Article Category Archives: Conversation

Birchtown / Conversation with Elizabeth Cromwell

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The Black Loyalist Heritage Centre in Birchtown, Nova Scotia, opened in 2015. Photo by Len Wagg.

Birchtown

by Carol Farmer

To the staff at the centre
Bev, Shari, Vanessa, Kaitlyn and Jason.
For all their hard work.

To the future generations
If they take time to look
At the magnificent Centre

The Anglican Church
With its beautiful steeple
The stone wall and the brook

For it was God’s plan
To give that extra hand
To develop our Promised Land

People now come from near and far
By bus, by boat, plane, car.
To visit this site: Birchtown, Nova Scotia

With God’s help the project succeeded
For it was you, Elizabeth,
Who was chosen and needed

So give yourself a pat on the back
It was God’s intention to see this done
For all to see, not just some.

With His help, we give thanks
To you, Elizabeth,
Thank you.

Wall of names at the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre. Photo by Len Wagg.

Conversation with Elizabeth Cromwell

by Sophia Wedderburn

I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Cromwell to hear, in her own words, about the birth of Birchtown’s Black Loyalist Heritage Centre. It was remarkable to learn just how much Ms. Cromwell has put into the development and ongoing success of the Centre. It all began with a school genealogy assignment in the mid 1980s. With the tireless work of Ms. Cromwell and many others, the Centre has evolved into a tangible representation of our black community–a part of our history and our future that is accessible to all. A history that needs to be seen, heard, recognized and remembered.

Here is a summary of my conversation with Elizabeth Cromwell.

SW: What was the seed of inspiration that grew into the Centre?

EC: A school genealogy project called Ancestors.
The roots of the heritage organization began in the 1980s. A couple of families had kids with school assignments about the genealogy of their own family. But these children didn’t know where to look for information on their ancestors. They didn’t know anything about their ancestors except for close family such as their grandparents.

This is where the idea for a heritage society began: How were we going to help each other–our families and our children–in doing these assignments? How could we help these young people trace their family trees? Finding the information was a journey in itself; searching through old church records, going through archives, joining the local genealogy society and learning from what they had learned. We had to put all these things together. Eleanor Smith, who ran the Genealogy Society in Shelburne, agreed to help put together a program to teach those in the Black community how to become genealogists.

Out of this work grew the organization, which evolved into the idea for the Centre. Along the way, we discovered new information and experiences, which led to the fact that we needed a museum to talk about our history. We basically became our own heritage society.

SW: What has been your role in the development and success of the Centre?

EC: Passion keeps the ball rolling.
With any kind of project, there is always a need to have people who are really passionate about it. It keeps the ball rolling when things get rough.

Creating the Centre was something that we felt we needed to do, and when you start something like that and you have the vision for it, you can’t stop. You can’t let it go. Sometimes you may have to take a different route (and we encountered that), but it all led back to where we wanted to be.

It helped that I was able to do the long-range research, like finding funding for different projects and figuring out how to write those project proposals. We were able to bring in people like Sharon Oliver. She was Vice President of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society, Vice President of the Valley African Nova Scotian Development Association and Executive Member of the Progressive Conservative Party of Nova Scotia and she helped us organize and make connections with other Black heritage groups who were doing similar things.

SW: How much planning went into creating the Centre itself as well as all of the amazing exhibits?

EC: Everything took time.
Oh the planning! It took years of calling people from around the province to get things organized. And then there were questions: “Was this sustainable? Was it viable? How do you do this in Nova Scotia?” We worked hard to get funds to draft a business plan, and it wasn’t until we got the business plan done that we could show that the museum could survive, that people coming in would translate into dollars.

We had to call the architects, get a design, and that alone took a couple of years. Everything took time. But we had good people through it all. People from the Nova Scotia Museum came to help build the Centre along with people who were training to work within the Centre. We also had individuals like Beverly Cox who really helped to push the project along. It took us almost 25 years from the time we started. It all evolved and it took time.

SW: What obstacles, if any, came into play with opening the Centre?

