The Chat with Aislinn Hunter

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This week we speak with Aislinn Hunter, whose latest novel, The Certainties, asks important questions about bearing witness to human tragedy and follows the parallel narratives of two individuals profoundly affected by the slipstream of migration.

Author Jon McGregor saysThe Certainties is a wonderful mystery, a masterful piece of storytelling that will grip you the first time you read it, and a work of careful art that will reward you when you read it again. Aislinn Hunter has a novelist’s eye for narrative and a poet’s ear for detail, and she has brought those gifts together in this novel of slow and uncompromising power. In these pages, the very idea of bearing witness is given its rightful place.”

Aislinn Hunter is an award-winning novelist and poet and the author of seven highly acclaimed books including the novel The World Before Us, which was a New York Times Editor's Choice, a Guardian and NPR "Book of the Year," and winner of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Her work has been adapted into music, dance, art, and film forms—including a feature film based on her novel Stay, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Hunter holds degrees in Creative Writing, Art History, Writing and Cultural Politics, and English Literature. In 2018 she served as a Canadian War Artist working with Canadian and NATO forces. She teaches creative writing and lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Trevor Corkum: The Certainties follows the twin narratives of Pia, a middle-aged woman working at an inn on a small island, and a male writer travelling across a Spanish border town in 1940, during the opening stages of the Second World War. How did such a richly imagined story come to life for you?

Aislinn Hunter: I feel like all of my novels have been love letters to time, in the sense that they try to reveal the myriad ways the past acts on the present. I don’t think of myself as an "historical fiction writer" but my last two novels have involved settings in other whens. I knew with The Certainties that I wanted to think about what was happening all around me in the present—the migrant crisis, the rise of fascism, the devaluation of journalists as witnesses—but at the same time I didn’t feel it was my place to speak about the crisis in Syria so instead I looked back to "l’Exode"—the exodus of 1940—one of the largest sudden mass migrations in human history when the French were fleeing the German advance into Paris. I think as a citizen I was becoming more and more concerned about what it means to read or watch the news cycle and to feel powerless to help. This lead to some of the larger themes in my book: issues of displacement, exile, and the question of what it means to witness, or to bear witness, and whether or not true witness must lead to action.

TC: The writer’s narrative addresses a small girl he observes momentarily at a café in Spain. It’s such an unusual (and perfect) act of storytelling, one which grows deeper and richer as the novel progresses. I’m curious about this choice—was it something you’d imagined from the get go or did the form of address change over time?

AH: I started The Certainties wanting to write a love story between two characters who’ve never met and who lived in different eras. I guess this reflects my interests in material culture theory and texts and the archive. But the story didn’t manifest in the early days like I wanted it to, and I think this led to the more interesting juxtaposition that was the 50-year-old unnamed male protagonist in Spain in 1940 meeting a five-year-old girl. There are so many ways to explore how our lives intersect and converse with other lives but I think using this meeting as a springboard was right: it has tension and a real-life vitality to it—it’s more than just a dream, it’s an event.

I think, too, that (as is often the case) a stronger pull led me away from the original idea I had ... tugging me toward the book that became The Certainties. When I was writing my PhD I discovered the work of the philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin (1892–1940). His mind was so alive and his vitality so evident in his writing that I could barely read a paragraph of his work without feeling that novelist’s excitement. My unnamed protagonist and Benjamin have a few things in common: the situation my protagonist finds himself in in Portbou chief among them, but also a tenderness toward the world—an ability to see its beauty even in the midst of despair.

TC: Both central characters are consumed by their own private grief, and find solace in work, relationships, and memory. You provide each a rich and complex inner life and yet the storytelling is so tight and precise. Which of the two main characters was most difficult to explore and why?

I definitely had to work harder at Pia in the early drafts of this book. I think in this case it’s because my male protagonist’s mind was informed by a set of thinkers whose work I love: Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Rainer Maria Rilke, John Ruskin. With Pia I wanted to write a fiercely independent woman—someone who didn’t need a partner to feel whole. I enjoyed that exercise: following her around and noticing, sometimes with surprise, that her independence exceeded mine.

