back, how did you evolve into a writer?
CAMERON: Nanaimo was a coalmining town. Really ugly. Every weekend somebody was beating somebody up, usually under the noses of their kids. The world was crazy. The only place there was any real order was in books. I could read before I started school. I don’t know how that happened. Nobody remembers teaching me to read. I just loved it. I was about eleven when I realized that everything I ever loved to read had to be written by somebody. And I was hooked. My dad used to say I didn’t need a babysitter. All I needed was a roll of toilet paper and a pencil stub. When I ran out of books to read I’d write my own.
My dad was coal miner, and then the mines closed. People not brought up on Vancouver Island have no idea what it used to be like. You can read about the Deep South and you could be reading about the Island. Or you could read about Wales a hundred years ago. It was insular and ugly. Neither side of my family had ever been anything but hard-working, dirt poor. So when it came to writing my mother said, “Well, that’s a nice dream, dear, but you have to be able to feed yourself.” Yet at the same time, when I was thirteen or fourteen, even though my mother could not afford it, she found the money to buy me a typewriter. She said, “After all, if you’re going to spend so much time scribbling, you might as well learn to type because there’s always room in the world for a good typist.” But that was not why she gave me that typewriter. It was sort of like, thou shalt not offend the gods. You don’t put the dream into words or else they’ll take the dream away from you.
T: From that fairly rough environment, how did you acquire the organized mind that makes a book? Did you consciously teach yourself form?
CAMERON: It was totally unconscious. I have virtually no education that way. I don’t have enough credits to go to university. I had the equivalent of about grade ten. Because I did horrible things like refuse to take home economics. I wanted to major in library and they wouldn’t let me. But if you listen to storytellers, each story has a beginning and an end. How you get between the two places is like the individualism of the storyteller. If that is form, then I learned it by listening to Welsh coal-mining women telling their stories. And they, in turn, had a different form than North English women telling stories. And their form, in turn, was very different from an Indian’s.
I got English stories from my maternal grandparents and Scots stories from my paternal grandparents. I lived with my maternal grandmother for a couple of years. That was really strong, really positive, really beautiful. One side of the family would be talking about the Battle of Bannockburn and the other half is talking about the time they went up and they freed the slaves in the Highlands. Then there were Chinese stories, which are very different, too. I grew up halfway between Chinatown and the Indian reserve.
T: Was starting Tillicum Theatre the first transition you made from doing writing privately to doing things publicly?
CAMERON: Well, I was writing and typing for a newspaper called the Indian Voice. I was living on the mainland. There was a centennial playwriting contest. Just sitting around rapping about that, we decided to put together this play based on a bunch of my poetry. That dragged on eternally. At one point we were going to pull our entry out. But then we said, hey, one of the things they’re always saying about Indians is that they never finish my thing, so we’ll leave our play in the competition. Lo and behold, we won.
So they took the play out to Matsqui Penitentiary and got the cons doing it, knocked everybody on their backsides with some guerrilla theatre. So I figured, hey, why did we need them? We could have done it right here. So we did. And that was Tillicum Theatre. We used kids from high school who were either dropouts or still in school trying to pass remedial reading. It gave them something to do instead of slinging rocks at cars. As far as I know, none of the kids involved with Tillicum Theatre have been adversely involved with the law.
T: One of the best evenings of theatre I ever saw was in the Matsqui Penitentiary. They did Threepenny Opera.
CAMERON: Yes. There’s something to be said for finding another way to make your protest. Because I really do believe that most of the people in prisons are political prisoners. That we’re conditioned and educated in such a way that there really is no conceivable option of protest. So people adopt what some call criminal lifestyles. Not because they’re inherently rotten people. Now society needs ten percent of its population in some kind of conflict with the law or else a multi-billion dollar industry falls down. We set up another world into which these people go. And once they’re in prison, it’s none of our business what they do to each other or what other people do to them. I believe most prisoners are no more of a threat to me than most members of the RCMP.
