Journalism for everyone

Christopher Cheung (left) discusses his provocative new book about race and representation in Canadian media in this exclusive BCBookLook interview.” FULL STORY


Jane Rule #2

April 07th, 2008

Q: Talk a bit, prostate if you would, about what you think are the most important things about a relationship. What sustains a relationship?

A: It seems to me that the best model we have for love, though it doesn’t happen all that often, is the love of a parent for a child. A friend of mine once asked my mother when do you start letting your children go. She said when they’re born.

I think that any relationship that’s a good one is based, for both people, on their freedom to be who they are. I’m always sorry that people talk about relationships that don’t last a lifetime as a failure because they’re often not. They are, for the time that they exist, nurturing, nourishing, growing for both people. Then they go in different directions. And if there’s real love involved, though it’s hard and there’s pain, you let go. IF you really care about the other person’s wellbeing. And if you care about your own, you take the responsibility of being independent.

I also think that a relationship based on sexual fidelity is silly. I don’t have anything against sexual fidelity, but I think using that as a basis for a relationship rather than really caring about the other person and supporting that other person doesn’t work. To say I love you so much I forsake everyone else seems to me untrue. Making sexuality the one commitment that you give to the other person seems archaic and goes back to men owning women and wanting to know that their children are their own.

Q: You and Helen were in a long term relationship…

A: 45 years.

Q: How did you deal with any difficulties that arose between you?

A: We agreed to disagree on some pretty basic things. I can remember a couple of little kids, 5 and 6 years old, sitting at the pool one day while Helen was gardening. Both of them were having troubles at home, both their parents were fighting and one of them asked Helen, “Do you and Jane fight?” Helen said “Not very often.” She explained that we’d known each other so long that we knew where we disagreed and that there wasn’t really much point in fighting. We KNEW where we differed and we just had to agree that we couldn’t change each other on that and that there was no need to.

Q: It’s a mature stance that many people find hard to get to.

A: Again, I think that’s partly because of marriage. The image of marriage and forsaking all others to become one is just a ghastly concept. All the time we see people who live together decide to get married and the next thing you know they’ve separated. Because suddenly you are my husband you can’t do that, because that embarrasses me in public. Or you are my wife and therefore you can’t do that because it reflects on me. And suddenly that ownership comes in and wrecks what has been an apparently good relationship until that particular emotional plane kicks in and then it’s destructive.

Q: You’ve said you’re not going to write anymore. What’s been the effect on you with that decision? I’m curious about the imagination that you might have funneled into your stories, what do you do with that now?

A: I think fiction writing, at least for me, is a habit and if you don’t use it all the time it doesn’t stay there. Short story ideas don’t occur to me. Novel ideas don’t occur to me any longer. You really do have to court them and nourish them, encourage them in order to have them happen. So to give it up is sort of like giving up tennis or playing a musical instrument. After awhile if you haven’t been practicing it you’re no longer particularly good at it or even interested in it.

I stopped [writing] for a number of reasons but the main one was that I had had the chance, as many people don’t, to write all my adult life. And I’d really said most of what I’d had to say and things that were occurring to me seemed awfully close to what I’d already written. Writing is very hard work and I think it’s ok to be in love with your favourite stories and retell them to your friends, but I don’t think you really ought to bore your public with being repetitious. Get on and shut up. (laughter)

Q: You’ve also been known, and continue to be known, as a very important activist. Do you see writing and activism as being connected?

A: I think of political activism as much more connected to essay writing. I don’t think of my fiction as political or propaganda or on the side of any one particular viewer. I might write about characters whose views don’t correspond with mine or even agree with mine because I’m interested in other points of view and other ways of living.

Q: You took an incredible amount of flak for Desert of the Heart and I wonder how that impacted you, how it affected your writing and how you got through it at the time.

A: I didn’t know what to expect because we were still, at that time in 1964, illegal. We could have been jailed for 5 years for living together. It didn’t surprise me that people were upset about the subject matter of the book. I was writing about a relationship that was against the law, which is hard to remember now, but there it is. That law didn’t change until 1968 and the book had been out for 4 years already.