The tricky thing about Pia is that her later timeline is speculative and her 1980s-esque world is largely allegorical. Because of this I overwrote her story at one stage (giving her a named and obdurate world and a more precise set of historical experiences) which I think helped inform who she was and how she behaved even after I took away some of her biographical specificity.

TC: They’re also stories of various kinds of resistance—a proactive resistance to the war, but also the resistance we feel to certain relationships, to closure and exploring certain aspects of the past. Can you speak more to this theme of resistance and how it shapes the novel?

AH: I’m interested in your use of the word "resistance" but I feel like my characters would say that that word ennobles some of the pragmatism of war—the pragmatism that is the question of survival. I’m thinking of the march south from Paris and also the part where Pia’s mother, a journalist, has gone into a house where dissidents are hiding to interview them and her daughter is remembering the audio tape of the event and thinking about how her mother, even with knowledge of the coming coup, doesn’t allow herself to see her own impending death; how she isn’t even angry.

Your question makes me wonder if resistance is a way to speak of unshakable morals. Or if maybe resistance is a rising up against erasure: the erasure of individual lives, of events. Maybe that’s my project after all? Not love letters to time but documents of resistance to erasure. This feels right, so thank you for this prompt—even in my first novel, Stay, a bog body resurfaces and asserts the fact of her existence. Maybe what I’m suggesting (book after book) is that nothing is lost to history.

TC: Finally, despite its size, this feels like a book with a tremendous amount of research behind it. Can you tell us more about where your research led you and what you learned through the process?

AH: I find research inspiring and often feel woefully lacking in the worldly knowledge I need to write a novel, especially one about the past. That means I read a lot (life writing, first-hand accounts, history books) and visit archives and go and sit in the places where my stories take place. I think place is almost everything for me—a landscape is a body of text that gives and gives and gives. With The Certainties I was interested in Walter Benjamin’s biography but I also had enough writerly "what-ifs" that I didn’t want to be solely accountable to WB. Plus, two masters degrees and a PhD later I’m not shy about admitting how wonderful it is to be a writer! Academics are so very, very accountable! I’ve sat in (and delivered papers) at many a university conference and I find that accountability utterly exhausting, although I admire it and feel it’s necessary work. Instead I like to think I’m accountable to the sentence and the story. That’s hard work too, but, seriously, I doff my hat to the scholars.

For me, the heartbreak in The Certainties (a book of heartbreak in many ways because my husband, Glenn, who was well and vital when I started it, died of brain cancer before it was done) was that Glenn, who was so full of knowledge of the world that I’d just have to ask him "what sort of power back-up would a hotel on an Atlantic island have in the 1980s?" wasn’t there to see how his naming of the world became a book. Marsha Lederman wrote a lovely article about this dynamic in the Globe and Mail. Glenn was, for all of my books, a true collaborator: a Renaissance man who could name and reverse engineer almost anything. So, to answer your question: my research reminded me of the power of naming and knowing; the power of being curious, of wondering. Honestly I’m so anxious about how to write a novel without Glenn’s quick mind and fast answers. Thankfully I’m working on a book of poems in the meantime.

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Excerpt from The Certainties

Yesterday when the three of us presented ourselves at the station, we did as Suzanne’s contact had instructed—waiting inside the tunnel until the train from Perpignan arrived and then slipping into the station with the passengers who were disembarking. We acted as if we’d come in with everyone else: three more ragged travellers among a collective of fifty or sixty, lugging the last vestiges of our old lives in beat-up cases across the platform.

As we moved forward, four Spanish police officers appeared, checking papers and ushering passengers in one of two directions: Spaniards with identity cards were allowed to exit, while the rest of us were steered toward a large set of double doors that had been wedged open and led to a room that appeared to have once been a central waiting room or a customs hall. It had high ceilings, slow-spinning fans, and beige walls strutted with concrete pillars capped with Corinthian designs. There was a row of seats near the door to the platform, but most of the room was empty, save for the long tables where the guards were inspecting suitcases and the counter to their left where a clerk was stationed. Behind her, there was another room, or something approximating a room—an area partitioned by a low wall—in which a half-dozen men sat at desks behind lamps and typewriters and telephones.