T: Is that based on theory or experience?
CAMERON: It started out political. It has become very personal. The RCMP don’t like it when somebody says, hey, hang on, you’re not supposed to read my mail. You say it publicly and the next thing you know they’re hassling your kids. They pulled my kid over and checked his motorcycle four times on the way home one night. He had long hair and he was my kid. The first time they’re doing their duty. The second time it’s an accident. But four times in one night?
T: You’ve written, “Politics is something the women allowed to happen to keep the men occupied during the long dark months of winter, but sometimes, for a woman, it’s as if your whole life is ruled by politics of one kind or another until it gets to where you can’t even mind your own business.” Do you see hope in terms of educating women to vote collectively?
CAMERON: Yes. Vote as a block. Vote for the one who promises the best deal for women. And if they don’t deliver, vote them back to hell out again. I would love to see the women band together so that in the next provincial election, they voted out the incumbent. Don’t vote for anybody. Vote against the incumbent. Even if it means putting Jerk-off George in. Then you could tell him, hey, look George, count the number of people in this town who are women. That’s the majority of the vote that got you in. You toe the line or you’ll be out next time. They’re killing themselves for the chance to be fools. So get a tame fool and send him in. If you get enough of them in and you tell them what to do, you can change the overall system.
T: It mentions in Copper Woman that the book is for women dissatisfied with the learning in “men’s universities.” But it’s really in opposition to much more than that.
CAMERON: It’s in opposition to so called “history.” The stories in Daughters of Copper Woman are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old and were given to me over a period of about a dozen years by extremely old women on reserves all over the island. The question that gets asked most often about them is, “Is this history or is this fiction?” Nobody ever stops to ask if the crap they push down your throats at school is history or fiction. History as it is taught in the schools is the conquerors’ version of what happened. Daughters of Copper Woman is very different. That book has more truth for me, as a person who was born on the Island, and certainly for me as a woman, than anything the school system ever came up with. Once upon a time maybe four percent of the population controlled military and economic power. They took language and made it another kind of power. At first it was only the first-born son who was given the gift of being taught to read and write. That first-born son used his gift to communicate with other first-born sons until he found someone who thought the same way he did, so they could combine their armies and take more power. For years neither the women nor the poor were allowed to read and write.
Since women have only recently started to read and write we have done a remarkable job of catching up. But we have found we have inherited a flawed tool. All the words have been given their meanings by someone else by men. When you say this is National Brotherhood Week, it means something wonderful. But if you say it’s National Sisterhood Week the president of your bank will laugh. A master is a great thing. But what’s a mistress?
It gets very upsetting. We don’t know whether to start inventing a new language or try to reclaim the one we’ve got. Or just go back to bed. The boys control the television, the newspapers, the movies. And the government. Some people call it democracy. And some people call it oligarchy. But whatever it’s disguised under, it’s something even older than that. It’s a patriarchy.
Daughters of Copper Woman suggests that there was a time on the Island when the boys didn’t control everything. You inherited from your mother. When a woman married a man, he moved where she lived with her mother and her aunt and her sister. She didn’t have to go out somewhere and get her face punched in with nobody to help her. He moved. And if he didn’t behave, he got sent home and the children stayed with her. It was not the man who asked the woman to get married. It was the woman who honoured the man by inviting him to be the father of her child. Then the patriarchs came and brought rape. The Social Credit government, as big a patriarchy as you’re going to find, cancelled the funding for Rape Relief because those uppity bitches who run it aren’t doing what they want them to do. They want battered women to go to the police for help. But if you had just been raped, beaten, humiliated and pissed upon, would you particularly want help from the police? When the patriarchy has just raped you, they expect you to go to the patriarchy for help. You write the Attorney General to complain and he sends back four pages of complete babblerap. Politics sucks. The system sucks. Once you realize it sucks, your next step is to try and do something about it.
T: As a writer you can work on your own, outside the system. What happens when you move into positions such as writer-in-residence at SFU?
