GUNN, Genni

Author Tags: Fiction

Born in Trieste, Italy in 1949, Gunn came to Canada when she was eleven. Before she turned to writing fulltime, Gunn was a musician (bass guitar, piano and vocals) who toured Canada with a variety of bands. She is the author of three novels, two short story collections, one poetry collection and an opera libretto with music by John Oliver. As well, she has translated from Italian two collections of poems, Devour Me Too and Traveling In The Gait by Italian author Dacia Maraini.

See review of Solitaria below.

Genni Gunn's novel Tracing Iris has been made into a film, The Riverbank (2012), starring Kenneth Welsh, Kari Matchett and Rick Roberts.

Hungers is a story collection about vice and the dark side of love. The savage Aztec god Tezcalipoca—who creates anguish by pitting people against one another—presides over many of the characters. Tracks was shortlisted for the Creative Non-Fiction Collective Reader's Choice Award.

Gunn has a B.F.A. and an M.F.A. from the University of British Columbia. She is a member of The Writers Union of Canada, The Literary Translators Association of Canada, and PEN International. Genni Gunn also wrote the libretto for the opera Alternate Visions (premiere, Montreal, May 1, 2007) about love and modern alienation.

“I guess I’ve had a love/hate affair with technology for a long time,” she writes. “Our wired connections provide a sense of intimacy—we can communicate with everyone globally; we can express ourselves daily in blogs and videos; our private lives can now be lived publicly through television reality shows, through 24-hour views into our spaces in front of our computers.

“But we have become voyeurs, stationary creatures typing our emotions onto keyboards, looking into the cool eyes of digital cameras. While all this appears to have us more connected to everyone, in reality we are more faceless and more alone than ever, our eyes reflecting blue screens, our selves flickering in darkened rooms.”

Gunn’s works have been finalists for the CBC Literary Awards in all three categories: fiction personal essay and poetry; the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Thrice Upon a Time; the Gerald Lampert Award for poetry collectionMating In Captivity; the Premio Internazionale Diego Valeri for literary translation for poetry collection Traveling in the Gait of a Fox; and the John Glassco Translation Prize for poetry collection Devour Me Too. She has received two Praxis Film Development Fellowships for her screenplays. Solitaria was nominated for the Giller Prize 2011 and has been translated into Dutch and Italian.

CITY/TOWN: Vancouver


Finalist for the GERALD LAMPERT POETRY AWARD,for Mating in Captivity (1994); THE COMMONWEALTH PRIZE for Best First novel in the Canada/Caribbean Division, for Thrice Upon A Time, 1990; the JOHN GLASSCO TRANSLATION PRIZE, for Devour Me Too (1987); and the DIEGO VALERI INTERNATIONAL TRANSLATION PRIZE, for Traveling In The Gait of a Fox (2002).


TRACKS: JOURNEYS IN TIME AND PLACE (Signature 2013] memoir
SOLITARIA (Signature 2010) novel
FACELESS (Signature Editions, 2007) poetry $14.95 1-897-109-16-4
HUNGERS (Raincoast Books, 2002) short story collection
TRACING IRIS (Raincoast Books, 2001) novel
MATING IN CAPTIVITY (Quarry Press, 1994) poetry
TRAVELING IN THE GAIT OF A FOX (Quarry Press, 1993) poetry translation
ON THE ROAD (Oberon Press, 1991) short story collection
THRICE UPON A TIME (Quarry Press, 1990) novel
DEVOUR ME TOO (Guernica Editions, 1987) poetry translation

[BCBW 2014] "Movie"

Tracing Iris (Raincoast $21.95)

“My stories tend to stem from serendipity. This time Tracing Iris grew out of three incidents.”

The first of these was a visit I took to Mesa Verde, Colorado, to see the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi – a vibrant culture who lived for hundreds of years in the sophisticated dwellings sculpted into the top of the 9000-foot mesa. What fascinated me most about the Anasazi is that suddenly, within a span of 100 years, they vanished and, although theories abound, there is no definitive answer to the question of their disappearance.

