Laura Hackett talks to acclaimed writer Sinéad Gleeson about uplifting the literary voices and stories of Irish women, art as a means to communicate pain and the role of storytelling during 2018’s historic referendum.
You have been championing Irish women’s writing for a long time, but over the past few years there’s been an explosion of interest in this writing – I’m thinking of the huge success of Sally Rooney, Eimear McBride, Anna Burns and, of course, yourself. Why do you think the Anglophone publishing world is finally waking up to the talent on this island?
For a long time, the Irish writers who became successful tended to be men. Anne Enright is an incredibly important writer – perhaps the best Irish writer – and growing up, when I saw groupings of Irish writers, Anne was the only woman in it. And that’s not to say that other women weren’t writing – they have been – but they didn’t have the profile or success that Anne did. And then about six or seven years ago I noticed there was a new wave of young male writers – Paul Lynch, Paul Murray, Kevin Barry, Colin Barrett – and I said to someone, ‘I wonder where the next wave of women are going to come from?’. And no sooner had I said it than a year later we had Lisa McInerney, Sally[Rooney], Eimear[McBride] and Mary Costello.
We’re a very small country; we punch very much above our weight in terms of literary fiction, poetry, the short story, and publishers did pay attention to us. But there’s always been a certain gravitas attached to the male voice; it’s considered more authoritative. We’re all writing about the big themes – love, death, loss, relationships, family, sex, landscape – every story is about those things. But I think when women write about them it’s sometimes assumed that there’s something domestic or small about it, which, as we know, is not true at all.
There’s been an opening out of what’s socially and politically acceptable to talk about, especially in the last decade in Ireland, when we’ve had a couple of very significant referenda. For a long time, Irish writing had a shorthand of its own, which was about small towns, or farms, or priests, or all those things that are recognisably Irish. It’s not like that anymore – there’s been a breaking down of tone and form, and a willingness to hybridise form. And because of that, people feel like they can write about whatever they like; they don’t have to talk about totemic Irish things. So maybe that’s what has brought publishers from further afield.
Yes, that’s true. And I think there’s been a flourishing of a particularly female voice, not just an Irish voice.
It feels very global to me as well, because of what has been written about in terms of sexuality and women having their own sexual agenda, especially considering the #MeToo movement and row-backs (no pun intended on ‘Roe’ there) on reproductive health in the US. After decades of being silenced and told we can’t speak about certain things in Ireland, those things have made their way into my essays, the fiction of Sally Rooney and Anna Burns – politics, the body, illness, health, sex, sexuality, reproduction, motherhood, non-motherhood. It wasn’t just women; we were all told in Ireland not to speak about those things, because they were connected to the church and morality. We’ve become a more secular country and there’s no more fear of judgement.
I remember when Anne Enright launched The Long Gaze Back, and on the night of the launch she said, ‘You don’t need one voice, you need a wave’. She was referring to an anthology like The Long Gaze Back because it’s full of women’s voices, as is The Glass Shore. Irish writers are very supportive of each other, but particularly other women, because for a long time there was only room for one woman to be successful – and that’s not Anne’s problem, but it was up to her, she felt, to fix it. I felt that too when I was editing anthologies. The work of correction, of fixing the mistakes of male editors who just couldn’t be bothered to find more than a handful of women, takes you away from your own work. So there has been a wave, and what I love about the wave is that it stretches across decades and genres and forms.
But also – publishers are not stupid. Women are omnivores when it comes to reading. Women read books by men and women. The lifeblood of book sales and book events – which I can see with my own eyes – are mostly women. The people who form book clubs are women. That’s why I can never understand why men don’t reciprocate and read books by women, because a lot of men, including male writers, don’t read women (or as many as they say they do!).
It’s interesting that you mention how women are able to speak up about things which were disallowed before. I was thinking about how, in Constellations, you talk about the theatricality of illness, of the operating theatre in which ‘every player performs, except the passive patient.’ And how, under abortion restrictions, the female body becomes a piece of public property. In order to campaign against those restrictions (in the south and now in the north), so many women have been coming forward with stories of their own abortions. I wonder to what extent you see this storytelling as liberating, or to what extent it represents another instance of women having to make their bodies public, to perform their suffering in order to be listened to?
It’s a combination of both. It’s a kind of emotional labour, having to tell your story to get people to “believe” the experience in order to change things. When I knocked on doors during the referendum, on one or two doors, when they were hard Nos, I would mention my own story. I shouldn’t have to tell a story to convince someone to vote for something. It happened a lot with the gay marriage referendum as well. Being gay is very private for some people, and yet many of them came forward and told their stories, so desperately did they want the country to vote for this. So there’s definitely a performative element.
Storytelling was what got both referenda over the line because it appealed to people’s humanity and compassion
We shouldn’t have to tell people: ‘Here are four terrible stories which mean you should vote for women to have reproductive choices.’ There shouldn’t need to be those stories, you should just vote for it because that’s what being a humanitarian, and a non-judgemental fellow human being means. You might be against abortion, but you don’t have to have one yourself. If you’re a man you’re never going to have one. And if you’re a woman, you shouldn’t stand in somebody else’s way because you don’t know what they’re going through. I do think that storytelling was what got both referenda over the line because it appealed to people’s humanity and compassion, particularly of the older generation. Stories are very important. They get to the heart of things. And it was up to women, unfortunately, to tell them. No one should be obligated to do so.
In ‘The Moons of Motherhood’ you talk about the tricky negotiation between mother and writer, both practically and creatively – you say that ‘words were lost to me’. At the same time, motherhood appears in your own work and in the artists you discuss as a source of creativity – I’m thinking of Frida Kahlo’s paintings and Hélène Cixous’s ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, which you include as an epigraph. Is motherhood creatively generative, or prohibitive, or can it be both?
It’s both. The person I am now and the person who wrote Constellations is a product of many things that happened to me in my life, and pregnancy and motherhood are some of those things. I think I’d be a different person if I wasn’t a parent and I know my life would be a lot poorer if my children weren’t in it. Do I have less time? Absolutely. Did I spend a lot of time before I had children procrastinating and not writing? Very much so.
I wanted to write about motherhood, but I was conscious of the fact that it’s something that women get asked about and then write about, whereas it’s hard to find men talking about their fatherhood. And it’s not just motherhood; women are often expected to offer up more of their personal life. Myself and Emilie[Pine] are often told, ‘Your work is very personal’, or ‘You’re so brave’. But there are plenty of male writers who write very personal things whose work isn’t prefixed by the word ‘personal’ – it’s just ‘essays’ or just ‘non-fiction’.
Of course, Constellations is a book about the body and it would have been remiss not to write about pregnancy, especially since it might have been prevented by the illnesses that happened to my body. Pregnancy has been part of my health. And I love reading about parenthood. There has been some phenomenal writing about parenthood, even in books about different subjects; writing about adapting to parenthood when it has only ever been you and now someone else is more important than you.
Constellations is about a lot of things, and one of those things is empathy. Nothing teaches you empathy quicker than being a parent. It teaches you compassion and patience and empathy, all the things you would like to pass onto a child.
I remembered my early years in hospital where you feel completely powerless, that your body isn’t your own. Those formative years instilled in me an early feminism, before I even knew the word feminism
That’s interesting, since in ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ Cixous argues that the woman ‘writes in white ink’, that everything flows out of the experience either of being a mother, or living with the possibility of becoming a mother. And it seems like you have a very different approach – motherhood is one aspect of your writing but not a foundation.
You’re right, and you might notice that the motherhood chapters are quite late in the book. I kind of settled into the writing and then it occurred to me to write about it, and I think it was connected to the campaigning for the Repeal of the Eighth. I worried that since I haven’t had an abortion I didn’t have the right to talk about it, but I do have the right to talk about it because of my own experience of leukaemia [Sinéad knew that if she fell pregnant she may be forced to stop her treatment]. I also had a daughter and I feared for her future and her friends’ futures. I knew if I was going to write about the Eighth I was going to have to incorporate it into my own experience, as well as the wider issue of embodiment and autonomy. I carried a lot of my views on those things into motherhood. I remembered my early years in hospital where you feel completely powerless, that your body isn’t your own. Those formative years in hospital instilled in me an early feminism, before I even knew the word ‘feminism’.
In your recent essay recorded for Radio 3, as part of their Beyond Borders series, I was very moved by the story of the disabled man who ask you to sign his book ‘from a fellow traveller’. It seemed to me to get at the heart of your work, which acknowledges the impossibility of putting pain into words, while still trying to cross boundaries through story-telling. Despite the difficulty of describing it, art about suffering is so powerful – you talk about Franko B, Lucy Grealy, and Ana Mendieta, but we could also talk about paintings of the crucifixion, for example. Where does this power come from?
I wrote about the words we use to describe pain in ‘Where does it Hurt?’ When I first encountered the McGill Pain Index, which forms the basis of the essay. I was shocked by how big it was. But of course it has to be big, because of all the words we know for pain – smarting, stabbing, sharp, dull – there’s only a handful we actually use. And then here was this thing, with 20 groups of 7 words each, which seemed quite expansive, but it wasn’t expansive enough. And the problem with that list was that it was decided by doctors, the people who are not suffering the medical trauma. I tried to write that list and I tried to look at art and writers who were trying to do what I was trying to do.
There is something about pain, and groups of words are never going to capture exactly what it is. If you think about it, you and I could have a pain in our arm – in the same place, in the same bone. But it’s most likely not the same thing. Pain is like a fingerprint; it is that unique, in the same way that art is unique and writing is unique. If you said to someone, ‘You have to write 14 essays about the body and you’re going to call it Constellations,’ they’re not going to write what I wrote. So even though we’re failing to communicate pain, we’re all still attempting to find a way through it and making it manifest. That’s what Frida Kahlo’s paintings are; that’s what Jo Spence’s photographs are – an attempt to articulate illness or pain, the circumstance of being a patient.
I wanted to write about women, who might not look successful on paper, but their lives had such a huge impact on me. They don’t look like they’re full of achievements but I think they are.
In the essays about your grandmother and Aunt Terry, I was really touched by how similar parts of their stories were to those of the generations of women that came before me in my own family, and when I talk to my friends from home they all have the same tales – women who had to reckon with pain from an early age, women who wanted to leave and couldn’t, women loaded with responsibilities they couldn’t shirk. I know you say you don’t believe in art as catharsis, but is writing down these hushed-up stories a way of dealing with a kind of inter-generational female trauma? Or do you see it as more of a tribute to the women who made us who we are?
The only catharsis that could come out of it would be if they were able to write their own stories and felt better for it. They were a generation who would have thought, ‘Who am I to write down my own story?’ That comes from being working class and thinking you don’t have anything to say and that no one wants to hear what you have to say, which we know not to be true. I wanted to write about them because their lives were voiceless, but I can’t overstate their impact on me, particularly Terry. I wish she was around to see the book; she would have got a real kick out of it.
I wrote about them for the same reason I wrote about Rob: the book is asking, what is a good life? What is a significant life? What is a long life? My grandmother and great-grandmother had very tough, poverty-stricken lives: not a lot of experiences, not a lot of joy or travel or treats. But they achieved so much.
You’re not the first person to spot similarities. I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, ‘Let me tell you about my Auntie Carmel’, or ‘my great-granny Annie. So when I’m writing, it’s about my grandmother, but it’s also about all those women, who didn’t get the opportunities they would have got if they’d been born in my generation or your generation. Some women did grab opportunities, of course. It’s why I wrote about Dervla Murphy, the wonderful cyclist who went off to India with her daughter as a single mother. But there have always been mechanisms in place to chastise women, to make sure they stayed indoors and barefoot and without opportunities. That’s why I wanted to write about these women, who might not look successful on paper, but their lives had such a huge impact on me. They don’t look like they’re full of achievements but I think they are. And I think we all know women like that. We need to pay homage to those women who didn’t have as much autonomy and opportunity and freedom as we have now.
The essay is a kind of container for me to mash up all my feelings about those things and see what conclusions I draw.
I believe you are currently writing a novel.
Allegedly! I’ve been working all year on other things, but I just finished a short piece today for a journal and I think it’s the last thing I had to do, so I’m free to go back to the novel. It’s been on my mind for years like a woodpecker on the back of my head, or the tell-tale heart under the floorboards. If I don’t do it it’s going to torture me. I have loads of thoughts and loads of scraps. It’s not at all the same as writing essays; it’s from a different part of my brain.
What can the essay form and the novel do differently when it comes to writing from the body?
I think the essay is probably the most malleable form; it’s very customisable and elastic. It can be 20,000 words or 600 words. You can do a lot with the shape and form of it. The essay is about being truthful, figuring out something that actually happened, answering a question. And for me it’s a way of figuring out how I feel about something, whether that’s death, loss, motherhood, whatever it is. The essay is a kind of container for me to mash up all my feelings about those things and see what conclusions I draw. That’s not what you do with fiction, as far as I can see. My brain goes to a different place when I’m writing fiction. Writing essays is more interior, because you’re drawing on things you already know. But fiction is the realm of the unknown, the realm of the imagination – you have to make things up. A novel doesn’t exist until you make it up, but your own experience already exists in your consciousness. This novel is not about bodies and it’s not about hospitals. Those things aren’t in there, thank god, I’d be sick of it if they were! It’s about something and someplace else.
Finally, ‘A Non-Letter to My Daughter’ was such a powerful conclusion to Constellations. If you could write a letter to young women coming to terms with what it means to live in their bodies, and specifically what it means to write while living in those bodies, what would you say?
Some of the things I say in that essay are applicable to all young women. Everyone is entitled to tell their own story, their own truth, and unfortunately there will be many people telling you not to do that, or telling you to pipe down. So my advice to young women who want to write is not to let anyone talk you out of it. Your view is as valuable as anyone else’s. And be empathetic; look out for other people. Don’t be put out when someone else has good news or success, because there’s room for all of us. We should be intersectional, we should be speaking up for the women whose voices aren’t as loud – our trans sisters, our women of colour friends, disabled people, working class writers. That’s what I’d want to say.*
*Since this interview took place, legislation was passed which decriminalised abortion and extended marriage rights to same-sex couples in Northern Ireland. This could not have been achieved without the brave sharing of stories by women and LGBT people in the south.
Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations: Reflections from Life (Picador) is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops. For more information about Gleeson and her work, click here.
Laura Hackett is currently studying for an MSt. in Renaissance Literature at the University of Oxford. She has written for the TLS, the BBC, Review 31 and many others, and, in 2018, won the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme Student Critic of the Year. Read more of Laura’s writing here and follow her on Twitter via @HackettLaura
Lucy Writers would like to thank Sinéad Gleeson for allowing Laura to interview her and our express thanks to Gaby Quotrommini at Macmillan also.