Interview / Anne Cameron #2
April 07th, 2008
ANNE CAMERON was born in Nanaimo, seek BC in 1938. Her stage adaptation of a documentary poem, Windigo, led to the formation of the first native theatre group in Canada. She then began writing award-winning scripts for film and television such as Ticket to Heaven and Dreamspeaker. Her novelization of Dreamspeaker (1979) earned the Gibson Award for first novels. A second novel, The Journey (1982), is a feminist western. Earth Witch (1983) is one of the highest-selling books of poetry ever published in Canada. She is best known for Daughters of Copper Woman (1981) and Dzelarhons (1986), two reworkings of coastal Indian legends passed on to her by Nootka and Coast Salish women. A provocative educator, Cameron is also a riveting public speaker and the author of numerous children's books. Stubby Amberchuk and the Holy Grail (1987) is her most recent novel. A collection of short stories, Women, Kids and Huckleberry Wine, was published in 1988.
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.
Essay Date: 1988