Her Heart Still Beats in New Brunswick: Interview with Carolyn Gammon
by Gabriella Goliger
Carolyn Gammon’s writing career and life journey defy categorization. Her author portfolio includes steamy lesbian poetry and stories, two memoirs about Holocaust survivors, a book about Afro-German/Afro-Turkish encounters and, her latest project, a poetry collection about her mother’s dementia.
Born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Gammon, besides being a writer, has been a champion weight lifter, a factory worker and a widely travelled tour guide. For the past 27 years, she has lived in Berlin with her partner, the Afro-German historian/author Katharina Oguntoye, but she frequently visits Canada and stays in touch with her New Brunswick heritage. What ties the disparate threads of Gammon’s colourful life and work together is a tendency to fearlessly follow her heart, along with a strong sense of social justice.
Gammon comes by her literary tendencies honestly. Her parents, Frances Firth Gammon and Donald Gammon, were co-founders of The Fiddlehead magazine. Another founding member, acclaimed poet Elizabeth Brewster, was a long-time family friend. These influences encouraged Gammon to study creative writing and literature at several universities. Academic and athletic excellence were the hallmarks of her student years, but she also made her mark by overthrowing conventions.
As an undergraduate at the University of New Brunswick, Gammon earned the Governor General’s Award for highest academic standing. She played field hockey and basketball at UNB, but her chief claim to athletic fame was in women’s power lifting, becoming the Canadian champion in 1982 and placing fourth in the world competition. In her prime she could bench press 100 kg.
When she was about to graduate with a Master of Arts degree in Literature and Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal, Gammon challenged the nomenclature of degree titles, arguing that a “master’s” title was sexist. Five years after she first raised the issue, in 1994, Quebec changed its policy, enabling her to receive a Magisteriate in Arts. Since then, graduates in both Quebec and Ontario are able to choose gender-neutral titles for their degrees. The feat earned her Concordia’s “Guinea Pig Award” for the most innovative contribution to university life.
In 1992 Gammon lit fires in the women’s literary scene with her debut poetry collection Lesbians Ignited (Gynergy/Ragweed, 1992). An unabashed exploration of lesbian life, love, politics and sexuality, the poems range from impassioned torch songs to wry and hilarious commentary. A few of the titles are: “Breaking the Rules,” “Gynaevores,” and “At the Female Ejaculation Workshop.”
Gammon’s reputation as a no-holds-barred lesbian poet led to many reading invitations including at Berlin Lesbian Week, for which Katharina Oguntoye was co-organizer. The two women had met previously in Canada. Now the love affair quickly blossomed.
“What we had,” says Gammon “was so powerful that I literally packed up my place in Montreal… and moved to Germany two months later.” She was 31 years old and “not totally prepared” for what she’d done. At the time, she spoke not a word of German and for three years had only a visitor’s visa, making it “tricky” to find work. Eventually Gammon became fluent in German and also landed a job with a tour company that specialized in Jewish heritage tours of Germany (and later the rest of Europe). Though not Jewish herself, Gammon had by then developed a deep empathy for and interest in Jewish culture, religion and history.
This interest sprang from her lesbian activism at Concordia University. While organizing a Lesbian Studies Coalition event, Gammon and other organizers became embroiled in controversy by scheduling their weekend retreat during the Jewish High Holy Day of Yom Kippur. This led to soul-searching and eventually a workshop, “Unlearning Anti-Semitism.” Then, angry about her own ignorance and about “the Christian overlay to society,” Gammon threw herself heart and soul into creating and taking the first ever Jewish Lesbian Studies course at Concordia.
The memoirs of Holocaust survivors arose through similar, heartfelt, jumping-in-with-both-feet encounters. Gammon met the late Johanna Krause in 1994 at an educational event at the Ravensbrueck concentration camp, which Krause knew intimately because of her agonizing experiences as a prisoner during the Second World War. Despite the great age difference, she and Carolyn became fast and lasting friends. Carolyn refers to her as “my German Jewish grandmother.” For seven years Carolyn travelled monthly from Berlin to Krause’s home town in Dresden to keep up the friendship. Over many months, Carolyn and a German co-author interviewed Krause for what became Johanna Krause: Twice Persecuted (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007), the memoir of Krause’s colourful, turbulent, at times harrowing, and always courageous life.
“I’m happy to say she held the book in her hand on her 93rd birthday, knowing her story would live on.”
Because of the Krause book, Gammon met Israel Unger, a survivor with an equally riveting story who, after WW2, eventually settled in Fredericton, Gammon’s home town. A rapport quickly developed between the two so that Unger trusted Gammon to tell his story in The Unwritten Diary of Israel Unger (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2014).
Gammon’s most recent writing project is something altogether different again: a collection of poems about her mother’s struggles with dementia and the experience of caring for her during visits back to New Brunswick over a span of 11 years. The as-yet-unpublished manuscript, On Her Own Terms, is a series of narrative poems that record the journey of memory loss, both the painful experiences and prejudices encountered, but also the wonderfully positive moments and triumphs.
In her early years, Gammon hadn’t appreciated her mother’s accomplishments. Influenced by the misogynist outlook of the times, she had viewed her mother primarily as a home-maker, hadn’t known about her poetry and didn’t take her mother’s intellectual pursuits seriously. When Gammon became more aware, she strove to make up for lost time. In 2002, she edited a collection of her mother’s poems from the 1940s. Entitled, There was the Lord Adjusting his Binoculars: Poems by Frances Firth 1945-1951 (Copytime, 2002), the book gave her mother immense pleasure and satisfaction to her dying day.
Being a Canadian Writer Abroad
Gammon says she feels very much at home in Berlin, especially in her neighbourhood of Kreutzberg, one of the most multi-cultural and counter-culture-friendly enclaves in all of Germany. Elsewhere in the city and country it is not always so “safe,” with occasional outbursts of racism and neo-Nazism that make her blood boil. Though right-wing populism is on the rise in other countries too, she finds its presence in today’s Germany a particular outrage because of all that happened in the Second World War.
Gammon is a tour guide for half the year and then writes during the off-season. She says her biggest challenge as a Canadian writer abroad is to stay in touch with her native tongue. To do so, she reads all the English language books she can get her hands on. There are other disadvantages to living abroad: it’s hard to find a suitable writers’ group, Canada Council doesn’t give grants for promotional tours within Europe, some Canadian publishers will only consider manuscripts from Canadian residents, and residency is also required for many awards.
“No matter that my heart beats in New Brunswick too; one is relegated to the Canadian margins.”
Interestingly though – despite all those years away – Gammon still speaks with a distinct New Brunswick twang. At least to this interviewer’s ears.
Bright Margin of the Present
My mother can’t recall
what was said two minutes ago
Not a big thing one would think
when we can chat, laugh, go for walks
drink coffee, talk about the past
(if it’s not too recent)
So why this existential threat?
Fear it will spread to five minutes
Our remembered lives
quiet smoldering edge
paper slowly consumed
bright margin of the present
all that’s left
I learn to speak in maybes
Perhaps I told you?
Were you there?
Let her direct the memories
not insist on mine
Learn to love her
for who she is
in case one day
I cannot offer her the pleasure
of a daughter’s company
but only that of a warm hand
Frances: I’m glad to know I have two daughters and I’m not in heaven yet.
—Carolyn Gammon, On Her Own Terms.
- Carolyn Gammon entry in the New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia.
- Stonewall Moments: Katharina Oguntoye and Carolyn Gammon, Goethe Institute.
- Frances Firth entry in the New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia.