Anne Cameron 2010
Anne Cameron is the 16th recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award.
Cameron is one of British Columbia’s most original and important writers. She was born in Nanaimo, B.C. on August 20, 1938. She grew up in Nanaimo as the daughter of a coal miner—-until the mines closed. Living halfway between Chinatown and the Indian reserve, she says she found the only place there was real order was in books, or her imagination. As a youngster she kept scribbling notes on toilet paper until she received the gift of a typewriter from her mother at age 14.
She married at a young age, raised a family and divorced, and eventually gained her grade twelve education (“except in Math, and in that I have grade ten”). While living in Nanaimo, New Westminster and Cloverdale, she supported herself with a variety of jobs, including BC Tel operator and medical assistant with the RCAF. Cameron began writing theatre scripts and screenplays under the name Cam Hubert. Her stage adaptation of a documentary poem developed into a play about racism, Windigo. It was the first presentation of Tillicum Theatre, possibly the first Indian-based theatre group in Canada, in 1974.
“Tillicum Theatre was started in Nanaimo under a LIP grant,” she says, “and, with a cast of native teenagers, it toured the province presenting dramatizations of legends and a theatre piece based on the death of Fred Quilt, a Chilcotin man who died of ruptured guts after an encounter with two RCMP on a back road at night.” A Matsqui Prison production of Windigo also toured B.C. with a cast of Indian prison inmates.
In 1979, her scripted film Dreamspeaker, directed by Claude Jutra, won seven Canadian Film Awards, including best script. It’s the story of an emotionally disturbed boy who runs away from the hospital and finds refuge with a kindly old Indian (portrayed by George Clutesi) and his mute companion. Subsequently published as a novel, Dreamspeaker won the Gibson Award for Literature.
Cameron’s other film credits as a screenwriter include Ticket to Heaven, Bomb Squad, The Tin Flute, A Matter of Choice, Homecoming and Drying Up The Streets. Many of her radio plays have been aired on CBC Radio. Her works for the stage include Cantata: The Story of Sylvia Stark, about a black, Saltspring Island pioneer. It was produced by the Black Actors Workshop in Montreal in 1989. Cameron’s varied output also includes one of Canada’s best-selling books of poetry, Earth Witch, reprinted five times.
Anne Cameron is most widely known for the first of her two feminist renderings of Coast Salish and Nuu-chah-nulth legends, Daughters of Copper Woman, reprinted 13 times. It was followed by Dzelarhons: Mythology of the Northwest Coast. Newly expanded, Daughters of Copper Woman could be the best-selling work of fiction to be published about British Columbia, from within the province, by someone born here.
For almost a decade, Cameron published fiction at almost a novel-per-year pace. Most of her work is published by Harbour Publishing. In the 1970s and 1980s, Cameron angrily identified the patriarchal system of North America as blameworthy for much despair and poverty. Since the 1990s she has concentrated on portraying the so-called working class lives of people in coastal communities such as Powell River or Nanaimo; her perspective is equally passionate but she is less accusatory in her approach.
Most of her stories involve transformation and healing; some of her subject matter has been audacious. In Selkie, she writes, “Selkies or Sealkies or Silkies are capable of leaving their seal skins behind and walking on earth as women or men. They often live with or marry humans, and have children who are both human and not. The women are beautiful, the men have enormous organs, and both female and male have almost insatiable sexual appetites.”
Primarily Cameron is concerned with the lives of women who keep the godforsaken world turning, looking after ‘gomers and lugans and dock-whallopers’, or who assert their independence with non-conformist behaviour; or sometimes both. South of an Unnamed Creek is the story of six women who operate a Klondike gold rush hotel while caring for two children and one another. Three of the women are entertainers who meet in New Westminster, a fourth comrade joins the group in the Chilkoot Pass, and another is a ‘celestial’ — a Chinese woman sold into North American prostitution.
Stubby Amberchuk and the Holy Grail is about baseball, poker, women’s wrestling and magic. A little logging town becomes a mythical kingdom and a tiny lizard turns into a dragon. Comfortable in the realm of mythology, Cameron followed her two collections of stories based on coastal Indian stories with Tales of the Cairds, a reworking of Celtic legends in her inimitable West Coast style.