CAMERON: It’s difficult. All of the film instructors at SFU were male. I know of at least four women in film who are professors with incredible qualifications who applied for jobs at Simon Fraser University. One of them made the short list. None of them got hired. I say that’s no accident whatsoever. They all teach film from a feminist perspective. Meanwhile, you get a bunch of teenage boys turned loose with cameras and you get sexist film. One guy wanted to make a film about rape. There’s a lot of rape at Simon Fraser, particularly with the women out jogging. He thought it would be interesting to do a comedy. I’m sorry, I didn’t laugh. They’re all into stereotypes in their film. It’s always the woman who gets the pie in the face. Nobody’s saying, hey, will you look what you’re doing? Take out all the women and put in blacks and call them niggers and see how long it would last.
T: Have you also had problems working with organizations like the National Film Board and the CBC?
CAMERON: Yes. The CBC and I clashed head on the film I was working on concerning battered wives. I felt there was a commitment that had been given to me from the very beginning that I could write my script from my perspective. That commitment, which I felt was very firm, seemed to hold until about four-fifths of the way through the script. At the last minute I was told they say. They say? I said who are they? I took my name off it because I would not make the changes to my script. There was a hell of an uproar. They wanted to do a whole publicity routine “From the Award-Winning Typewriter of.”; They finally brought in a male writer. He made the changes. At the end of the film the woman walks out of Interval House in Toronto with a set of matched luggage. In reality, eighty-seven percent of the women who walk out of Interval House walk out with their stuff in a black garbage bag.
T: People have no difficulty agreeing there is a Newfie culture. Or that Quebec has a separate culture. But there are no generally observed definitions of what we have become in British Columbia.
CAMERON: That’s because the same thing has happened to BC and our provincial identity and psyche as happened to women. They have been defining us. Back in Toronto they make jokes like, “The continent slopes to the west and all the nuts roll to the West Coast.” That’s a crock. We know the nuts roll as far as the Rocky Mountains. That’s why we put those mountains there. Only the crafty ones make it through to this side.
T: You really have an “us” and “them” sense of the East and West.
CAMERON: Because I lived back there for over a year. It further convinced me that people out here are not really part of their country. My mother grew up here. My father grew up here. I was born here. Anything that I am is because of that. I think many people in BC feel this way. We identify with British Columbia much more than we identify as Canadians.
T: In some societies it’s been standard practice to consult the major writers about major social issues. But in BC I’d say most of the people working for BC’s newspapers and TV stations don’t even know who the leading BC writers are. A writer who tries to interpret BC in any depth ends up feeling like a subversive against the global village culture.
CAMERON: Well, I’m not socially acceptable anyway. But look at Jack Hodgins. I mean, he taught high school in Nanaimo and won the Governor General’s Award. And those pizmyers at Malaspina College couldn’t even get it together to get the guy to go up there and read his stories. So, finally, Jack leaves Nanaimo and goes to Carleton University and everybody in Ottawa is kissing his feet but he’s dying of homesickness. I used to send him care packages. We sent him a souvenir of Nanaimo Bathtub Day. A picture of Mayor Frank Ney in his pirate’s costume.
T: So the universities are not much further ahead than the major media outlets.
CAMERON: Well, when I had three kids under school age and I was living in New Westminster, Simon Fraser University was advertising for mature students. I was just about ready to come out of my gourd. I was bored. I was having an identity crisis all over everybody’s life. I thought, well, I can get a babysitter for the kids. I’ll go to university. So I applied. Somewhere in all my junk I keep lugging around I still have this letter from Simon Fraser saying I didn’t have the academic qualifications even to go as a mature student.
So twenty years later, with no more academic qualifications than I ever had, they had me teaching out there. My kids were rolling in the aisles! Mom’s too stupid to go as a student but they’ll take her as a teacher. For me, that just says it all. It’s like you have to prove that you’re mentally competent before you vote but you don’t have to prove the same thing before you run for office.
