Movie makes its Northern Ontario premiere in Sudbury next week
Considered one of Canada’s finest literary writers, Camilla Gibb will be in Sudbury on Oct. 22 for the Northern Ontario premiere of Sweetness in the Belly.
Gibb’s best-selling novel was published in 2005 and optioned for movie rights in 2010. It would take nearly 10 years for the production to come to fruition, but finally the film version of Sweetness in the Belly was completed and premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019, where it earned a nomination for best Canadian feature.
After an unstable childhood spent travelling with her hippie parents, Lilly is abandoned in a Moroccan village, where the spiritual teachings of a Sufi master provide her with the discipline to find acceptance in the Ethiopian city where she later settles.
Lilly’s orderly life is turned upside down when outrage over the country’s disparities spills over into revolution. She is forced to flee to London, where her status as a white Muslim woman makes her more of a pariah than it ever did in Ethiopia, while at the same time granting her benefits withheld from Black refugees.
Lilly is given a job and a small apartment, which she offers to share with fellow refugee Amina, a young mother expecting her second child. Lilly also volunteers with a community association that helps refugees reconnect with family members. The work suits Lilly’s innate altruism, although she has a more personal reason to access its services: she hopes to track down the idealistic doctor with whom she fell in love in Ethiopia.
The film stars Dakota Fanning, Kunal Nayyar, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Wunmi Mosaku.
Sweetness in the Belly screens Oct. 22 at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. at the Sudbury Indie Cinema, 162 Mackenzie St. After each screening, Gibb will participate in a discussion of this book-to-film adaptation.
Wordstock, the Greater Sudbury public library and Sudbury Indie Cinema have teamed up to host this event. Tickets are $15 and available at eventbrite.ca/e/120575888729. To maintain physical distancing, the 180-seat venue will seat up to 40 audience members. Masks or face coverings are mandatory to enter and move around the venue.
What inspired you to write Sweetness in the Belly?
Friendship. One of my closest friends arrived in Canada via a refugee camp in Kenya. She had escaped Ethiopia on her own during the dictatorship. We met 25 years ago as undergraduates in Toronto.
As a graduate student in anthropology I went to Ethiopia and ultimately wrote a PhD thesis about Islam and gender in Harar, a walled city in the eastern part of the country. But a thesis couldn’t capture the lived experience of the place or the heartbreak of leaving it.
I loved and missed Harar, my friends there and the family I lived with. I wanted to return, even if only in my imagination. It took a while before I knew how – I wrote other novels first, became a writer, and then Lilly took shape as a character and led me back.
How much of this book is autobiographical?
At its heart, this is a book about being an outsider seeking a sense of belonging through faith, friendship, love and community. The specific things Lilly witnesses are things I saw through my own eyes, but at a later time in history. Lilly lives in Harar 20 years before I was there. And she is there for different reasons than I was so her experiences and emotional attachments are different from mine. She is her own self – a complicated, somewhat difficult character. There are aspects of her that I don’t even have access to.
Have you spent much time in Africa? How did your experiences inform this book?
I spent a year in Egypt studying Arabic, then a year in Harar, Ethiopia living with a Harari family, immersed in family and community life. I could not have written this book without the direct lived experience of being there, particularly the domestic intimacies of life within a household compound.
Why did you decide to introduce Sufism into Sweetness in the Belly?
I started writing the book just before 9/11. I was horrified by the portrayal of Muslims in the media and I knew from my own experiences living in Muslim communities that these stereotypes bore no resemblance to the people I knew.
Harar was once a famous site of Islamic scholarship, and for some this included the study of the more esoteric side of Islam – what is known as batin – the hidden meanings beneath the words. So while jihad has become a term known in the west, it can be interpreted in different ways – as a struggle, for instance, against our more basic instincts, a struggle to be righteous, principled, disciplined, good. This seems a really important counter narrative to the one used and misused in the west.
Why set the book against a revolution?
I wanted a dramatic backdrop against which to explore issues of forced exile and displacement. In terms of Ethiopian history, this was the first event that led to people leaving the country, the first notion of an Ethiopian diaspora. There was no word for diaspora in Amharic before this.
What do you hope readers take away from this novel?
I hope it offers insight into a world beyond stereotypes. And that it engenders empathy for others in our midst. And that people enjoy the story and the world it evokes.
Can you talk about your decision to portray a white protagonist in a book situated in sub-Saharan Africa?
As a white writer, I could only tell this story through the lens of a white character.
Can you talk about your writing process?
I do just enough research, but not more – enough to ignite my imagination. With this book I wrote a 300-page backstory of who Lilly was as a child before I understood who she would be as an adult. I write my way into understanding my characters and then I throw miles of words away.
If you could give one piece of advice to neophyte writers, what would it be?
Read. Read everything. Reading will teach you everything you need to know.
How has COVID-19 impacted your creativity and work life?
I finished a novel in the spring, called The Relatives, which will come out in March 2021. Since that, I haven’t been able to start anything new, or work with words, or concentrate in any kind of sustained way. Like so many women, I had to be a full-time parent/teacher/camp director/entertainer/cook/cleaner for six months this year. The only creative thing I could do was make collages. I’ve made a lot of collages…
What are you reading these days?
I only came back to reading once school started again and I had some time to myself. The world has changed and I seem only to be reading books by women of colour. I read and loved Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. I’m just finishing Tessa McWatt’s memoir, Shame on Me, and am about to start We Have Always Been Here, by Samra Habib.