The Chat with Governor General's Literary Award Winner Joan Thomas

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Joan Thomas has won this year’s Governor General’s Award for Fiction for her novel Five Wives.

According to the jury, “In Five Wives, Thomas delivers a compelling and powerful story about an encounter that alters the lives of those involved for generations. Set in a world where Indigenous peoples, missionaries, and the forces of global capitalism collide, Thomas’s tale provides a nuanced examination of Operation Auca—a historical event that took place in Ecuador in 1956. This book raises important questions about religious fervour, autonomy and legacies of violence. Ambitiously conceived and beautifully written, this book is a masterful achievement.” 

Joan Thomas is the author of four novels: Five Wives, The Opening Sky, Curiosity, and Reading by Lightning. Her work has won the Amazon First Novel Award, a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the McNally Robinson Prize. Additionally, it has been nominated for the Giller Prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and a previous Governor General’s Literary Award. In 2014, Thomas was the recipient of the Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Prize for a writer in mid-career. She lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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THE CHAT WITH JOAN THOMAS

Five Wives is a fictionalized account of the wives of five missionaries who were killed trying to convert the Waorani people in Ecuador in 1956. Why was it important for you to tell this story?  

When you grow up in a counterculture that explains the world without reference to science and logic, you spend the rest of your life deconstructing things you once believed. The story of Operation Auca (as it was called when I was a kid) was one of those things. It was enshrined in my church. The five men who died were regarded as martyrs, the absolute pinnacle of what Christian young people might aspire to in following the will of God.

I hadn’t really thought about their story for decades, but then I stumbled across a mention of the isolated Indigenous people whose conversion to Christianity was the goal of all that missionary zeal. I learned that in the 1990s and 2000s, the Waorani were parties to a lawsuit against Chevron oil for the ravaging of their traditional lands in Ecuador. The missionaries’ books about the 1956 mission mostly end with grateful Waorani people embracing a new faith in Christ. I was suddenly curious to look at the whole story and its long-term consequences from a wider perspective.

 
The more I learned through research, the more contemporary and timely the story felt. As I was writing, xenophobia and white nationalism raised its ugly head in the Western world, and I saw so much in this story about the roots of such attitudes in Western culture. I was fascinated by the characters, especially by the wives of the men who died, for whom everything was at stake—the lives of their beloved partners, the happiness of their families—and who asserted even after the killings that they had all done the right thing. How does such doublethink work? At heart, maybe, I was writing about myself: how do I persuade myself to believe things that contradict my own experience of the world?

What challenges or obstacles did you face fictionalizing a story based on events from real life?

I really love building a novel on the infrastructure of real events. In a way you are reverse-engineering the inner life of your characters from the facts your research provides. In this case, I was entering characters whose actions I deplore, entering them as intimately as I knew how. Their language was one challenge. I don’t think the missionaries were more racist than society in general in 1956, but back then even mainstream media sources used terms like “heathen” and “savage” for Indigenous people. I ended up dialing back the language, but I didn’t dial back the thinking. The whole premise of their work was that the Waorani needed to be rescued from their own culture and way of life.

In your research, what did you learn about this ill-fated attempt at evangelism that disturbed or concerned you most?

It was not news to me that religious imperialism and economic exploitation go hand in hand, but even so, I was shocked to learn that the missionaries actively aided the Ecuadorian government and the oil companies in taking over Waorani lands. The oil companies provided small planes and helicopters and the missionaries, who by then had made some converts and knew the Waorani language, flew into isolated Waorani settlements and used their influence to move Waorani clans into a tiny protectorate that comprised just eight percent of their lands. This left the oil companies free to move in without resistance from the people, and it meant the end of an ancient and independent way of life that relied on trekking over a vast territory.

It’s also chilling from the perspective of the climate crisis, because we know what the Amazon rainforest means for the whole planet. I was moved to learn that Waorani activists are at the forefront of the current fight against Ecuador’s auctioning protected lands for further oil exploration. The missionaries thought they were saving the Waorani, and it turns out the Waorani are fighting hard to save all of us.  

The missionaries thought they were saving the Waorani, and it turns out the Waorani are fighting hard to save all of us.  

You’re the author of a number of other award-winning novels. What does it mean for you to win the Governor General’s Award for Fiction at this point in your career?

I’m thrilled, and at the same time I’m trying to hold it lightly, because all writers know that only a mystical aligning of the planets allows such a thing to happen. But frankly, this news opened up happiness receptors within me that I didn’t know existed!

