Accusation is Canadian writer Catherine Bush’s fourth novel. Her books—the prior ones are Claire’s Head, The Rules of Engagement, and Minus Time—are structurally daring and psychologically penetrating. Her first centered on a young woman trying to grow herself up as her astronaut mother orbited the earth; in the next, a young woman flees Canada for London after a duel is fought over her. These first novels had a funny tendency to draw the adjective “brainy” from reviewers, perhaps in part because they tell stories of smart women doing hard jobs, though they travel diverse terrain otherwise.
Unsurprisingly, Catherine also comes across as brainy in person, and thoughtful, and kind. I’ve read her novels in the context of a long, evolving friendship that puts me, once a year or so, in her Toronto guest room. In this context, we have long, evolving conversations about the larger questions that propel her writing—ethical quandaries; complex, even contradictory aesthetic tensions; mysterious things that happen between people and must somehow be represented on the page.
In Accusation, Sara Wheeler, a Toronto journalist, investigates an allegation against the Canadian director of a children’s circus in Ethiopia. What are the powers of accusation, the novel asks—what is proof; what is lack of proof; and what are the consequences of any of these?
The Rumpus: All of your novels have revolved around people whose work is a defining feature of their lives. In this book, work defines the emotional and energetic trajectories of three key characters: Sara is a journalist who has reported from many war zones, but has now chosen to report on matters closer to home; Raymond is a sometime teacher whose almost-accidental founding of a children’s circus in Ethiopia gives his life meaning; Juliet is an old friend of Sara’s who has just been let go from an demanding TV job, but who gets the idea, from Sara, to do a documentary about Raymond’s circus project. How did you develop these characters in relation to their work?
Catherine Bush: We spend a lot of our lives working, and for many of us, work is a way of life, not just a job, a source of passion and passionate engagement. That’s true of me as a writer, and if I look at the lives of those around me, not just other artists, that’s what I see.
I’m not altogether sure where work ends and private life begins. Desire pulses through our work as well as our intimate relationships. What we do shapes our being and our days. It’s true I’ve written about some unusual occupations: a female astronaut who’s also a mother; a woman who studies war. I don’t know that I choose professions for characters as much as pursue zones of deep interest that generate professions as well as internal and external conflicts that arise from what characters do. In Claire’s Head, my last novel, Claire is a cartographer. Mapping is both a profession and a way of looking at the world.
Accusation has some very personal points of origin, and these determined the occupations of its characters. In 1996, I visited Ethiopia with my then-partner who made a low-budget documentary about a children’s circus founded by a Canadian man in Addis Ababa. I interviewed this man and wrote a newspaper feature about the circus. Three years later, he was accused of abuse by teenaged performers who fled the circus and made an asylum claim in Australia. He was then linked to a pedophile in another aid organization. The journalist who tracked him down happened to be a close friend of my sister. She was trying to be a good journalist, to give him a chance to make his case. He denied the allegations. Then, in the aftermath, did something violent. I can’t really say more without giving away a climactic moment in the novel. She wasn’t at fault but was in the vicinity of his destructive act. Her dilemma haunted me. You can act with the best of intentions and still cause harm or feel inadvertent responsibility. To write about an allegation, especially one as terrible as sexual abuse, is to spread that allegation further, and that’s a quandary. It became my quandary.
Rumpus: Further to the etching of your characters in this book: I frequently registered very specific descriptions of clothes and names, including the choice and changing of both. How do you use these to support other, less obviously visible, matters of character?
Bush: I would never claim to be a poet or even to be able to think like a poet, yet I am deeply aware of the power of patterning and juxtapositions that create associative links throughout the novel. This is part of how I think my way through a novel and how it becomes alive to me. I was conscious of the color of t-shirts that Raymond wears: white and salmon pink and black. He is seen in a photograph late in the book, wearing a striped t-shirt. The other character who wears a striped t-shirt in the novel is Abiye, an Ethiopian orphan who has been abused, and who will go on to found his own circus.
This is a novel in which characters are desperately trying to see each other clearly and confronting the impossibility of doing so. It’s a novel of performances and costumes, and all clothing functions as costume to some degree, an attempt to present a certain version of the self to the world. My awareness of the characters’ clothing is colored by this. Their own awareness of clothing is colored by this.
When it comes to names, Juliet Levin calls herself Julie in the past, and when Sara calls her by this old name, she’s touching this past. The novel is narrated from Sara’s point of view, and her uneasy feelings about Raymond are reflected in her sometimes referring to him by his full name as a refusal to allow him to get too close. Identity in the novel is slippery and changeable in so many ways. All three of these characters are striving for self-reinvention. Names and clothing are ways of performing our identity.
Rumpus: Raymond runs what you call a “social circus” in this piece for the National Post. In the book, Cirkus Mirak is made up of children whose other opportunities are limited, but are truly talented performers. I have never seen a social circus, but almost all of the circuses I have seen in recent years are this sort: people, from China, from Russia, performing feats of wonder. Few animals, few clowns; this is the face of circus these days. What in the evolution of the circus has moved it toward this particular use in international development?
