Author and conservationist Graeme Gibson, BA’58, is being remembered as a writer who was in the vanguard of Canadian literature. The London, Ont., native died this week at the age of 85, following a recent stroke.
“He was a cutting-edge writer, someone who was breaking new ground,” said novelist Nino Ricci, holder of Western’s Alice Munro Chair in Creativity. “Certainly, he is going to be remembered as someone at the birth of what we know as the ‘Era of Canadian Literature.’”
Gibson, BA’58, was co-founder of the Writers’ Trust of Canada and The Writers’ Union of Canada and was a president of the writers’ human rights organization, PEN Canada.
Born in London in 1934, he went on to study at Western and later taught English at Ryerson University in Toronto.
Gibson’s first novel, Five Legs, published 50 years ago, was loosely inspired by his experiences at Western. It sold 1,000 copies in its first week and introduced Canadian and international readers to his uniquely Canadian work.
In addition to his works of fiction, Gibson wrote Eleven Canadian Novelists, a 1973 book of extended interviews with authors who, like him, shaped the Canadian literary landscape.
Ricci, a past-president of PEN, met Gibson in the early 1990s and knew him as being generous with time, energy and guidance. “I found him to be such a personable guy and such a gentleman and such a pleasure to be around. He was also so supportive of other authors.”
After one of Ricci’s books received an unkind review, Gibson “sent me a note commiserating and quoting a nasty review he had got about another book – and basically saying it wasn’t anything to be bothered about,” Ricci recalled.
Gibson was a longtime partner to writer Margaret Atwood and died in hospital while accompanying Atwood during her book tour in the UK. In recent years, he had dementia.
Gibson was “indefatigable” in working beside Atwood to support her novels and their mutual causes of writing, championing authors and environmentalism, Ricci said.
“He was always incredibly supportive of Margaret and the phenomenon that she was,” he said.
English and Writing Studies professor Manina Jones, who also serves as department chair, knew Gibson through his writing and reputation as a community-builder and supporter of other writers.
To Jones, Five Legs is the most memorable among Gibson’s works. “It’s an extravagantly experimental, erudite, often funny, and trenchantly satirical story that made a significant contribution to the development of modern Canadian fiction,” she said.
Set in Stratford and at Western in the wake of a student’s death, it may or may not reflect on Gibson’s time as a Western student, “but it certainly reflects revealingly on the workings of the scholarly mind and the culture of the academy at a particular moment,” she said.
An avid birdwatcher (and writer of The Bedside Book of Birds and the Bedside Book of Beasts), Gibson and Atwood founded and continued to support the Pelee Island Bird Observatory. For their conservationist work he and Atwood were awarded the Royal Canadian Geographic Society Canadian Geographic Gold Medal in 2015.
He was a member of the Order of Canada (1992).