Tag Archives: writing

“Carnival Flesh” in Tincture Journal

I am excited to have a new story in the latest issue (Issue Fifteen) of Tinctfestivalure Journal. It’s a short tale about festivals, energy, sand, and the Indigo Girls.

I should have included an advisory note that this piece be read while Nyepi by Nahko & Medicine for the People is playing. That song, and I hope the story itself, does a better job of capturing what I wanted to write about than any explanation I can give here.

Tincture is without a doubt one of my favourite local literary journals. Fifteen issues is a massive achievement for a periodical in the embattled Australian arts scene. Buy an issue for a few dollars to give it a bit more oxygen!

Flesh Memory on Verity La

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Don’t forget to check out my latest story, Flesh Memory, a very brief piece on VERITY LA about illness, running, sweat, friendship breakup, embodiment, healing, learning, and all for FREE! I rarely write such drastically personal things, but this came from a place of Truth and Reconstructing the Truth in pursuit of making something I could display in a lit journal.

 

Mateship With Birds

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That default 1950s rural town, a place of kookaburras and few neighbours and a brief isolation. Spaces and boundaries and tracks across properties: a clunky crossover of human and bird life. The unexamined strangeness of heterosexuality is half-examined as the neighbours cross paths, murkily examined and deliberately disturbing, sometimes sickening, delicately unpeeled and undressed. From milking to tea. Small ornithology and kookaburra poetry. Slippage in point of view. Boyhood and bestiality, weird codes of heteronormativity.

The Luminaries

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Knotted into the signs of the zodiac, the gravity of the heavenly bodies, the waning of the moon. The opening is dense, elegant, pitch-perfect, the end is urgent, a slice of light. Numbers, prices, dates sink into the consciousness until, finally, the threads settle. Caught in the ruined beauty of 19th century New Zealand gold mines, opium dens, séances, prostitution, silk dresses, hotel rooms. The narrative voice is present and Victorian. Always beautiful, always on the cusp of confusion. The language holds me. So many pages I begin to miss them. Intricate, intelligent, ever-expanding as the late skies.

The School of Roots: Abominable, Rotting Birds and Women

          Hlne-CixousGr        I am returning to Hélène Cixous’ astonishing book Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. The section is entitled “The School of Roots.”

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“Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:19-21.

Okay, surely we have got beyond this notion of the impure, the abomination, tied up with the body and so with women (as women are apparently trapped in the body, and so abominable).

impureBut if we haven’t? Cixous wants us to question it not by ignoring this concept of the abominable, but looking at it more closely: “I associate women and writing with this abomination. I do this, of course, half playfully, half seriously. It is my way of indicating the reserved, secluded, or excluded path or place where you meet those beings I think are worth knowing while we are alive.”

Why do we think of such things as unclean? Why do we struggle to think of women’s bodies as something other than inherently sexualised? Why do we still call menstruation stuff “sanitary products”? Why do so many still think of homosexuality as “unnatural” or, at least, a deviation from nature?

Again, we have arrived at Cixous’ great goal: to go deep, beyond even discomfort.

And so she draws on that “chain of associations and signifiers composed of birds, women, and writing.” The Bible sets out a great list of animals that are “abominable”: unclean, not to be eaten. And so many of them are birds.

a-harpyAnd so many laws about bodies, unclean acts, are about women.

So Cixous tells us: “If I gather these beings to talk about them in the same way, if I am worried by the fate of birds and women, it is because I have learned that not many people – unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – can really love, tolerate, or understand a certain kind of writing; I am using women and birds as synonyms.”

crowBirds frighten me. I shudder when I see a feather. Maybe Cixous can explain why.

“What is interesting is that birds, writing, and many women are considered abominable, threatening, and are rejected, because others, the rejectors, feel something is taken away from them. But let me leave women aside for today, since this is a controversial issue, and keep only birds and writing. Neither birds not writing take anything away, yet people feel that some forms of writing do take something from us. Clarice Lispector has never been a feminist, Genet is not a feminist, though theirs are writings that may hurt, may dissatisfy, and give the feeling that something is taken away.”