Bush: There’s always been a street element to circus. To put it another way, circus has roots in the carnival of street theatre: juggling, fire-breathing, stilt-walking. Cirque du Soleil, whose acts depend on amazing feats of the body, began in the streets of Montreal. Their shows these days are almost distractingly high-budget, but circus can be incredibly low-budget. What do you need? Not money but agile and acrobatic bodies. We’re all deeply drawn to bodies putting themselves at risk, the place where play meets risk meets beauty. Circus is also, but not always, nonverbal. Above all, the body speaks. And circus allows people to respond with wonder and fear and then, awe.
For all these reasons, circus travels well. There was no history of circus in Ethiopia before the mid-‘90s, when a social circus movement took off there. The circus gave children, who might otherwise be hanging out in the street, something to do, a purpose, self-discipline, self-confidence, and a way to work together. Circus also became a way to communicate social messages about medical care, AIDS. Funding organizations loved circus as a new way of reaching communities and giving children a social role in this.
This has also been the case in other parts of the developing world and here at home. The particular physical and cooperative challenges of circus can be a way of working through trauma while creating something that brings pleasure to others.
But here’s Raymond’s dilemma as he experiences it in the novel. You create a circus that attracts international attention, you take the children of the circus out into the wider world on tour. What happens when success overwhelms you? You can’t keep up. You run out of money. And what if the children, out in the world, don’t want to come back home?
Rumpus: When Raymond is alleged to have abused the children in his care, Sara becomes inflamed with finding out whether his accusers have just cause. This owes, in large part, to her having once been accused of a crime. Years later, a U.S. immigration official asks whether Sara has ever been accused of a crime; I remember that question from forms I filled out to emigrate to the U.S., and wonder what the consequences might have been to an affirmative answer. Even more seriously, your book made me think of the many prisoners held without charge in Guantánamo Bay. Until your novel, I wanted to believe that we typically offer emotional due process, that we believe someone to be innocent until proven guilty. It’s not true, is it? You’ve already described some of your thinking on the psychological properties of accusations, though you’ve spoken more on how they function for the accused than for the accuser. How do accusations operate on friends, neighbors, co-workers of the accused?
Bush: I speak more about accusations from the point of view of the accuser in another National Post series here. In Accusation, I had to find a way to give presence and voice not only to Raymond, the accused, but to Raymond’s accusers and alleged victims, the circus performers who may be his actual victims. To do so without resolving the case against him goes against obvious narrative strategies, in which the allegations would be clearly revealed to be true or false. I was after a different kind of narrative realism, and journey, and I wanted readers to occupy a more difficult place. There are narratives that give voice to the experience of a false accusation, or of uncovering abuse at the hands of a sexual predator, which is a genuine horror. Yet I didn’t want to create a monster. It wasn’t interesting to me as a novelist. I saw the Benjamin Britten opera Peter Grimes the other night: it rests in uncertainty, and although Peter acts in insupportable ways that aid in his own destruction, he’s not guilty as accused. The opera is also a story of a woman trying to do the right thing. And failing.
In life, we come up against situations, and let’s say situations involving accusations against others, that don’t resolve themselves by giving us the answers we want. People vanish. They refuse to speak. What do we do then? How do we judge others or behave towards others when we don’t have all “the information” we desire? My own psychic material draws me towards these absences and silences, the places where the things we most want said are not spoken. They can be hard to dramatize. But necessary. They ask a lot of the reader. The reader of this novel is asked to navigate a mystery and to consider his or her own judgments against others. And the desires and judgments he or she brings to narrative itself.
Accusations have a life independent of whether they’re resolved or they’re truth. This is the terrible thing about them. This is the condition I wanted the novel to inhabit. Janet Malcolm, in her afterword to The Journalist and the Murderer, quotes fellow journalist Tom Wicker, who says, “Honest journalists who may have mistakenly printed false information know that the most prominent retraction never quite undoes the damage done by the original publication.” Malcolm describes herself as forever “tainted” by Jeffrey Masson’s charges of libel and fabrication against her. Even by stating this, I am repeating and giving more life to these charges. The one who has been accused is forever forced into the position of saying “I did not do this,” a statement which in itself gives further life to the claim or accusation.
Accusations live the way stories live. They have an imagined life; they exist in order to be imagined. Even if we don’t believe an allegation against another, it touches us, we have to refuse to believe it. The accused person may herself internalize the accusation and wonder what she did in order to find herself accused. There’s the sense, if not that, we must be guilty of something. We are all guilty of something.
Rumpus: Several of your prior novels cross international lines. Here, you take up the vexed relationship of the developed to the developing world, without, however, falling prey to a common fault in books and films that feature a Westerner as a lens on elsewhere: the dehumanization, however slight, of the other, by means of their essential unknowability. How did you think about the questions of self and other, across cultural lines, in this book?