T: So if you were suddenly education minister, how would you change things?
CAMERON: I’d have some classes only for girls. So that the girls don’t get overshadowed by the boys vying for the teacher’s attention. Because those are things still as a society we don’t allow girls to do. I find it really interesting the number of really incredibly bright women who have come out of convent schools. Also I’d want much more sex education. And I would want much more physical stuff for the girls in the first three grades. Balancing. Dance exercises. Softball. Competition can be good, really good, when you realize that you are the one you’re in competition with.
T: What about simply having sexually segregated schools?
CAMERON: No, I think we’re strangers enough now.
T: As a British Columbian, what do you think we aspire to in this place? What’s your definition of who we are?
CAMERON: I think basically our main aspiration is to be left alone. I think that is what most of us out here want. We’ve got this belief, a belief that is probably totally illogical, that we are not the ones who raped the forest. And now they’re doing it to the ocean with their fish farms. They are doing it. And they are companies from somewhere else. And we want them to go away, to take their goddamn money with them, and to leave us alone with our beaches the way they used to be. What I find really weird is that people come here, usually first on holiday, and they wander around saying how beautiful it is. How marvellous. Then they go home. Then they retire here. They no more than retire here than they set about agitating for the things they had back home where they admitted it was ugly! During the Lyell Island controversy, I wound up stamping my foot and saying that as far as I was concerned if you haven’t been born on this goddamn coast for at least two generations you keep your mouth shut. And of course that would include our premier, who only came snuffling in here at age twelve. And I was halfway around the bend and totally illogical and I even hurt some of my friends’ feelings but I didn’t want to hear opinions from any folks from Saskatchewan who hadn’t seen a tree before they retired out here. We’ve learned bugger-nothing. The Indians had a lousy immigration policy.
[STRONG VOICES by Alan Twigg (Harbour 1988)] “Interview”
Freeing the Raven from sexism
In a favourable review of Anne Cameron’s “native myths for children,” BCBW columnist Judith Saltman concluded, “The only curiously non-traditional note that seems imposed upon the material is found in the revisionist, feminist treatment of How Raven Freed The Moon, in which Cameron changes the traditionally male figure of Raven to a female persona.”
In 1989, Anne Cameron has responded:
“WE HAVE SOMEHOW, AS A SOCIETY, come to believe that the native culture which existed here for thousands of years before our arrival was a culture of simple people with a few basic life-support skills and little else. Oh, they carved wonderful canoes and we all appreciate the totems and house poles but…
“The language of the native people was incredibly rich and much more complex than our own. Not only was there a “low” speech and a “high” speech, there was a language for children, which all people learned, then as part of preparation for puberty, the girls were taught Women’s language, and the boys taught Men’s language. There was language for royalty and another language taught only to those who were being trained in the spiritual arts and sciences.
“There were no gender specific pronouns as we know them. Indeed, unless the gender of a person or character was a specific part of what was being discussed, gender wasn’t mentioned.
“In the telling of certain stories, animals were used, and the stories dealing with people are of a different kind than the stories told using the creatures. Originally, the translation into English ought to have been something much different than what we now know; “Raven and Raven’s spouse”, became “Raven and his wife” because of some sexist peculiarities the English laws of grammar and because of some other sexist peculiarities in the minds of the men who “translated” the stories.
“The storytellers who first taught me often got gender specific pronouns mixed up and would say things similar to “the cow, he. .:’ or “that father, she. .:’ simply because “he” and “she” didn’t really mean anything to them. This mistake is often made by those for whom English is not a mother tongue, and not unique to native people.
“We have also managed, somehow, to convince ourselves that “feminism” is something which was invented and perfected by upper-middle class academic white women. They may have wrapped it in polysyllabics and had the time and money to tidy up the syntax and grammar, then present us with a polished analysis and even some sort of dialectic, but they are really the last ones to catch on to what has been known for untold generations by women of every race and culture. Feminism is not imposed on these stories; all I did was remove the patriarchal male supremacist gender imposition. The “traditional male figure of Raven is not part of the tradition of coast native storytelling.
