I didn’t know Graeme Gibson well, and for most of the time I was a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, I didn’t like him very much. Gibson was one of the Union’s founders and in a way, remained, to the end of his life, its primary living role model (the Union’s other role model was Margaret Laurence, who died in 1987). As such, Gibson was the sort of man who both demanded and invoked tribal loyalty, something I wanted to feel toward the Union but didn’t. That’s my fault: my social radar is the kind that detects pretenders, poseurs, and other kinds of assholes, but it doesn’t identify comrades very well, and, well, the Writers’ Union has never been short of assholes.
Susan Swan’s excellent obituary for Gibson in Toronto’s Now Magazine quotes the late literary agent Abner Stein as calling Gibson “the consummate lobbyist”, by which Stein almost certainly meant “union organizer and supporter”, not a paid corporate lizard whose job is to corrupt politicians and bribe bureaucrats. Swan goes on to point out that Gibson’s activities in and around the Union made him a “literary influencer who permanently changed our cultural landscape”. She’s right on both counts: Gibson believed in the things he did—The Writers’ Union, Canada as more than a docile American satellite, and the various naturalist interests and environmental causes he pursued—with a trade union organizer’s energy, and he both altered and secured Canada’s literary culture for the better.
In the decades after the Writers Union was founded, I found myself at many of its important official or unofficial parties where Gibson, it seemed to me, was overly fond of singing Scottish and East Coast Canadian folk songs, a genre I think of, irritably, as sheep-fucking music. For all that, I don’t think I ever once thought Gibson was an asshole. Yes, he could and all too often did sing sheep-fucking songs drunk or sober, but he could get serious and articulate about the issues-of-the-day in an instant, and I was aware that he was a man—and a writer—with a murderously difficult private job, and we all know what that job was even though I’ve managed to take this through almost two full paragraphs without mentioning Margaret Atwood.
Gibson was the husband of Canada’s most famous and, arguably, it’s most politically intelligent writer. He did the job—notice that I called it a “job” and not a “burden”—without pouting or letting his fiddle droop, and he was able to continue writing, producing books that were at least interestingly written and sometimes useful, a feat that in itself demonstrates rare courage and character, given that he was writing the books in close proximity to a writer with unmatchable talent and intellectual reach.
Curiously, in the months just after his death in September 2019, circumstances took me to the premiere for the Nancy Lang/Peter Raymond film documentary on Atwood, A Word After a Word After a Word is Power. A few days after that, Merrily Weisbord sent me a link to the 1984 NFB documentary filmed by Michael Rubbo at the Atwood family’s remote Metagami island recreational retreat in northern Quebec. Weisbord co-wrote the film with Rubbo, and was clearly responsible for whatever virtues it had.
Both films are remarkable in different ways, the Lang/Raymond film in a good way for its generously thorough “get” on the things about Atwood that are unique and valuable. Rubbo’s film was remarkable in a bad way. It was a trainwreck that its self-involved director created by insisting, against the physical evidence around him and Atwood’s polite but steadfast refusal to be run over by what Rubbo was trying to impose. He was trying to make the film say that Atwood’s feminism and most of her subject choices were the result of childhood trauma inflicted by overpowering parents.
This was hilariously wrong, and not just because Atwood’s parents were both present for the filming and it was abundantly clear that they were decent human beings, competent parents, and that Atwood’s relationship with them was open and exemplary. It was wrong because Rubbo clearly believed that all writers are idiots being dictated to by primal instincts, and therefore supposed that both Atwood’s subject matter and her feminism originated solely from Oedipally-charged experience of which she, as a writer-idiot, was barely conscious. Atwood, who has, across her writing career, been marvelously articulate about where she gets her subject matter and about as free of woo woo about how writing gets done as any writer in our time, politely didn’t give an inch to this would-be “auteur” director trying to impose his quacked-up Freudian ideology on her.
Across both films, I found myself watching, almost as much as anything under direct focus, Graeme Gibson. In both films, he was remarkable: a confident male presence, a clearly affectionate husband who didn’t try to grab the spotlight when it was offered, and yet a knowledgeable and intellectually-capable partner. I found myself thinking, what a good marriage he and Atwood have had, and how calm and admirable Gibson’s masculinity was. It made me wish I’d been smart enough to get to know him; even the one instance in the documentaries where he demonstrated his love of sheep-fucking music was easy to overlook. I can’t even remember in which film it got loose.
When Brett came out to Toronto for Gibson’s memorial, he told me that Atwood had refused to hire a professional caregiver during her husband’s quite lengthy decline, and that this was why Gibson died in England while Atwood was touring The Testaments. The book won the 2019 Man Booker prize so she had to do the tour, but she wasn’t willing to leave him. It was an awful position to be in, and I found myself deeply moved by what she did. Along with a thousand other datums, it testifies to just how strong the bond between them was.
I think it’s fair to say that Margaret Atwood’s still-expanding opus and the authenticities of CanLit are now a kind of autonomous background radiation firmly lodged in the cultural backbrains of most Canadians, me included, and it’s now clear to me that Graeme Gibson had an important hand in enabling those conditions. It’s too bad that the Writers Union of Canada has descended into a riot of tribal aggressions and entrepreneurial campaigns for institutional if not exactly public attention that have shredded the trade union solidarities Gibson believed Canada’s writers ought to share. But those aren’t what we should be thinking about here. We should be thinking about the partnership between Graeme Gibson and Margaret Atwood.
Atwood, as a woman and as a writer, has never demanded anyone’s sympathy or admiration. In her bereavement, she has earned mine on both counts. And Graeme Gibson, who is beyond sympathy, now has my admiration. I’m just sorry I didn’t catch on earlier.
1200 words, March 31, 2020