Hmm. Yes. But we need more on what it means to be “abominable,” and why it is so frightening.

evilwomen“That is my theme for today: to be ‘imund,’ to be unclean with joy. Immonde, that is, out of the mundus (the world). The monde, the world, that is so-called clean. The world that is on the good side of the law, that is ‘proper,’ the world of order. The moment you cross the line the law has drawn by wording, verb(aliz)ing, you are supposed to be out of the world. You no longer belong to the world.”

This is what I want from writing, and reading, after all. But birds?

“So why are those birds imund? Because. As you know, this is the secret of the law: ‘because.’ This is the law’s logic. It is this terrible ‘because,’ this senseless fatal ‘because’ that has decided people’s fate, even in the extremity of the concentration camps.”loudearth_full

Maybe that’s why people seem unnerved when I cannot provide an answer to the riddle of The Loud Earth. But I don’t know how.

“Writing is not put there, it does not happen out there, it does not come from outside. On the contrary, it comes from deep inside. It comes from what Genet calls the ‘nether realms,’ the inferior realms (domains inferiéurs). We’ll try to go there for a time, since this is where the treasure of writing lies, where it is formed, where it has stayed since the beginning of creation: down below.”

Is it a hell located in the body? In the way in the cultural imagination hell has always been located in women’s bodies?

“It is deep in my body, further down, behind thought. Thought comes in front of it and it closes like a door. This does not mean that it does not think, but it thinks differently from our thinking and speech. Somewhere in the depths of my heart, which is deeper than I think.”

She must be getting at something beyond that patriarchal dichotomy: mind/body, which pairs up with man/woman, the first term in the binary being always superior. I guess collapsing them is scary.

Cixous traces this collapse in Lispector’s work: “Clarice effects an interior return journey, since we began as matter before moving away from whence we came. She makes a return journey to our concrete origins, though the journey is a spiritual one. The journey is spiritual because it is not enough to put one’s foot on the ground to come back to earth. It is an extremely spiritual exercise, reintegrating the earthly, the earth, and the earth’s composition in one’s body, imagination, thought. Clarice does not do this simply: she proceeds by feeling her way, by desiring; she moves blindly, since she is an explorer in the domain, methodically, making mistakes.”

For some reason the earth is more frightening than the spiritual.

“Our fear, since we know perfectly well that we will reach the dangerous point where those who are exclude live – and we hate exclusion. This is our emotional, our personal, and political problem, the fact that we can’t bear exclusion. We are afraid of it, we hate to be separated, that is why we are apt to commit all kinds of small crimes, self-denials, and treachery.”cmccarthy_impure

That is why we must have a “school of roots.” We must be schooled in roots. Otherwise we sit complacent with our pretty clichés. This is where Cixous believes writing and literature can help us be brave, if only we put in the work: “Kafka insists paradise is not lost, it is there. But we are lazy and impatient. If we were neither lazy nor impatient we would be back in paradise. But we have to deal with this laziness and impatience. And of course with all the representatives of “Those Bible.” There is a whole list of institutions, media, and machines that make for the banishment of birds, women, and writing.”

She uses “Those Bible,” that strange construction, as shorthand for all those mind-numbing clichés: shopping centres, weddings, Cosmo, football stadiums, MTV, James Patterson.

shoppingmall      footballstadium

That stuff is only dangerous because it distracts us from real danger. They make the banishment of the abominable seem natural. Exclusion is normalised, until we have a whole range of things deemed impure.

“So in the same line of substitutions you find: Jews, women, niggers, birds, poets, etc., all of them excluded and exiled. Exile is an uncomfortable situation, though it is also a magical situation. I am not making light of the experience of exile. But we can endure it differently. Some exiles die of rage, some transform their exile into a country. I understand those who die of (out)rage.”

I wonder how Cixous foresaw so clearly how I would write about the exile in The Loud Earth. It was excruciating writing about such a recluse. I wrote about her out of hatred, yet I had love for that hatred.

It must be a reluctance to go into hell.

