Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, author of All the Broken Things
Author Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer discusses enchantment, realism, and the local politics of her newest novel All The Broken Things. The following is a teaser of a much longer, more in depth conversation scheduled for publication in Issue 26: Summer 2014 of The Puritan.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what the writer can make believable,” Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer tells me, tucked away from the morning drizzle in a small High Park café where we discuss her emotionally lush and energized third novel, All The Broken Things.
Garnering a host of acclaim since its release in January, the book is premised on two facts so unusual they could only find their home in fiction: the spectacle of bear-wrestling, and a painful truth about Canada’s past—that the Agent Orange defoliant was manufactured in the small town of Elmira, Ontario for use in the Vietnam War. The protagonist is Bo: a 14-year-old Vietnamese refugee in Toronto, an outsider who fights to feel, to find himself. Soon, he is a bear-wrestler in the carnival circuit, where he forges a fierce friendship with the bear he trains. His sister, Orange, disabled at birth due to exposure to Agent Orange toxins, struggles to define herself as something new, to break out beyond the eclipse of her mother’s shame.
Nicole R. Grimaldi: Kathryn, I was searching the library catalogue for your new novel. I chuckled to myself when I read the subject titles it was indexed under. I’ll read them for you.
“Subject: Agent Orange fiction. Animal trainers fiction. Brothers and sisters fiction. Disfigured persons fiction. Families fiction. Human-Animal relationships fiction. Sideshows fiction. Vietnamese-Canada fiction.”
I’m wondering about the process before these handles get attributed. Does each of your projects commence as a sort of ungendered germ, at first unaware of itself as a given species of fruit? When you read at the Pivot Reading on March 12th, you mentioned that before the book was a full-formed thought, it was a mere scene in your mind, wherein a boy would fight a bear. Do stories come to you slowly, gradually, begun with an image or a scene, and then evolve? Is each project different? I was hoping you could tell us more about the genesis of All The Broken Things, before such subject titles became attached.
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: The whole marketing thing is interesting. You’re working with widgets, words, trying to make life out of them. There’s a story, but there’s also what isn’t captured by the actual words. You try to put words together to say something about the excess that isn’t enclosed by them, whatever it is that the jammed-together words are trying to energize.
But the words are the secondary thing. The first thing is the idea, or the little seed that you talk about, the ungendered germ, or protoplasm. I came across an article as I was editing Perfecting (Goose Lane Editions, 2009), my last novel, on my parents’ porch outside of Ottawa. The article was about a man who claimed to have bear-wrestled at a county fair. I was blown away by it. I have a fascination with bears; they are incredible creatures. Really scary, iconic, and pliable in the human imagination. I thought, “I’m going to write a bear wrestling story. I’m not going to spend ten years writing a novel again; I’m going to spend a couple of fun, rompy years writing a bear-wrestling novel which will require almost no research and will just be very fun to write.” But it wasn’t enough; it didn’t hold enough energy for me to make it work, and yet, it wasn’t going away. Like you suggest, it has something to do with the longevity of that protoplasm. Is it going to breed? Is it going to make something more of itself? It was a great visual, this idea of a boy wrestling a bear. But it didn’t measure into a novel, and it didn’t really even measure into a story. There was no torque around it.
Later, I came across the Agent Orange Wikipedia page, and there was a tiny footnote saying that Agent Orange was manufactured in Elmira, Ontario under contract to the U.S. military during the Vietnam War era. I was born in ’65 and had grown up under the assumption that Canada hadn’t been involved in the Vietnam War. I was really upset; it gutted me to read that. It depressed me for days. I think I started to investigate more, and eventually started looking at images of Agent Orange children, which is a devastating practice if you take it up. And then this character, Orange, just manifested. And then I thought, “Okay, I’m writing an Agent Orange novel; I’m not going to write a bear-wrestling novel.”
And then, swimming one day in my friend’s lake at a cottage north of Kingston, it occurred to me that it was the same novel. And I didn’t know how. I thought it was madness; how could these two things go together? And Bo, the boy, the bear-wrestler, shifted from a white Canadian kid to a Vietnamese immigrant, because I felt like I needed an Agent Orange child in the book. The story was initially written in first person from the point of view of Orange as a kind of epistolary novel. It didn’t work for a number of reasons. But writing it was a great exercise; I really got to know her character and develop the tempo and parataxis of the novel. With ATBT, the writing process was kind of uncanny. I just let the story be told in the first draft. I had faith in it.
NRG: The fantastic and surrealist elements in your writing so often work to dazzle and perplex the realist quotidian. Why did it become important for you to invoke these features, and what spaces does it free up for exploration that a strictly realist regimen does not?
KK: I’m trying to think of when it all started. There was a decisive shift to not worry about it being realist. The market is changing, for sure. But I feel there is a large part of the market that prefers realist texts, that prefers texts to be defined as mimetic, representational, and tangibly real. It has always been a bit of a problem for me. Even Way Up (2003), my first book, is closer to realism than anything else I’ve written, but the stories amplify in ways that can’t be entirely real. In the last few years, I’ve been writing stories and this novel, which are emphatically unrealistic, in spite of the fact that a lot of the media around this book has felt inclined to call it realist. “Realist” and “enchanted,” sometimes in the same review, which I find kind of astounding. Well, which is it? Maybe there is an opening in the universe for realism and enchantment to happen now that there wasn’t before.
There is a huge amount of possibility when you start to stretch realism, and the stretching of realism is mimetic, in a sense, because we don’t just live in realistic terms, we live in our heads. We imagine narratives for other people. We see things on the subway and begin to tell stories about them. And none of it’s real. And all of it’s real. I started to think of realism as an expanding rubber band that I could push at the edges of and see what I could still make believable. That has been the play for me. Maybe there’s an operation that the writer can perform to shift the allowable space for belief in the reader. What if we believed more, what would the world look like?
Read the full interview in The Puritan’s Summer 2014 Issue.