EC: Convincing people that there was a need.
We ran into the obstacle of people thinking that another museum wasn’t necessary. “You’ve got a museum in Shelburne County, shouldn’t that be enough?” Well, no. The museum in Shelburne mainly talks about the Loyalists as white people, with some (but not enough) Black history. The late Finn Bauer, who was curating the Shelburne museum at the time, was very helpful to us in uncovering the differences between Shelburne’s museum and the proposed Birchtown museum. There was also the developing of our coat of arms, dealing with the Governor General’s office in Ottawa and, of course, raising funds to get all the things done.

SW: I read an article about the Centre in the Chronicle Herald and what really resonated with me is that one of the main benefits of the Centre is educating youth on the history of Black Loyalists–as I am in that age group and of Black heritage. Have you found that the Centre has been successful in informing youth?

EC: Young people come here from all over.
We’re doing it! This past year we were able to hire Vanessa Fells as our program manager. She has a Master of Education degree and is contributing greatly to the education aspect of the Centre. Young people come here from all over. It’s interesting how diverse the range of children is. These children, no matter what their skin colour, can all identify as having a connection to or being descendants of Black Loyalists. We’ve encountered that from the very beginning. It’s like all of a sudden, “I have a connection here. My great grandmother….”

SW: What other roles do you believe the Centre plays?

EC: An education centre for all ages and cultures.
It’s a centre for people to become aware of all the cultures that make up our community. We have to be aware of the fact that our people worked hard before they left the Thirteen Colonies. They “voted with their feet,” so to speak, to make sure that they didn’t have to go back to slavery. They didn’t give up, even when they got to Nova Scotia. They tried their best to build a community. You can look across Nova Scotia today and see the remnants of those families. They did build community here and even beyond Nova Scotia.

SW: Are there any personal connections you draw from the Centre, or the various exhibits within it?

EC: Family.
Within the Centre lies many names: the Stevens family, the Berry family, my husband’s family–the Cromwells. There are lots of connections.

SW: From what I’ve deduced, The Book of Negroes has played a vital role in the Centre, as it is focused on Black Loyalists. To what extent did it shape and influence the Centre?

EC: The novel portrays the struggle very well.
Lawrence Hill was coming here before we even had a Centre. He came to research our rich history. We were so excited every time he came to Birchtown to visit. It was always kind of an event when Lawrence Hill showed up. One of the things that we were very aware of as we were trying to build the story for the Centre was that no one knew our people. We had many interesting people in our community like Boston King, but no one knew our faces. We were kind of invisible. It became important to put these people in a place where you could recognize them as members of a community. The Book of Negroes does that. It tells that story about what happened to the Loyalists when they came to America and their journey through to Birchtown. It was known as “the place where you could be free.” The novel portrays the struggle very well.

Reading The Black Loyalists by James Walker, unless you’re at university-level reading, may not be the easiest. But you can look to James Walker’s book for the proof, the records and the research: all important. But The Book of Negroes tells you the story. I remember a friend of mine was reading the first part of the book and he called me and said, “I’ve been reading about Aminata and her father and it was as though I was right there in the forest walking with them.” That’s what Lawrence was able to do. He was able to transport us back to that time and, in a way, bring us right to the shores of Birchtown.

SW: What kind of feedback have you received from the public on the Centre?

EC: They danced on the turret….
The feedback has been wonderful. At our opening we had a great turnout of people show up and celebrate–in the pouring rain! They danced on the turret and in and around the Centre. It was a wonderful, wonderful time. We have the Birchtown day programs in the summer and people come from all over the province to learn and experience. We are also going to become part of the family of Nova Scotia museums, which is really important for us. Having gained that is an amazing feat.

SW: What sort of legacy do you want the Centre to leave on Nova Scotia as a whole?

EC: The people.
The legacy of course, is the legacy of our people–that they had a life here, that they built community here, that this was their home. We have generations of people who are the descendants of Black Loyalists who have been and will continue to be raised in Nova Scotia.

