Eimear McBride at Manchester Literature Festival

‘I didn’t know what I was doing,’ says Eimear McBride on starting the novel that would become The Lesser Bohemians. Once writing was underway, however, she realised it was about a relationship between a woman in her late teens and a man in his thirties and that there would be constant change in the status of their relationship.

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The book started with London, the London McBride had known in the nineties. The protagonist came through that. She’s a very different girl to the one in A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, she has the ‘capacity for making connection to the world’ says McBride.

She wanted to write about being Irish at that time, before the Good Friday Agreement ended The Troubles. It was ‘much more different to be Irish’ she says. There was a terrorist stigma. She also wanted to write about the other type of Irish immigrant to the one that’s often portrayed in literature – the one who went somewhere that they really like! McBride says that’s not part of the Irish immigrant story. She says her protagonist sees London as ‘Babylon’. She goes from ‘black and white to living in glorious technicolour’.

McBride says she’s interested in what is said and unsaid, what is hidden and what is revealed. An actor and a drama student seemed to be the perfect vehicle for this. For Steven, the actor, it’s his rakishness versus his underlying life. McBride says she builds her characters using methods she learned in drama school. She refers to it as ‘method writing’.

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When she was writing A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, ‘character is what I was primarily interested in’ and ‘looking at the totality of the moment’. She says she thought about what they were thinking, she thought about their physicality. The moment’s stretched out in what she refers to as ‘straight’ writing, but this is unnatural. She was aiming to do in writing what an actor does with their body when they’re inhabiting a character.

The play that was created from A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing McBride describes as ‘quite an odd experience’. She was concerned as to how the play would tackle the material as the novel allowed her to connect the reader directly to the character, to what was going on internally. There’s no external description of her in the book. She was never an object. The book was a shared experience between the writer and the character. However, she says, Aoife Duffin, the actress who performed the play did so with little ego and understood the character so well.

Discussion returns to The Lesser Bohemians and how McBride moved to writing about sex and male sexuality. She said she approached with caution and that ‘it is a lie’ that women can’t write men. She says the way she wrote about sex was the way she wrote about everything else. She imagines her characters as people, pre-gender. She writes from a human perspective, not a gendered one. She also listened to a lot of male singer-songwriters as she felt they revealed their vulnerabilities. ‘Novelists are a bit more bombastic.’

The novel’s about two key things: the first is people finding ways they can live with their own vulnerability/the memory of their vulnerability. The second is how people choose to interpret the past. What happens to an event when people recall being told about it and then retell it themselves? The past can be an enemy and a friend. Your past is open to everyone; you don’t get final say on your past. She asks, how much can you ever know even about your own story?

The interviewer asks her how she feels about her work being compared to Joyce and Woolf. ‘I love it; it’s brilliant’, McBride jokes, following her comment up with, ‘It’s an odd thing’. She says that A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing was ‘borne out of failure for so long’ that comparisons to Joyce were a way for people to talk about the book, even though McBride says that she and him are doing different things. ‘I’m asking the reader to be humane’, while Joyce asks the reader to be clever. What’s she’s doing is ninety degrees from Finnegan’s Wake. ‘What is specific about human life?’ she asks.

Interview with Sarah Ladipo Manyika

When the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist was announced, there were two books I was thrilled to see on the list. One was Martin John by Anakana Schofield and the other was Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika. Both books made a huge impression on me when I read them earlier in the year. I’ve re-read them both since and I stand by my initial thoughts, they’re both brilliant. I’m absolutely delighted then to have had the opportunity to interview Sarah Ladipo Manyika, who, I hope you’ll agree, gives good interview.

Your protagonist, Dr. Morayo de Silva, is glorious: turning 75, well-travelled, well-educated, lives alone, aware of her sexuality, drives a sports car, dresses in colourful clothes and planning her first tattoo. Where did she come from?

Toni Morrison is quoted as saying that if there’s a book you want to read that hasn’t yet been written, than you must write it yourself. This was what drove me to write Morayo’s story. I was finding plenty of books about older men but few about older women and even fewer about the lives of black women. Yet, all around me I kept meeting older women who’d led colourful lives. There was my neighbour, an opera singer in her eighties, who upon seeing my handsome, septuagenarian father inquired as to whether he was single. He wasn’t, but that didn’t stop her fancying him. And then there is my 95-year-old Zimbabwean relative who recently acquired her first cell phone and keeps it hidden in a bright blue purse tucked into her bra. When the phone rings, she announces to the world, “phone ringing,” but doesn’t bother to answer. She simply enjoys the sound of it ringing. Another woman that inspired my writing was a single, elderly Jewish woman, whom I met when I first moved to San Francisco. She was not as flamboyant as many others that I’d met, but she was just as fiercely independent. The last few years of her life were difficult ones and so I wrote this story – a more upbeat story, one that I would perhaps have wished for her.

