Under the Bridge
a novel by Anne Bishop
When stress causes an old trauma to surface, Lucy, a long–time community organizer, teacher and antipoverty activist, loses control of her life. On probation and living on the streets of Halifax’s North End, all she has left is friends. Faithful friends like Judith, her lawyer, who is helping her take back her life. Lucy begins to regularly sneak into Judith’s basement to take refuge from the cold, but Lucy’s presence in the house betrays their friendship, and she uncovers mysteries from Judith’s past. As events draw their lives closer, Lucy and Judith are forced to face the toll taken by their secrets. Each of them must choose between confronting past pain or remaining broken.
Anne Bishop arrived at CCS a wide-eyed young woman with a passion for the Christian Education she was doing at a church in Toronto. Her time at CCS turned her world upside down. She was introduced to concepts and issues that shifted her world view. She left filled with the fire of Liberation Theology and the tools of Adult Education. Rather than returning to the church, she stepped into the world of community activist and educator, spending the next forty years in various capacities of this field. Her non-fiction writing that emerged from this work includes Becoming an Ally:Breaking the Cycle of Oppression, which has been used as a CCS text book for many years.
Forty years later Anne has transformed much of those long-ago learnings, and her years in the field, into a novel of exceptional grace, poignancy and power. Under the Bridge weaves a story from the threads of international and local justice work, poverty, capitalism, mental health, homelessness and how these live in our communities.
The story emerges through the characters’ web of relationships. Lucy has shifted from front-line worker to client. The community agencies she seeks support from are in some cases ones that she helped found. Her new situation gives her the unique opportunity to encounter people from a different perspective and she becomes a mentor of a different sort.
While not a mystery in any classic sense, the circumstances of Lucy’s recent troubles and the stories from time she spent in Guatemala as a young adult that continue to haunt her, unfold over the course of the novel, drawing the reader further into the story. ~KK
The following is excerpted from a conversation between Kimiko Karpoff (KK) and Anne Bishop (AB).
On switching from writing non-fiction to fiction.
AB – I have always wanted to write fiction. It was the dream long before nonfiction. I have quite vivid memories of walking into the library where we went every Friday after school when I was a kid to hand in our old library books and get a new load. And as I walked out with two or three books I was excited about reading, I was thinking I want to write this. I want to write one of these, one day, that somebody’s excited to walk out of a library with.
Writing non-fiction is so much easier. It was kind of easy and natural just to say what I felt needed to be said. In my experience of non-fiction writing if it doesn’t come out on the page well, you’re not clear enough.
Fiction is much more complicated and I just kept not having the nerve to tackle it. I was too busy and I kept seeing needs that I could fill. But finally, when Beyond Token Change came out in 2005, which is the sequel to Becoming an Ally, it was time to think “okay, what’s next?” I was 55 years old and the dream had always been to write a novel and it was at that point of now or never. If I’m going to make the jump I should make it now or I’ll probably get too old.
My first writing teacher said ‘all novels are autobiographical it’s just how fine you grind it’. And it’s not just your own experience it’s other people’s experience and every story you have ever been told about other people’s experience. It really is like you kind of put it into a grinder and it comes out in chunks large and small. And meanwhile, these characters are taking shape. And they are unique, they are themselves. And they are fictional.
About shame. “You are hiding your deepest feelings from one another. Shame keeps you apart, so you also can’t really talk. You can’t figure things out together. It makes you easy to control politically.”
Nicholas, p 162.
AB – That quote came directly from my time at the Centre. I was there in 74/75 and the Chilean coup had been in ’73. Helene, then Castel now Helene Moussa, had just come to Canada from working for the World Council of Churches in New York, and she had all kinds of contacts in Chile. And she organized for the Centre to open its doors to some Chilean refugees. In return they taught us courses: in Church and State in Latin America, Theology of Liberation. One of those people was Arturo Chacon. He was a revelation to me. Actually, a lot of the stuff that Lucy learns from Nicholas in the novel is the stuff I learned from Arturo at the Centre. Just that Latin American view of the world. One of them had been to a funeral. It was such a formal occasion with nobody showing any emotion. And it was Artruro who said, “you’re ashamed of your emotions and that keeps you apart, your culture.” And at the time I honestly had no idea what he was talking about. That by not being able to weep and wail together and see ourselves as humans together in that way made us more politically manipulatable.
I think we have to be separated and isolated to not think together. Our ability to think together about what’s real, and what the impacts are on us, is so poor. Part of that is because our education system lacks it so badly. But the other part of it is that we have so many things in our culture that isolate us as individuals. Even things like having separate little suburban houses and driving everywhere in cars and all of that stuff. One really basic thing is that we just don’t share our deepest emotions. Unless we’ve learned to do it in spite of the culture.
We’ve lost the ability to reflect together. And to ask all those questions that the Centre teaches so well how to ask. Who benefits? Who has the power? How are they using it? Why are they using it? What’s in it for them? All those questions we are so unable to discuss collectively in the culture we live in. And it just seems to me it leaves us flailing all over politically.