And I’m amazed, because I regarded Five Wives as a very risky book. I will always feel like something of an outsider based on my childhood experiences, and in Five Wives, I fully entered that world. To my surprise, readers are eager to enter it with me. “Write the novel only you can write,” is one of my favourite bits of writing advice, and I believe it more now than ever.
    
49thShelf is built around a community of readers and fans of Canadian literature. What Canadian authors are you reading these days?

Fawn Parker’s recent novel, Set-Point (ARP, 2019), blew me away. Parker’s sensibility is contemporary, smart and funny; fans of auto-fiction by international writers like Ben Lerner or Elif Batuman will love her. In fact, the central character in Set-Point, Lucy Frank, is writing a parody Seinfeld script featuring Karl Ove Knausgaard.

I’ve just finished rereading Lisa Moore’s 2018 short story collection, Something for Everyone (House of Anansi Press). I went back to it because in one reading I could never hope to take in all Moore does with language. Her characters are preternaturally alive; you move from one moment of heightened awareness to the next, feeling entirely inside their skins and acutely tuned into the challenges of their lives (mostly in contemporary Newfoundland).  

And I’ve started Cary Fagan’s The Student (Freehand, 2019). I’m eager to follow the experience of a woman who lived through second-wave feminism, whose life and ambitions were so shaped by a perceived conflict between family and her own ambitions. I like the way Fagan enters character—The Student strikes me as both an intimate probing of consciousness and a document of its times.

 
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Excerpt from Five Wives

The wives spent the evening putting the story together. Kids finally asleep, so the women could talk uninterrupted in the lounge, mugs of cocoa cooling on the floor beside their chairs. They were hoping for photographs soon, but in the meantime they had the letters the pilot had carried out on his supply runs, and the journals the doctor brought them at the end. Everything scrawled in pencil, but the women were good at deciphering their husbands’ handwriting and also at reading between the lines; it was amazing what they were able to piece together.

The site where the men set up camp was a white sand beach, a sandbar really, because the river was so low just then. An open and airy vestibule to the rainforest, dotted with palms; imagine the grounds of a swanky tropical hotel. At its edge grew a giant ironwood tree, perfect for a tree house, and the men built on one of the massive limbs. They’d prefabbed the scrap-lumber floors and walls and flown them in, strapped to the undercarriage of the small yellow plane. The beach was just long enough to serve as an airstrip. Eventually the pilot was confident in his landings, but the sand was very soft and for takeoffs he counted on a little extra lift from the Lord.

The men were excited, almost giddy at being there at last. They had no idea how long this adventure would last, and they cherished discipline, they thrived on it. They all had designated tasks. Every morning one of them surveyed the beach for strange footprints. Every hour on the hour somebody got out the binoculars and systematically scanned the forest wall. Somebody carried clear water from a spring. Somebody dug a latrine and covered it with a board. They worked together to cook proper meals in a stove improvised from a hacked-open iron drum.

An iron drum?

Roger carried it in, one of the women said. He thought it would be useful as body armour.

Oh.

Mornings were spent in the shade of the ironwood tree, reading and writing, and afternoons relaxing at the river. It was hot, hot, hot, and the bugs were bad—tiny gnats and those red-brown sweat bees with furry bodies. The men built a second fire by the water and threw termite nests on it, the way the Quichua do, draping themselves in acrid smoke. They waded into a deep pool and killed the hours fooling around in water up to their necks; you put that gang together and the jokes and teasing never stopped. When it was cooler, they waded out and got their fishing rods, and they ate their catch for supper. This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.

But the nights—they were scarier. The sudden darkness, and the way it transformed the clearing into a place you’d never seen before, and the unfamiliar sounds. Once the sun dropped below the canopy, they’d clean up the campsite and use the latrine and climb the wooden ladder to the shelter in the ironwood tree. A rope ladder! one of the wives said, still planning. Why didn’t we think of that? Something you could pull up after you. But the men had a hand-crank two-way radio and they had the guns, all loaded. The idea had been to keep watch in two-hour shifts, using the gaps intentionally left in each wall, but once they were cozily ensconced high up off the ground—well, it seemed a little silly. Stretched out on the floor, they arranged their mosquito nets and talked and prayed and eventually turned off the lantern. Think of what the stars must have been like, that far back in the forest.

From Five Wives by Joan Thomas ©2019. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

November 19, 2019
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