The second event we made it to at this year's Hay Festival (the first being a screening of Paraíso Travel and Q&A with author Jorge Franco and screenwriter Juan Rendón) was a conversation between Anne Enright and Arcadia director, Marianne Ponsford.
(This great photo is from the Cartagena Hay Festival 2008 blog, taken by photographer Daniel Mordzinski.)
Before the event, we received free copies of a lovely little publication by Arcadia and Juan Valdez: Primeras páginas: Los escritores de Bogotá 39 en sus propias palabras—the first pages of works by the Bogotá 39 from 17 Latin American countries (as The Literary Saloon has already mentioned). Here is the PDF and also the html version.
Among them was a page from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao translated into Spanish. (I eagerly look forward to its publication here as I would love to have more people read it.)
Marianne Ponsford began by asking Enright how old she was when she started reading. She replied that she began reading when she was very young. There were always many books in the house and she read everything she could get her hands on since the age of three (she would read her older sisters' books too). She didn’t worry about not understanding and even attempted Ulysses at age 14—she loved its musicality. But when it was discovered what she was reading, her parents took it away from her and put it up in the attic until she turned 18.
She confessed that like most adolescents, she read in order to discover information about sex. She read Lolita for the same reason, but when she came to the scene, she was very disappointed in its lack of specific technical information.
Ponsford commented that reading tends to be perceived as a solitary activity. Did she have a tendency to solitude when she was young?
She said that there were five children in her family and what reading provided you with was space—perhaps the only space that you had. But the family would also read together at the table...and she would also do her homework in front of the tv. People wonder how she’s able to write with small children in the house and she says that she now has absolutely no problem focusing with noise around.
After some discussion about the international school in Canada she attended at 16, she was asked about her breakdown. Enright declared that she is a "great believer" in breakdowns—"especially if you can have one while you’re young." She said that death is very enchanting to the young—that is, until they actually see it firsthand. Her breakdown came in her late 20’s and led to depression and thoughts of suicide. But she said that it’s very good for writers to have their personalities deconstructed in such a way. This is why she’s very patient with miserable (i.e., depressing) writers. There’s hope in their work and the possibility of resolution.
Ponsford then asked her about motherhood and made the comment that not very many heroines in novels are mothers. Enright replied that mothers don’t have stories—children do. A woman’s narrative stops as soon as she begins to have children. She said this was one of her challenges in writing The Gathering.
Ponsford commented that she finds her novels to be about the writing, the beauty of her language. And she has two children, so she’s been able to see language develop firsthand. She asked, "What have they taught you about language?"
She replied with her theory that all writers have "big mothers"—women with a very important, prominent place in their lives. When her daughter was learning how to speak, she would repeat what she heard and so speaking became an act of "feeding each other language." "All language takes place between ourselves and our mothers, which is why mothers can’t be written about."
She was then asked about a comment she once made about being uncomfortable in the presence of a nursing mother. Enright explained that in the act of nursing, there is too much love, too much need present. (Too much to bear looking at.) Ponsford asked if this could be used as an excuse to avoid feeling or sentimentality in her work. Enright replied, "Goodness is a great mystery" and she finds herself writing about "the emotions with which we are helpless." Men tend to write about killing, about the emotional incontinence in the act of ending the life of another human being. She, on the other hand, is interested in the emotional incontinence of loving someone. "It is a terrible thing… It is an absolute."
Ponsford asked about the lyrical quality of her writing and if she ever wrote poetry. She replied that poetry was too sacred to be embarked upon, but that she was capable of writing really good sentences and that’s good enough for her—because poets must go beyond that. She offered the work of Paul Muldoon and Anne Carson as examples—that with them, the "sentence goes somewhere very strange and very enjoyable."
She was then asked about writing being a painful process and she said that "the secret of writing is writing." She loves the creative process—getting in the flow of it and just writing unthinkingly. She mentioned meeting John Banville in an airport and asking him about the Booker. He said, "It’s terrible, terrible. The book is just terrible." He thought The Sea was the worst book ever. So she made the point that writers' emotions about their own writing is useless—that a work is what it is, independent of what the writer thinks of it. "Writing is about controlling your mood."
Ponsford brought up the idea that it’s taboo for women to be angry and asked her what she thought. Enright discussed her character Veronica and said she was very angry (at that stage of her grief). But she’s also angry at her world, at her family—the fact that her parents had children arbitrarily and never considered what it would take to truly care for each one. Veronica is angry—"but never at her children." And she only falls apart when they’re asleep.