The loss of the Commons and the grassroots movement of the Diggers from the 1600s is a central image in Under the Bridge. At one point a character finds an old tape of the Vancouver group Aya singing “A World Turned Upside Down”, also known as the Diggers song. Listen to it here.
About the moral complexity of appropriation and being humbled at realizing she appropriated the story of someone marginalized.
AB – Everything that I know about appropriation so far is in that little piece I wrote at the end of the book. And I am at a point where much of what I thought I knew about appropriation went floating away as I wrote the book and I haven’t reformulated it yet. So, I wrote that to kind of say what I know about appropriation but also to say that this is a conversation that definitely is going to continue for me and I hope for many others.
KK – Is part of the reason you mention appropriation because you feel you’re writing a story that’s not necessarily yours to tell because you’re not homeless? You’re not Lucy, you didn’t live under a bridge, scrounge food out of a dumpster?
AB – Exactly.
KK – Part of my question about it is that with any story, we could say any novelist is using some level of appropriation because they have to character the novel. If I’m writing a novel and there is a man in it, is that appropriation because I’m not a man? I’m a person of colour. If I’m writing about white people does that mean that it’s appropriation?
AB – No. I believe appropriation is a person who is speaking through someone who has less privilege than themselves. So, if you want to write from the point of view of a man go for it. It is not appropriation because men still get a lot more space in the published world than women do. Or if you want to write a white character go for it because white people are still privileged when it comes to getting their voice heard.
The character of Lucy started from a spark in my experience and then began to accumulate my experience and the experience of people I taught, and I got inside of her and I worked with her for years. And then I took a step back and thought, I just appropriated the experience of a homeless woman. It was a humbling moment. And so, it has forced me to start a rethink about appropriation. Unfortunately, a lot of the discussion about appropriation is more about accuracy or realism. People will say or writers will say, “of course I can write about Indigenous peoples even though I’m not one because I know them really well.”
I will say one of the very best films I’ve ever seen about a mature lesbian woman coming to consciousness, Lianna, was made by a man, John Sayles. It really rang true for me and was really moving to me. And all discussion about what rings true or what’s accurate or how well somebody knows somebody is kind of beside the point. When you look at, not just a publishing industry but all of the expressive industries, you know what proportion of Indigenous stories are told by white people. Because white people have more access to it. And then the white people of course get the money and the fame from it.
I think we need to be working towards people who have limited access telling their own stories. And then there I run out of steam. There’s a big gap in my thinking about appropriation and I haven’t come close yet to closing it.
Non-fiction mostly addresses the rational and we are not rational beings. Fiction can actually address a lot more than that. And so, yes, part of my purpose is to open up a conversation for people who might not have thought about it. So, knowing that according to my definition of appropriation that’s what I’ve done, and I’m not apologizing for it. I feel so much moral complexity over appropriation that I feel like I’m swimming through it.
About formation at the Centre for Christian Studies
AB – The Centre gave me my calling by transforming and inspiring me by its model of education. I’ve proceeded to play that out ever since. It’s been a major theme in my life. As I prepared for this interview I thought, “Look how many threads in this novel tie right back to my experience at the Centre for Christian Studies” — Cooperation, the Latin American popular education style that Lucy was applying in low-income North End Halifax, her focus on learning as a Praxis, as something that people do in the community not something detached from everyday life. Goodness, all her conversations about sexual orientation with Bara. So much came from the Centre, what I received and how I carried it forward from there in my own life.
When I went to the Centre it was in the context of diaconal ministry. I was working as the Christian education coordinator of a church in Toronto and loved it. I went through the process with my home church and got nominated for entering diaconal ministry. My time at the Centre was so transformational for me. I went from being a middle of the road liberal to being outrageously radical in my politics. In one year. I had to leave a few things behind including my marriage and some of the circle of my friends because I was a different person when I came out of there than when I walked in. I could have found a role for myself if that had been the only transformation. The other transformation was I discovered that I was a lesbian. The church wasn’t so open to that then. We’re talking 1975. The sexuality report didn’t happen until 1986 and we predated it by 11 years. Nobody was even asking those questions and [non-hetero] sexual orientation wasn’t acceptable. So, at the time it looked like a choice between crawling into a very particularly tense form of closet or not go that career route and I made the latter decision. I made the choice to pursue my career as an educator rather than being commissioned and the rest is history.
Anne Bishop graduated from the Centre for Christian Studies in 1975. She has been an activist for four decades in organizations dedicated to local, international, environmental, food, fibre and LGBT justice. She is the co author of five books and author of two: Becoming an Ally: Breaking the Cycle of Oppression in People and Beyond Token Change: Breaking the Cycle of Oppression in Institutions. Under the Bridge is her first novel. It is available from Fernwwod Publishing or Amazon.