Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Up Close And Personal With Camilla Gibb

Writing From the Heart
How often do we get to meet well-known authors from abroad to share an informal evening with?
We get to learn about them as writers. As talented individuals, as artistes. What inspires them, touches and moves them to write the books they have written. Whether they be about life and humanity. Or love and war.
Last evening (Tuesday,March 27 2007), we shared a quiet session - "The Fiction of Truth and the Truth of Fiction" -- with Canadian author and socio-anthropologist Camilla Gibb at the National Press Club.
She talked about her life, her country, her work and her third book, "Sweetness in the Belly".
It was informal with only about 15 people there. A wonderful evening where we got up close and personal with her. No barriers.

Camilla's earlier books are "Mouthing the Words" (1999) and "The Petty Details Of So-and-So's Life" (2002). "Sweetness in the Belly" was published in 2005.
I find "Sweetness in the Belly' intriguing and compelling, not least for the style she employs, but how she is able to write convincingly about deep and serious issues facing a Muslim woman.
And the richness in the vivid images she conjures of Ethiopia.
Her narrations are powerful, yet gentle.
And the fact that a non-Muslim dared touch on Sufism, politics, Islam and the love and intrigues of a Muslim woman, is amazing.
It is quite rare indeed.
But after listening to her I am not surprised that she managed to"pull" off such a delicate stunt.
She is honest and sensitive. And she wrote from her heart.
She did not set out trying to change the world's misperception or misconception of Islam. But if along the way she did, she is thankful and happy.
Does she hope that more people will see the messages in the book.
"Insyallah," she said, without an awkward intonation.
Camilla never had any misgivings about writing fiction on a complex subject a great many non-Muslim westerners would stay clear of.
But she was not sure of how it would be received.
"I wonder if my audience ever care. As a writer you don't make any assumption of anyone caring or not."
Camilla said she was surprised by the reception the book received.
"Maybe I had underestimated...but it shows that there is huge hunger and appetite for the subject I had written on.
"And it shows that we've got a lot of caring people who knew they were manipulated by the media and who want a more accurate portrayal of truth."
Camilla said the book was written before 9/11. It was based on her experience while she was in
Ethiopia doing her PhD research in anthropology.
After writing her academic piece, she felt empty as though there was something she had not completed. She was compelled to write.
"I saw many things. I met many people during my stay in Ethiopia. There were stories to tell. And I needed to tell them," she said.
More compelling was an experience she had earlier in her life when she met a woman from Palestine.
She had asked the stranger "where do you come from?" which is really the usual greeting in Canada which is so multi-cultural. A country of immigrants.
That experience of getting to know the stranger so different from her showed how shallow was her "sense of place".
Camilla developed an interest in Islam. In fact the book was inspired by her Ethiopian experience and the Quran.
She recalled how her friends were shocked when she wanted to write the book.
They had asked her how she could dare represent a Muslim experience when she was not a Muslim.
"Can anyone represent someone different from them?" Camilla asked.
But why shouldn't she try?
Well-meaning friends asked her: "Aren't you afraid of being fatwa-ed?"
In a way, she said, writing the book was the risk she took.
I find it fascinating that she included a "sufi" as one of her characters, and a sufi shrine.
I am familiar with sufi shrines because when I was a little girl in Singapore (where I was born), there was one to which Muslims would go to fulfil vows or to pray for miracles.
It was called "Keramat Habib Noh".
Camilla has enough intimate knowledge about Islam, including sufism, to confidently write about it.
Besides, the lady reads the poems and writings of A-Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet and mystic.
I don't know how many authors like Camilla read Rumi whose works I love.
Didn't I say I like Camilla?
Here's a bit on Camilla's background:
Born in England, she moved to Canada at a young age. She decided to study anthropology and became interested in the Middle East.
She then spent time in Cairo, and furthered her education (a PhD from Oxford) by living in Ethiopia for a few years, studying Muslim practices in Africa.
To date, Camilla's novels have been published in 19 countries and translated into 15 languages. She has also written a number of short stories, articles and reviews. She was the 1999 winner of the Hart House Literary Contest and the 2001 winner of the CBC Literary Award for short story. She has been Writer-in-Residence at the University of Toronto and the University of Alberta and is the Vice President of PEN Canada.
About "Sweetness in the Belly" :
Lily, daughter of a British "hippie"couple in Ethiopia was raised at a Sufi shrine under mystical Islam, after the death of her parents. She takes us to many places where we get glimpses of her childhood, her adulthood, her love and her life as a Muslim in the wake of the Ethiopian revolution and as a Muslim in non-Muslim surrounding when she moves to England. Her voice is gentle but powerful.

