The Next Chapter

Shaena Lambert wrote a novel about Petra Kelly, who was the face of the 1980s peace and ecology movement

The Vancouver writer is the author of Petra, a historical novel about the life of the late West German pacifist and politician Petra Kelly.
Petra is a novel by Shaena Lambert. (www.shaenalambert.com, Random House Canada)

This segment originally aired on Oct 24, 2020.

Shaena Lambert is a novelist currently living in Vancouver. Her novel Radiance was a finalist for the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. She is also the author of the short story collection Oh My Darling.

Her latest, Petrais a historical novel inspired by the life of German activist Petra Kelly. Kelly was a force in Germany in the 1980s, and was a founding member of the German Green Party, which was one of the first Green Parties to rise to prominence.

Petra is the story of Kelly's influence on global politics and the circumstances surrounding her untimely death.

Lambert spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Petra.

Peerless Petra

"I met Petra in 1986. I think that's where it all started. I was very absorbed in the peace movement that time — like some of the characters in my book, but Canadian. It was in that age of nuclear anxiety. We had Petra Kelly come out Vancouver for one of the big walks for peace. She came with her General, this enigmatic man who followed her everywhere and was her lover. 

She talked about Indigenous rights, she talked about Tibet and she made you feel it. She galvanized everybody.

"She spoke at the Orpheum Theatre and you could have heard a pin drop. Everyone was so electrified. I was one of those people. I was completely electrified by the way she spoke but also what she spoke about.

"At that time, she didn't have a narrow agenda — her agenda was so enormous. She talked about Indigenous rights, she talked about Tibet, and she made you feel it. She galvanized everybody. 

"I didn't become a writer until 10 years after meeting Petra. But she was in my mind. When I found out that she had died, that struck me very deeply. It seemed like a light had gone out."

In this 1983 photo, Petra Kelly (second from left) and partner General Gert Bastian (left) and other German Green Party leaders march in a parade. Kelly and Bastian were found shot dead in 1992. The murder is still unsolved. (The Associated Press)

A powerful time

"As a novelist, I think you have to weave back through your own body. Because I was an activist at that time, a lot of what I channeled was that nuclear anxiety that I myself experienced as a young woman in my 20s. 

"It was a lot like now, with climate anxiety. People woke and slept and dreamed and ate to that feeling of nuclear Armageddon, of an apocalypse. It was quite common for people to say, 'I don't think I'm going to live through this age.'

"For Petra and her generation, they were at the very centre of this.

People woke and slept and dreamed and ate to that feeling of nuclear Armageddon, of an apocalypse.

"When they said 'No!' — it was so powerful, it radiated out across the whole globe."

Remembering the woman she was, through fiction

"She was a real puzzlement. When I interviewed people about her, they would laugh. She would be so bossy sometimes and so narcissistic and so difficult. But she would also be so generous, never forgetting that people live on the other side of the world — she was always bringing in Tibet into the conversation, for example. 

"When I went to Germany and I met several of her friends and ex-lovers, I had the impression they were still in love with her. She was one of those people. She was a 'zeitgeistian' kind of person. She was a 'shivers down the back of your spine' kind of person. 

Petra Kelly should be remembered as the complex and brilliant woman that she was.

"She had this enormous Achilles heel as well around her behaviour. She was such a believer in having multiple lovers. She would phone one lover from another lover's bed and talk about the speech that she was writing.

"Petra Kelly should be remembered as the complex and brilliant woman that she was."

Shaena Lambert's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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