Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Only Interpretations with AJ Somerset and Camilla Gibb

“Well this is the strangest pairing!” Camilla Gibb laughed gently. The audience at the Writers Festival event Only Interpretations with AJ Somerset and Camilla Gibb tittered ruefully. Camilla Gibb has written five books, each most likely featured in book clubs across the country, mostly centering around female protagonists on an emotional journey. Her latest, This is Happy, features Gibb herself at the centre of an absorbing memoir about being abandoned by her wife at eight months pregnant and rebuilding her life by gathering a makeshift family of similarly broken people under her roof. Sarah Polley’s quotation follows the book through review after review: “This Is Happy broke me, lifted me up, and filled me. I can't remember the last time I read something so honest, tender, brutal and kind.” AJ Somerset’s second book, Arms , is a spittingly angry treatise on gun culture and its history in Canada and the United States. Judging from the lack of people with both books to be signed at the end of the performance, there wasn’t a lot of overlap between the readers.


Listening to Somerset, I reflected on how marginal he is: a literary gun enthusiast who hates gun culture. Somerset is a former gunnery instructor with the Canadian army and sports shooter who has permanent tinnitus from the sound of his shotgun going off while trapshooting. And yet, as a thoughtful sports journalist with left-wing values, he is enraged by the airtight identity that is assumed along with gun ownership, “And of course you are also assumed to hold a set of shared beliefs on any number of subjects completely unrelated to guns – on partisan politics and government and climate change and environmental regulations and religion and whether the war in Iraq was a good idea – as if your gun had come with a free, bonus ideological Family Pack.”


Somerset’s quest is not to problematize this identity from his unique position but rather to expound upon his hatred of gun culture with increasing frenzy. The audience was left riddled with stories of insane opinions about gun control, easily preventable tragedies and, most distressingly, the twisting of feminist ideology in support of female ownership of guns. Quoting Margaret Atwood (quoting Gavin Becker): “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Somerset went on to describe the twisted logic that women need guns for protection from men combined with the sexualisation of women with guns. He spat out “pictures of perky blonds with pink-trimmed camouflage tank tops” with the distaste of someone taking an accidental sip of rubbing alcohol. Somerset began the evening as a pleasant, well-spoken guest and finished his lengthy reading as a wild-eyed ideologue. Devoting such energy to, as he describes it, “gurgling idiocy,” will do that to a person. Somerset noted that to further dialogue over gun control we “have to stop flinging monkey shit at each other, to come down from the treetops, and conduct ourselves like adults,” but I had the distinct impression that he had taken us into the mud and rubbed our faces into it.  


Camilla Gibb does not have the luxury of such anger. Her enemy, if I can, is not a social force, but the person closest to her: her wife of ten years who somewhat scandalously left her eight months pregnant, telling her that she was no longer attracted to her. The book begins with this catalyst, but then leaves it firmly behind, only present as Gibb’s enduring sadness as she begins again. In her quest to rebuild her life, Gibb picks up people who are equally broken, drawn (I imagine) to her steadfast progress, step after labouring step, towards the home and family she wanted to have. The story is heartbreaking in its simplicity. Gibb holds up her experience as if in the palm of her hand, unornamented by judgement, blame, or literary pyrotechnics. She noted, “I was like a train driving at a wall. There was no poetry. Sometimes you search endlessly for the right metaphor, and then you can just use the word. It surprised me how simple it could be.”


Gibb’s quiet, grounded openness left a huge space for the audience to feel close to her. She chatted conspiratorially about the people who figure in the book who contacted her afterwards, revealing, as if to a close friend, that her ex-boyfriend’s father had texted her recently. She answered each question with simple warmth, prising off the awkwardness around overly-enthusiastic questions to reveal the simple exchange at their heart. I wondered how much therapy she had to go through to be able to face clumsy audiences with such generosity. For her short reading, she recounted a harrowing childhood experience with her mentally unstable father and reflected, “You know, I wasn’t sure how we were going to make a link. But then I realized…” she flashed the room audience a brilliant smile, “my story has a gun in it, too!”