Last Friday I attended an event at the Vancouver Writer’s Fest called ‘Belonging.’ The event featured four writers (and their memoirs): Brian Bett, Charles Demers, Camilla Gibb, and Michael V. Smith. At the end of this entry, you can find information about their books.
I wanted to go to this panel because ‘belonging’ is a topic that I think about a lot. It’s a topic I’ve experienced a lot of struggle around. I’ve recently been digging into my beliefs – my pretty flawed beliefs – around belonging (which for most of my life have been a destructive hindrance). All four of these novelists dealt with exclusion or feelings of ‘separateness’ in their books. I wanted to hear what they had to say.
Prior to attending this panel, I went to see a panel featuring the Scotia Bank Giller Prize nominees.
I was a little disappointed.
I went looking for insight from five artists who had achieved something I consider significant, but instead I saw five individuals who were in competition with one another. I guess I should have expected that. Although their readings were all beautiful, during the panel they weren’t really in conversation with each other. They were in conversation against each other.
This isn’t true for all of them, but I felt like a few of them were trying to rectify themselves with a persona – award-winner – that didn’t feel comfortable to them yet. A few of the panelists were putting on airs. Others were completely distracted by their own shyness. They were an interesting cast of characters and it was entertaining, I guess, but not comfortable.
The Belonging panel was different.
Maybe that’s because they weren’t in competition with one another. I don’t know. But they were actually talking to each other. They were laughing together and supporting each other’s voices on the stage. The result: so much insight! It’s interesting. The panel featured five individuals who had all experienced different levels of abandonment and exclusion, and yet they didn’t seem to be still living in those paradigms. They each looked incredibly strong in who they were up on that stage.
I stood up during the Q&A portion of the event to ask a question. My voice trembled, as it tends to do.
In his book, ‘My Body is Yours’ Smith talks about feeling invisible – about wanting to be invisible. I asked the other authors if they’d had ever experienced something similar, and what the experience of ‘being seen’ was like for them?”
Camilla Gibb answered. She said that she hadn’t so much had the experience of being invisible, as she had lived with a fear that she didn’t exist. “There’s a difference,” she said. For her, writing was how she proved to herself that yes, she was actually here.
This is the point when I started to cry. I did it quietly. No one noticed.
“How weird that we can look in the mirror and not see ourselves. What is so clear to others escapes us until someone taps us on the shoulder and names it.”
– Michael V. Smith, My Body is Yours
Sometimes I feel like the Scotiabank giller prize panelists (without the honours). Putting on airs. Basking in my own discomfort. Look at how much more I don’t belong than you? Yeah. I feel like that statement reflects my feelings some days. I feel so determined to turn life into a competition, and there’s a sadistic side of me that is even more determined to lose. Don’t ask me how that makes any sense.
Who am I? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself every morning, and it scares me that I don’t have an answer. I don’t know who I’m looking at anymore. I know her name. I know that she’s scared. And I feel like she wants me to listen to something I’m afraid to slow down enough to hear.
I want to share an excerpt from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book ‘Big Magic’ because it’s relevant:
“In order to live this way – free to create, free to explore – you must possess a fierce sense of personal entitlement, which I hope you will learn to cultivate.
I recognize that the word entitlement has dreadfully negative connotations, but I’d like to appropriate it here and put it to good use, because you’ll never create anything interesting out of your life if you don’t believe that you are entitled to at least try.
Creative Entitlement doesn’t mean behaving like a princess, or acting as though the world owes you anything whatsoever. No, creative entitlement simply means believing that you are allowed to be here, and that – merely by being here – you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own.
The poet David Whyte calls this sense of creative entitlement “the arrogance of belonging,” and claims that this is an absolute vital privilege to cultivate if you wish to interact more vividly with your life.”
When you’re writing, you have to make a decision about who you are, was one thing all four panelists agreed on. So that does that mean that who you are is a decision? If you can make a decision about the voice that creates, can you also make a decision about the voice that lives? Can you decide to belong?
Gibb talked about how her books only exist in relationship to the person reading them. Without another person on the other end, her words don’t mean anything. That means that once a book is created, it stops being yours. The words are no longer yours. The words belong to the people who read them, and in that way they take on a significance that has very little to do with you.
Who am I?
Although I do get to decide how I feel and what I think, maybe I don’t actually get to answer this question. Maybe this isn’t a question I should be worrying about answering correctly. Maybe the answer to that question gets answered through the relationships that I have in my life. Maybe – in some weird convoluted way – who I am doesn’t have anything to do with me. And maybe the question of belonging is as equally silly question to worry about.
Maybe we all should just assume that we belong, and get over ourselves.
About the authors
(descriptions taken from Amazon)
‘Canadian poet and novelist Brian Brett describes his painful experience of being “othered” as a boy whose body did not naturally produce sex hormones’ [from Vancouver Writer’s Fest website].
‘A raucous biography of a remarkable parrot and an incisive exploration of how we relate to those who are different from us.’
Charles Demers, with his work ‘The Horrors: An A to Z of Funny Thoughts on Awful Things’
“Comedian-author Charlie Demers, whose brain-bending brand of black humour will be familiar to followers of CBC Radio’s The Debaters, offers his madcap perspective…Dark, smart and funny, in the sunny world of The Book of Awesome and The Happiness Project, The Horrors will be a shadow…or at least a shadow puppet.”
“In this profoundly moving memoir, Camilla Gibb, the award-winning, bestselling author of Sweetness in the Belly and The Beauty of Humanity Movement, reveals the intensity of the grief that besieged her as the happiness of a longed for family shattered. Grief that lived in a potent mix with the solace that arose with the creation of another, most unexpected family.”
“Michael V. Smith is a multihyphenate force of nature: a novelist, poet, improv comic, filmmaker, drag queen, performance artist, and occasional clown… As an artist whose work focuses on our preconceived notions about the body, Michael questions the very notion of what it means to be human. He also asks: How can we know what a man is? How might understanding gender as metaphor be a tool for a deeper understanding of identity?”
Latest posts by Christine Bissonnette (see all)
- A conversation about belonging at the Vancouver Writer’s Fest - October 28, 2015
- Creativity is our common language – it is how we communicate what we are afraid to say as ourselves - September 10, 2015
- “I left something important at home during week 1 at the National Voice Intensive” – entry by Christine Bissonnette - May 22, 2015