 

About Carol Farmer

Carol Farmer lives in Shelburne, Nova Scotia. Although she did not complete high school, Carol did complete a two-year course in cosmetology at Middleton Regional Vocational School and obtained her Nova Scotia Hair Dressers’ License. Carol enjoys working with seniors and was inspired to write about the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre while working with its founder, Elizabeth Cromwell. Carol was also inspired by a creative writing day at her GED course. She is currently employed in housekeeping.

 

About Sophia Wedderburn

Sophia Wedderburn is 16 years old. She writes: “From the time I could jot words onto a page, writing has always been a part of me, whether it was concocting fairy tales about heroines slaying dragons or composing poetry inspired by my surroundings. I live in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with my mom, dad, younger sister, Eve, and my beautiful puppy, Jesse.”

Conversation with Jade Brooks

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The Teen Sex Trade: My Story (Formac 2017) is a no-holds-barred account of human trafficking in Canada. Author Jade Brooks, now 25, was born in Toronto and grew up in Halifax. At age 11, she was put into foster care and by age 17 found herself lured into the sex trade. While her memoir tells her own harrowing tale, Jade says far too many young women can relate to her experiences.

Understorey Magazine had the chance to speak with Jade about her story and the process of writing her first book.

UM: Were you hesitant to be so open and vulnerable when telling your story?

JB: Vulnerable is something I have always been and will always be to some extent. I wasn’t hesitant to be vulnerable and open in sharing my story. Although it was challenging (and embarrassing) at times, I knew that the truth was bigger than those feelings and that it had to get out there.

UM: How long did it take to write the manuscript?

JB: The first draft of the book took approximately six months. Once I signed my contract with the publisher, the editing process took another year or so until it was officially finished and ready for print. There was a period of about six months between finishing the first draft and signing on with the publisher.

UM: What (or who) inspired you to write the book?

JB: A friend of mine was the initial inspiration for the book. In telling him a bit of what I’d been through, he suggested I write a book. He said that I may save someone’s life. Once I really dove into my writing, it was healing.

UM: You’re also a poet. Is writing a form of therapy for you?

JB: Poetry and writing are not only therapy for me, they are peace of mind. They are how I solve problems. Writing enables me to express myself freely, helping me to understand myself and the world around me.

UM: You recently gave birth to twins. How do you feel about them reading your book once they are older?

JB: I feel having them read the book is crucial to their development as young people, as humans. I feel that they need to know that this happens. What better way to discuss it with them than to have been through it myself.

UM: What is the one message you want readers to take from the book?

JB: One message, among many, is that abuse is not normal, no matter the ways in which it manifests itself.

UM: What is your message to other girls going through the same thing?

JB: I want young girls to know that what they are experiencing is not their fault. Guilt is a very heavy burden to carry and I know because I’ve carried it. I want to let them know that their love (for their pimp) is valid, but the things they have to sacrifice proves that his love is not reciprocated. Love isn’t supposed to hurt; it doesn’t require you to sell any part of yourself. Also, when they are ready to leave, they will find a way. The female spirit is resilient and can only be held down for so long before it rises.

UM: In the book, you mention the sex trade is a common part of people’s lives in the community where you lived. Why do you think this is and how do we break this cycle?

JB: I think it is in response to intentional systemic barriers that Black people have faced over many generations. I’ve learned from a therapist that I used to work with that when a human being is denied its power for so long, it will do just about anything to regain that power, even things that are harmful or unethical. The male and female roles in this crime/lifestyle are attempts to get out of poverty, to seek love where there once was none, to feel some sort of freedom and autonomy over oneself. There is more to be said about why this is normal, but that is some of what I’ve observed. We break the cycle by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, as I have done in my book, and educating ourselves as well as our children and our peers. We must first admit that it’s a problem, be open about our experiences and make a conscious decision to live better, to treat our male and female counterparts with more respect. This has to be dealt with on a human level because a lot of perpetrators and victims don’t even look at themselves or others as worthy of basic respect. Once we come together with that type of foundation, then we can look at breaking down systemic barriers that keep us in poverty, both locally and globally.