Then I came across a magazine article about adopted children who as adults go searching for their abandoning mothers. I began to wonder about the lasting effects of this abandonment, and through research, found that abandoned children have two typical adaptive mechanisms: they become so good no one will ever abandon them again; or they become so bad no one will ever love them so they never need to worry about being abandoned again.

I went back to research the Anasazi. What were their adaptive mechanisms? From the Anasazi, I continued to research cultures who had become extinct, and ones who had managed to survive extreme deprivations, due to their ability to adapt.

The third incident: On the Oregon coast, a fierce storm uncovered a spectral forest of stumps that had been buried in sand for 700 years. This evoked the burial of memories, and how through circumstance, they can surface.

Thus, a story began to emerge: Kate, a young woman abandoned by her mother--named Iris--in her early childhood, is forced home by her step-mother’s death, to confront her father and ultimately her own memories.

Kate is a social anthropologist obsessed with disappearing peoples. A part-time lecturer on cruise ships, she examines and re-tells stories of cultures either extinct or on the verge of extinction, trying to understand both her mother’s disappearance, and her own reaction/adaptation to that abandonment.

As a result, she embarks on a search for her mother, using anthropological methods to reconstruct her mother’s life.

So Tracing Iris explores the effects of parental abandonment.
There are two basic premises.

When faced with extreme deprivations, we are capable of behaviour that we don’t normally associate with ourselves.The life template we use as adults is based on our perception of our past.

Born in Italy, Genni Gunn—yet another UBC Creative Writing grad, class of ‘84—came to B.C. in 1960. A translator and teacher, she was nominated for the 1990 Commonwealth Prize and has had work in the Journey Prize Anthology. She toured extensively as a professional rock musician before opting for the tenuous respectability of authordom. 1-55192-486-2

[BCBW Autumn 2001]

Publisher's Promo (2007)

In Faceless, Genni Gunn explores “the impulse for the edge” that forces a magnetic field between the gloss of the topside world and the grit of the world beneath. Both these landscapes are fascinating and treacherous, haunted by faces that are obsessively worn and shed, torn off and replaced, where identity itself is arbitrary. Impersonation, even of oneself, is the rule. In a piano bar, the musician is a chameleon adapting to the faceless men who sit around her piano. The faceless cadavers in the notorious BodyWorlds exhibits “stalk the rooms / their skinless arms bat softballs row canoes / …some even stand beside / themselves—skeleton and musculature / inside/outside / side by side / a foot a stocking / ready to step into their own bodies” while, in Gunn’s title poem, an ordinary French woman finds redemption in the world’s first face transplant after being mauled in a strange accident by her pet dog. To be anonymous in today’s urban places is to be free yet isolated, to be in a constant flux of longing for and fear of “the dead and beating heart,” both in one’s own breast and those faltering in the chests of others. The countless faces that Gunn confronts on the streets of the city or behind closed doors make her important new book such a compelling read—as does the “delicious anxiety” she sees hanging in ecstatic, sometimes terrifying suspense in the liminal spaces between.

Alternate Visions
Opera (2007)

Opéra nouvelle forme
- compositeur John Oliver / livret Genni Gunn
- mise en scène Pauline Vaillancourt / visuel Jean Décarie
- avec Rinde Eckert, Jacinthe Thibault, Éthel Guéret, Claudine Ledoux, Jean-Francois Daignault, Ghislaine Deschambault et l’ensemble Bradyworks, sous la direction de Cristian Gort

Pour sa douzième création, Chants Libres explore la théâtralisation de nos vies soumises aux pressions commerciales, sociales et technologiques d’aujourd’hui. Les personnages qui partagent avec le public l’espace d’un bar karaoké high-tech, se perdent dans un labyrinthe d’incompréhensions que multiplie à l’infini l’omniprésence de la technologie.
« La compagnie Chants Libres… renouvelle à chaque fois les conventions opératiques. … rien n’arrête le désir de Pauline Vaillancourt de faire sortir l’opéra de ses gonds. » Réjean Beaucage, Voir, 28 avril 2005
1er au 5 mai

