Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Q&A with Tanis Rideout


Photo by Erin Simkin



Tanis Rideout is the author of the new novel The Sea Between Two Shores. Her other books include the novel Above All Things. She lives in Los Angeles.


Q: You write that the idea for The Sea Between Two Shores began with a visit to Vanuatu in 2015. How did you eventually decide to write this novel?


A: When I travelled to Vanuatu it was purely for recreation – not at all about work. While I was there I read a small paragraph in a guidebook that other travelers had left behind about Canadian missionaries that had been killed on one of the islands. I briefly wondered if there might be a story there, but realized I didn’t know how to tell that story in a way that wouldn’t just be re-inscribing colonial first encounter stories.


However, when I got back home to Toronto I found myself thinking continually about Vanuatu and so I tried to read everything I could get my hands on.


Eventually I came across the story of a reconciliation ceremony that took place on the island of Erromango between the descendants of the ni-Vanuatu people and missionaries who had travelled there. This, I thought, was a way into this kind of story – a way that links the past to what is still happening today, that contemplates ways that we might reckon with our collective pasts.


Q: How would you characterize the dynamic between the two families in the novel?


A: Both of the families in the novel – the Tabés and the Stewarts – are both deep in grief, having each lost a child and yet both families deal with these losses in vastly different ways, for many reasons.

Each individual within the families is also dealing with their loss in their own way, as well as having their own hopes and doubts about the ceremony they have gathered to undertake.


I think there is a great deal of wariness and hope, worry and doubt that they can make any real change together, but slowly over the course of the novel they forge new relationships, and start on a new path.


Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I love research. If I could only do research and never write, I’d be thrilled! I read everything I could get my hands on, about Vanuatu in particular, but Oceania and colonization in general. I tried to read as widely as I could about grief, and forgiveness and reconciliation.


I was lucky enough to correspond with a number of cultural readers in Vanuatu and across Oceania who read drafts of the manuscript and offered encouragement, correction and feedback.


I think I was initially very surprised by the link between the Presbyterian Church on the east coast of Canada and Oceania. I knew of the church’s role in colonizing Canada, but had been unaware of the link between Canada and the missionizing across the Pacific. Learning that made the past feel close, the world feel small, in a strange new way to me.


Q: The writer Vincent Lam said of the book, “Her voice both intimate and wise, Tanis Rideout traverses the textures and echoes of grief, asking difficult and important questions: How does loss imprint itself upon our hearts? Can we find meaning through forgiveness? What is it to both respect our histories and write a future of integrity and compassion?” What do you think of that description, and how do you think the novel addresses the questions he asks?


A: Vincent is such a generous reader and writer, so to have him describe the novel this way was a gift – it made me hopeful that I had accomplished some of what I had hoped to do with this book.


I don’t think that the book necessarily answers a lot of questions, rather I hope that it might encourage readers to contemplate these kinds of questions for themselves. They seem like such massive abstract ideas – forgiveness, history, reconciliation, reparation – but can we do better day by day? Can we build hope day by day?


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a new novel, that while very different from The Sea Between Two Shores, also in some ways feels like a spiritual cousin. In its own way it is also about forgiveness, and making right, about reckoning with the past, but in a much more intimate way, I would say.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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