Only in hindsight did I learn from Clarice Lispector’s conception of hell. This was how I had been painting the cave, the grotto, the cellar in The Loud Earth:

“And if many times I paint caves it’s because they are my submersion into the earth, dark but clouded with charity, and I, nature’s blood – extravagant and dangerous caves, Earth’s talisman, where stalactites, fosscavesils, and stones together and where creatures crazy through their own evil nature seek refuse. Caves are my hell. Caves, dreamlike always with their mists, memory or longing? Frightening, frightening, esoteric, greenish with the ooze of time. Rats, with the crosslike wings of bats, hang glimmering in the dark cavern. I see black, hairy spiders. Rats and mice run frightened on the ground and along the walls. Among the stones the scorpion. Crabs, unchanged since prehistoric times, through countless births and deaths, would seem threatening beasts if they were human-sized. Ancient cockroaches drag themselves along in the half light. And all this am I. Everything is heavy with dreams when I paint a cave or write to you about one – out of it comes the clatter of dozens of unfettered horses to trample the shadows with dry hooves, and from the friction of the hooves the rejoicing liberates itself in sparks; here I am, the cave and I, in the time that will rot us.”

I am glad I didn’t read that before I wrote the book. It is too beautiful.

So how can we get up the courage to access this place of darkness, the roots?

buttressroots“How do we cross borders? It can be done in a completely indifferent and apathetic fashion, although the person who crosses borders in an indifferent fashion never crosses borders. The person who doesn’t tremble while crossing a border doesn’t know there is a border and doesn’t cast doubt on their own definition. The person who trembles while crossing a border casts cellarstairsdoubt on their own definition.”

Not only do we have to cross into darkness, we have to be aware that we are doing it. That can be almost excruciating.

For me this evokes José Esteban Muñoz’s embrace of doubt. Can we be lost in the darkness, amidst the roots, and find something worth finding? He thinks yes:

“Being lost, in this particular queer sense, is to relinquish one’s role (and subsequent privilege) in the heteronormative order. The dispossessed are appropriately adept at critiquing possession as illogical. To accept the way in which one is lost is to be also found and not found in a particularly queer fashion.”

aliceinwonderlandCrossing borders, trembling, casting doubt on our own definition, is essentially queer. So, essentially anti-patriarchy in the radically feminist way Cixous embraces.

That is why fiction is a necessary part of the feminist project: it allows us to imagine beyond the established borders: “The immersed author necessarily comes to the point of questioning his/her limits, his/her frontiers, his/her passages, his/her alterations.”

When we areRotting_Fruit trying to feel our way back to the roots, maybe to a place we have never been physically or imaginatively, but only psychically, then we have to embrace the abominable. Even if it will never stop being impure or unclean to us.

“There is passage through the animal state, then through the vegetal state, and so we move away from humankind; from the vegetal we descend into the earth, by the stem, by the root, until we reach what doesn’t concern us, although it exists and inscribes itself, which is of the mineral order, although it doesn’t hold together since we are aiming toward disassembly, toward decomposition.”SW_Queen

Rotting? Death? If women are thought of as closer to nature, more “bodily” than men, then our bodies must be closer to death. Is that why we have so many fearful women? Witches, poisoners, stepmothers?

Cioxus asks if “we have to be dying to go to the School of Roots.” And: “Yes, if we understand it to be an exercise in that delicate and respectful form of life we call dying. It is a difficult apprenticeship, but it has to be tried. For instance, if we are in joy and in love with writing, we should try to write the imund book. The imund book deals with things, birds, and words that are forbidden by Those He.”

forestwitchLet us think of “Those He” as, less impressively, the patriarchal order. Then, “from the heart where passions rise to the finger tips that hear the body thinking: this is where the Book (Alive)-to-Live (le livre Vivre) springs from…”

Cixous asks us to radically collapse that ultimate patriarchal construction: mind vs body. It is something we have to keep at the forefront of our heads and our fingers, because it has made us what we are. We have to undermine it self-consciously.

“We must work. The earth of writing. To the point of becoming the earth. Humble work. Without reward. Except joy.”

 

The School of Dreams: Writing, Darkness and the Uncanny

gothicblood“Whoever wants to write must be able to reach this lightening region that takes your breath away, where you instantaneously feel at sea and where the moorings are severed with the already-written, the already-known. This ‘blow on the head’ that Kafka describes is the blow on the head of the deadman/deadwoman we are. And that is the awakening from the dead.”

These are the words of Hélène Cixous, again, from her Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. The section is entitled “The School of Dreams.”cixoushe

So, why is itcixousbook that only writing can do this to us, only reading? Because it makes this place into a place we don’t know. The way dreams do. It is Freud’s idea of the Uncanny.