Bush: First of all, unknowability may be dehumanizing and fetishized into otherness; it’s also our human condition. It’s the mystery of other people. It’s an existential dilemma we all face every day. We can never really know what’s going on inside another’s head and body. We’re dependent on the other’s translation of it. We have to find a way to inhabit Keats’s negative capability: that is, “When a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
To communicate across race and culture heightens this. Sara is a white, English-speaking Canadian, whose growing up involves a series of displacements. Raymond, a Canadian of mixed race, with a black, Haitian mother and a white, francophone, Canadian father, has lived a different series of displacements and speaks English as a second language. He talks of claiming this in-between place, but it’s one that he inhabits with anxiety. He describes being shouted at as a foreigner in Ethiopia. He’s black yet not Ethiopian, which, culturally, can be a pretty closed place. He keeps himself apart from the other expats in Addis. The world of the circus, and its Ethiopian child performers, becomes a kind of home, and family, then casts him out. Or he casts himself out. He ends up in Haiti, where he tries to make a new life, claiming, “These are my people too.” In a novel that lives in uncertainties and instabilities, his race lives in some instability. The question arises: what parts of Raymond are performance and what authentic?
Sara’s subjectivity is the one that is closest to mine and became my entry point into this world. I’m interested in breaking down ways of thinking about here and there, which is another way of framing the question of self and other. The novel becomes a place for the intersections of very different lives. Life does this. My life does this. I want to complicate the notion of what here is or there is, and follow chains of consequence that lead from and bind one place to another: Toronto, Addis Ababa, Melbourne. This feels important, ethically. A Canadian journalist happens to see an Ethiopian children’s circus in Copenhagen, has a chance encounter with its founder, helps him, and ends up entangled with his story. Her actions change the story.
There’s another real-world moment that shaped my thinking about Raymond’s accusers. Perhaps you remember Caster Semenya, the South African runner whose sex, or gender, was the subject of great debate; basically she was accused of not being a girl. A journalist for The New Yorker travelled to South Africa to write about her and speak to her. This is their exchange:
I asked her if she would talk to me, not about the tests or Chuene but about her evolution as an athlete, her progression from Limpopo to the world stage. She shook her head vigorously. “No,” she said. “I can’t talk to you. I can’t talk to anyone. I can’t say to anyone how I feel or what’s in my mind.”
I said I thought that must suck.
“No,” she said, very firmly.
There is such strength in her refusal to speak, a reclamation of self and self-knowledge. It is a moment that wouldn’t leave me. The sentimental end of this story should be that she describes what she feels to the journalist. In North America, we expect this confession. But Caster won’t. And why should she? Why should she talk to the white journalist (Ariel Levy) from America?
Rumpus: At the mid-point of the book, I found myself pondering the phenomenon of curiosity and its relationship to the desire for truth. Sara thinks, around this point, “… Juliet seemed oddly incurious. Was her lack of curiosity odd?” It seems not only to be indicative of Juliet’s fear, but also perhaps of an essential difference—between those who want truths, however hard, and those who prefer not to have to face them. Where do you place Sara on this continuum? What is the relationship of curiosity, which has a slightly prurient implication, to the pursuit of truth, which is almost always uncomfortable?
Bush: When I think of curiosity, I think of Pandora and her opening of the box that lets evils out into the world—sickness, hatred, envy, except for hope, which remains in the box to be discovered in the midst of despair. Or Eve, curious and coaxed to eat the apple that results in her expulsion, along with Adam, from Eden.
Curiosity, the desire to know more, may lead us to discover things we don’t want to know. The awareness of our innocence requires us to be simultaneously aware of something other than innocence: it is itself a fall into greater knowledge. Curiosity also leads us on a journey, away from stasis. How can we have change or transformation without curiosity and the desire to experience more? We can’t. The novel needs curiosity the way a river needs water. The novelist needs curiosity and a character who embodies this.
Rumpus: In the process of writing, did you discover anything that you hadn’t known you knew? Did any perceptions shape themselves within the novel to surprise you?
Bush: I was preoccupied throughout the writing of the novel with whether I needed to resolve the question of Raymond’s guilt for myself. What strengthened as I wrote was my sense of the power of accusations, their life in us, whether we’re accused, accuser or witness. I’ve never been accused in a legal situation but I’ve been accused privately in ways that have left me reeling and voiceless, feeling initially that I can throw the accusation off because it isn’t true, only to find it altering me. People have been telling me their accusation stories, and again and again I’m struck by the way that accusations that seem small from the outside, particularly if they occur early in our lives, leave indelible marks. The inability to defend one’s self or speak one’s own truth, to be truly seen, is experienced as trauma. We’re returned to the helplessness of earliest childhood. How much more horrific this is in cases of false allegations that result in charges or imprisonment, that completely destroy lives. I want to draw lines between the smaller accusations and the more terrible ones and speak into this place. Not all accusations are the same but accusations leave their marks in all of us.