“Storytellers told stories to children to introduce ideas and concepts which would teach them how to behave as patriarchs decided to deprive the people of their own language and force a foreign language on them, then present them the stories in such a way that the only active figures were male, something was taken away from little girls which had been theirs by right for centuries. Many of us today are trying to find ways to get sexism out of the literature available to children. Our language doesn’t allow me to use a pronoun which does not suggest gender, so all I have done is, quite simply, remove the patrist prejudice and make Raven female. It is something non-native people have mentioned several times and native have not questioned.
“The Raven in the stories is a supernatural; a supernatural can do or be anything she decides!
“In this case she decides it was time girls had the opportunity to relate to the stories.”
Family Resemblances (Harbour, 2004) by Anne Cameron
Having written lots of kids books, an award-winning screenplay or two (Ticket To Heaven, Dreamspeaker), two bestsellers (Daughters of Copper Woman, Dzelarhons), Anne Cameron is first and foremost a prolific and imperfect novelist. Like other impassioned storytellers, such as George Eliot and Tolstoy, her mind is fraught with diversions and her pacing can be problematic. She doesn’t write so much as she bubbles over. She has lived and loved and fought and taught.
The heroine of her new novel Family Resemblances (Harbour $24.95) is Cedar Campbell, daughter of Kate, a battered wife in a small coastal town. Her Dad, Gus, is a chronic womanizer and logger who dotes on his various children, legitimate or otherwise. Trouble is, Gus can be depended upon to go ballistic, to brutalize. Cedar soon learns there is no safe place to hide if she emulates the passive behaviour of her mother. She resolves, unconsciously, to be different.
It’s scarily believable. “While the children napped, Kate soaked in a deep tub of almost hot water and looked sadly at the bruises on her arms and legs. Irregularly shaped, almost but not quite round, the marks were spots where Gus had gripped her with his strong fingers. Even the insides of her thighs felt battered, and while she couldn’t say the ache inside her was a pain, it was a dull ache, and she knew it was from the rough way he’d thumped at her, banged into her, not so much taking her as using her with no sign of love or even sexual desire, just using her, as much a punishment as a slap in the face. She felt degraded, and the worst of it was, it wasn’t something you could talk about to anybody, not even your sister. If it wasn’t for the fact that they were married, she would have considered it to be rape. But how could a man rape his wife? She’d never heard of such a thing. It didn’t occur to her that she hadn’t heard of it because nobody else could bring herself to talk about it, either.”;
Whereas novels of high-born marital intrigue often involve money and property, the currency at stake in Family Resemblances is pride, self-esteem. In this latest Cameron novel of deceptions and conceptions, Cedar Campbell grows up to take responsibility for herself and others. Cedar fights back at school, then finds comfort in taking care of hogs on a nearby farm. She takes pride in doing a good job as waitress in the café where her mother works. We follow her all the way from the cradle to her independence as a truck driver and homeowner. It makes for a tender, funny and heart-stoppingly violent journey.
The character of Cedar Campbell is the through-line so perhaps a title such as Cedar might have been better. As well, Cameron’s narrative is prone to big leaps. She can spend several pages discussing methods of pig farming, then suddenly Cedar’s mother is having an affair with some new character and that takes only a few paragraphs. And we’re never quite sure why women flock to Gus.
But Anne Cameron novels are fun to splash around in. She has intense sympathies, a flair for colourful language, a penchant for didactic truths and she is not interested in becoming the flavour of the week. She only knows outsiderism. In a literary world where it’s de rigueur to teach post-modernist crud in universities, Anne Cameron has moved to the fringes-now living in Tahsis-to embrace her own fierce brand of revolution. Despite her physical estrangement from the writing game, her crusading spirit is always meshed with good humour.
[Book review by Alan Twigg, BCBW Summer 2004]
They shoot bears, don’t they?