Reading has a lot to do with practice. People who find no need to read have not been shown how. Maybe they think it is about pleasure. In which case there are many things far more pleasurable: TV, shopping, eating. Things that require less effort. But reading is not about the same kind of pleasure. It is about patience, curiosity, and pain.

Theorising why we read, what we get out of it, is hard. As Cixous says, “I can’t make a recipe of it, for as soon as we begin to inscribe signs, to attract attention, we destroy. So though you should hear everything I say, it should then be absorbed, pass through the blood, without your thinking about it, with your living it.” Exactly the opposite of writing. But there are eerie similarities with writing first drafts. When too much second-guessing can leave you with no way out.reading

With first drafts we are scared: “The book writes itself, and if by chance the person opposite should ask you what you are writing, you have nothing to say since you don’t know. Yet the book is written only if it has an engine. A book that writes itself and carries you on board must have an engine even if you don’t know how it works, otherwise it will break down.”

We should not know how it works. We are writing out of the unconscious, out of darkness. If we are lucky much of the darkness will remain, but thicker, more meaningfully patterned.

Thinking of reading and writing as “The School of Dreams” is useful. First drafts should come in a dreamlike state. Because “all great texts begin in this manner that breaks: they break with our thought habits, with the world around us, in an extreme violence that is due to rapidity. They hurl us off to foreign countries.” That’s why reading should be uncomfortable. It makes this world strange, hard to look at. We learn, in Jeanette Winterson’s words, that “to be ill-adjusted to a deranged world is not a breakdown.” But it should feel like one.

To keep sane in an everyday world is to numb ourselves to dreams. “What we hope for at the School of Dreams is the strength both to deal and to receive the axe’s blow, to look straight at the face of God, which is none other than my own face, but seen naked, the face of my soul. The face of ‘God’ is the unveiling, the staggering vision of the construction we are, the tiny and great lies, the small nontruths we must have incessantly woven to be able to prepare our brothers’ dinner and cook for our children.”

Most people do not dare. Which is why I say it takes practice, patience, and a certain masochism, to feel that need to read great books. It is more a need than a choice. The axe’s blow can be addictive, but it starts with something dreamlike, something uncanny. We just know those pages are there for us. It is not a problem that most people don’t dare, I think. It’s just another way of being.

As dreams take us places without leaving this instant, this space, reading sweeps us to other times, other countries, other minds, other ghettoes, other languages, other brothers, other sisters, other wars. Probably this is why many people take to travel by plane as a substitute. Yes, physical travel is the substitute, but reading is the real thing: “I wonder what kind of poet doesn’t wear out their shoes, writes with their head. The true poet is a traveller. Poetry is about travelling on foot and all its substitutes, all forms of transportation.” Everything, not just your body in another city, clutching a suitcase.

TravelReadingAnd wholly different, and better: “In order to go to the School of Dreams, something must be displaced, starting with the bed. One has to get going. This is what writing is, starting off. It has to do with activity and passivity. This does not mean one will get there. Writing is not arriving; most of the time it’s not arriving. One must go on foot, with the body. One has to go away, leave the self. How far must one not arrive in order to write, how far must one wander and wear out and have pleasure? One must walk as far as the night. One’s own night. Walking through the self toward the dark.”

Freud’s idea of the uncanny is important for any understanding of how reading does this to us. He uses the word Unheimliche (roughly “unhomely”) to explain how something familiar iuncnanys made strange. It is even more frightening because it was once familiar, soothing. The evil doll is the most basic example. He explains, “this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” Or, for those of us less sympathetic to psychoanalysis, through the creative force that is at once pleasure, curiosity, and pain.

In the initial writing stage, if we are to write anything worthwhile, we must fall into an experience of the uncanny. We must find this world strange, find that the way we are writing this everyday world makes it into something unfamiliar, even frightening.

The poet Marina Tsvetaeva writes: “The state of creation is this dream state where suddenly, obeying an unknown need, you burn the house down, you push a friend off the top of the mountain.”

If it has to be done, it has to be done. The same if it has to be read. To write you must have courage to do such things but you must also have the sense that is dreamlike, that is more like feeling, to let it happen. “The scene is that of the other world. There is no transition: you wake up in the dream in the other world, on the other side; there is no passport, no visa but this extreme familiarity with extreme strangeness.” So, of course the best kind of travel: “Foreignness becomes a fantastic nationality.”