Sexual abuse, mistreatment of children, foster families and poverty are prevalent in many of her novels and stories, such as Deejay and Betty, which reviewer Angela Hryniuk commended as ‘piercingly blunt’, and a short story collection entitled Bright’s Crossing in which eleven women provide various perspectives of the same Vancouver Island town. In the novel Sarah’s Children, after Sarah Carson suffers a stroke, her children and grandchildren end up examining the nature of family while Sarah slowly recovers.
Similarly, in Hardscratch Row six grown-up siblings grapple with the meaning of family, but Cameron adds a character known as the ‘squeyanx’; part-trickster, part-ghost, part-Greek chorus, it’s visible only to those who want to see.
Escape to Beulah concerns the combined efforts of women to escape from a merciless plantation boss in the pre-Civil War American South. Long before the movie Thelma and Louise became popular, Anne Cameron wrote her cowgirl buddy western The Journey in which 14-year-old Anne, abused by her uncle, sets off on her own and teams up with Sarah, a prostitute who has been tarred and feathered by a vigilante killer and his supporters. The pair ride off into the sunset in the late 1800s, defending themselves as necessary.
The heroine of Anne Cameron’s Dahlia Cassidy hasn’t been lucky in picking the fathers of her kids. “For years she clung to the hope that she’d just been fishing in the wrong bay and if she moved around often enough, sooner or later, with or without the help of God and the angels, she’d happen upon a man who had more in mind than some friction.” As a follow-up to Family Resemblances, this satire on relationship is another stirring and funny portrait of a female survivor who earns her independence in a small town on Vancouver Island.
In terms of her coastal subject matter, Cameron has often expressed some affinity for Vancouver Island novelist Jack Hodgins, whose earlier work incorporates fantastical elements and humour, but their manners are worlds apart. Cameron’s closest equivalents in Canadian fiction are Lynn Coady for Cape Breton Island and David Adams Richards for New Brunswick, but Cameron remains far less fashionable in Ontario literary circles. One suspects there lingers a mystified and intimidated prejudice against any woman who swears like a trooper.
Her readership is international, her work remains uncompromising. For many years Anne Cameron and her partner lived near Powell River, B.C. on a 30-acre farm (with beef cattle, 153 rabbits, 103 chickens, 2 cats, 2 turtles, a horse, a donkey, a dog and various combinations of children). She now lives as a very active grandmother in Tahsis.
BOOKS: ALL TITLES FROM HARBOUR PUBLISHING UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.
Novels & Short Stories
Dahlia Cassidy (2004) 1-55017-344-8
Family Resemblances (2003)
Hardscratch Row (2002)
Sarah’s Children (2001)
Those Lancasters (2000)
The Whole Dam Family (1995)
Deeyay and Betty (1994)
Wedding Cakes, Rats and Rodeo Queens (HarperCollins, 1994)
A Whole Brass Band (1992)
Kick the Can (1991)
Escape to Beulah (1990)
Bright’s Crossing (1990)
South of an Unnamed Creek (1989)
Women, Kids & Huckleberry Wine (1989)
Tales of the Cairds (1989)
Stubby Amberchuk & The Holy Grail (1987)
Child of Her People (1987)
Dzelarhons: Mythology of the Northwest Coast (1986)
The Journey (Avon Books, 1982; Spinsters Ink, 1986)
Daughters of Copper Woman (Press Gang, 1981, many reprints; Harbour, 2002)
Dreamspeaker (Clarke, Irwin, 1979; Stoddart, 1999; Harbour, 2005)
Earth Witch (1983)
The Annie Poems (1987)
Pielle, Sue & Anne Cameron. T’aal: The One Who Takes Bad Children (Harbour, 1998). Illustrated by Greta Guzek.
The Gumboot Geese (Harbour, 1992). Illustrated by Jane Huber.
Raven Goes Berrypicking (Harbour, 1991). Illustrated by Gaye Hammond.
Raven & Snipe (Harbour, 1991). Illustrated by Gaye Hammond.
Spider Woman (Harbour, 1988). Illustrated by Nelle Olsen.
Lazy Boy (Harbour, 1988). Illustrated by Nelle Olsen.
Orca’s Song (Harbour, 1987). Illustrated by Nelle Olsen.
Raven Returns the Water (Harbour, 1987). Illustrated by Nelle Olsen.
How the Loon Lost her Voice (Harbour, 1985). Illustrated by Tara Miller).
How Raven Freed the Moon (Harbour, 1985). Illustrated by Tara Miller).
Loon and Raven Tales (1996)