Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Bond Between Us : Claire Cameron and Barbara Gowdy in conversation

Claire Cameron and Barbara Gowdy inspired knowing smiles, laughter, and a spirit of contemplation in their captivated audience on the festival’s second evening, celebrating women in writing. CBC’s Alan Neal guided a delightfully meandering, dance-like conversation between the two beloved Canadian novelists, whose disparate backgrounds and approaches to their art nonetheless resulted in works that summoned similar questions and themes.

Cameron, best-selling author of The Bear and staff writer at The Millions, instantly endeared us to her with her honesty about her writing struggles and her outspoken admiration for Gowdy, an internationally acclaimed and award-winning novelist and short story writer, whose The White Bone reenergized Cameron’s commitment to her latest novel, The Last Neanderthal, and inspired its opening line. Cameron mused that in a way she sees herself as a “chip off Gowdy’s block.” That sentiment, in fact, became a strong theme of the evening: how are we shaped by our experiences, the people we encounter, and, most mysteriously, those we may never meet? And is this method of self-discovery via ‘other’ perhaps a way of responding to the Delphic maxim, “know thyself,” to which Gowdy made reference?

By nature, we seek belonging, the sense of inclusion a family provides, and so we embrace and cling to the familiar; in the path of discovery, it is necessary to make distinctions, to allow the mind to both separate and unite, and thus it is important to seek out the unfamiliar, as Cameron and Gowdy challenge us to do. In their novels, both women take us to the limits of this possibility, to not just the unfamiliar, but to the never-truly-knowable.  Both Cameron and Gowdy write about women who develop a fascination with another woman whom they will never meet. In Cameron’s novel, the object of fascination is a Neanderthal separated by millennia, while Gowdy imagines, in Little Sister, a world where the female protagonist supernaturally enters the body of an unknown woman, whose physical and emotional states she is permitted to share. And when it comes to self-knowledge, as both women reflected, this is all the more necessary. As Cameron spoke for all for us, “It is easier to know someone else. It is hard to be self-aware.” Encounters with others will little by little reveal aspects of ourselves, shape who we are, or directly inform us, if we are but willing to listen and be moved. Gowdy comically illustrated this when she interjected to provide the psychology behind Cameron’s confessed taste for the macabre by suggesting that her relationship with her even-tempered, relaxed, Californian husband liberated her to explore places that perhaps one with a brooding and dark New Yorker could not. Cameron agreed.

Flannery O’Connor, the great short story writer of the 20th century, claimed that “the type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.” If this is true, then a fortiori, fiction writers must be willing to do the same. The interplay of reality and mystery is woven into both story lines with a foreign faraway world at the characters’ fingertips, as in Gowdy’s line “the farthest thing you can imagine is closer than you think.” But it was above all a treat to hear about the reality of the authors’ own lives, most notably their fondness for nature and wildlife, and how their daily experiences guided them to ask the bigger questions, such as what it means to be human, what true empathy is, and what the bonds are that unite us. In the end, these celebrated women leave us with an impression of what they personally hold most dear.  After recounting pieces of her career and personal life, Gowdy, who enchanted the audience with her regal presence and old-soul wisdom, reflected, “what seems to matter way more now is the people I love,” harmonizing with a line in Cameron’s latest novel, “It is the things that don’t fossilize that matter the most.”