This is why dreams, and stories, rely so much on signifiers – or symbols. An object, a person, a place, means something else, growing uncanny: “Crossing the frontiers to the other world without transition, at the stroke of a signifier, this is what dreams permit us to do and why, if we are dreamers, we love dreams so much. It’s the cancellation of opposition between inside and outside, there is no explanation: any explanation would destroy the magic.”

dreaming-1We can’t explain a story any more than we can explain a dream. What does that object symbolise? Why does it matter? But it is different for me, different for you. “We are already there by a multitude of signs. And yet we understand nothing. This is how we enter a book. We are blind and ignorant and gradually things become clearer.”

That is why it tadreamingcastlekes patience to be a reader. Even more to write. You must belong to a place you can’t explain. “We are in the world of secrets of all kinds. One calls up another, gives rise to another, so we don’t know if we are inside or outside, or if we are one or two.”

We desire answers, it is all about desiring, but they don’t exist. Cixous understands the ultimate darkness of all good texts: “I hope this sounds mysterious to you. We are immediately drawn into the centre where there is a secret. Do you want to know what the secret is? You can’t because it is a secret.”

And what all good readers, which is what all good writers must be first and foremost, understand: “It is the feeling of secret we become acquainted with when we dream, that is what makes us both enjoy and at the same time fear dreaming. When you are possessed by a dream, when you are the inhabitant of a dream, you are driven by this, by a kind of heart beating: and the dream says something that is never said, that will never be said by anyone else and which you unknow; you possess the unknown secret. It is this, not the possibility of knowing the secret, that makes you both dream and write: the beating presence of it, its feeling.”

The feeling of secret. That’s why we must feel dreams, if we want to write truthfully. “Dreams remind us that there is a treasure locked away somewhere, and writing is the means to try and approach the treasure. And as we know, the treasure is in the searching, not the finding.”

Of course, this is fear above all. But Cixous reassures: “My authors are dreamers: they have understood what Tsvetaeva develops magnificently in ‘Pushkin and Pugachev’: that the unconscious is at the source. I am not speaking in Freudian terms: it has to do with the source of instincts that will be the motors of writing, what Tsvetaeva calls, when she tells the story of the ‘pathfinder,’ ‘the pure element of fear.’”

fearWhy? Because the Other is ultimately unknowable. Sometimes this is about respect: true knowing is unknowing. I cannot know you, so I cannot possess you. But that does not stop me feeling betrayal. The gap, the unknowability, is the source of the greatest kindness and closeness but also the greatest cruelties. “Love and the axe are inseparable. Only the ones who love us can kill us. Those who love us kill us. And we kill those we love. This is what we cannot live. Only the dream tells us this.”

Because it lets us move out of familiarity, into strangeness. Cixous reassures us, again, though not wholly convincingly: “we can enjoy all these axe blows, since we are in the dream’s sacred space where all the rules that ordinarily make us excuse ourselves for the dream are waived. A space that is both totally free and totally limited.”

dreamingwaterSo betrayal becomes meaningful. A lack of reciprocity is symbolic. Her silence is a pattern. His refusal is gothic. But it must be just as cruel as real life.

I had not understood why I adored incomplete endings so much until I read “The School of Dreams.” This is why the short story is so satisfying, ending without end. No neat “wrapping up” of a crime drama. Nothing I write ends neatly. For some, this makes no sense. People want to know “the answer.” Especially for The Loud Earth, the thing that I enjoy most is people’s wondering. A sign of intelligence. Don’t ask me to sum it up for you. I do not know. We both possess the unknown secret, after all.

“As an author I can say that if we are accidentally seized with worry about a text’s ending then this is a totally peculiar experience, one that is disturbing and not necessarily agreeable. If we are completely lost we ask ourselves: How will this end? Will it end? And what if it doesn’t end? This question can take hold of you. It’s far more upsetting than the question of beginning. For one thing a text can have begun before us, which is the best way. For another, getting stuck with the beginning – an experience I have never had – is not so serious since we only have to wait. The text will end up by beginning. A text that presents itself but doesn’t end questions the identity of what we are doing. But does a dream end? Perhaps we don’t think about it much since it’s a difficult moment. The fact that the end might escape us is perhaps the sensation we find most difficult to reconcile with. If the end escapes us where are we? A feeling similar to that of abandonment or the uprootedness we feel when we wake up badly looms. If the dream has stolen away we are inflicted with a more or less intense sensation of mourning. Books that don’t want to end question the entire economy of our relationship to writing and to life. There are books that end all of a sudden. We were writing and suddenly it’s over.”