Ponsford observed that book seemed to deal with the violence of male desire. Why male desire? Enright quipped that that would be her next book’s theme—the violence of female desire. But in this case she was interested in misogyny, in men hating women. She said that it was because she was in such a happy and settled place in her personal life that she could go over to the dark side and explore those things.
She was then asked if there were any advantages to being a woman writer. Enright said, "It’s wonderful." That it’s really a wonderful time to be a woman and a writer because in the past, some had to leave their children in order to write, but now she’s free to do both. "What a privilege."
Ponsford asked about The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch and how she could write it having never been to Paraguay. She said that her excuses for that are always 1) that she was pregnant and 2) that she couldn’t go in 1855. She said she was "just making it up." She didn’t want truth to get in the way of the story she had to tell—and she recommends writers to do the research after they write (to see how well they got it).
But Eliza Lynch was a historical figure. She read a 1950’s biography about her and she was interested in Irish women outside of the establishment.
Ponsford asked her if Gabriel García Márquez was an influence. She said that someone had told her that the only way to read him was in the original Spanish and so she read four pages of him a day with a Spanish dictionary on hand. She said his sentences are "like honey dripping off a spoon."
She was then asked about the butterflies she used in Eliza Lynch. Ponsford compared them to Rushdie’s in The Satanic Verses (the original inspiration obviously being Gabo’s Cien años de soledad). Enright explained that the butterflies in her novel came from the fact that butterflies tend to congregate in that way around "animal piss" and so it was a good image for her to use since Eliza was a beautiful woman who fed on human misery.
Ponsford asked her about something she once said about ideology being the end of art. Enright asserted that she believes this to be true. For example, with Marxism—"ideology ossifies." The stranglehold it exerts over a work must be broken for it to be of any use. Ideology is "awful for a writer" because writing is about stripping things down to their essence.
Ponsford asked if there were any other Latin American writers who influenced her and Enright mentioned Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. She went on to say that magical realism posed an interesting problem. That it is essentially "metaphor made flesh" and that it is "a very Catholic thing to do." She said that people who don’t like magical realism tend to be more at the center (perhaps more literal-minded). But she said that women must write more of it because sometimes it’s the only way to convey their experience. (I was reminded of Junot Díaz again and his thoughts on the immigrant experience and science fiction.) She went on to say that unmetaphorical books are written by people who know and own the world: "I can’t. It isn’t stable. I don’t possess it. Even in my own books, I don’t entirely know what’s going on."
She said she doesn’t know where she is going when she writes. She’s "used to the dark"—"not afraid of it anymore."
Ponsford then asked about her experience in winning the Booker. She confessed, "I have no filter" and that the strangest aspect to it all is the people who now read things she wrote ten years ago. She doesn’t remember some of the things she said and these things now get quoted back to her. It’s "very strange and very daunting." Prizes and all that come with them don’t matter creatively, but they do affect one’s persona.
Ponsford asked if her writing will be affected by it from now on. Enright quoted an old Irish song that says, "I know where I’m going, I know who’s going with me." She said, "I know how to sit at a desk"—which is one of the most important things for a writer. Emotions don’t count. She was reminded of a Lewis Carroll saying: "Jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today." She said that’s how it is with the critical world—there is never jam today.
"All books are failures." She said they were enjoyable failures, but that there is always a creative shortfall in the written word. Written words solidify the work.
In closing, she said she loved meeting Marianne and that she was "honored to be in Colombia." During the Q&A, she was asked if it were true that one must "write what you know." She responded that "we know a lot" and many "unexpected things" as well. But the imagination is also very important and there must be a balance. Writing is also about developing self-knowledge. She says she agrees with what Dickinson says, "There are worlds in our heads."
Someone else asked about her writing about motherhood. She said that it’s "sacred ground" and that there’s a difference between the social idea of motherhood and one’s actual mother. There is the Catholic idea that motherhood is the epitome of "sublime suffering." She declared that religion is a mechanism for the oppression of women, but that they do it extraordinarily well. It’s the priest who is the one who says that she’s the most important person—and this is why she must do everything and sacrifice everything for her family.
A question came about her literary preferences. She replied that she’s a restless reader—that reading is work nowadays because she can’t help but think of what she could’ve done better. Also, "I don’t do hierarchies." She never places one writer above another as far as "importance" is concerned. She said she has "friends" like Alice Munro—the writers one reads who are like old friends. But she’s really just "impatient with all of them." And tastes change. She used to love Lolita, but not so much anymore. Perceptions change with time. Nabokov is not a "fallen idol," there is just a different perception now from when she was young. But she said she loves Joyce—that The Dubliners still makes her cry.
(I had said that I wouldn’t post these long quasi-transcriptions…but it was all so interesting!)