Counting Down The FOLD: Jane Eaton Hamilton

The Festival of Literary Diversity is back from May 3rd-6th, and we are counting down the days ahead with author interviews, to celebrate. We had the chance to sit down with Jane Eaton Hamilton to discuss the writing process, disability activism and CripCanLit. Jane is a Canadian author of 9 books of cnf, fiction and poetry, including the 2016 novel Weekend. You can catch up with their writing, activism and work at: www.janeeatonhamilton.org

Tickets for the Festival of Literary Diversity are still available on their website.

What made you choose the setting for your novel, Weekend? 

After growing up in southern ON, I’d spent decades out west, but still missed cottage country: great meals, fireflies, lake swimming, reading, bonfires, talking endlessly, and unbearably hot nights. I happened to be in Montreal the weekend I turned 60, with friends at a similar cottage to the ones in Muskoka, so I used that beautiful cottage for the novel, just moving it over a province.

There is so much depth to your characters. How do you create them in this way, so they have so many dimensions? When I read through Weekend, I was blown away by how readable the characters were; Reading your novel felt as natural as breathing. I also enjoyed the writing because I saw myself in it, too. What I didn’t expect was the way the characters left me with so much more than just an appreciation for really great writing. Was there a character development process you could share so that others can create similar depth in their characters. 

I write my characters from the inside out, if that makes sense. A character, fragment of dialogue or the first line of a story comes to me and I work to transcribe. Another way it happens is I make up a person and write until they show me who they are. A third way to generate character is to just keep my butt in a chair writing whatever dross comes to me: I can’t write, I am empty, I will never write anything again I see a chickadee oh hello bird what does it feel like to be the size of popcorn do you have an active brain and what does it tell you and what’s it like to see in UV? If I do that sort of forced sitting for long enough, a story will start to wiggle its way through.

I love to write first person, but my first person is not to be confused with me unless the piece is identified as such.

I feel any of my characters could walk through my door and just take up living right in front of me. They feel real. I get anxious for them when a story or poem or book is over, wondering how they’re getting on.

Every author worries about making their characters into flesh and blood people, with the complex contradictions of real people. Having characters who are just mouthpieces for an author’s political views will stay flat on the page.

I saw on Twitter that you retweeted Karolyn Gehrig’s thread about disability saying, “If your praxis does not actively disassemble ableism, you are perpetrating it.” Based on your experiences, what might this look like in action?

20% of Cdns are disabled, but only 2% of published authors are. CripCanLit, the group co-founded by Bronwyn Berg, Dorothy Palmer and I, works to make Canlit accessible in every aspect, from publishing—who are the disabled publishers? Editors? Publicists? Are books talking about disability, or by disabled authors, stopped at the threshold?to festivals, to reading venues.

CripCanLit has seen change over our one year of existence—people are realizing they can’t systematically exclude a segment of the population, and that they need to switch or make their venues accessible. It’s a hard and challenging change, both in attitude and because it’s expensive, but completely necessary. I worry for the venue who doesn’t do this and gets sued—because the disabled are a political force to be reckoned with, waking up to their rights. The law protects us, hands down, so don’t fool with it—work on accessibility for your public events. And then out of courtesy consider accessibility for your private events as well. No more do we accept that the disabled are society’s burden to be hidden away in dark corners; rather, we know that disability rights are human rights, and the disabled now demand them.

The disabled deserve a seat at the table, as Dorothy Palmer says, but they can’t have it if they can’t get to it.

One of the blog posts on your website said the following, “Disability activism is hard because its practitioners are ill and disabled- health concerns intercede. Actions equal distress equal months of physical repercussions.” I know that experience may be different for others, but how can people amplify voices rather than the repercussions? What can folks in CanLit or around it, do to alleviate some of this? 

I was involved in a campaign to make a festival accessible, and it was pretty much a public pile-on, with powerful players coming out to say that I and my supporters were wrong and, basically, mean. It was stressful. Not only did the (successful) action scuttle the worth of my participation in the festival, but I remained ill for about three months afterwards.