How can I ever thank Cixous for putting it like that? Not ending is uncanny. We must be lost in fog and accept it, still desiring.

lakenightI suppose this is why I am not a fan of realism. Cixous says Clarice Lispector’s work “appears to be realist, but it has roots of meaning and revelation that go well beyond realism. It plunges into the profoundest depths of our secrets; we could find the signifiers of this scene in a dream.”

And Winterson, who understands the revelation beyond realism: “The continuous narrative of existence is a lie. There is no continuous narrative, there are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark.”

That is why I believe realism is, ironically, a genre of lies.

Because we should seize on this darkness, possessing the unknown secret. “I have always adored these unknown ones who walk along the quay. You can’t write anything more magnificent than this loss which is the subject’s severance, the nonrecognition that, far from remaining abstract, will be materialised to the point of the grass growing on the graves and, then, followed by the arrival of dreams.”

It’s these signifiers, the flesh of detail, that make the world uncanny. All of a sudden we are caught in a place that looked familiar in another light but now, somehow, everything is gone. It is new and old. And we desire to know why, but we can’t. Possessing the unknown secret.

dreamsc

A Fanatic Heart: Edna O’Brien’s screaming women

afanaticheart

This is my first experience with Edna O’Brien, whom I have been longing to read for years, and she did not disappoint. Her work itself and the reaction to it pose a giant problem for the patriarchal literary world and male-dominated society in general. Bolder than Alice Munro, and in the more restrictive context of Ireland, she is just as insistent on recording women’s voices in all their honesty, beauty, woundedness, sexuality, and strength. But why is her unapologetic insistence seldom celebrated by feminists?

O’Brien is well-known for writing about women’s experiences and is certainly a feminist writer. She has been called the “doyenne of Irish literature” and Philip Roth’s admiration has stuck equally fast: he referred to her as “the most gifted woman now writing in English.”

edna1Putting aside the accusations of misogyny levelled at Roth’s own writing, why these qualifications? Why is she “the most gifted woman?” Why the “doyenne,” which means “senior lady” or “grande dame” or something? Ah, the eternal problem of male writers as the default, or the “great writer” signifying a man unless otherwise specified. Why is it that the topics of great literature are simply “human experiences” when written about by a man but if a woman writes about what she knows she is writing about “women’s experiences”?

authorsWho are the great Irish writers?

Joyce, Beckett, Heaney, Yeats, Wilde.

irishwriters

Could it be more obvious that our society is patriarchal when men’s experiences are universal but women’s are specific to us, somehow niche? It is the way textbooks show the human body as male, and the female body may be shown to illustrate reproduction, or for the way it differs from the “standard” of the male body. It is a body marked by difference. O’Brien’s work is marked by its difference from the universal norm of male experience.

This at once shows us our patriarchal heritage (and current condition) and makes her work feminist. She knows she is writing in a patriarchal world. The world she depicts is patriarchal. And she is making a space for the voices regarded as different, marginal, and so often unheard – women’s voices.

Given her generous concern with women’s experiences, it is perhaps surprising that she has been largely ignored or dismissed by feminist critics. Apparently her characters are too defeated, wounded, victimised, dependent on men. This catches her work in an odd in-between place. On the one hand, her first book The Country Girls was banned and othecountrygirlsften burned in Ireland for its depiction of women’s sexuality and she chose self-imposed exile, echoing Joyce and Beckett, to write more freely in London. On the other hand, she hasn’t had much interest from those most critical of patriarchy’s forced silences: feminists.

This may have something to do with the fact that O’Brien doesn’t seem to write from a consciously “feminist” perspective – that is, applying academic feminist theory to real life – and as far as I can tell has never really embraced a feminist label. As a fiction writer also entranced by feminist theory I wonder: how can we creatively represent feminist ideas, undermine patriarchal “real life” society and at the same time patriarchal language and systems of representation that are our legacy as writers in English?

