The Sunday Magazine

'Part of living is being willing to bear other people's pain': Aislinn Hunter on witnessing and grief

Aislinn Hunter’s new novel The Certainties, entwines the fates of two very different refugees and explores what it means to bear witness. Deeply informed by her own life, Hunter blends history and fiction in a story where past and present calamities collide.

Hunter's new novel was shaped by her experience bearing witness to her husband's death from cancer

Aislinn Hunter is an award-winning novelist and poet and the author of seven highly acclaimed books. (Submitted by Aislinn Hunter)

In Aislinn Hunter's new novel The Certainties, a man on the run from Nazi-occupied France has a chance encounter with a five-year-old girl.

As he sits contemplating his fate, a young girl with inquisitive eyes approaches his table. When her mother tugs her away, she waves goodbye. He thinks to himself: "'I see you!' her wave was saying. And in his heart he says, I see you back! I see you."

At the heart of Hunter's novel is one key question: what does it mean to truly see another person? It's a novel that is deeply informed by Hunter's own life. While she was writing this book, her husband of 25 years, Glenn, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Hunter is a novelist and poet who teaches creative writing at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. She spoke with The Sunday Edition's guest host Laurie Brown about the novel and her own experience as a witness to Glenn's final months of life.

Here are highlights from their conversation, edited for clarity and condensed.

When your nameless narrator meets Pia, this young girl, he addresses all his reflections in the final days of his life to her. Why does he latch onto her so strongly?

My husband was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. From the beginning we knew he wasn't going to make it. The experience of living with someone who knows he's going to die — that grief is really connected to legacy. The time we spent in hospice, I would speak with other patients. [There was] a concern — did I live a good life? What am I leaving behind? How will I be remembered? What have I done? What am I leaving on this earth?

We all disappear in time. But we want our lives to have held meaning. My unnamed narrator is choosing a single person as a repository. He's saying: the world is going to go on. I'm going to look at the mess and the myriad future in front of me. And I'm choosing you to imagine that ongoingness. He's hoping for some reciprocal seeing.

We all disappear in time. But we want our lives to have held meaning.- Aislinn Hunter

You witnessed the last months of Glenn's life. What are the costs of that kind of witnessing? What are the gifts?

The sublimation of the self. You cease to exist. You're just an open wound. You're witness to someone else's experience. You're helpless. It's awful. But this is also the state of existence to be, to try to sublimate yourself to other people's needs.

It's one of the most tender and human things that we can do, whether it's the person we love most on this earth or a stranger. But it's difficult because our desire is to hold onto our own sense of self.

Your narrator has been transformed by witnessing horrible things. At one point he sees the dead bodies of the civilians whose house he's been staying in, where he's been on the run. He thinks, "I had a thought, then, a certainty: that what I had seen would create inside me another person … that the man who would soon exit the barn and walk toward the woods would not be the same man who'd entered it." How do you think witnessing changes the witness?

That exact scene came from going in with Glenn to see Romeo Dallaire speak, and he described that exact situation. He said, where the person who goes into a room is not the person who walks out of it.

When I worked as a Canadian Forces artist, I embedded with Canadian and NATO forces who were doing live, biological, chemical and radioactive weapons training, through a program called the Canadian Forces Artists Project. I spoke with someone whose job it is to take tissue samples off of the dead bodies in Syria. If it's suspected that a gas attack was used, he puts them in containers. Then in order to ensure a chain of custody, he flies them in a briefcase to The Hague.

There's something about looking in the eyes of a person who does that for justice and for work. Some of the discussions involved — how do you live with that?

That moment you describe from my book — it was one thing for my character to be coming in that massive migration south, from Paris. And to be seeing the everyday awfulness of what the Second World War was doing to the people in this exodus south. But there's a difference between witnessing and then having to bear witness. That moment [in the book] was like … this is something that can't be unseen.

Is it possible to prepare ourselves for those moments in our lives, ones that we know are going to remake us? Can we do something in those moments?

Interviewing so many soldiers from all over the world, NATO forces, people who'd been in Ebola camps, in Iraq, and on those beaches where the bodies were coming up — I kept saying, "How do you live with the uncertainty?"

The answer time and time again was — training, training, training. In my Writing as Witness course, one of the things that I speak about is being prepared for what isn't safe and then having a way to be safe in that. A lot of times in our culture, we want to exit painful or uncomfortable situations. It's especially true for my students at the undergraduate level.

What if we just stay in the room? What if we allow ourselves to be seen having these feelings? There's a question of trying to be safe in these situations. But there's also a question of recognising that the world is a complex place and that part of living is maybe being willing to bear other people's pain.

I want to enter into conversations with other human beings about what it means to be human. It's not always going to be wanted. It's not always going to be comfortable.- Aislinn Hunter

What have you learnt about the importance of strangers acknowledging when you're in pain? Why does that matter to us — to be seen when we are grieving?

I had an experience in my local grocery shop. Grocery shopping is triggering for me. For Glenn, with cancer and chemotherapy, food was a big part of his journey, both in a positive and a negative way. He was the chef. I don't like to cook. It's hard for me to take care of myself with food.

I saw something in the grocery store and it set me off. I just started to cry in the condiment aisle. I was bawling. I couldn't stop. I had difficulty breathing. I was crying into my hands because I didn't want to be seen. And all these people went by in the periphery. I remember a hand going up and grabbing whatever off the shelf as I was...

And not saying anything.

No one. A dozen people in that aisle with me.

And what did that do?

What I recognised was I just wanted to say, "My husband died, and I am sad." I needed to say the words to another human being, out loud … We don't want people to disappear.

I look at people differently now when I'm walking down the street in this world. I am not looking down at my feet. I'm looking for other people. I have gone up to strangers. There was a young woman walking across a parking lot on the cell phone and she was crying. I got within a foot or two of her and just said, "Are you okay?" She gave me this dirty look. I thought, okay, well, so much for my great plan.

But then she took a few steps and turned around and mouthed, thank you. So I'm going to be that person. That's the decision I've made. I want to enter into conversations with other human beings about what it means to be human. It's not always going to be wanted. It's not always going to be comfortable. 

Click 'listen' above to hear the full conversation.

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