Genni get your opera
Article (2007)

from BCBW

Once upon a time, in a pre-Windows era, back when people were starting to discover email, Genni Gunn was asked to write an original libretto by composer John Oliver for the Vancouver Opera. Gunn penned a high-tech opera about two young professionals, Alex and Valerie, who meet on-line, become fascinated with each other, but remain safely faceless—until they finally meet for real.

That was futuristic stuff in 1992. “There was no internet dating,” Gunn recalls, “so it was a kind of sci-fi glance into the future.” The future had to wait. Funding dissipated and the project called Alternate Visions was detoured into development hell until Pauline Vaillancourt, Creative Director of Chants Libres, fell in love with Gunn and Oliver’s interdisciplinary opera about five years ago.

The opera Alternate Visions premiered in Montreal in May, coincidental with the release of Gunn’s new book Faceless (Signature Editions $14.95), a poetry collection that simultaneously explores the growing dichotomy between intimacy and technology, between anonymity (facelessness) and contact (love).

Solitaria by Genni Gunn (Signature $19.95)

It is possible to have a good heart but be arrogant. It is possible to be ill with regret and longing. It is possible to hide oneself away from others, to take refuge in the past.

It is possible to view oneself as heroically self-sacrificing but be seen as selfish. It is possible to keep cherished secrets that fester into wounds.

A Canadian literature professor named David learns all these things—second-hand—as well as a good deal more about his own identity, when he accompanies his mother, a recently retired opera diva, back to southern Italy for a family reunion in Genni Gunn’s novel Solitaria.

The body of David’s mysterious uncle, Vito Santoro, has been unearthed on the grounds of a seaside villa near Rome. Forensic evidence shows Vito died in the early 1950s. An Italian crew for a reality TV show is delving into the mystery, as are Vito’s siblings, from three continents.

The clan’s formidable, four-foot-ten matriarch, Piera, refuses to explain why she has lied to them all for decades, pretending to have been receiving letters from the devilishly handsome Vito, written from Argentina.

Everyone in the town of Belisolano refers to Piera as La Solitaria. It falls to David, a bachelor, to serve as the reluctant confidante to his mother’s fiercely reclusive oldest sister in whose mansion they are all staying. La Solitaria will only talk to David, and nobody knows why.

As the go-between for the truth, David is made privy to Piera’s tale of woe, but his mother and the others are contemptuous of her tales. So what really happened to the charming but devious Vito who was incestuously fixated on Piera? Is it really true that Piera endured a sexless marriage with the town’s richest man in order to obviate Vito’s debts and spare the family shame?

David’s beautiful Italian cousin, Oriana, a documentary filmmaker, decides to obtrusively record all the family feuding, which constitutes yet another version of reality. David is attracted to Oriana, an exciting alternative to his e-romance with an American professor he doesn’t really love.

In Gunn’s narrative, we switch channels back and forth between the tempestuous reunion in 2002 and the Santoro family’s hardships from Mussolini’s era onwards. In the latter, we are vividly introduced to southern Italy in a perpetual cycle of poverty, in Piera’s words, “abandoned by Rome, by the rest of the country, backwards and rural, superstitious and alien.”

Is Piera destructive and cunning? Or is she a tragic figure, bereft of love?
“It is my nature to worry,” she claims, “especially about my loved ones. All my life, I’ve looked over their shoulders like a guardian angel; have tried to simplify everything for them. Why have they all turned against me?”

But Gunn also writes, “In her own mind, Piera had supplanted her mother. In her own mind, Piera thought of her parents, brothers and sisters as her children, hers to lead and nudge towards happy lives. In her own mind, Piera erected a large apartment building, so that all her siblings could live near her and adore her for the rest of their lives.”