"Sweetness in the Belly" was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, won Ontario's Trillium Book Award, was chosen as a Best Book of the Year by the Globe and Mail and is on the longlist for the 2007 IMPAC Award.
" The Petty Details of So-and-So's Life" was a national bestseller in Canada, and was chosen by the Globe and Mail as one of the "Best Books of the Year".
(Photo above, courtesy Ahirudin Attan of Camilla with NST journalist Koh Lay Chin (left) and this blogger.)


Anonymous said...

Camilla, who?

sorry, only go for humour and crime/thriller.

incidentally, nice T-shirt!

now, where did I misplace that boarding pass?



indeed, i asked the same question before i picked her books off the bookshelf of a bookstore.
i am terrible. i sometimes judge a book by its cover/title (because there so many staring at you on the shelves), and/or reviews. some titles are recommmended by friends.

as a rule (and I dont know why), i stay clear of romance books. as a child, i read the whole range of classics (forced upon us by Bapak at first, and then we simply got hooked) enid blyton and sadlers wells stories (having been a ballet student). Then, when my friends graduated to romance novels, I found myself so left out because I didn't and couldn't enjoy romance paperbacks. I went straight to Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway, DH Lawrence, John Le Carre, John Steinbeck Graham Greene, Norman Mailer, Harper Lee, Thomas Hardy, JD Salinger and later, Gay Talese, Roald Dahl, Elia Kazan, Nadine Gordimer....
And for quick reads and entertainment, I kinda like Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsythe and to an extent,John Grisham.
In the 80s and through the 90s until today, I was drawn to stories about Africa and Apartheid,and Muslim women and Islam, immigrants (Chinese/Indian/Muslims) in the US, Britain and Europe. I began to enjoy works of African American authors (for some reason, mainly women) and women writers as well as Asian (Chinese/Indian) women writers.
These days, (God,just look at the number of titles by so many new writers) I always make a point of picking up books by Asian writers -- male or female.



whoops, sorry. I got carried away.
About Camilla. She could have been just another author among thousands. and she is, really.
But someone told me about her book (Mouthing the word) sometime back. I was curious. I read it. It touched on a disturbing theme. But she writes so well, simple but so strong. I enjoyed it.
I suppose, I am sensitive to the changes in the literary world -- styles, themes, issues, etc..
You see, I may not like romance novels. But I have no qualms about picking up a trashy book because it is a book.
I can read any book (except romance novels).
And yes, I have read all the Harry Potter books too.

Apandi said...

Anything done from the heart will shine through. Haven't read any books of late, I normally go for crime/thriller too but magazines with pretty pictures takes the cake time wise. Your post inspired me to get the book and see what its all about. Time for something new.



actually, camilla gibb, to me, represents, the style of today's legion of writers.
Literary works today are assessed on, a different set of criteria, perhaps because of the world we live in today and also by a new breed of "judges".
today a non-Muslim can write about the lives of Muslims because the writer has the experience and knowledge to do so. Today a child of immigrants can express herself in a novel. Today, an abused woman narrate her harrowing account. Also today's audience is also more knowledgeable and worldly.

Oh... reading. I must confess that for so many years now, to be able to enjoy the time to read a book,any book, is a luxury. You are right, magazines are the next nest things.
I often end up reading a book at airports, while waiting to depart or in aircrafts, or overseas when you don;t have to think about running around to do your errands.
I am glad I did a lot of reading when I did back back then.

The last book I read is on Tun Dr Ismail.

zewt said...

hmmm.... the bliss of being a writer/author... :)

Kak Ainon, Besut said...

Asmk Noraina
Thanks for the nice introduction on Camilla. Had just hopped to her homepage. Looks impressive. Definitely calls for more visits to read her books's reviews, past interviews, etc.

I like books with middle-east background and issues, although it can get quite depressing at times. Will lookout for one of her published books at my next visit to the bookshop bila balik KL nanti.

Rajahram said...


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Anonymous said...

I have yet to read her novels but I am sure they'll be worth the while. Btw, Najib the DPM said we should embrace the developed West's penchant for reading. That's not too difficult if the government wants to make books cheaper. One Camilla book is about RM50. in london, a novel costs less than a per cent of the average Joe's salary. Think about it.

raden galoh said...

Kak Ena,
We happen to share similar books/authors for quick reading..but I also love reading Jeffrey Archer's writings. Now, I read more books in the train (going to work) just to kill the time. Must try reading Camilla's...for a change.

