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All The Broken Things: In conversation with Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

What separates the human world from the animal? Is it possible to bridge the divide between a boy and a bear?

All The Broken Things, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s brilliant new novel, traces the relationship between Bo–a 14-year old boat person from Vietnam living with his mom and severely disabled sister in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood–and a young bear cub Bo is asked to train for the fair and circus circuit in rural 1980s Ontario. Bo and Bear form a powerful bond, and as Bo struggles with his family and his own personal ghosts, his relationship with Bear becomes a dependable refuge.

I loved the fierce loyalty between Bear and Bo, and the complex moral and ethical terrain the novel maps. Kuitenbrouwer shapes a story with outrage, compassion, and grace. It’s impossible to come away from this book without considering our complicated connection with the natural world from a radically new perspective.

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the author of the Globe and Mail bestselling novel All The Broken Things. Her other work includes the novels Perfecting and The Nettle Spinner and the short fiction collection Way Up. Her short fiction has appeared in Granta Magazine, The Walrus, Storyville, Significant Objects, Riddlefence, The Letters Page, and Numéro Cinq. Kathryn has taught creative writing and mentored students through The New York Times Knowledge Network, The University of Toronto School for Continuing Studies and The University of Guelph’s MFA in Creative Writing. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Literature at the University of Toronto.

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Among other things, All The Broken Things is in so many ways a novel about fear—confronting, acknowledging and coming to terms with what can cause terror in each of us. What did you fear most as you wrote the novel?

It’s always interesting to hear what readers discover in the coding of a novel. Some of the things I worried about in the beginning, once I figured out what this novel was about to be, was how to represent. All The Broken Things has been proclaimed both ‘realist’ and ‘enchanted.’ Representation was a kind of risk for me. I am not ‘writing what I know’ except insofar as I am writing from a kind of wounded compassion—a place of not trying. All The Broken Things tells the story of an adolescent Vietnamese boy, and his severely disabled four-year-old sister, and a circus bear, and their lives in The Junction neighbourhood in Toronto. I am aiming at a shimmering unreality. So even though the ethical challenges were around accessing some accuracy and truth for the various othernesses in the novel, the bigger challenge was earning reader credulity, and holding attention energetically for a sustained period in a novel that wants to defy a typical gravity. I had previously written a number of stories that were working through this aim, but stories are short, and it is easier to manage this tightrope walk between the real and the enchanted in a shorter piece—this may be because short fiction tends toward the fairytale, anyway. My biggest fear was certainly that readers would not give over. That fear had me in knots because that place of not trying is very vulnerable. Once I came up for air, up out of the deep place of working in that voice and with that material, I had huge panic attacks. My response to these was not to show anyone, to hold the work close.

The book is also an indictment and acknowledgment of Canada’s complicit supporting role in the in Vietnam War. What surprised you most through your research into Agent Orange?

The most surprising thing to discover about the manufacture and spraying of Agent Orange over Vietnam for a ten year period during the war the Vietnamese call The American War, was that the companies that produced it knew the dioxin by-product was both carcinogenic and mutagenic. Vietnam is in its third generation of AO mutations. The companies and countries involved in this heinous war crime have a responsibility to clean the soil of Vietnam but they resist. So, what surprised me most was that they knew. They knew they were not only defoliating Vietnam but that they were violently attacking civilians. This behaviour is genocidal.

Orange herself is a brash, fierce and complex character in her own right—how we see and understand her gives some indication of the difficulty we have embracing physical differences and “freakishness” in each other. How did you go about creating Orange?

Orange was the first character—all the beginnings of this book were in her voice, telling her strange limited story. She’s an impossible character, in a way: mute, ugly, unwanted, angry, and loved. I was determined she would not be a stand-in for the atrocity of Agent Orange, but a real-feeling person, a person forcing us to see her—rather than her passively being a spectacle for us to look upon. And, of course, I had no idea how to do this. I read a great deal and listened to the stories of people with physical challenges. There were two really useful texts—Staging Stigma: A Critical Examination of the American Freakshow by Michael M. Chemers and Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature by Rosemary Garland Thomson. I also found the compendium/text On Monsters and Marvels by Ambroise Paré helpful to understand how our ideas about monstrosity have shifted since the middle ages (largely because of secularism and science—and not always in positive, linear, or obvious ways). There were other books, as well—on zoos and museums—which gave me clues about how to embody Orange. It’s been gratifying to me to hear from many readers that she is their favourite character.

Bear is so compelling and physically present as a character—rank, vulnerable, lovable, so very corporeal—that we lose track of the boundary between the animal and human, a boundary that some would argue is tenuous at best. What did writing the book teach you about the animal in the human, and vice versa?

I’ve been thinking about this line for a very long time. I wrote/compiled a Ryeberg essay on Red Riding Hood that opens a discussion about a time when humans and animals could communicate. We seem to have lost this ability. Some theorists believe that language barred us from our animal selves, because language encloses and contains and civilizes, or at least it has this impulse. The boundary between us and nature is a huge one, and insurmountable, and is one that is so upsetting to human beings that it is driving us, as a species, to do terrible violence to nature. It’s hard to say whether this book taught me that. I explore it to different extents in all my work. I am very interested in nature and how human subjects both revere and despise it. The Nettle Spinner takes place in both a verdant fairytale forest and a decimated contemporary one. Perfecting opens on a droughted American river bed and ends in a flood. And all the short stories are elegies in some way. They mourn this growing disparity between the human and nature—“Laikas 1” repopulates Toronto with an accumulating pack of canines. In a way, these scenarios are meant to be a wake up call and a document. It seems inevitable that the human anger at being thrust out of the garden of Eden leads to destruction. We are some mad.

Finally, if you could imagine yourself to be any member of a travelling carnival, from a bear wrestler to a trapeze artist to a member of the “freak show,” who would it be and why?

I would be a clown. I have always wanted to be a clown. My first novel was about a clown. I wrote it when I was six or so. I don’t know why I choose clown or why I identify with clowns. I will ask my therapist.

What’s next on the radar for you, Kathryn?  

I am in a PhD program at the University of Toronto–comprehensive exams are next. As well, I have received a fellowship at the Virginia Centre for the Creative Arts for June so will be there working on my next novel. A busy summer ahead, but lots of exciting things, so that’s okay.

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To learn more about Kathryn’s writing, and to order a copy of All the Broken Things, visit her website.

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