The Next Chapter

Camilla Gibb's novel The Relatives explores what it takes to make a family

The Toronto writer talks to The Next Chapter about her latest novel.
The Relatives is a novel by Camilla Gibb. (Doubleday Canada, George Whiteside)

Camilla Gibb is an award-winning writer based in Toronto. She's the author of Mouthing the Words, The Petty Details of So-and-so's Life, Sweetness in the Belly, The Beauty of Humanity Movement and, most recently, The Relatives. She has also penned a memoir called This is Happy. 

Gibb stopped by The Next Chapter to talk about her new novel The Relatives — a journey about embryo ownership, sperm donorship and what it takes to make a family — and how she regained her ability to write fiction.

Exploring all possibilities

"I used a sperm donor to conceive a child a good long time ago, a decade ago now. I didn't feel like that was a story I wanted to explore, in part because it's about a child who has her own story to try to figure out.

I think it just explores all these possibilities, all these different ways of creating family that are deeply meaningful.

"I thought if I explored these issues through fiction, I could see how far these characters would go around these debates I'm fascinated by, particularly nature, nurture, what makes us who we are. The question is, 'Are the kids all right or their parents all right?' It explores all these possibilities, all these different ways of creating family that are deeply meaningful."

Family bonds

"There is a sense that Lila has been abandoned, that she has lost a connection to not just her biological parentage, but possibly a culture that she doesn't know. She doesn't form a deep connection with her adoptive mother. She might have an intuitive understanding about children because she is in some ways a child herself still. And the difficulty she runs into, though, is kind of projecting herself onto the stories of others.

In one sense, I wanted to look at the fact that donating sperm doesn't necessarily obligate one to have a relationship.

"In one sense, I wanted to look at the fact that donating sperm doesn't necessarily obligate one to have a relationship. Adam was very pragmatic in terms of his approach to it. He was paying his way through school. He's like, why not be compensated for something I waste plenty of throughout the course of my life?"

"He doesn't think that's what makes a father a genetic contribution to a life that he will never be a part of. That's not to him what makes a father. I think is an interesting issue that does ultimately bring him into conflict with his own partner, his girlfriend."

Learning to write fiction again

"We have certain narratives about our lives and we can follow them all along, intellectually or emotionally. When they're suddenly cut short, we question whether the original story was the right one. We don't know where the story goes from here.

It was like learning to walk again that at least brought back my relationship to language, but then the idea of invention was tricky.​​​​​​

"I couldn't read. I couldn't write, I couldn't listen to words for a while. When I finally found my way back, it was through the memoir because I had read Ian Brown's memoir, The Boy in the Moon. I reached out to Ian and I said, 'I don't know how you do it, basically.' And he said, 'you put one word down and then the next word and the next word.' 

"So I literally did that. It was like learning to walk again. At least it brought back my relationship to language."

Camilla Gibb's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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