For one thing, we need to honestly give voice to women’s experiences as we know them. Making a decision to write about “strong female characters” may be politically appropriate, but it’s not always ethical. Much of the trouble comes from the fact that women characters are expected to stand in for women as a whole – every single woman everywhere right now. Fiction writers simply aren’t concerned with that. The short story, the novel, are intensely personal and subjective forms. They are not political tracts. They examine the individual: her life, her thoughts, her heart. Of course, this opens out onto the world. But in the same way that men in fiction aren’t expected to represent an entire gender, we need to write weak women, wounded women, women who find comfort in patriarchal certainty, women who try and fail, women who are unsure, women who have no other choice but to live in exile. Fiction writers have a very special relationship to the old feminist adage: “The personal is political.”

For many Western liberal feminists, religion isn’t a popular subject. Writing about Ireland, despite her exile, O’Brien cannot help but be tied up with Catholicism, and she is never apologetic about it. Many feminists have forgotten about the reality of women’s experiences to such an extent that they wish to deny the power and truth of religion in many women’s lives. This cultural imperialism seems to me, if anything, anti-feminist. Feminism is an opening out, a construction of space, in which women’s voices are loud and truthful and multiplicitous.

Failure to recognise the subtlety with which O’Brien writes about the Catholic Church is unfortunate, because it is a failure to deconstruct the kind of patriarchal power the Church circulated, and still circulates today, which can teach us a lot about the patriarchal power that circulates in society as a whole. When asked why she has been forgiving of her father’s “small oppressions” but not so the Church’s, O’Brien remarked:catholicchurch

“The mantle of the Church, the power of the Church, the jurisdiction, the authority, was so overwhelming and not about Christianity. It was very secular. It was about power… What was done to people in the name of God was wrong in every way. It was a murder: psychic, social, and heart murder. And that was because the Church, the bishops and priests, they were omnipotent.”

This is murder done to individual women, and relationships between women. In “A Scandalous Woman” young Eily Hogan is sacrificed following her passionate relationship with a bank clerk and her pregnancy. She is punished – beaten and forced into solitary confinement and finally into marriage. Her future, her sanity and her very Self are sacrificed to a morality that denies women choice and a full sexuality. So the narrator concludes, having visited Eily after some time when they are both married and mothers, “what with that and the holy water and the red rowan tree bright and instinct with life, I thought that ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial women.”

ITV ARCHIVEEdna O’Brien

It is not about religion, it is about power. A centuries-long power that has othered women, objectified them, made them into nothing but reproductive objects. O’Brien does not diminish the crime of this. It’s not simply “the way things are,” that women marry men and raise children, it is murder.

To recognise the wounds this causes is not to represent women as merely victims, but to give them a voice and the words with which to represent this recognition. Her narrators are intelligent. They experience desire and sexuality fully, in a way they are told is only natural for men. O’Brien also knows that to recognise the full force of patriarchal denial is to muddle your way through a mess of alternatives to compulsory heterosexuality, marriage and the nuclear family.

She writes the complexity of women’s relationships with women without resorting to the reductive patriarchal categories of “lesbian” and “heterosexual.” But she retains that sense of transgression that must be present in all relationships between women in a patriarchal hierarchy of intimacy, in which women’s first priority is supposed to be husband and children. Unfortunately this aspect of her work has been largely ignored, which merely echoes the tendency of a patriarchal society to ignore women’s friendships, desires and sexualities.

holdinghandsIn the story “Sister Imelda,” the narrator, a young girl in a Catholic convent, develops an intimacy with a nun that is often blocked given the strictures of their context. She says, “I could cry, or I could tremble to try to convey the emotion, but I could not tell her” and “I dared to touch her wrist to communicate my sadness.” O’Brien narrates the small resistances women find to express intimacy, which in a patriarchal context is not supposed to be bodily. We all know the Madonna/Whore dichotomy that has been a staple of patriarchy for centuries. A woman may only be “pure” (and respectable to patriarchal society) when she denies her sexuality, or in fact when she has none. O’Brien blurs these lines, just a year after Adrienne Rich’s seminal 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Intimacy and desire between women, which for O’Brien cannot be easily categorised as and reduced to sexual or non-sexual, is a way of resisting the overwhelming force of institutional heterosexuality that proscribes women’s futures. And it happens within a so-called patriarchal institution – a convent – which, let’s not forget, is made up of women.

