Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Camilla Gibb: An eh List Author

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Camilla Gibb. Photo copyright George Whiteside

A few weeks ago, Camilla Gibb visited the Toronto Reference Library for The eh List Author Series where she spoke about her latest book, The Beauty of Humanity Movement. The series, which resumes in the spring, is presented by the Toronto Public Library. If you weren’t among the unexpectedly large audience, which included Camilla’s mother, this is what you missed:

Camilla Gibb wasn’t originally a writer. It was only in the final year of her PhD in Social Anthropology that she realized she didn’t want to be an academic. A friend of hers asked what it would take for her to pursue her dream of writing. After some consideration, she came up with the response of $6,000: enough to cover her expenses for 6 months and give full-time writing a shot. To her surprise, that friend then gave Camilla the money, with the one request that she never reveal his identity. Camilla then went on to become an internationally acclaimed writer.

Years later while on vacation in Vietnam, Camilla heard stories of the people there and was inspired to write them down. It was a revelation to her to find a country with such an infamous legacy in the west, and yet was in reality such a young and hopeful country, oriented to the west. From their perspective, it was the American war. Camilla realized that a lot of their stories weren’t being heard by the world and were not being translated. It was the “hiddenness” of Vietnam that inspired her. One of the stories she heard was of the best soup in the city. Her tour guide, Phuong, told her it was made by an old man who had a soup cart but no licence for it, and so the police shut him down whenever they caught him. They spent the rest of her trip trying to find him, without success. She later returned to the country to do research for the book she had decided to write. When she returned she contacted Phuong and got him to help her.

Over a two week period, Camilla and Phuong sought out more stories and developed a friendship. Because he was such a good tour guide and took his job very seriously, Camilla once asked him if it was his dream to show his country to visitors. He told her that his dream was actually to own his own soup shop where he would serve the best pho to his community and make a place for his family (his mother, a butcher, would provide the meat; and his father, a carpenter, would build the shop). Camilla decided to pay it forward and, in thanks for his help with the research, she offered him the money to start his shop. Like a responsible young man, he told her he had to discuss it with his parents first. After a few road blocks, such as getting married, Phuong eventually did open his shop and is even opening a second. Inspired by Phuong’s idealism and his story of the old man with the soup cart, Camilla based the characters of Old Man Hu’ng and Tu’ on them.

The title of the book is based on an actual group of rebel artists who opposed the communist government in the 1950s. The name of their publication, which in Vietnamese means “Humanism,” was badly translated as “The Beauty of Humanity Movement.” Camilla chose it as a perfect blend of cliché government propaganda and the push against communist oppression.

For more information about the book or to purchase it online, please visit the Random House website.

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