This week we’re sitting down with B.A. Thomas-Peter to discuss his novel, The Kissing Fence (Caitlin Press), a story of conflicting cultural tensions that questions how we define success, identity, and our community.
The Kissing Fence is a powerful and emotional novel based on true events that examines generational trauma through one family’s story of obligation, justice, and belonging. How did you come upon this story and time in history, and what compelled you to write about it?
The Kissing Fence is about the Doukhobor people and their struggle, across generations, in Canada, but it is not simply about the Doukhobors. It is a story of how we become what we are, from generations ago; how our sense of self and place in the world can be corrupted with the destruction of lineage, connectivity and continuity. We see what happens plainly enough among displaced peoples and in aboriginal communities around the world when they are broken up. The Doukhobor experience in Canada is illustrative of this destructive process. However, if we look carefully at ourselves as individuals we can find that thread, drawn through years, decades, and generations before us, which influences the choices we make every day. It is this connection between the broad socio-political influences and individual choices that I wanted to explore.
The choices individuals make in western societies are commonly, if unconsciously, influenced by values of the entitlement of the individual, taking opportunity and accumulating wealth. These values soar in importance over values that might lead to choices supporting, for example, sustaining the environment, cultural heritage, social and economic justice. The traditional Doukhobor people contrast with this. They value community, obligation to a wider society, adherence to moral principles, and the enactment of faith. Consequently, they were an ideal foundation against which I could contrast, William, the modern-day protagonist in The Kissing Fence.
I wanted to write about this, as it is this conflict between ‘individualism’ and ‘collectivism’ that is being played out in Trump’s America, the UK and elsewhere. For those wanting individualism, the key strategy is fragmentation, or loosening the weave of society. This is not simply reducing government to the point of it no longer being capable of governing, or deregulation of finance and industry so there are no safeguards for the community, but truth is now compromised. It has become child’s play to resist the influence of expectation that might be imposed on us by what is right and wrong.
Without the burden of moral expectations or the consideration of others, financial and material success is possible, and perhaps even more likely, but what do we become? Along with this ‘success’ comes the risk of profound human failure, loss and confusion of an existential kind. This is what William finally encounters and must deal with. The question of The Kissing Fence is what does it take to see this kind of failure coming and avert the disaster of existential crisis? What stops us from turning back; from letting go of what we think is important, in favour of what is important? I want readers to take those questions away with them.
The novel takes place in two time periods: the 50s and 60s and the present. Did you know from the outset that you wanted to explore these two time periods? Did anything surprise you about the story that came out of writing these two narratives?
The challenge of writing about the Doukhobors in Canada was deciding what time period to leave out. There was so much to learn. The first 7500 Doukhobors arrived in Halifax and Quebec in early 1899 from Russia (now Georgia), with help of Leo Tolstoy, who helped negotiate the emigration and partly financed it with the proceeds of his novel Resurrection, which was published in the same year. Tolstoy’s sent his son on the first trip and then continued to advise the Doukhobor people during their first ten years in Canada.
After arriving in January, in poor physical condition, they embarked on a train taking them to Saskatchewan, where they started from scratch. The land they were given was not the best land to farm and, even by Russian standards, it was cold. Just this journey and story is enough for several novels, but there is much more in the politics of the time.
The immigrants had accepted the certainty of an understanding with the Canadian Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton. They were exempt from military service, had complete independence in the organization of their community, and would receive large blocks of land in what would become Saskatchewan where they could live according to their customs. They would not have come without this understanding. However, in 1905 Frank Oliver replaced Sifton and disavowed the agreement, insisting that Doukhobors accept conventional citizenship, or the land would be taken from them.
The mechanism of doing this derived from the pretext of land Title having to be signed by the individuals who worked it. Of course individual Title to the land had not been signed as it was granted to the community of Doukhobors. However, some then signed individual Title papers and stayed, while many (two thirds) did not, abandoning farms, factories and mills, and moved to British Columbia between 1908 and 1913. They were suspicious of all government and Frank Oliver’s betrayal of them confirmed their fears of the Canadian version. They had not been in Canada for 15 years!
It did not get better in BC. Much of the land they had purchased in the Kootenays was sequestered, with a loss of millions of dollars to that community. In 1933, more than 350 children were removed from parents who were sent to Piers Island prison just off Swartz Bay. They were all charged with nudity and sentenced to three years imprisonment. The children were scattered in foster homes, sent for adoption, allocated to hospitals and detention of various kinds. Three babies were taken from mothers, and died mysteriously soon after in government care; records of them having been lost.
It was a generation of children lost to the Doukhobor community. So when, in 1953, which is the beginning of The Kissing Fence, RCMP marched on a group of Doukhobors at prayer in Perry Siding, a field, miles from anywhere, it was not simple terror that they felt. They were the remaining children of that generation who had been lost in 1933. Their terror of having their children lost to them was grafted to their DNA. They knew what might happen to their children and had every expectation that it would. The same is true of the 1955 raid on Krestova, where children were literally pulled from the arms of mothers and yanked from their beds.
None of this ‘dark Canada’ side of the story is known in the publicly revealed tales of the times, and was certainly not known to me prior to writing The Kissing Fence. Nothing of this is portrayed in Simma Holt’s 1964 myopic and misleading book, “Terror in the Name of Good”. People still rail at this view of the Doukhobors being contradicted. But when you know what happened to that community from 1899 to 1953, it is no surprise that more than 100 children, survivors of the New Denver incarceration between 1953 and 1959, subsequently served prison sentences for arson and the use of explosives. All that had happened to them and their people had radicalized them as if it was designed to achieve just that.
The Kissing Fence is steeped in history and you did extensive research during the writing period. Why did you choose to write a novel as opposed to nonfiction? Do you think that you would want to explore the genre of nonfiction in future works?
My background is in clinical and forensic psychology. Outside of the therapeutic role, the task is often to tell someone’s story. How did this person arrive at the point of committing that act? What does this knowledge tell us about how we can help this person find a way to be safe in the community? What do services need to do to ensure this person is well and the community is safe?
Like many others, I am interested in the internal world of people, so the task of presenting history only becomes alive to me if I can follow the threads into an individual’s psyche. Consequently, I start by understanding the history and extrapolate from that to illustrate how it may have shaped people, or an individual, and been present in their behaviour. Only the genre of literary drama allows me the latitude to do that. Perhaps I will write a biography at some point if a really interesting project becomes available, but I have other novels in mind before that.