So everybody was very circumspect and defensive and I think so many different things happened after the book. I got a huge amount of fan mail which I didn’t expect. I thought movie stars got fan mail. People were writing things like ‘you are the only person in the world who could possibly understand who I am, how I feel, if I’m not able to talk to someone I’m going to kill myself’.

Well, I was used to relating to the world as a teacher. If I had a student in trouble that I couldn’t help, I had the health centre, the financial centre, I had all sorts of people that I could call. Suddenly I was getting cries of help from all over the world about which I could do nothing. I could answer the letter and be sympathetic but it just felt to me overwhelming and depressing that there was so much fear and so much self-hatred and so much loneliness. So there’s that aspect of it which was a surprise to me. I don’t suppose I was terribly surprised with the outraged reviews.

Q: It didn’t stop you. You kept writing, you kept living your life.

A: Oh, yes. The other thing that happened in our personal life was that the few gay friends we had were the ones that dropped us because they didn’t want to be guilty by association. That did shock me. It felt like a betrayal. And our straight friends defended me by saying ‘writers of murder mysteries are not necessarily murderers’. So there was this odd denial, fear, people who wanted to protect us protected us in precisely the wrong way. Instead of defending our right to be who we were, they said we weren’t. It was a confusing time.

Q: We take so much for granted today. Listening to you now, you seemed fearless. Did you see yourself as fearless?

You have to realize that I had written for 10 years without having anything published because I was preparing to write just exactly what I wanted to write and not try to suit my fiction to a particular magazine style. I believed that if I learned to do this well enough, finally someone would have to publish it because it’s so good, not because it’s saying what they wanted to hear. And when I finished Desert of the Heart, which was my 4th novel, I suddenly thought this is good enough to publish.

And I felt some panic because I was so used to writing without any sense of audience or any sense of reaction. I look back on that and it seemed discouraging at the time but in fact it was a blessing because I learned to pay no attention to the world and to do exactly what I needed to do without a sense of that outer critic voice. My inner critic voice had to be silenced sometimes, but at least I didn’t have that outer world constantly impinging on what I was doing. By the time I knew it was going to be published I knew there was going to be trouble.

A: You must have had a lot of love growing up to have the kind of confidence required to step forward like that and to keep going.

Q: Certainly my parents were very innocent ignorant people who had no notion of what homosexuality was. I had been living with Helen for years before I ever dealt with my parents about it. She was a member of the family and they all adored her when I finally sat down and wrote my parents a letter. This was right before Desert of the Heart came out and I knew they would have to be able to deal with any flak from it.

I had a letter back from each one of them and they both said they cried all day long for what they must have done to me for all those years of being so stupid. They apologized for all the casual remarks they’d made, all the gay jokes they’d cracked, all the prejudice and ignorance they’d spewed out— and they had, it was their culture. But they became gay advocates in their later years.

I thought it was an extraordinary response.

Q: What do you think now, looking back and seeing where we are today as a community?

A: One of the interesting things is to have a gay niece and to watch her process of coming out in a family that couldn’t be better prepared for it. Her mother had a hard time dealing with it but my parents, her grandparents, didn’t. They were fine. But what she expected of them just took my breath away. She was furious that her parents were reluctant to walk in the gay parade and I said to her, ‘I don’t even walk in the gay parade, give your parents a break’. But it was wonderful to see how empowered and expecting she was when something like that would never have occurred to me in my time. I thought it was a miracle that my parents didn’t disown me

Q: I know you watch the L-Word with your niece. What do you think of it?

A: I think it’s a very good show. I think they deal with a lot of issues quite interestingly. Sometimes they’re oversimplified because of the medium, but often I think they raise issues and deal with them with a fair amount of sophistication. I think it’s a marvelous program.

Q: What books have given you sustenance over the years?