Suzanne waited in line with the other passengers to see the clerk, while Bernard and I stood near the door to the platform. The clerk was a local woman in the drab clothes of a civil servant, her expression stern, her dark hair wound into a tight coil at the nape of her neck. I wanted to sit on one of the wooden chairs lined up by the wall because my legs were still weak from the climb across the col, but the situation seemed to call for standing, so I remained beside Bernard with a French newspaper tucked purposefully under my arm and my battered black briefcase wedged between my feet. The air in the room, just off the platform, was stale with cigarette smoke and the grease of the locomotives. I had to fight to keep from coughing. There were dozens of people in the queue before and behind Suzanne, mostly French it seemed, many likely trying to get to America on their papers, and a few German-looking like me. All of us were adults—as if everyone had sent their children to remote locations for safety months ago, as Suzanne had.

How many people like me, I wondered—stateless, stripped of their citizenship—had come through here? How many thousands or tens of thousands had stood in this room? I had, in my briefcase, identification papers, the appropriate visas, and six petitions for my care from French citizens of import. I had examples of my academic work and a letter of promise from an American publisher for my new essays on the Metamorphoses. Few others would have so much support. There had been a demand for my extradition in Paris, and the Gestapo had confiscated my apartment and what books and papers I’d left there, but I knew in my blood that the bureaucracy of the war was too great, and my significance too negligible, for any record of these transgressions to appear in an office such as this. Nonetheless, in the reality of the moment—the grey despondency of the people trudging forward, the clerk’s unsympathetic expression as she questioned a woman wearing too light a dress for the changing season—I felt frightened. And standing there, my feet throbbing in my shoes, a procession of human bewilderment shuffling along in front of me, I tried to locate what I was seeing, what vision of the future haunted me. I looked to the woman nearest me—in her floral print dress and cloche hat and smart gloves—and her eyes were full of fear. The man in line behind her—his beard suffering from the lack of a barber—his eyes were also full of fear. I found myself asking of each—what have you done, what might they hold against you? I thought then of that line in Ovid’s poem when Narcissus is at the pool studying his own reflection: "He fell in love with an insubstantial hope." What was our hope? That the disarray of the war neuter our interrogators? That we had now become as insignificant as we have been made to feel, so that we might slip through the cracks in our nothingness? Standing there in the shared misery of other travellers struggling forward with their papers clenched in their hands, I looked for myself . . . for some version of me . . . or for someone’s eyes to meet mine with a look that said we would be all right. I realized what I was doing with a shock: at that moment, even after being on this earth for five decades, to still feel empathy most easily in those cases that reflect my own? This was a failing.

Perhaps the greatest failing of all.

When Suzanne reached the front of the line, Bernard and I joined her. She smiled at the woman on the opposite side of the desk. "Buenas tardes," Suzanne said and then she gave the name of the capitán we’d been supplied with—Marco. The clerk raised her eyebrows at his name, swivelled on her stool and called out something I couldn’t quite parse to the men stationed at their desks behind her. A few looks were exchanged between the officers—not of the sort that would occur when one is trying to locate a person, but expressions that asked, Who will deal with this? After a minute, a man in a pinstriped suit with a fresh haircut stood up, buttoning his jacket and stubbing out his cigarette in the ashtray on another man’s desk as he came toward us. He was dark-haired and dark-skinned, as if he’d grown up on the coast. I immediately wished he was in a recognizable uniform.

"¿Esteu buscant en Marco?" he asked. He smoothed his moustache with his thumb and forefinger and looked Suzanne over coldly—her bright lipstick and smart brown dress indicative of Paris, as was her fair hair, her accent, her bearing. He glanced over at Bernard and me, who stood behind her, ragged as refugees, though we’d wiped our shoes, and scrubbed and dried our pant legs at the hotel so our means of entry would appear normal. "Français? Allemand?" he continued.

Suzanne clicked open her purse and presented her papers, and Bernard and I handed ours forward as well. Then Suzanne began as rehearsed—professional, almost impatient. She introduced herself and said, "Je parle au nom des ces personnes  .  .  . I am speaking for these individuals . . . We three have transit visas for Spain and papers for America." The officer inspected our documents and signalled that we should move aside with him, farther down the counter. When it seemed he was taking too long with our documents, Suzanne put on an air of irritation and asked for his name. He gave it—"Señor Porras"—without so much as lifting his eyes from our papers. Then he asked Bernard and me to step forward.