QueenB said...

Now, I simply got to see her in person; have put on my reminder this friday at bangsar village!

Mohd Imran Haq said...

Anon 1.32am,

No wonder you are so ignorant, you seem to be so easily distracted and in this case are more interested in a nice T-shirt than in what the owner of the nice T-shirt is trying to tell you about this Camilla!
Your boarding pass? Dream on!

Nuraina, I missed Camilla's talk so thank you for sharing with us here thoughts and for telling us what kind of a person she is. Your account on Camilla is enough to make me want to buy her books and read them.

I would also like to congratulate the National Press Club for this coup but I think in future they should tell the public about about such events.

p.s. It is a nice t-shirt but I am not going to be so corny as to ask where my boarding pass is.

sesat said...

Ah, how I envy those who are literary and like to read. I used to read a fair bit but not anymore. The last book I read is The Da Vinci Code which was quite a while back. All I read on a daily basis are the newspapers which I read on the bus on the way to work and at my desk during lunch time. I will buy a few women's magazines to read on long flights. That just about sums up my reading habit nowadays, nothing to crow about, I am afraid ..... sigh....

Pi Bani said...

Your posting really reminded me that it's been a loooong time since I really got my hands on a book for me to actually read! Used to read love reading various kinds of books (not school books though... :-)) but of late I spend more time in front of the computer whether it's work related or not. Can I blame it on the internet?

Apandi said...

He he he, embarrased by the fact that the last book I read is one by Ludlum, yet yours is about Tun Dr. Ismail.

Yes, those were the days when we have the luxury of time to let books unleash our imagination and lead us to infinite space and reality. Now I only buy books at airports. Its the only gap that exist for such luxury.

I worry that my son has not taken to reading like I used to when I was his age. Errr, but then I started reading out of curiosity for certain type of books which I don't think I want to introduce to him. Anyway, I came upon your blog through Mat Salo. And as someone else said, mekyam if I am not mistaken, interesting people keep interesting company (or linked to), and in this case, I am happy to say that it is true.

Anonymous said...

to Mohd Imran Haq who wrote, "No wonder you are so ignorant... "

question: what is ignorant?

answer: lacking knowledge or information about something. (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary)

question: when a person says, "sorry, only go for humour and crime/thriller." What does it mean?

answer: he is not interested in anything except humour and crime/thriller.

question: is he being ignorant?

answer: no, he's just plain uninterested.

on the other hand, the one who reads but lacks understanding wrote, "I would also like to congratulate the National Press Club for this coup but I think in future they should tell the public about (sic) about such events."

however, Nuraina wrote, "Last evening (Tuesday,March 27 2007), we shared a quiet session - "The Fiction of Truth and the Truth of Fiction" -- with Canadian author and socio-anthropologist Camilla Gibb at the National Press Club."

she added, "It was informal with only about 15 people there. A wonderful evening where we got up close and personal with her. No barriers."

question: was there any mention of a coup or that the NPC playing host to the Canadian author?

answer : no! it was just a quiet session with the Canadian author at the NPC.

question : was there any hint of the occasion being a public event?

answer : none whatsoever! only that of it being informal with only about 15 people present.

despite the information available from the article, how on earth could anyone come out and say, "I think in future they should tell the public about (sic) about such events."

so, who is the one lacking knowledge or information about something?

yes, ignorant is a big word for people with little minds... use it with caution!

personally, I recommend Mohd Imran Haq to go out more and meet/talk to people... or, try reading some P.G.Wodehouse for some light-hearted humour. but, then again, what do I know, right?

however, all is not lost because I do agree that his version "It is a nice t-shirt but I am not going to be so corny as to ask where my boarding pass is." is just that... corny!

Typhoon Sue said...

Sorry nuraina, the only camilla I know is camilla parker-bowles. And I hate that one immensely.

So, is Mohd Imran Haq gonna call me ignorant for this? Relax la bro!

I was wondering what the boarding pass thingy was all about- had to go back to the main page to see the picture to understand it. Oh I see...

Maybe next time I'm at kino I'll pick up a copy, although i still have like 3 books which I bought last year and never got around to read till today.