Gunn’s depiction of David as the bewildered confidante and reluctant siphon for his aunt’s tale of woe is perfectly drawn. He doubles as a cultural translator for the novel itself, unexpectedly immersed in passionate Italian intrigues as a polite, trustworthy, respectful and somewhat aloof Canadian.

Gunn succeeds in making us curious; and she succeeds in making us care about the characters. Solitaria is a deeply moving, intellectually stimulating, complex and fully realized novel.
Possibly Shakespeare got it wrong. For some, it is better to have never loved at all.


[BCBW 2010]

Four Videos
Comentary (2014)

Four videos for two books, an opera and a film

by Genni Gunn

If I had another lifetime, I’d devote it to making film, with its rich metaphoric visual imagery, its sound and emotional language, its dialogue and voice-overs – such a rich tapestry to work with.

We live in a very visual society, so a book trailer is a perfect extension of a book, to help draw an audience into the reading experience. After all, if film trailers seduce audiences into going to movies or buying videos, why not book trailers to seduce readers into reading books?

The person behind my two book trailers, Solitaria and TRACKS is Karen Haughian, the publisher of Signature Editions, who saw the value of book trailers early on. She has been producing them for her authors for four years now.
I’m fascinated by the whole idea of the book trailer which, with its incredible brevity – just over a minute – must convey a narrative, or at least suggest one, through the use of images and sound.

1. Alternate Visions (2007) was done by Chants Libres after the production of the opera in May 2007 in Montreal. They used parts of the production to produce the trailer. On the link attached, you’ll see their page, with comments from me and the composer.

The videos for the opera, Alternate Visions, was produced in a studio, using images and sound from the live performances in Montreal in 2007. I was there for a week of rehearsals, and a week of performances. Given the elusive quality of live performance, I am thrilled that they filmed and produced a DVD. When I view the trailer, I am instantly transported to that theatre in Montreal, where my characters were interacting on stage as I had imagined, singing the words I’d written.

2. Solitaria (2010) was done by Vanessa Mancini, a videographer working for Signature Editions (my publisher) at that time. I supplied some of the photographs, taken in Italy. She read the book and created the video from that.

Other than supplying some of the photos, I had no idea what to expect from the book trailer. When I saw it, I was fascinated by how Vanessa was able to capture the essence of the book in subtle imagery, with layers of sound that suggested information not visible in the video. It’s a lovely example of narrative storytelling in under one minute.

3. The Riverbank (2011) is the film trailer for the movie made of my novel, Tracing Iris. So this is made from the film, which is available on MovieCentral. You can see the credits for that at the end of the video itself.

When viewing The Riverbank trailer, I have a similar reaction to the Alternate Visions trailer, seeing my characters come to life. Though I didn’t write the screenplay for the film, I found the actors perfectly portrayed the people I had envisioned. During the filming, I went to Sudbury, Ontario, and spent two days on set, watching, listening, and it’s this experience that comes to mind when I see the trailer – the dressing rooms, the cameras, the actors, the conversations – all that is not shown on the trailer.

4. TRACKS: Journeys in Time and Place (2014). For this one I supplied all the photos for, taken in the places that occur in the book. The video was put together by my publisher, Signature Editions, and the sound was done by John Oliver, who is the composer of our opera, Alternate Visions. I sent him some bird sounds and a vocal of mine, which he incorporated at the end of the video.

TRACKS: Journeys in Time and Place is the trailer I was most involved in – simply by supplying all the photos and videos that appear in the trailer. These are places I’ve visited and written about in the book, so each of the photos have a particular significance for me, and evoke strong emotions. I was thrilled to have composer John Oliver do the sound and music for it, because he understands the multi-layering of sound, which perfectly fits the multi-layering of time and travel and experiences within the personal essays in the collection.

[BCBW 2014]