It’s an unusual path to success: attain a PhD at Oxford University in England, return to U of T to do post-doctoral work in anthropology, then leave academia behind and write a devastatingly comic novel about mental illness and child abuse that is published in 14 countries.
For Camilla Gibb (BA UC 1991), the journey makes perfect sense. “Anthropology informs everything I do as a writer. You’re an observer in both, of what people do and why they do things. The language you use to speak about those things is different.”
Gibb’s prose can be both gut-wrenching and gut-bustingly hilarious – in the same sentence. The New York Times referred to her sentences as “prickly unsentimental assaults.”
“I was struggling in an academic language, which I felt to be restrictive,” admits Gibb. “I had to find my native tongue – and that tongue is fiction.”
Her first novel, Mouthing the Words (Pedlar Press, 1999), won the City of Toronto Book Award. She followed up with The Petty Details of So-and-So’s Life (Doubleday 2002). For her novel Sweetness in the Belly, to be published in spring 2005, she returns to the settings of her doctoral and post-doc fieldwork: the experiences of Muslim women in Ethiopia and refugees in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. The research led to “a very dry and dispassionate thesis,” says Gibb, but it also fuelled her imagination. “I wanted to tell intense and passionate stories of how people feel, but I needed some distance to grow as a writer before re-conceiving it as fiction.”