UM: In the epilogue, you mention a second book. What will it be about?

JB: My second book will detail how I came to a place of peace within myself, the experiences I had along the way and the lessons I learned that allowed me to understand myself and trust my intuition. It will likely be less of a story and structured more as a guide book. That’s the vision I have right now. It could change.

Join the Conversation:
The Politics of Poppies

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Since World War I, red poppies have symbolised the loss of military lives in war. The imagery stems from two poems, “In Flanders Fields,” written by Canadian physician John McRae in 1915 and “We Shall Keep the Faith,” written by American professor Moina Michael in 1918.

Following Michael’s lead, many people still choose to wear a red poppy around Remembrance Day and Memorial Day to commemorate the sacrifice of military personnel in wartime. Many other people, however, choose not to wear a red poppy, believing the message too one-sided to capture the complexities of war.

Maya Eichler, a feminist scholar of militaries and military conflict, and Jessica Lynn Wiebe, a Canadian Armed Forces veteran and artist, aim to open a conversation about the politics of poppies. What does the red poppy mean today? What does the symbol leave out? What might the red poppy mean in other cultures and circumstances?

As the politics of poppies illustrates so well, there is no single story of war. At the same time, there is often resistance to hearing different, and sometimes conflicting, stories about war.

We invite you, readers of Understorey Magazine, to join this conversation.

The images below show art work by both Maya and Jessica. The text provides their own statement about their piece and initial questions to each other.

How would you answer the questions below?

Do you have other questions for Maya or Jessica?

Do you wear a red poppy? Why or why not?

Please add your comments in the “Leave a Reply” box at the end of the article.

 

“The National Politics of War and Peace”

 

The National Politics of War and Peace by Maya Eichler

“The National Politics of War and Peace” is a Canadian flag Maya created out of red and white poppies. The white poppy campaign was first initiated by a group of UK women, the Women’s Co-operative Guild, in the 1930s. Its intent is to commemorate all victims of war—not just military but also civilian—and wearing the white poppy symbolises a commitment to working for peace. In Canada and the UK, however, wearing the white poppy can be controversial. The Royal Canadian Legion has spoken out against the white poppy and characterised it as disrespectful of military members and their sacrifices.

Every November, Maya struggles with the politics of poppies and with the divisiveness between those who choose the red or the white flower. She has worn the white poppy, both a white and red poppy, and on occasion a red poppy. In the fall of 2014, the politics of poppies seemed particularly heightened when a Canadian soldier was killed on Parliament Hill. That year, Canadians were called upon to start wearing the red poppy to show respect for soldiers well in advance of Remembrance Day on November 11. At the time, Maya was teaching a class on Canadian Foreign Policy in which there was much discussion of Canada’s shift in emphasis from peacekeeping to combat over the previous decade and a half.

She decided to create “The National Politics of War and Peace” to express both the personal and political tensions that emerge from how people choose to talk about past wars and how people make sense of Canada’s military identity today. She wanted to draw attention to how commemoration is political and shapes current understandings of Canada’s military role in the world. Creating a piece of art seemed like a potentially productive way to engage others in these difficult and sometimes uncomfortable conversations.

Maya: What is your reaction to the flag I made out of red and white poppies?

Jessica: When I first saw your work, I did not understand what the white poppy represented. In the past, I had accepted the interpretation of those around me, with no research, investigation, or questioning on my own. I had perceived the white poppy as a stand against the military and war. It was uncomfortable to confront my own lack of deeper questioning. As a result of engaging with your work, I now understand the history of the white poppy in relation to the broader politics of war.

 

“Root Funding”

 

Root Funding by Jessica Lynn Wiebe

In “Root Funding,” Jessica used a photograph she took of two Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) rolling past her position in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan. Using collage, she replaced the vehicles with images of poppies. During this time in her art practice (2014), Jessica was beginning to look deeper into the politics of the war in Afghanistan. She noted how the poppy is represented in Canada, for remembrance and sacrifice.