Like you, I don't read romance either. It's so lame. Never had that Miils & Boon phase in school. Went straight from Enid Blyton to Sidney Sheldon.


zewt: hi zewt.. how are you? how is your family? i see that you have been cooking delicious dishes for your family.
zewt, in this day and age of multimedia and cyberspace, the sky is indeed the limit for potential and talented writers.
you are, in your own way, doing so much writing in blogging.
whether it is a literary masterpiece is something else because when we started blogging,it was certainly not to produce novels or some fancy works of literature.
And blogging has enabled so many of us to get to now the lives of so many people. that is enriching.
Take care and keep on blogging.

rajahram: finally! thanks and will do.

kak ainon: dont let me influence you. but,my own personal take on "sweetness in the bell" is that it is compelling. For non-Muslims in the western world,it is probably brilliant because it opens a whole new myriad world of Islam and Ethiopia, some place they cannot begin to even pronounce. For me, it is a story of a subject i am very familiar with. i see it not from the point of the theme or the issue but the way camilla has written. there seems to be no pretences, pretensions. and not in a patronising way.
also I like her style. when it comes to literary works,i am very versatile -- i am not partial to any one style.

i hope u will enjoy the book, kak ainon.

anonymous at 12:22pm: you've said it! i can never understand why books are still so pricey here. I remember i shipped boxes of books home from the US (after my studies). and i make a point of buying books whenever i am abroad.
i used to buy them in spore or if i am in london, then i'd head to the book stores first. sometimes, pesan saudara-mara yang di sana. but, these days with the exchange rate yg amat dahsyat, a real bummer.
i maybe behind -- but i am notsure if they have a bookclub in this country whre you can buy good books real cheap.

raden galoh: jeffery archer.. yes yes. him too. sigh, raden... when will i be able to just relax and enjoy a good book. i have so many books with bookmarks in the middle. semua "midway through".
try camilla.

queenB: hope u get to see her. i dont know whether it is my own bias. it's funny about canadians. they share the same border with the US, yet, they are so so different from the americans. maybe the canadians i have met were all nice. of course, there are nice americans. i shouldnt generalise. it's like a westerner making a distinction of the differences and similarities between Indonesians and Malaysians or Malaysians and Thais.
That said, you will find Camilla, softspoken, humble, gentle...
certainly has a lot to do with her "journey" in ethiopia and the muslim world. as she said " the muslim place is diverse".
yet, i cannot help feeling that she in essence,a wonderful human being. because she cares enough to explore and learn... and write without fear, from her heart.
God! I am biased.

Pi Bani: sigh sigh...arent we all so"guilty" of abdicating that cardinal rule of seeking's ok. the internet serves us well too. or, how else could i have "met" someone like you.

Sesat: Aah, Da Vinci Code. I forgot to mention that yes, i read it the second it hit the bookstores. actually, theology and religion, (for some reason, I am attracted to novels -non-fiction/fiction -on christianity, divinity, etc. dunno why). I read it in less than 2 hours. i swear, that book was deliberately written for a movie. i felt so cheated. but stillenjoyable. what can i say about the book? dan brown good fiction writer-lah.
i had enjoyed the "Holy Grail"and "the messianic...."
sesat, we are all in the same boat....can't find time. read newspapers and the internet, that's the time we cann afford.

MIH: adoi.... jangan marah, saudara.
yes, i will inform the NPC committe to next time make known to the public of such events.
and thank you, er er, for, commenting.

apandi: when i was a little girl, my dad would take us all to the federal book store brickfields, i think) at the end of every month.
we would spend the entire morning choosing our books. he allowed us to buy any book we wanted. we could even buy comics (but those we got from the neighbourhood stores).
you'd think that i should be doing the same thing with my own kids. well, i feel so so guilty sometimes. i do encourage them to read but i don't take them to the bookstores as often as i think i should.
and my kids don't read (books) as much as I did when i was their age.
and thank you for visiting me.

QueenB said...

Well, nuraina, you're not alone when it comes to being biased towards the canadians.
Even michael moore finds the neighbours north of the border more relaxed and trusting than his fellowe americans in 'bowling for columbine'.

nstman said...

Nuraina, i am shocked you read harry potter. to me harry potter is a piece of crap by a washed out writer. the author (what's her name?) cant hold a candle to my all-time favourite Enid Blyton. More than 50 years after reading enid, i still never tire of her. Long live Enid, down with harry potter the fake.

Kak Teh said...

ena, I was at Camilla's talk on Friday - and what a grand finale it was for me. After listening to Randa of "Does my head look big in this," I simply had to listen to a non Muslim talking about her experience living in a Muslim community. Thoroughly enjoyed it and spent some time taking to her.


anonymous 9:21am: Alamak..

typhoon sue: aah...camilla and only. she should start writing her memoirs.
sue..sidney sheldon was hot in the 70s.
also the boarding pass on the t-shirt. actually it is a nike t-shirt given to me as a birthday present by a very close friend. Memang the strapline is cheeky.
but,sigh...pakai saja lah.

nstman-- i say man. i wont apologise. i read harry potter.