Sample column from WESTERN EDGE: Letters from Tahsis (2006)
I was in bed, sleeping. It was six o’clock in the morning. When ohmigawsh, my dog goes nuts.
I’m jerked awake, totally disoriented. Someone is yelling. Bang, bang, bang. Someone is knocking on my door.
I leap out of bed. I have to calm my old dog who is angry beyond any description. In the nearly fifteen years I’ve been living with Min, I’ve never heard her growling like that!
Calming Min down gave me time to wake up enough to remember to haul on my housecoat. Otherwise, I’d have arrived in my kitchen completely starkers.
And I would have really scared the guy with the axe.
It was my neighbour, almost hysterical, babbling, “There’s a bear in my house… I had to go out the window… I have never been so scared…”; etc.
I screeched at him to shut the door and phone the cops. He put down his axe and found the phone. I started a pot of coffee.
While my neighbour talked to Officer Chuckles, I went back to my bedroom and put on some clothes. I took my neighbour to the coffee shop and we had breakfast.
Several hours later two cop cars and a Conservation truck arrived at my neighbour’s house. There were four men in uniforms, with guns. My god, they could have invaded Afghanistan.
I did not tarry, I came home. I have a thing about guns. It’s called terror.
My phone rang with people asking what was going on, and I had no more idea than they did. It just went on and on, like one of those endless French farces where people come in and out of doors. They declaim a line which means little at the time and depart by way of a different door.
Then it started. KER POW BANG BOOM… It sounded like Aleppo. Aleppo on a bad day. More booms, bangs, and I thought surely to gawd they can’t be that bad shots. How many SSG slugs does it take to dispatch a bear? BOOM BANG POW.
Finally calm descended. Silence fell. I thought, poor bloody bear.
An hour later: knock, knock at the door. It’s Officer Friendly. He’s looking for my neighbour. I say I last saw him at the cafe, eating soup. Did you get the bear?
No bear in there, he said.
Of course I ask what was all the shooting?
It turns out they were trying to scare the bear so it would come out of the house! When the bear didn’t come out, they looked inside. And there was no bear.
Between the time my neighbour vaulted out of his window and raced here, axe in hand, and the time the constabulary drove into Tahsis over the goat track of a road, the bear had vamoosed.
A cop truck kept going up and down the streets, up to about midnight, looking for lurking wildlife, to no avail…
All of which is a preamble.
Once upon a time one of the few “attractions” we used to have here was our dump. Visitors would come and we’d drive out to the dump to sit in our cars and watch the bears chowing down on what had been thrown away.
As many as a dozen at a time would be prowling in the pile of discards and one of my all-time favourite memories is of an enormous and very fat sow bear sitting upright, spraddle-legged, with a big container, a bucket of fat which had been thrown away by one of the restaurants.
She was like a happy kid with a bag of candy! And it was HER bucket of fat; if another bear even looked her way she would roar like thunder. She was shiny with spilled fat, dipping one paw into the mess, lifting it to her mouth and licking off this gelatinous feast.
But progress of a sort arrived, yes, even in Tahsis, and the dumpsite was encircled by a fence which I’m told is electrified but I don’t know that for sure. Bears can no longer feast on our leavings. So, of
course, they have since wandered off in search of something else to eat.
Most of the time the bears pass through on their way to the river to catch the fish which are coming up to spawn. From time to time, there is undeniable conflict. But most of the time conflict between bears and people happens because people have not been careful about what the bears consider to be food.
We’ve been told time and again not to leave garbage out where the bears can get at it, to be sure to pick up any windfall fruit, don’t leave it on the ground. Don’t feed your dog or cat out on the porch, bring it into the house… you know, common sense.
Unfortunately, common sense isn’t all that common at times. Some people have even been so downright stupid as to clean their fish in the yard and then leave the heads and guts out “to feed the birds”.
