Kat Cameron wrestles with ghosts of the past in short story collection

Magical realism mixes with author’s own experience with bullying, loss, and living abroad

The characters in Edmonton-based Kat Cameron’s debut collection of short stories, The Eater of Dreams, find themselves navigating – and living – life in spite of, or because of, their past suffering.

A woman reflects on the loss she suffered due to a miscarriage while watching her friend’s daughter; Zoe, an opera singer in Edmonton, is stalked by her abusive ex despite a long-distance move; Kal, a teacher in Alberta, is reminded of her own childhood bullying after reading work submitted by a student; sitting around discussing “firsts,” Sara thinks back to a summer more than a decade earlier when she had longed for an unattainable love.

While the 15 stories are works of fiction, blending realism and magic realism, some of the characters – or their adventures – are based on Cameron’s own encounters and travels. Having lived in five cities in three provinces and overseas in Japan in her 20s and 30s, Cameron says the characters’ peripatetic lives reflect her own experiences.

Those experiences include her work as a writer. “Cutting Edge” and “Truth or Fiction” take a humorous look at the writing life. The life of the artist is also examined in three stories – “Whyte Noise,” “White-Out,” and “Dancing the Requiem” – that feature opera singer Zoe.

“My mother sang opera with the Edmonton Opera chorus for 25 years. Because of her career, I’m aware of the joys and struggles of a singer’s life,” Cameron says. “Through Zoe, I explore both the financial insecurity of an artist’s life and what Lisa Moore calls ‘the transformative power of art.’”

The bullying Kal experiences in “Searching for Spock” mirrors Cameron’s own experiences with bullying in elementary school. And like Elaine in the title story, Cameron taught ESL in Japan.

Lafcadio Hearn, Elaine’s gai-jin (foreigner) ghost in “The Eater of Dreams,” is based on a writer who lived in Japan from 1890 until his death in 1904, and who wrote several books about the country, Cameron explains. Lafcadio embodies a romantic vision of Japan, while Elaine offers a more contemporary viewpoint.

Kat Cameron
Kat Cameron

“The idea for ‘The Eater of Dreams’ actually came from a student’s comment,” Cameron says. “She told me that her family had a ghost (yurei) in their house. I started wondering what kind of ghost would haunt an English teacher’s house.”

Cameron initially wrote the book as a novel about the gai-jin experience in Japan. This then became her master’s thesis at the University of New Brunswick. While working on her PhD, teaching, and writing poetry, she again revised the novel and rewrote it into stories, some of which are connected, and the result is a collection that is about more than her experience in a foreign land.

“When I put the collection together, I was looking for a recurring theme and realized that the characters are haunted by lost relationships – a partner, a parent, a child,” Cameron says. “Before I moved to Japan, my first husband died of complications from cystic fibrosis. In the years I was completing the collection, I lost three aunts and one uncle; my second husband lost both his parents.

“The reality of mortality and transience permeates my fiction and poetry.”