Meg, the central character of author Nina Newington's newest book Cardinal Divide (publishing in September from Guernica Editions), needs a lot of important questions answered.
Adopted as a small child by an aging Saskatchewan rancher and his wife, she never knew who her birth parents were, or where they came from. As she grew older, her heritage became fluid and intangible, something she could only attempt to grasp at. When her adoptive mother dies, Meg upends her life, breaking up with her boyfriend and quitting a corporate job to work at an Indigenous-run addiction centre.
After a call from her adoptive father sends her back to the ranch, however, she believes she may finally get some answers to the questions that have haunted her throughout her life. Instead, he reveals to her a long-held secret: that he has been a woman living as a man for the last seventy years.
Themes of identity and acceptance weave across Cardinal Divide, working through the mysteries of one woman's past on a quest to find the truth, once and for all.
We're very excited to have Nina at Open Book today, where she talks about the origins of her newest book, the facade of "Canada the Good', and her idyllic workspace on the coast of Nova Scotia.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
After her adoptive mother dies, Meg breaks up with her boyfriend, quits her corporate job, and goes to work at an addiction treatment centre created by and for Indigenous people. There, everyone assumes she is Cree; in her old job they all thought she was Ukrainian. She has no idea. Her memories begin on the bank of the North Saskatchewan River near Drayton Valley, the day an elderly rancher found her, dirty and mute. She followed him back to the house and his wife welcomed her as a gift from God. The only thing Meg knows for sure about her early years is what is written on her body: the scars on her legs and the reactions wired into her nervous system.
So when her adoptive father asks her to come to the ranch as he has something to tell her, she thinks she’s going to learn about her origins. Instead he tells her that he was born a woman. He has lived as a man for seventy years.
That’s the start of the story that came to me as I was driving down the Coquihalla highway, heading back to Alberta after launching my first novel at the Vancouver Public Library. I pulled into Kamloops, bought a notebook in the pharmacy and scribbled until there was nothing left. It was an extraordinary, ecstatic experience.
Four months earlier, in December 2006, my wife and I had immigrated to Canada. In Edmonton, I was startled by the number of "drunken Indian" stories we were told. At the same time, white people told us there was no racism in Canada. My first job here, as evening staff at an addiction treatment centre, showed me how different Canada and Canadian history look when seen through different eyes.
Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
How do we deal with uncertainty? In my own queer life, it’s always been a toss-up whether someone will take me for a man or a woman. I quite like that zone of unknowing. In the novel, different sorts of passing proliferated, survival and subversion interweaving. The question expanded. Where do identity and ambiguity meet?
Meg is driven by a need to know. She demands certainty to make up for a life marked by uncertainty about the simplest things. Her date of birth, for example. She has to know where she came from, even if what she finds out is painful. But what if she tries and tries and fails to find an answer?
Her search leads her to a nearby reserve and a possible family of origin. Are these her people? Is this her history – the intimate, agonizing damage inflicted on Indigenous families by the colonial powers? Was she taken from her birth family in the Sixties scoop? How can she be sure? What she imagines, changes her.
And then there’s her father. His revelation upends the small oasis of certainty his loving parenting created for her. He is not who she thought he was. Nor, as it turns out, was her rigidly Christian, homophobic mother.
Ben’s relationship with gender embraces ambiguity while denying it. He doesn’t believe the world is ready for both/and but neither is he willing to define himself as either/or. It could be torturous but he has a knack for happiness.
Did this project change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
When I started, I didn’t know if Meg would find out where she came from. I thought it likely she wouldn’t. She followed a false trail that led her to accept she might never know. Then another possibility emerged. It had been preparing itself out of my sight. I worked through an elaborate set of clues involving lots of research and a phrase in Gaelic. When at last I cut loose that whole raft, the book glided to its end.
That’s how it is for me, mostly. I write a lot and cut a lot. There’s a sub-story about Ben’s life in London as a young woman after the First World War that may become another book. The details of Ben’s life did change quite a bit when I was doing research at the Provincial Archives in Edmonton. I came across two young women driving a Sunday School bus around the Prairies in the early twenties. It was irresistible.
Also, always eager to escape the city, I explored the Cardinal Divide in the foothills of the Rockies and fell in love with the place and its metaphorical aspects. It isn’t only a divide between two watersheds, it is also a nunatak, a place that stayed ice-free above the glaciers, serving as a refuge for life forms that were otherwise erased. Then I learned about the environmental devastation threatening it. One of the characters took that on.
As to how long the book took? I worked on it from the first spark in 2007 up to 2018, but I worked on another book at the same time, a memoir about living undocumented in the US for twenty years before deciding to immigrate to Canada. So I’d say it took five solid winters of writing.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
When inspiration strikes, I scribble on whatever is at hand. The rest of the time I’m quite demanding. I need silence and the certainty that I won’t be interrupted. After some years in an attic accessed only by a 4’ high door, huddled against a plug-in radiator, I built a workshop out of salvaged timbers and straw. Upstairs is my writing space. The windows offer a glimpse of the Bay of Fundy. I thought that’s where I’d put my desk but I’m more comfortable facing the wall. I write in the winter, make my living the rest of the year. Take my breakfast to my desk, work Monday to Friday from 9 to 1 or 2. I write the first draft in longhand using a Pilot Precise V7 pen, then type into a ten-year-old laptop. Ritualised? Moi?
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
I fall asleep. Also, I whine to my wife.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
I love Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping unreservedly. There isn’t a spare word in the whole novel. By the alchemy of language, it opens up a room inside me, a room I inhabit while I’m reading the book. A room that remains after I’ve turned the last page. Great books do that.
What are you working on now?
I’ve started a new novel exploring the relationship that evolves between two women, Francesca, an international human rights lawyer who has recently retired to Nova Scotia, and Kate, twenty years her junior, whose family has lived in the same place for seven generations. A dead body that might or might not belong to a Trumpian con-man brings them together in a quest that uncovers old wounds and unexpected connections. Uncertainty is a central theme again.
Nina Newington is an award winning author and gardener. British by birth, she lived in Hong Kong, Germany, Israel, England, Nigeria and the US before settling in Nova Scotia. She and her wife live in a ramshackle farmhouse on the North Mountain surrounded by apple trees, old roses, sheep and chickens.