Adrienne RichAdrienne Rich

Writers who are not interested in perpetuating patriarchal systems of thought and relationality must recognise such relationships between women. Just recognising them is difficult enough, because as Rich tells us “We begin to observe behaviour, both in history and in individual biography, that has hitherto been invisible or misnamed, behaviour which often constitutes, given the limits of the counterforce exerted in a given time and place, radical rebellion. And we can connect these rebellions and the necessity for them with the physical passion of woman for woman which is central to lesbian existence: the erotic sensuality which has been, precisely, the most violently erased fact of female experience.”

So in “The Mouth of the Cave” we read the deceptively simple narrative of a woman coming across a woman standing in the grass, dressing. She asks herself “Why am I running, why am I trembling, why am I afraid? Because she is a woman and so am I. Because, because? I did not know.”

That these intimacies and desires are written as transgressive, never fully enacted, confusing for the reader and narrators at once, is explained by Rich too. As she forces us to acknowledge: “What deserves further exploration is the doublethink many women engage in and from which no woman is permanently and utterly free: However woman-to-woman relationships, female support networks, a female and feminist value system are relied on and cherished, indoctrination in male credibility and status can still create synapses in thought, denials in feeling, wishful thinking, a profound sexual and intellectual confusion.”

Her stories focus very little on marriage and children. They confront the expectations of domesticity without depicting its day-to-day details. The beautiful and shocking story “Paradise” tells of a young woman on holiday with a wealthy older man who has been married three times and his friends. The impossibility of being herself in such an environment is painful: she cannot delude herself into the idea of a perfect love affair that only comes from the absence of outsiders. “She knew she ought to speak. She wanted to. Both for his sake and for her own. Her mind would give a little leap and be still and would leap again; words were struggling to be set free, to say something, a little amusing something to establish her among them. But her tongue was tied. They would know her predecessors. They would compare her minutely, her appearance, her accent, the way he behaved with her. They would know better than she how important she was to him, if it were serious or just a passing notion.”

The small unkindnesses in unequal relationships that usually remain buried become the unforgiveable murder that O’Brien documents elsewhere. In taking swimming lessons the narrator finds both an incapacity for something supposed to be easy and a fascination with something she doesn’t quite understand. Finally, alone, she submits to the water: “As she went down to the cold and thrilling region she thought, They will never know, they will never, ever know, for sure.” The moment is most meaningful for her because she is alone, finally allowed to confront what Simone de Beauvoir would call her “transcendence” or her subjectivity: not how others see her but how she sees herself. “At some point she began to fight and thresh about, and she cried, though she could not know the extent of those cries.”

drowningOf course, the impropriety of her suicide attempt leads to the guests leaving early and the man she is with expresses no empathy and she understands the relationship is over. The strength wrapped up in a moment of apparent defeat is clear in the reaction to her near-drowning: “the guests were polite and offhand and still specious, but along with that they were cautious now and deeply disapproving. Their manner told her that it had been a stupid and ghastly thing to do, and had she succeeded she would have involved all of them in her stupid and ghastly mess.

The desperate measures to which women must go to speak, to imprint themselves on a world that consigns them to being looked at, to immanence as Beauvoir would say – or to being objects – is nothing short of sacrificial. O’Brien’s women aren’t women at ease. How could they be? But they are “strong women.” Along with being wounded, defeated, victimised. I think this has something to do with how O’Brien correlates writing with mental distress.

Name me a writer who isn’t in psychological distress. They wouldn’t be writers unless they were in distress and complex and turbid and disturbed. Harmonious, happy, or for that matter businesspeople, are not creative people, they’re not.

This is because writers must be outsiders. We have no other choice. So too for the women of O’Brien’s fiction, and that is why their voices are painful. They force us, if we are willing to read, to hear them. We feel their disturbance because O’Brien has made a space in the restrictive patriarchal symbolic. As Julia Kristeva says, “Women have the luck and responsibility of being boundary-subjects.” Sometimes it’s only in murmurs or cries or fights that O’Brien’s women can speak. But in the inscription of their voices we are also forced to recognise the shame, murder and sacrifice enacted by the patriarchal silencing that is never without gaps.

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