Bears have incredible noses, they can smell food from a half mile away. Now is the time they’re trying to pack on fat to get them through the winter. It takes more than berries and skunk cabbage to feed a large animal and if they get even a whiff of food they’ll do almost anything to get it.
I had a bear up on my porch a couple of weeks ago. Scared me spitless! I grabbed the air horn my daughter had given me, and let loose a blast. That’s all it took, the bear ran away and hasn’t been back. If you don’t have an air horn, bang a big spoon against a metal saucepan, holler and yell. Bears do not hang around when there are loud noises.
But if they’ve found food, they’ll be back, that’s almost guaranteed.
Problem is, we’ve had a lot of “newbies” move here lately, probably because house prices are lower than they are in other places, and unfortunately some of the newbies seem to feel less casual about the presence of wild animals than some of the old-timers are.
I have personally heard an “old timer” holler “Here, you big bugger, get out of that tree!”; And he cut loose with an air horn which sent the bear out of the tree and racing off as fast as it could go.
But newbies don’t seem to react that way. They panic and call Conservation. I’m almost ready to send Conservation a copy of Webster’s Dictionary, with a bookmark at the definition of Conservation.
When called, they come, and they set the barrel trap and bait it with canned sardines or something similarly smelly. Bear goes in, trap door slams down and, when Conservation comes back, the trap is connected to the truck and off they go, back to the dump (err, landfill, sorry), and that’s it for the bear.
No “relocation” is attempted.
It’s bang bang, lights out and another bear is gone. [I’m not sure how to politely put this, but we once had a cop in town back who was tall and blond and some people nicknamed him The Hitler Youth. He must have had delusions of being some kind of big game warden or something. Some people say he shot a dozen bears one year, others say no, he only got ten. He was transferred to some other unlucky place and the next cop wasn’t as keen to wipe out the wildlife.]
If this was happening to Panda bears, the screech would resonate around the globe.
People are all happy to donate to a fund to stop the poaching of tigers and elephants and even crocodiles, but we don’t seem as concerned about black bears.
The Vancouver Island black bear is genetically distinct from the black bears on the mainland, I’m told. And this is an island, with finite space. There is no “away” for Island black bears. They can’t head into wild country cuz we don’t really have any on this Island which hasn’t been clearcut or covered with subdivisions.
We’re the ones who aren’t being careful of our garbage, we’re the ones who foolishly store our fish-filled freezers out in the garage or the storage shed, then screech bloody murder because the bear smelled the fish, ripped off the door, went in, destroyed the freezer and feasted on our salmon, and on the ice cream and chicken thighs.
So now we’ve had three bears shot in the past two weeks.
It’s not rhino-poaching in Tanzania or anything. It’s not news.
But it’s happening.
First column for WESTERN EDGE: Letters from Tahsis (2006)
Hard Times in the bathtub
Our unofficial foreign correspondent Anne Cameron, who lives far beyond the urban shenanigans of the Lower Mainland, sends us her first report.
One entire area of Campbell River is now mainly First Nations people. So many of my daughter-in-law’s reserve members have moved away, they now hold band meetings in Campbell River where they live marginalized lives in truly crappy apartment buildings. Sociologically, I think that is hugely significant but I betcha none of the academic-y types are even aware of it, let alone think it’s important.
So, I got Hard Times by Charles Dickens and I’m re-reading it. I am really struck by how NOW it is!! He had much to say about how entire populations were being forced into cities by industrialization. But not to worry, Gorderator [Premier Gordon Campbell] has met with the Governator [PM Stephen Harper] and they’ll fix it all up just fine ‘n’ dandy.
Thank God for my long-time acquaintances at the Powell River Credit Union. When I win the 6/49 I’m letting them handle it for me after they come back from a holiday in the Bahamas. “Wendy” phoned to say, ‘Listen, Cam, you’ll be 69 in August, and you HAVE to do something about your vast fortoon, it has to go from RRSP to….’