This same thing has happened to other disabled people, too, and it makes the work we do almost impossible. The work simply can’t all be done by the disabledwe need allies. (Allies who consult us.)

I recently read a great book by Ijeoma Oluo (So You Want To Talk About Race) in which she said, “Intersectionality decentralizes people who are used to being the primary focus of the movements they are part of.” She then goes on to talk about how this can be uncomfortable if people are used to being prioritized and that many people say it’s unfair to focus so specifically on someone else’s needs. I couldn’t stop thinking about this quote, especially in the context of CanLit and publishing. What do you think this could this look like for CanLit in regarding intersections of Queerness and disability? 

I’m longing to read Ijeoma Oluo’s book. She’s right that intersectionality decentralizes whites—that is in fact its purpose.

Feminists don’t always share marginalities. To work on increasing racial representation does not imply you are good at—or even interested in—boosting the disabled or trans or queer people. But intersectionality is a sophisticated method of approaching marginalization in publishing, and it recognizes that white, straight, able-bodied, cis control needs to end. Like anything else, we need to observe ourselves in action and analyze what we do now, and change ourselves from the top down, from CEOs to publishers, agents, editors, publicists etc on down.

What’s your favorite part of being a writer? 

I just love a hard edit because I get to see my work live up to its potential.

What’s the book you’ve loved writing the most? Why?

The novel I’m working on now—at a formative stage—is an experimental and interactive novel about a mass murder. There are about 30 characters, all first person. Because it combines genres—is what author Karrie Higgins would call anintermedia” projectit both challenges my intellect and utilizes my skill sets across the arts. Although obviously not for the traumatic content, I am filled with delight as I work on it. For the first time, I have celebratory dreams about a novel I’m writing.

It has as its origins UBCA, actually. UBCA’s cruel timing a week or so after the devastating US election basically told anyone not a signatory: Here’s CanLit’s wall. Don’t even think about climbing it.

There is no MeToo in Canada. Instead, we’ve been shoved back to the days where the victim was the perp, and the perp was the victim.

As a vocal queer, non-binary, disabled person, I could pretty much kiss my lit future goodbye. I no longer dream of publishing at A-list houses because I don’t like what I see as A-list priorities.

As Claire Vaye Watkins put it (“On Pandering,” Tin House), in some way I’d always been pandering—to the big five. But now I’m free to write what I want, and I no longer care about publishing.

It’s clear that you’ve been writing for quite some time in CanLit– has anything changed about the way you approach your writing?

For sure it has, dramatically. In the 80s, as a queer disabled lesbian, I wrote coded. My first three “heterosexual” books were lauded, but when I published “Steam-Cleaning Love,” a book of poems for women in 1993, I became persona non grata. “Will publishing your book ruin the press?” asked the publishing house. I could no longer write coded even to save myself, so I was pushed into the ghetto queer writers mostly work from today.

I still don’t fully grasp how profoundly being disabled affected my career. I was too sick to go back to school, attend residencies or festivals, go to others’ readings, and thus I didn’t receive the ancillary benefits of having colleagues and mentors, anyone ready to drop my name in front of an opportunity.

What do you hope to leave with readers once they come to your body of work and begin journeying through your writing?

I’d hope they would come away from my literature ready to help end violence against the marginalized in whatever form it appears, and with a realization that you can make it through trauma to become more resilient, interesting and rounded than folks who had an easier time of it. A deeper, more functional adult, I mean. The adults that trauma shaped are wonderful, and they’re among Canada’s brightest lights.

What would you say to a writer with a disability who is looking to both find themselves in CanLit while also claiming space but struggling?

It would be nice if people could just ask for justice, but that’s not how it happens. Nobody is going to hand out rights. It happens by fighting. Find your peers. Find your allies. And start fighting for your inclusion.

What else are you working on right now?

I’m writing two other novels, and have a book of flash fiction, a book of poetry and a book of short fiction ready for publication.

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