Kak Teh (Zaharah Othman.)

Ah.... isn't she a pleasant and delightful surprise? very knowledgeable and so unpretentious.
dont know lah, years from now, she may change.

i hope you write about her, Ah.

Anonymous said...

Dear Malaysians,

Such passion for reading !!
Now, we should all read the book on our Tun Dr Ismail. Yes, The Reluctant Politician. I have read it once without reading other books during that period. Worth reading again. Could be the presciption and cure for the nation's current ills.
Happy reading it,folks.

Malaysian Pulitzer

Kak Ainon said...

Insyaallah, will try the Belly for “starter” (hard to resist with all the good reviews) and the TDI book too. Just hope that I can “finish” them though.

Nice to listen to her interview on Minnesota Public Radio. Was touched by her simple message on Islam; her notion on Islamic Jihad as an internal battle/an inner struggle to do goodness, to be a good Muslim, a personal responsibility, etc. She sounds pleasant, knowledgeable and so unpretentious (as you had said). And her achievements are impressive. Had a peep into Nicholas Hoare – an elegant but cosy bookshop (wish there’s one around the corner) and the Toronto Women’s Bookstore looks interesting as a community project.


Anonymous (malaysian pulitzer): I am reading Tun Dr Ismail. Will be reviewing it here at Jalan Sudin.
I am so sad. My son (in form 5), saw the bookand said: "hmmm interesting".
I asked him why? Do you know this man is besides the fact that we live in a housing estate named after him.
My son, my only son, my eldest child (sob sob) said: "he is somebody important, isnt he?"
help help. that's it. somebody important. I overestimated my intelligent son.
All hell almost broke loose.
Gave him an instant rundown on who TDI was. quick history lesson.

so, i hope you will join me later in my review of TDI's biography.


Kak Ainon.

adoi, kak ainon...i havent even gone to the websites you mentioned. And I surely will.
you are a gem, kak ainon.

Anonymous said...


It a good start though, i mean,your son's inkling that TDI must have been an important person.
I heard that the book is going to be used as a research book on Malaysia's history in certain universities. So there, we are beginning to do some justice to TDI , i believe.

Good wishes on the upcoming review.

Malaysian Pulitzer.

Kak Ainon said...

Ha, tergelak baca cerita pasal your son. Not surprised if my anak-buah are equally guilty! I wonder what’s the scope of syllabus for Sejarah (Malaysian history) is like, nowadays. Don’t have any school-going children.
Amazing how you can get carried away (clickings) in the cyber world. In fact after a quick visit to Camilla’s, I ended up browsing magazines for a good 1 hour. Even the old issues have lots of interesting features. Also ended up doing a nice screen-shopping at (from the Advs). So tempting because the price is fairly reasonable as compared to (which is just OMG!), but was able to control myself.
Ok, Selamat menyambut Maulidur Rasul. Selawat dan Salam ke atas Baginda Rasulullah S.A.W. Have a good weekend. How time flies!


malaysian pulitzer,

sigh.... i suppose i can still be optimistic about the future of our country..
there's hope yet...

thanks again, malaysian pulitzer.


kak ainon,

i know what you mean.... we can just go from one site to another and another... it is so incredible,
but kak ainon, you are so terror...
i am making notes of the sites u've mentioned.
thank u.

selamat menyambut maulidur rasul..

sesat said...

Dear Nuraina,

I am typing this in darkness, hope all the i's are dotted and the t's crossed. I am participating in Sydney's earth hour and all my lights are off for one hour.

Your comment about your son and his knowledge, or lack of it, of
TDI really tickled my funny bone. It's hilarious!

Enjoy your weekend.

zewt said...

hi, i am doing fine. family coping well and i am taking one day at a time. it still feels sad when the thought of my mom not being here anymore hit my mind... but i guess it is something i have to live it.

yes, blogging has been a phenomenal experience for me and i am certainly not going to stop.


your i's and t's are all dotted and crossed.
that's really good to mark earth day that way. i dont know if we can pull it off like that here in KL/PJ.
Now i know that you are posting comments from sydney. son, my son. you know, i can laugh about it now.

Zewt: Take care, Zewt. Have faith. I know what it's like...I took a long time to get over my mom's death.
Yes, indeed. And you know what, blogging can be therapeutic, I've been told.

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