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Sarah with her 95-year-old relative

I love the way you use books in the story, particularly when Morayo’s torn ones are thrown away and how Morayo writes her own version of Auster’s Winter Journal at the back of her copy of the book. How do you see books and the idea of writing our own narratives as part of Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun?

I believe that all books are in conversation with books that came before. And because Morayo’s books are in a very real sense her friends, her conversation with them is an embodiment of such conversations. Morayo, like me, is particularly attuned to some of the gaps in literature – to those voices and characters, that don’t often appear. Morayo, as an elderly black woman in San Francisco, is one such person. I find myself drawn to characters that are invisible due to socioeconomic status, age, gender and ethnicity. I’m particularly interested in how the so-called “outsiders” think of themselves in contrast to how others see them.

The story’s told from multiple viewpoints, which is some feat for a novella. How did you manage this so the reader wasn’t jolted from the story by a shifting perspective?

When I first started writing this story, I wrote it in the third person, but after some time, my characters grew tired of being represented by the omniscient third person and walked off the page in protest.

“Enough with the ‘he said’ and ‘she said’,” they announced in a cacophony of multiple firsts.

“Absolutely not!” I said. “This isn’t The Sound and the Fury! You’re just a short novel, so how can I possibly have you all talking in the first person. Readers will just get confused.”

“Says who?” asked my main character.

“Convention!”

“Convention?” she scoffed, “But aren’t you the one that keeps saying that people like us hardly appear in literature? Why keep restraining us then?”

“We’re just trying to be helpful,” replied Morayo’s best friend.

“Yeah,” added another of Morayo’s friends, “and personally, I’m tired of people looking at me like I need pity ‘n shit. So if you don’t wanna hear our voices, count me out.”

The novella’s dense with themes – age, the lack of understanding people have of other people’s cultures, homelessness, women’s roles – how did you ensure the story didn’t collapse under them? 

I wrote the book, leading with character rather than theme. In this way, I let the themes emerge organically. There were times, however, when some of my personal concerns threatened to sink parts of the narrative. I was writing this book at a time when videotapes of police brutality against black men and women filled the news. I was, and still am, angry and horrified by the persistence of racism and police brutality in America and elsewhere. I quickly realized, however, that Morayo’s story was not the place to vent my personal frustrations. While racism inevitably features in the novel, I chose the vehicle of nonfiction to address racism more fully.

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You published your first novel In Dependence with UK publisher, Legend Press, but Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun is published by Cassava Republic, an African Press. Was it a conscious decision to go with an African publisher?

Yes, it was a conscious decision to choose Cassava Republic Press, a publishing company based out of Nigeria and now the U.K. I realized that by granting world rights to an African publisher I could, in a small way, attempt to address the imbalance of power in a world where the gatekeepers of literature, even for so-called African stories, remain firmly rooted in the west. Also, when I presented Cassava Republic Press with my manuscript, a novella, they didn’t shy away from a genre that is currently perceived by its European and American competitors as an “awkward sales and marketing proposition”.  Being shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize is an honour that I share with my publishers.

How do you feel about the novella being shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize?

I’m delighted, thrilled, happy as lark, and also still stunned … a bit like a mule that’s over the moon and on cloud nine, surprised to find her load of ice cream, still intact. And what an honour to be shortlisted with such an incredible group of writers! The beauty of prizes is that it expands a writer’s readership. All of a sudden I have readers that I wouldn’t otherwise have heard of my work. It’s particularly exciting to be shortlisted for a prize that rewards the unconventional. Many people told me that a short novel wasn’t a good idea, that it wasn’t advisable to frequently switch viewpoints, not to mention writing a story about an older black woman. Who would read it?

What’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

I’m currently working on some nonfiction. San Francisco has a large homeless population and this is one of the things I’m writing about.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Several years ago, when I realized how few women writers I’d read, I decided to rectify that. I started with Marilynne Robinson’s Home, and what a treat that book was – so deceptively quiet, so deeply profound. I then eagerly raced through books by Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf and revelled in these authors’ ability to write so confidently while experimenting with form and style. I also enjoyed the way these authors depicted the so-called “ordinary” and domestic spheres of life in a way that I found fresh and exciting. Since then I’ve been racing to catch up on what I’d been missing. I’m grateful for blogs such as The Writes of Woman that feature and highlight women’s voices. I don’t have favourite writers but I do have favourite books. Here are some current favourites:

Longthroat Memoirs: Soup, Sex, and Nigerian Taste Buds – Yemisi Aribisala

We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo

Mr. Loverman – Bernardine Evaristo

Things I Don’t Want to Know – Deborah Levy

Home – Toni Morrison

Happiness Like Water – Chinelo Okparanta

The Face – Ruth Ozeki

Citizen – Claudia Rankine

Lila – Marilynne Robinson

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty – Vendela Vida

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

 

Huge thanks to Sarah Ladipo Manyika for the interview.