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CBC Short Story Prize

"My only love is short fiction"

Jane Eaton Hamilton has won the 2014 CBC Short Story Prize for "Smiley" (she also won the prize back in 2003). We asked her about her writing process, her fascination with weaver birds, and why you should never eat anything that can smile back at you.
JaneHamilton Photo credit Susan Buie.jpg
Tell us about yourself.
I am a Vancouver writer, photographer and visual artist, lesbian activist, feminist, mother to two grown girls, art-maniac, gardener, sometimes-dancer.   

What do you usually write?
My only love is short fiction. I commonly write poetry; I am slowly working on a novel. I write occasional essays.  

What is your story about?
“Smiley” is about a newly pubescent child coming to grips with gender issues and their effect on his family/life. 

What was the inspiration for your story?
My stories are usually reflections of my current concerns. I wanted desperately to write about weaver birds, about which I am obsessed and so, of course, that placed my story in South Africa where I often sat under their trees. I’ve also been highly upset about the plight of migrating birds as captured by Jonathan Franzen in “Last Song for Migrating Birds” in National Geographic. I feel impotent—what can I do besides ruminate? What can I do besides share the information about the trouble our songbirds are in? Although they don’t belong together geographically, I conflated these two avian situations for my story. Under that, I told my own tale of binding my nascent breasts; in my case, growing up in Ontario, I wanted to use oriole nests. Despite the trans theme, though, the story is really about the moment a mother sees her youngster as an individual human separate from the family unit for the first time—there’s a melting, a softening in her that will hold her son in good stead as he grows. Her son, the narrator, knows he has been seen.   

Your story is very evocative of South Africa and its people. What is your connection to South African culture? How did you research this story? 
I don’t have much of a connection. I did a photo workshop with Freeman Patterson in Namaqualand and while I was supposed to be doing almost anything else, I sat enchanted under weaver bird trees, taking thousands of photographs. I also spent a little time in, and dated a woman from, Capetown. I researched the Afrikaans online, and hope I did it justice.

Have you eaten Smiley before?
No, because they smile. I saw the same retraction of the gum and lips in horses when I was a child—both alive, when frightened or angry, and dead in the huge hound-food stew pot. It was traumatizing.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I wanted to be what I still want to be: a zoologist working on animal communication. Writing was what I got to be instead when I became too sick to go back to school in my early thirties. 

What is your writing routine?
I’ve been ill for a long time, and desperately so in the last three years, so I am giving writing its head, letting it take me where it wants me to go. Currently, I’m concentrated on a book of flash fiction. My third book of poetry is coming out in the fall, and I have a book of short fiction with my agent, Carolyn Forde, along with a collected queer stories in submission.     

Your story “The Lost Boy” won the CBC Short Story Prize in 2003. What was your story about? 
“The Lost Boy” was taken from a family story about the internment in BC; my auntie-by-marriage, who was the story’s narrator, was torn apart by her mother playing favourites with a boy she babysat; eventually, her mother almost killed her in a suicide/murder plunge from a cliff. It is really about how a child falls in love with her mother and how, when the feeling isn’t properly returned, it’s a kind of Stockholm Syndrome.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Get the words right.  

Photo credit: Susan Buie, courtesy of the author


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