Bernard put both hands onto the lip of the counter to steady himself. He’d been ill since Marseilles and was weak from the climb over the mountain. From how he wavered beside me in his loose suit and cap, I suspected that he was running a fever again; his thinness, his gaunt face made him appear like some sort of mirage, not wholly present in the room. Señor Porras regarded Bernard for a minute and then turned to my papers and me. We had hoped to seem innocuous: people whose influence was limited to small academic or artistic circles, people whose work dealt more with esoteric ideas and less with political ideologies. This was, in truth, the case for Bernard: as a painter he’s less of a revolutionary than most, though both he and Suzanne—whose husband is Bernard’s agent—were part of an anti-fascist circle in Paris, and Bernard was one of six or seven artists I knew whose work the Gestapo had deemed degenerate.

What did I think of then, when Señor Porras was regarding me? Taking stock of my clothes, my face, and my expression? I thought of the briefcase between my feet. Of the manuscript on the Metamorphoses inside it and the notes from my last revision of the Narcissus essay—pages of new ideas dashed off in the Bibliothèque Nationale in the week before I left Paris—shoved into an envelope. I thought of my desire to have this manuscript arrive in safe hands and of the possibility that some German intelligence agent could find incriminating ideas in the work, ideas that weren’t there—born solely from his own small-mindedness and his desire to see them.

We had hoped that our transit visas for Spain would be stamped without hesitation, that, at worst, the authorities would run our names against whatever new extradition list they had at the station and, not finding them, send us on our way. But more and more people were being pulled out of the line; more of the men from the back room were coming out to flip through visas and residency cards and passports. The counter to my right had become crowded, the man closest to me—twenty-something, German-looking, possibly Jewish—had a sheen of sweat on his face, and I wondered if I had the same.

"Monsieur?" Suzanne eventually asked.

Porras smiled and held up three of the papers we’d given him. "I’m sorry, it’s these transit visas. There’s an issue with them now. All visas issued in Marseilles have been cancelled."
"Depuis quand?" Suzanne asked. She looked toward the men who were still seated at their desks behind the partition as if she hoped that Marco, the man we’d asked for, might somehow be among them. "We were told—"

"Yes, of course," Señor Porras shrugged, "if you’d arrived last week, two days ago . . ." He raised his open palms toward his shoulders. "But there are new regulations effective yesterday." He smiled again so that we could see the spades of his teeth. "I’m afraid it’s not for Spain to decide."

"Might I speak with you in private?" Suzanne asked. He laughed, aware that she planned to try to bribe him. There was money stitched into the lining of her dress for this very reason.

"You can speak freely in front of my fellow citizens," he said, waving toward the clerk and the officer beside him and the men in the back, clearly enjoying this show of integrity.

"May I see the man in charge of the station, then?" Again Suzanne assumed the impatience of a person with rights.

"He is not here today, either. Like Marco. I’m afraid I’m in charge at the moment."

"When will he be in?"

"Tomorrow." Porras lifted a silver case from his jacket pocket and tipped a cigarette out of it. "Do you want to make an appointment with him?"

"Yes, I do."

"Of course. I just need to know where you’ll be staying. In the meantime, I will keep these." Porras gathered our papers together and raised his eyebrows. Then he turned to the clerk behind him. He spoke to her quickly in Spanish and she turned and relayed his message to the men behind her, and one of the men in suits called out "Alejandro!"

The German-looking man beside me was still standing at the counter in his nice waterproof coat. The officer he’d been dealing with was consulting now with another officer in the back room. I had to resist the urge to tell him to make excuses: he forgot his bag on the train, his wife was unwell, he must have dropped a paper . . . he was young and strong-looking and I thought he could move quickly, could get way in the confusion. But he knew, and I knew, that such subterfuge was likely to cause more difficulty than adhering to whatever new rules the Vichy government had put in place. Even for people like us.

Suzanne turned to me and Bernard and smiled reassuringly. Bernard, his head low like a dying animal’s, scanned the room for the chair he needed. A minute later a young man in the grey-green uniform of the local cabos walked toward us.

Excerpted from The Certainties by Aislinn Hunter. Copyright © 2020 by Aislinn Hunter. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

August 30, 2020
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