However, as a soldier with the International Security Assistance Force, a NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan, she recognised the poppy as the root funding of the conflict, fuelling the drug industry and the fighting. To her, the poppy in this context represented vulnerability and danger. According to the United Nations Afghanistan Opium Survey, the main profits from the opium trade go to the drug traffickers, warlords, and the insurgency. Therefore, a good spring poppy harvest indicates an intense fighting season.

With this work, Jessica wanted to draw awareness to how the poppy manifested specific meanings in different places and cultural contexts. This work also highlights, if only at a surface level, the political and economic complexities and nature of the war and its perpetuation.

Jessica: What is your reaction to “Root Funding”?

Maya: I really like how you let the piece speak to the uncomfortable truth of the underlying war economy. But when I first saw the piece, I was most struck by its aesthetic beauty and its contrast with my aesthetic image of war. I felt a tension and a lingering discomfort with how you had “beautified” the Light Armoured Vehicles. But that discomfort made me look again, and think again, about the different ways in which we buy into war, whether for economic reasons, ideas of patriotism and sacrifice, or visual appeal—and how entangled they are often with one another.

Jennifer Raven: Cancer Girl

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cancergirl

Jennifer Raven is a photographer, writer, teacher, single mother of twins, and cancer survivor. Her photography show Metamorphosis~body of work includes self-portraits before, during and after treatment for stage three invasive breast cancer. Metamorphosis was exhibited at the Afterglow Arts Festival in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, in 2013. Two years later, Jennifer turned to comics to tell her story. Adventures of Cancer Girl, illustrated by Denise Gow-Morse, portrays the daily life of single mother with cancer. As Jennifer writes: single mother + cancer = superhero.

Understorey Magazine: Why did you move from photography to comics to tell your story?

Jennifer Raven: I think photography and comics engage different audiences. Metamorphosis may be my life’s work. I don’t know how I will ever be able to create a more complete and powerful group of images. But while a picture might be worth a thousand words, it doesn’t allow me to talk directly to my audience. Comics were a strange choice for me; in general, I’m not much of a fan. But Cancer Girl allows me to explore the very bizarre lifestyle one slips into after a cancer diagnosis through the lens of my own dark sense of humour. I hope it will help de-stigmatize breast cancer and contribute to greater awareness and dialogue.

UM: As a single mother and cancer survivor, do you actually feel like a superhero?

JR: Going through cancer treatment, I felt like anything but a superhero. My cancer coincided with an emotionally abusive relationship, which ended soon after I finished treatment. At that point, I felt like I had survived a war. Looking back, it hardly feels real and sometimes I think I forget, until I look down and see my own scar. I still can’t imagine my daily life in the months before my diagnosis: getting “twinfants” up, diapered, dressed and fed; getting my six-year-old ready for school; commuting work three days a week; grocery shopping on the way home; picking up the kids; making supper; and getting everyone to bed. Two years after treatment, I thought I was fine until one day when I had a mammogram. Staring down that machine again, I had a panic attack and started to cry. I was shell shocked. It has now been more than three years since my last treatment and I still experience post-cancer fatigue. But when I look back at what I lived through, I feel like only a superhero could have done all of those things. I think all single mothers deserve the title of superhero. My mom certainly does.

UM: What can be done to help other women, especially single mothers and women battling cancer, to feel more heroic?

JM: Connecting with others who are going through the same thing. I didn’t really do that until quite late in my treatment, and that left me very isolated. One thing I did do was make a point of dressing well and looking my best whenever I left the house, even if I was just going to the Cancer Centre. I may have spent eighty percent of the time in my pyjamas, but I tried not to let the fatigue show on the outside. I think it gave me back a bit of my dignity and sense of control. I think all of us need to search inside ourselves for our inner superhero.

UM: Where do you get ideas for Adventures of Cancer Girl?

JR: Most of the strips are autobiographical. Those that aren’t from my own experience are mostly things I wish I’d thought of when going through treatment.