A: A hundred thousand books. In the last years of Helen’s life when her eyes were going, I read to her aloud every night we didn’t have visitors for about 3 hours after dinner. We read a lot of contemporary books, but one of the things we enjoyed was going back to what I call the ‘dead white males’ who actually wrote to be read aloud. We read almost all of Dickens and I didn’t even particularly like Dickens until I started reading him aloud. Trollope I adored and we read all of Trollope. I also spent a lot of time reading Canadian books, initially because I was called upon to judge contests.

I feel nourished, and more companioned, by books than I feel led by them or guided by them. I feel an enormously deep companionship with writers like Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Audrey Thomas. But they feel to me, as I say, like companions rather than mentors. I don’t think I had any mentors when I was beginning to write because there wasn’t anybody I knew saying the things I wanted to say. I didn’t discover people like Willa Cather until I graduated from college, she wasn’t taught in college. Gertrude Stein was never taught in college. At the time when I was forming myself as a writer, I suppose that the writers who mattered most to me were Shakespeare and some of the poets. Auden was very important to me. Yeats was very important to me.

Q: How did you start writing? Did you just know you wanted to write?

A: Yes. I was in my teens and thought that people weren’t really saying how they felt or talking about anything that mattered. I wanted to tell the truth, which is an arrogant and very young notion. So it wasn’t for any great literary ambition that I wrote. It was, I should think, for moral reasons.

Q: Advice or words of wisdom for the youth coming up today?

I always tell my students who want to be writers, if you’re stupid enough to want to be a writer, be very smart about everything else. Don’t think you’re going to make a living at it. I talked to a young woman the other day who’s going back to school to get an MA in creative writing. She has 3 children, is divorcing, and is getting her MA in creative writing so she can make her living writing fiction to support her 3 children. Well it ain’t gonna happen.

And so I think if you want to be free as a writer to say what you want to say, figure out an economic way to do it. For me it was teaching. I was able to teach every other year at UBC and write every other year from the time I was in my mid-twenties. Which was a wonderful arrangement. It gave me a contact with the world so I wasn’t too isolated and gave me enough money to pay my share of the bills.

Q: What would you say you are most and least proud of?

A: In writing?

Q: Any way you want to read it. In your writing world. Your activist world. Personal world. Anything you regret?

A: Oh well, one regret, that’s what you spend your old age doing…[long silence]

I think that the requirement of time to be a practicing artist is enormous and you have to protect your time in order to get the work done and that means being a less good friend, a less good social human being than you often would have liked to be because you really do have to shut the door to everything. One of the things that was very useful to me in Vancouver was that a lot of our friends were also artists and somebody would say I’m not going to see you for the next 6 months because I’m working on a show and that was perfectly OK. You were not frowned upon. I would say I’m disappearing into a novel, I’ll see you next year.

But it is hard on friendships, nonetheless, it’s hard on people near you to have to live that kind of blinkered [existence] and one of the lovely things about giving up writing is that I get the world instead. I can spend my time with children at the swimming pool and reading to people who are losing their sight and being available to people who are in trouble. I have a small building and loans business that I run on the island and it keeps me in touch with all the young people who are trying to figure out how to buy trucks or start businesses. If you talk about money you talk about all sorts of other things as well. And I’m THERE. The imagination I used to give to my characters I can now give to my friends.

A: Was it a big decision to move to Canada and then after that to a rural community here on Galiano?

Q: Helen and I met in Concord, MA and if somebody had said to us you’re going to end your life on a little island off the west coast of British Columbia, Canada, we would have said isn’t that too bad because we really do adore each other. (laughter) We couldn’t possibly have imagined it. I didn’t even like islands. I thought they were isolated and terrible. When we bought this house, we didn’t intend to live here. This was our place to escape. We found we liked escaping so much we stayed escaped. And I’ve been here now for 30 years.

A: So no big transition, just a natural occurrence?

Q: Yes. Life in Vancouver had just gotten too demanding. We were out 4 and 5 days a week with show openings and play openings. It was all fun but it was just too much so we decided we needed a place to get away. We spent nearly every weekend here once we got the place. And then Helen took a year’s leave and we came over here and lived for a year and liked it so well and it was very good for my writing so we stayed.

Q: Is there anything you want to add? Anything you would ask yourself if you were interviewing yourself?

