Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the bestselling author of the novels All The Broken Things, Perfecting and The Nettle Spinner, as well as the short fiction collection Way Up. Her short stories have appeared in Granta, The Walrus, and Storyville, where she won the inaugural Sidney Prize. Kathryn recently completed residencies at Yaddo and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and is pursuing a PhD in Literature at the University of Toronto. She dropped by the blog ahead of her visit to BWS–TONIGHT!–to discuss two disturbing videos from deepest, darkest YouTube unearthed during research for her latest novel.
For my novel All the Broken Things, I researched captive and non-captive bear behaviour. My novel has two wrestling bears. In one of the wrestling videos I watched for research, the video’s narrator, who is also the human wrestler in the video, says, “When you’re in the ring with that bear you gotta keep him busy, or he’s liable to just walk away from you and go out of the ring and back to his cage.”
In the video, the bear is clearly being handled. He has no real, inherent interest in being in the ring at all. This is a constructed wrestling match, with the bear participant being paid with a life jail term and an occasional Coca-Cola.
What’s interesting to me, and what formed the spine of my novel, is the spectacle of it. I am interested in the way the audience cheers, and moves toward the bear. The narrator says, “The bear doesn’t know one opponent from another,” but the truth is that the bear isn’t thinking about “opponents” at all. If the bear “is a natural wrestler” as another video purports, how is it natural to muzzle, chain, and force him to wrestle a human? What exactly is the thrill of witnessing this?
One of the important characters in All The Broken Things is a four-year-old girl who is severely disabled and deformed as a result of her parents’s exposure to Agent Orange during what North Americans call the Vietnam War.
In this video clip, the Vietnamese journalist says, “Even though things are better, The American War is still among us.” Already we begin to see how different perspectives change seeing. Is the war Vietnamese or is it American? Watch the girl at about 1:45, who tries to avoid being filmed. Who gets seen, and who eludes the eye?
I have never shown the images or the videos of Agent Orange children that I watched and wept over while researching my novel–not because I think they should not be seen, but because they are painful, and because I have some anxiety about gawking in this way. It’s a strange conundrum. Freak shows and circuses and zoos have made spectacle of people like this (and animals like Victor the Bear) for centuries.
So what is it to be a spectator? I think it’s this: what we look upon reflects back to us what we are, what we have done, and of what we are capable. I sometimes wonder if such looking does much more than simply satisfy a distorted need to feel, and whether that isn’t worrisome in its self-absorption. I looked, I felt, I am done. Our human need to feel has lost any useful impulse. We are stranded in feeling.
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer visits the Brockton Writers Series Wednesday, January 7, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Andrew J. Borkowski, Lee Maracle and Andrea Thompson. The event begins with a special guest talk by Jack Illingworth, Literary Officer at the Ontario Arts Council, about applying for the writing grants the organization provides.