UM: Tell us about your collaboration with artist Denise Gow-Morse.

JR: When I was first diagnosed, I had just written a children’s book, Boo-Boo Baby. It had received a number of rejections so I made a decision to self publish and went on a hunt for an illustrator. I was blessed to be introduced to Denise through a friend. We work very well together and had actually completed a second project before I asked her if she would be interested in bringing Cancer Girl to life. She has her own web comic called How My Mom Sees Things, which I really enjoy. She was a natural choice.

UM: How has Adventures of Cancer Girl been received so far?

JR: We’re still very new so we don’t have a huge audience yet. But it is growing. I am truly gratified that other cancer patients and survivors have related to the strip and have given a lot of positive feedback.

UM: What do you hope for Cancer Girl, both the comic strip and the woman in it?

JR: I don’t see Adventures of Cancer Girl just as a strip about cancer, although that part is always there. Cancer never happens in a vacuum: it comes unannounced and invades our ongoing lives. Thankfully for many, cancer is a temporary condition but, like a divorce, you are never the same afterward. As a comic, I hope for wider syndication and I see that happening already. I am hopeful we will have Cancer Girl at the next Hal-Con, and I will be making an appearance in an upcoming issue of a national breast cancer magazine. We definitely need Cancer Girl t-shirts! As for Cancer Girl herself, unfortunately, I don’t think she will ever be cured, but I hope she can show us ways to laugh in our darkest moments and make it through the most stressful events in our lives with dignity.

Read more of the Adventures of Cancer Girl.

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A Conversation with Carol Bruneau

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bruneauThese Good Hands is Carol Bruneau’s sixth novel. Published in May 2015 by Cormorant Books, These Good Hands is a fictionalized biography of nineteenth-century French artist Camille Claudel. The book explores mental illness, misogyny, compassion, and the enduring power of art. It focuses in part on the strained relationship Claudel had with her mother — a relationship tempered by social attitudes about women’s “proper” behaviour.

Understorey Magazine spoke with Carol about her inspiration for These Good Hands, what she learned about Claudel, motherhood, and illness, and how she kept writing through the ten years required to create this book.

Understorey Magazine: What inspired you to write about Camille Claudel?

Carol Bruneau: I first heard of Claudel ten years ago through a tiny display, part of a Rodin exhibition, at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Rodin was Claudel’s teacher. He was forty-two and she eighteen when they first met in Paris in the early 1880s and began their affair. Imagine, a middle-aged instructor hitting on a talented teenage student who was keen to get ahead in a tough career. Sex was an assumed perk of artistic “collaboration” — this at a time when women artists had to get government dispensations to wear pants. The Rodin display told little about Claudel other than that she was Rodin’s student/model/muse and mistress and that she died after spending thirty years in an asylum. The fact that she was a brilliant sculptor was mentioned, but more or less in passing.

UM: Motherhood shaped Claudel’s life, even though she was never a mother herself. How does motherhood figure in your novel?

CB: Claudel’s mother felt that her sexual behaviour — her relationship with Rodin — was an unforgivable disgrace to the family. When Claudel was in her twenties, symptoms of mental illness began to manifest and her mother thought her even more of a social liability. In 1913, Claudel was committed to a French asylum and diagnosed with what we might call schizophrenia. Her mother never visited, although she corresponded with her occasionally by sending small care packages to the asylum, mostly food.

Even more heartbreaking, on several occasions Claudel’s doctors found her well enough to be released into the care of her family, and each time Claudel’s mother absolutely refused to allow it. In letters, she wrote that Claudel had “caused them enough suffering” and under no circumstances would she accept responsibility for her daughter.

Social stigmas regarding mental illness and standards of “moral” behaviour certainly played into this, but even so, the mother’s lack of compassion is striking, and certainly seems, from our perspective today, to be unusually harsh.

My novel uses key pieces of Claudel’s artwork as touchstones in her narrative. I’ve also invented a work-in-progress called “Maman et Enfant” that Claudel creates and hopes her mother will appreciate as a token of their “natural” affection.