And I said HUH and she said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll mail you the forms, all you’ll have to do is sign, I’ll do the rest for you.’ So, they came, I signed and sent ’em back and then sat in the bathtub and thought, hey, my mom was pregnant for nine months so by the time I was three months old I was really a year old so a birthday means you’re finishing the year. not starting it, so… I’m almost seventy!!
I didn’t think I’d live to see thirty.
Meanwhile, here in Tahsis, we have rain. Rain. Such a novelty. Pussy willows, crocus and primroses are starting, columbine is beginning to re-grow… and the Tahsis Legion is fully occupied with planting oriental poppies around the cenotaph. Most poppy seeds don’t produce plants so I have patriotically offered to contribute my own poppy plant babies. In spite of Harpoon [PM Stephen Harper] and his warbirds in Snottawa, one does feel the odd twinge of rah rah. Anyway I’m tired of having to weed grass out of the damned containers.
I would LOVE to come to your Reckoning 07 conference in The Big Smoke, that publishing conference in September, and talk about B.C. books. Be interesting to get a discussion going on the huge split between what is accepted by the illiterati in the rarefied circles and what is actually read by the unwashed who use the libraries and used bookstores.
Are publishers turning into tremulous old farts, tip-toeing their way through manuscripts like a banker en pointe through columns of percentages because the dwindling number of readers are voting neo-con for no reason other than the Left has lain down like fat poodles gone mute or are the voters giving the nod of approval to Harpo because the publishers fear “political”; or “radical”; the way the citizens once feared the plague, rats and fleas?
Or am I just blowing smoke out of a particular orifice and writing absolute shite these days? I continue to plug away at what I think is important and hey, you never know, I might win the 6/49. When that happens, don’t even bother packing, we’ll buy new stuff when we get there.
Meanwhile I am declaring war on General Motors. DO NOT BUY A BLAZER!!! You will wind up in the poor house because of buying new brakes. Three times in the past year-and-a-half I had to buy brakes. We have hills, we have gravel roads going up or down mountainsides, so, yes, by all means, let’s have brakes.
So the damned things started to screech again, which I’m told is how “they” warn you you’re running out of brake power, little cunningly placed pieces of metal to howl and wail when you get down so far… This time Agatha, my daughter-in-law, drove the bitch of a little red hen out to Campbell River to see the GM people at their big shiny garage. Totally hooped. Going to be sixteen hundred for parts and at least four hundred for labour, take a full day, they said.
F—. Last month it was the computer. Double F—. Have I, at some point in some previous life, accumulated sour karma with regard to things with moving parts? Did I chop down a gibbet or take a sledge hammer to a guillotine? I repent!
If, in another incarnation, I was wont to saw through wooden spokes on the wheels of wagons heading westward, I apologize.
I came to know Anne when one of her teenage male siblings was a Sea Cadet in HMCS Quadra at Comox BC. There he experienced a minor difficulty with the program. Having encountered naval discipline as a result of his behaviour, Anne’s brother then got on with the great business of learning to grow, think and get to know himself, others and his surroundings. This caught Anne’s attention and her frank commentary and support for the program. It was the beginning of a long personal communication between us and I found her to be an incredibly gifted personality.
I met and cared for Anne in Powell River, many years ago. She always had time to talk to a young family doctor, sharing her views, wisdom and humour. I feel sad that she has gone silent but know that she will continue to be heard.
I just love her, love her. Especially how she weaves women’s stories into her rhetoric. She’s a one of a kind gutsy warrior woman, splashing pages full of self esteem for me and every woman in her books. How marvelous for me to discover the Indigenous legends of thousands and thousands of years ago, in Daughters of Copperwoman. Anne, you’re one of my heroes.
Oh, I just love her, love her, love her. One of a kind and an inspiration to all. Thank you, Anne Cameron. And thank you to BCBL for treating us to so many examples of her extraordinary contribution and being.
A unique voice and very special person. Always passionate and honest, Anne/Cam was also one hell of a writer. Daughters of Copper Woman is visionary.
She will be missed. In so many ways.