A: There are things that still occur to me that I want to say and that’s why I write essays. But they’re almost always in response to a particular circumstance, like gay marriage [Jane has been very vocal in her stance against gay marriage. While she believes that anyone should have the right to marry should they so choose, she sees marriage as nothing more than state interference in our private lives and a throwback to keeping women and children the property of men.] or Canadian writers, about which I just wrote an article. Our top writers in Canada are women and almost all of them are mothers. This is a very extraordinary thing when you think of the great women writers of the past—very few of them had children. I talked about what it was like for them compared to what it was like for me. I’d had 2 Canada Council grants before Margaret Laurence got one because after all she was married, why would she need money. And Alice Munro was viewed as that little housewife who had a hobby writing short stories. Constant condescension and put-downs and then all of the pressure on them because writing doesn’t pay money and in fact they would have to pay money to have their kids looked after while they wrote. So they were a drain on the family, their attention is away from the family, the guilt was enormous. That they persevered and became internationally known and beloved writers changed the climate of fiction.

Sometimes I’ll write a personal essay because I’m trying to figure out what I think and feel about something. One of the issues for me is dealing with grief. I’ve tried to write something about that because people talk very conventionally about grief if they talk at all. They don’t deal with the amount of anger about it, they don’t deal with the sense of isolation. I feel as if by now, I’m almost 7 years into [losing Helen], I’m beginning to get the hang of it. I think for each person it’s different, but for someone to be free to say I feel so angry to have been left like this, that’s not something you say. I remember when my father died I was just outraged, he was my father, he had no right to do that. And when you get to be in your sixties and haven’t lost a parent, you begin to think you’re going to get away with it. It took me 3 years to deal with that because I couldn’t talk with anybody about it. It was idiotic. I knew it was a 6 year old response, not a 60 year old one.

To try to figure out what it was, finally 3 years after my father died, I wrote an essay called I Want to Speak Ill of the Dead. I said how furious I was with him and why. It was the first time that I was really confronting the fact that I was mortal. That was part of it.

Q: You told a story earlier today about a young child who came up to you, looked you straight in the eyes and said ‘your partner died’. I think there’s some of that we adults need to get back to, whether it’s a 6 year old response or not.

A: It’s a great relief to have someone acknowledge that this is a huge part of who you are. I can remember for 2 years after Helen died I couldn’t imagine why anyone came here. There was nobody here. And people would say I can feel Helen everywhere. I said she isn’t. I can feel her nowhere. And you know, that’s not the polite thing to say. And people are thinking they’re comforting you. There’s just this vast emptiness in your life. And you have to learn to deal with that. Everybody does. It’s very common. But it’s not something we talk about.

And we don’t have permission to deal with it. My mother said, from the time we were young, ‘grief is self-pity, get over it.’ Of course she grew up going to funerals for a lot of people that everybody hated with everyone being pious and phony. Neither of my parents allowed any kind of funeral, any kind of burial, any kind of marking of where their ashes were, nothing. And that’s how I grew up.

So when Helen died and the island wanted a memorial service, I thought I can’t cope with this. But I knew I didn’t own her and the island needed to say goodbye. It was a wonderful experience.

Q: Did you participate?

A: I went. I didn’t speak. And it was just extraordinary. I had thought: endure, just get through it, the island has to do it. It was nothing that I was needing or wanting. And my niece said she didn’t know that she could bear it either so I said “we’ve done a hell of a lot of hard things for Helen in the last weeks and this is one that we’ll get through.’

And it turned out to be amazing for both of us. It was like bringing Helen home. After all those weeks in the hospital, with all of those hostile, angry, stupid nurses, Helen was home again with the people who loved her and took delight in her. 12 year olds spoke, asked to speak. It was just extraordinary.

Q: That’s what family is.

A: Yes yes.

Q: Do you still speak with Helen?

A: No. She’s not there.

[Joanne Bealy’s interview with Jane Rule first appeared in Cahoots magazine. It is reprinted here with permission of Joanne Bealey.]

Essay Date: 2006

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