There have also been suggestions that Claudel and Rodin had at least one child together and it’s easy to assume that she had an abortion at some point; this is another motherhood-related plot point in my novel. Claudel’s inability to become a mother herself may have caused her further grief, especially given her difficult relationship with her own mother.

UM: How is this book and its themes of motherhood, misogyny, and mental illness, related to your previous novels?

CB: These Good Hands revisits themes explored in my previous novels, but considers them from more extreme, even radical, perspectives.
My 2005 novel Berth likely predisposed me to Claudel’s situation. Berth is set in the 1980s and explores the limits of maternal selflessness; how an otherwise “good” mother risks compromising her child’s interests to act in her own largely sexual interests. The central character in Berth suffers the psychological effects of social isolation and ever-present misogyny, acting in ways that I think shed light on persistent double standards regarding “proper” female versus male behaviour. Berth was a bit like getting my feet wet, preparation for diving into the more intense, more exacting challenge of writing about a clinical case of mental illness and the research that necessitated.

My last novel, Glass Voices, revolves around a mother who loses a child in the Halifax Explosion, and how trying to reconcile herself to this loss — and the accompanying guilt she feels over surviving when her child apparently hasn’t — prevents her from seizing life’s possibilities. In a way, These Good Hands revisits the kind of longing that this character feels, but looks instead at the severed mother-daughter connection from the child’s perspective.

As for the theme of motherhood, it’s like oxygen in just about all of my writing. A mother of three, I lost my own mother while in my mid-twenties and before I had my children. So motherhood is a theme that continually intrigues me with its endless variations to explore. Of all the things one can write about, in all its permutations motherhood is one of the most interesting, timeless, and universal.

UM: What is Camille Claudel’s legacy?

CB: Because she destroyed much of her later work — and because during her long incarceration, pieces went missing — her oeuvre only comprises ninety pieces or so, including originals and copies. A good deal of her work done as Rodin’s apprentice was incorporated into his famous pieces. She was expert at sculpting hands and feet, for instance, and made many of the figures for his Gate of Hell, yet art historians balk at ascribing her authorship of specific pieces.

As far as I’ve determined, at that time, no other European sculptor with skills of Claudel’s calibre used the medium to explore themes so directly related to women, and in ways that refuted — subverted — the romantic, self-serving representations her male peers created. In works such as Clotho (1893), Claudel focused on telling the truth about women’s lives. Eschewing any traditional ideas of beauty in art, pieces like this must have blindsided her contemporaries, and attest to her courage and fiercely distinctive vision.

As an inspiration to artists generally, her legacy is huge. It is revered in France. In North America, sadly, it’s barely recognized but this is already changing, I think, as more people discover her. Better late than never. The fact that her art transcends and truly outshines the tragic circumstances of its creation is inspiration to all.

UM: These Good Hands took ten years to write. How do you maintain commitment to and enthusiasm for a project over such a period?

CB: I take inspiration from my subjects themselves. Glass Voices took eight years to write, and in that case I’d think about the perseverance required of Halifax Explosion survivors any time I felt whiny. With this book, the tragedy of Claudel herself made me determined to persevere — although on several occasions I almost despaired because of a perceived disinterest in its subject, and filed the thing away “for good” in a drawer. It would have become the permanent elephant-in-the-room if several friends and family members hadn’t pestered me about it. And a couple of trips to France — after the initial trip to do research — fanned the flames. Then, in 2012, I saw the world’s only permanent collection of Claudel’s work in the Musee Ste. Croix in Poitiers, which is also the home of my ancestors and, well, that was the nudge I needed — that and a timely note from a friend about rejecting rejection.

UM: Now that the book is out, how will you spend your summer?

CB: Well, having just finished a new collection of short stories, I’m presently trying to pick up the threads of a novel I started in 2010. I’ll be doing some readings in Toronto, and then, I hope, hiding out on my deck, writing.

For a chance to win a copy of These Good Hands leave a comment below! Courtesy of Cormorant Books.