When five girls become lost in the wilderness of a Pacific Northwest island without an adult to guide them, it’s easy to assume The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore is about whether or not they’ll survive, and to what extremes they’re willing to go to do so. But in her second novel, Canadian poet and novelist, Kim Fu quickly dispels any reflexive comparisons to The Lord of the Flies, and instead focuses on how one instance of trauma can affect the rest of our lives.
We move between their harrowing efforts for rescue and the individual lives of Nita, Siobhan, Dina, Andee, and Isabel, long after leaving Camp Forevermore. A few lives are intertwined, while others only see their fellow Forevermore campers in their dreams. As Jeffrey Eugenides says in Middlesex: “It’s often said that a traumatic experience early in life marks a person forever, pulls her out of line, saying, ‘Stay there. Don’t move.’”
Identity and womanhood clash as each woman tries to move beyond the darkness of the nighttime forest. Fu doesn’t give us any easy answers about what it costs for girls who grow into women to survive.
Recently, I spoke with Fu—author of two other books, the novel For Today I Am a Boy and the poetry collection How Festive the Ambulance—about the expectations that come with a book about lost children, how poetry impacts her fiction, and which of the girls she relates to the most.
The Rumpus: Could you talk about the genesis of this story?
Kim Fu: For both of my novels, the main characters came to me first. With For Today I Am a Boy, it was relatively clear how to proceed from there, since they were a family trapped together in their hothouse of a home; their character dynamics dictated the plot. It took me a lot longer to figure out how the five women in The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore were connected. I wrote them as neighbors, as classmates, as linked by a variety of different events. I wrote a lot of floating scenes of them interacting with each other, just letting their personalities bounce off each other, because that was all I was certain of.
Then, in the winter of 2015, I did a writing residency at Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon. The extreme climate, geographic isolation, and, above all, the people I met there—the way they lived, the things they did and didn’t take for granted—left me thinking a lot about outdoor survival. During the months of my stay, it hit -40 degrees Celsius, and the days shortened until the nights blurred together. As the residency was supporting me materially, I had time to hike alone in the intense ice and snow, newly conscious of my physical vulnerability and the knowledge and skills I lacked. It was there that the image of five girls in kayaks, setting out into the unknown, first revealed itself to me. Over three days and nights in Dawson, I wrote 20,000 words—a first pass at what would become the framing narrative of Lost Girls.
Rumpus: Of the five lost girls, who do you identify with the most?
Fu: That’s like asking a parent which child is their favorite! I identified with each one very strongly while writing each of their sections. I wasn’t a child genius like Nita, but I was good at following instructions and jumping through hoops, so I know firsthand how the “smart” or “gifted” label can skew your expectations in life, especially as a woman. And the way her intelligence can manifest as misanthropy and impatience—why is everyone so stupid—I suppose we all relate to that. I see myself in the way Andee, hardened by life at a young age, stays so guarded and tough, yet lets her true feelings come out in the essay that won her a scholarship to Camp Forevermore. I share Isabel and Dina’s specific racialized experience, obviously, particularly when it comes to their interactions with men.
And Siobhan, through whom we see the camp sections—bookish, desperate to be liked, to be stronger than she is… Well, perhaps I do identify with her the most. Don’t tell the others.
Rumpus: I think the expectation of this book is a Lord of the Flies redux with girls, but that’s not what we get, at all. Was that in the back of your mind while you were writing?
Fu: For a while, I actually used “Lord of the Flies, but with girls” as my elevator pitch in conversation. While there aren’t enough of them and (spoiler alert) they aren’t stranded long enough for the girls to start forming a new society, there are shared themes around how children behave in the absence of adults, and how their power struggles echo the larger ones in society. But you’re right; I was primarily interested in different things, like femininity and varying responses to trauma.
I remember when I read Tampa by Alissa Nutting I thought it was so gutsy of her to write something that invited comparisons to Lolita—who wants their debut novel compared to Nabokov? I’ve also learned, though, that we write the only novel we can, at that moment in time, and if you’re going to be stepping on the toes of a classic, so be it.
Rumpus: As the girls become women, they don’t really stray too far personality-wise from their roles in the group. Do you think that’s true, that who we are as children is who we are as adults?
Fu: Hmm. That’s tough. I think these particular characters were stunted by their childhood experiences, so they might evolve less than most. But I do think the core of who you’ll become is present from a young age, and that early experiences are profoundly formative in a way that later circumstances aren’t. For these characters, too, I think they label themselves and are labelled by others, and struggle to ever get out from under those labels—to change the story they’ve been told about themselves.
Rumpus: Girls and women are the center of this story, while men feel like afterthoughts, outside threats, ancillary to the plot. Was that intentional?
