Anne Simpson’s third novel, Speechless, and her second book of essays, Experiments in Distant Influence, came out in 2020. She won the Griffin Poetry Prize for Loop, her second book of poetry, and has since published several other collections, with Strange Attractor (2019) her most recent book of poetry. She has been a writer-in-residence at libraries and universities across the country, and she continues to be an adjunct professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, NS.
Can you start by telling me about your book?
Alexander MacLeod said that Speechless is about “tough female characters who will not back down and instead stand together against injustice.” I think that is at the heart of this book—the stories of women from vastly different cultures who are united by something that should not have happened.
What were some of your own experiences that you were able to look back on to write this novel?
Many years ago, I was a CUSO volunteer teacher in Nigeria, where I lived for two years. I think if you open yourself up to all the things that another culture can show you, it changes you. I recall hitchhiking there with a friend, and we met a young Fulani girl, from a nomadic tribe, on the road. We were alone, and we were so surprised to see each other. We saw each other; we met each other, but my friend and I couldn’t speak the Fulani girl’s language and she couldn’t speak ours. Maybe this brief experience touches on my portrayal of two very different lives in the novel, that of Sophie, a Canadian, and A’isha, a Nigerian.
My time of teaching in Nigeria was very important to the writing of Speechless, but it was so long ago. I was fortunate in being able to do a short residency for the Osu Children’s Library Fund in Ghana more recently, and that helped to show me the current situation of a West African country that is similar, in many ways, to Nigeria. I needed to be grounded in West Africa for a while.
What were some of the challenges in the writing of this book?
This novel was never without its challenges! The first is that I’m white, and ultimately, Speechless examines how white people have meddled in a country like Nigeria and continue to do so. I wasn’t sure I could do it—it required a lot to write it. One of the things that helped was that I had a small research grant that allowed me to go to Boston. At Harvard, I talked with Hauwa Ibrahim, a Nigerian lawyer who was there on a fellowship. In Nigeria, she had taken on a number of cases of Sharia law in which the defendant could not have won without her. I thought of her bravery, her resolve. She helped me tremendously.
As the review in Quill & Quire notes, “a novel about a white woman claiming to speak for a Black woman comes burdened with the pre-existing trope of the ‘white savior complex’…” The reviewer goes on to say, “Simpson investigates this hefty quandary with a generous, persuasive imagination.” But why did you decide to tell the story of a white woman who speaks on behalf of a Nigerian woman?
The young Canadian journalist, Sophie MacNeil, who writes an article about A’isha Nasir’s plight is certainly impulsive and ambitious. She does all the wrong things to “get” a story. And she doesn’t really understand what all the fuss is about after the story is published. But over time she learns. For one so young, A’isha is the one with wisdom; she reveals this to Sophie. I think I wrote Speechless because there is injustice against a young woman at the heart of it. A’isha has done nothing wrong, yet she might have to pay with her life. I can’t bear the thought of injustices like this against women. It makes me deeply angry. It was this that led me into the story.
Can you talk about your title, Speechless?
This novel took forever to write, but the title was there almost from the beginning. I was thinking in terms of having one’s voice taken away, which is A’isha’s situation. I guess I was also thinking of all those women who never get a chance to speak out.
What are some things you get out of fiction writing that you don’t get from poetry? And vice versa?
Well, it really has to do with time. A poem doesn’t take as long to write; even a book of poetry doesn’t take as long to write as a novel. And strikingly, for me, a poem holds a singular moment in time. A novel has duration—it involves a story that happens over time. A novel is a whole world in which the writer immerses herself. She has to know this world in all its richness, in all its complexity, to convey it to the reader.
Yet poetry has taught me about the power of images. It has taught me about the shimmering aliveness of language. Smell, taste, sound—all these have to be sharp and distinct. And poetry has taught me to experiment, so the experiments of my novels come from it. In Falling, a young man has a break with reality, and I found that his consciousness could only be rendered in a long, run-on sentence that gallops along. And yet, this run-on sentence is shown in one fragment on each page, one after the other for a series of pages. It’s clear that he is thinking in a very strange way. If I had only learned to write fiction and left it at that, I would never have known how to take that sort of risk.
Congratulations on being nominated for the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. What do literary awards mean to you? Why are they important?
When I was at the Banff Centre Writing Studio a long time ago, another writer told me that awards can give a sense of confidence. It’s a fearful business, trying to write – trying to be an artist of any kind – and confidence is that foundation on which you can build something else, something new. An award can be such a powerful gift to a writer.
What are some of the challenges of having a book published during the pandemic? Have there been any benefits that surprised you?
One of the greatest benefits is that so many people wrote to me about their experience of reading Speechless. I was so grateful every time this happened. (I think people understood that the pandemic might have limited book sales.) It seemed that readers were reaching out and offering something very special.
What are you looking forward to the most when restrictions end?
The magic of reading to people, to having them right there—I’ve missed that so much.
—Questions by Marilyn Smulders