Fu: You’re the second person to bring this up, and while I like to think the male characters are presented as whole human beings, and it wasn’t intentional during the initial writing, I did notice it early on—that they’re relatively few in number, of secondary importance, and only exist in connection to the female characters at the center. I ultimately decided I liked it that way. Heaven knows there are enough books in the world where the reverse is true.
Rumpus: As a poet, how does poetry impact the way you approach fiction? Do you feel like one form comes more naturally to you than the other?
Fu: Poetry comes to me more naturally, and everything about the way I write it, edit it, and educate myself in it is a lot looser and more intuitive than the way I approach fiction. The most straightforward lesson from poetry is concision—the power of fewer words, letting a striking image sit, not rushing to explain, trusting the reader to make connections themselves. I also think attuning one’s mind to the lateral, visceral, inexplicable leaps of reading and writing poetry helps with crafting realistic characters in fiction. Human beings are rarely clear about their own motivations in a one-to-one way; their actions bubble up out of a seething stew of experience, personality, and emotion. People make sense, I think, in the same way that poetry does.
Rumpus: Are there books that directly influenced this book?
Fu: I realized recently that Lynda Barry’s collection of graphic vignettes One Hundred Demons, which I read over ten years ago, was a major influence; lines from that book haunt me whenever I think about childhood. I also see the influence of Margaret Atwood’s 1991 short story collection Wilderness Tips, though my feelings about her work are more complicated now, given some of her recent political stances. At the time, Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead, and David Rackoff’s essay collections were where I turned for perfect, artful prose; and to the works of Louise Erdrich, Yiyun Li, and Kazuo Ishiguro for structure. It’s tempting just to list every book I read between 2013 and 2017. It all gets in somehow.
Rumpus: The current statistic is that one of five American women will be sexually assaulted at some point in her life. One of your characters has a terrible experience that raises questions about consent and “walking away.” What are your thoughts about the current conversation we’re having around those issues?
Fu: The experience I think you’re referring to isn’t even the only instance of sexual assault in the book. It’s not a focus or a major theme of the novel, but it’s sadly impossible to tell stories of women and girls without it coming up. At the end of that scene, a man doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong, and a woman leaves feeling violated. I obviously wrote it long before the current iteration of this conversation, and my thoughts now are probably a synthesis of hundreds of smarter people’s tweets and articles. I think this kind of experience is terrible and dehumanizing, and also utterly commonplace. I think its commonality is all the more reason to talk about it—it shows that we need to change our expectations around sex at a fundamental level. I think women and the general public are smart enough to differentiate between offenses of different severity, warranting different responses, and all of it is worthy of discussion and symptomatic of the same forces. In its most basic terms, men shouldn’t be socialized to view sex as a highly-guarded resource that must be stolen, coerced, threatened, or bartered for, and they should be more conscious of their physical and social power; women should be able to value their own pleasure rather than forced to acquiescence and fret over the delicate, dangerous feelings of men—to say nothing of how this is further complicated by other intersecting spectrums of identity. This is the kind of work that takes generations. We’re not the first generation to talk about it, obviously, but I hope it kick-starts how we raise the next one.
Rumpus: From Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise:
Mothers, I believe, intoxicate us. We idolize them and take them for granted. We hate them and blame them and exalt them more thoroughly than anyone else in our lives. We sift through the evidence of their love, reassure ourselves of their affection and its biological genesis. We can steal and lie and leave and they will love us.
It seemed to me there was a certain significance given to mother/daughter relationships—Dina and her mom, and Andee and Kayla’s mom, for example. Was that a theme you were intentionally exploring?
Fu: Yes, and I agree with that Bergman quote—the relationship between mother and child is an endlessly fascinating and fruitful one. For Dina and her mother, and for Andee and Kayla and their mother, one of the most interesting aspects to me is how differently each side sees the relationship. In different ways, the mothers see themselves as long-suffering martyrs, and the children see them as withholding, neglectful monsters. Andee and Kayla are mostly right, but Dina—there’s more ambiguity there. Dina admits to some of her memories being incorrect or slanted, to cruelties balanced out by kindnesses or good intentions or pain—or are they? One of the other girls, Nita, has children of her own within the timeline of the book, and her experience as a mother is heavily colored by her own childhood. After an accident at home, a teenage neighbor judges Nita to be a bad parent, and Nita feels that this person just doesn’t understand the exigencies of motherhood.
I think it’s hard for children to see mothers as flawed, complex individuals greater than this one role, when the stakes of that role are so high for them; children have no power, and it’s the decisions of others that determine what and whether they eat, where and whether they sleep. Except, of course, when they’re stranded on their own.