Alumni Feature August 2017


Cause and Effect

By Features Editor Diana Jenkins

Anne Enright This month, your Features Editor is happily ‘at large,’ as it were. I’m writing this from France, beginning with what I’ll call the Anne Enright Effect.

Some of you may remember Enright was a guest at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, immediately following which I bolted two of her novels, The Green Road (2015) and The Gathering (2007). I avoided The Gathering when it published to acclaim, winning the Man Booker the same year; as soon as I caught a whiff of the child abuse theme, I concluded at the time that I’d really rather not. I have difficulty stomaching such material, whether in fiction or no, but the day I finished The Green Road, I found myself scanning the shelves of a local bookstore for one of its predecessors. The Gathering was the only Enright on the shelf.

Green Road cover Enright’s observations of human behaviour are painfully acute; in particular, her portraits of family dynamics are engrossing and unerring. As it turns out, they’re also triggering – at least for me. I’m not Irish, but I was born into a family that was working class, Catholic, full of alcoholic gamblers and deeply dysfunctional, so let’s just say I can relate. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, because many of Enright’s themes are universal. You know these characters – there’s a little of all of them in each of us.

The effect of the trigger was ultimately productive: after reading the novels with an urgency I think of as distinctly pre-motherhood, when I had the luxury of being able to read novels in a single sitting were I so inclined, I followed up by reading a couple of interviews with the author. In one – buggered if I can find it now, and I promise you I’ve looked long and hard – she says writers must write what they can’t imagine not writing. One piece I found while looking for the other makes this same point slightly differently. In The Guardian’s ‘ Ten Rules for Writing Fiction’, Enright and other leading authors share their top tips. Enright’s 7th is this:

Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.

I found myself asking what I had to write. If I abruptly came to a premature end, that would be a shame for lots of personal reasons, but what would I truly regret not writing? You may be surprised to hear that the answer immediately came, and with it a forceful need to produce that I’ve not experienced in a long time.

nightmare I recommend asking the question; in my own case at least, it unlocked something I hadn’t been consciously aware of suppressing. The intensity of the drive to emancipate it overtook my every second until it was done – both waking moments and those in which I was supposedly at rest. It produced insomnia and, when I finally slept, nightmares. There was no rest until it was out of me: free at last, safely purged onto the page.

I wish it were a piece of fiction, but it’s not. It’s a memoir essay. Now it’s done it’s screamingly obvious not only that I was burying it, but why: because I wish I could erase the entire thing from start to finish. I would love nothing more than to have nothing at all to do with any of it. Be that as it may, it’s undeniably brought some quietude and peace to my heart to own it: to claim my peripheral part in a terrible story, and to write some of it down.

It will not bring peace elsewhere. If it’s ever published, my in-laws, for a start, will be horrified. Though it has nothing whatsoever to do with them, I know they’ll be embarrassed to the point of spasm if anyone they know ever reads it. I know this because when it happened, I limped back to Sydney via their house. My future mother-in-law kindly picked me up from the ferry wharf, patted my knee in the car and said, “Well, what a dreadful thing. And now we never have to speak about any of this ever again.”

Then there’s my sister. It’s her story really, about my teenage niece’s death, and now I’ve written 5,000 words of it, I fret daily that it’s not mine to tell. On the other hand, I carry my own excruciating memories of what happened, and I continue to experience my own grief and guilt, so at what point does my pain qualify? I think writing the essay was in some way an attempt to make amends for my shortcomings, both as a sister and an aunt, and as such I really hate the idea that my sister will be upset by what I have to say.

And yet I wrote it anyway. And then I submitted it.

What drives a writer to such selfish masochism? It isn’t enough to simply write it; now I must reach out to others and ask them to read it too? It’s madness, really. I know the essay will cause trouble, wreak havoc and possibly cause pain precisely where there has been more than enough already, and yet – prolong it though I did – I finally couldn’t help myself because I am a writer.

This thing – this pulsing, living thing – teemed out of me. But it rushed out in a very specific way: I wasn’t writing to myself, I was writing to a reader. Writing it down and sending it out into the world were the conjoined twins of production: I wrote to have it read. I don’t really understand why this possibility of connection and communication in this case is so vitally important to me; I only know that it’s completely fundamental. I wasn’t writing into a void, I was trying to cross one in order to reach a reader I hope waits on the other side.

It’s not always so, is it? Much of my writing (and I suspect yours) sits in notebooks and diaries intended for my eyes alone. I’ve written countless unsent letters and an untold number of bits and pieces on scraps of paper that go nowhere. I also accept with as much grace as I can muster that my fiction may never be published. But this particular essay: no. No: that I wrote with the fury and transparency of a woman in labour, and I need/ed someone to bear witness. After feedback from a trusted advisor, I submitted it for consideration in an open call that closed the day after I flew out. I’ll let you know what happens, but regardless I’m extremely grateful for Enright’s midwifery in helping me push through the pain.

Further to the Enright Effect, I have a very distant alumni connection to the Irish Laureate for Fiction: we both attended the same international scholarship school in Canada as teenagers, though in different years. The Pearson College and indeed United World Colleges alumni network is sprawling and intricate. Pearson alone has produced politicians, writers, analysts, choreographers, artists, scientists and an artistic director of the Venice Biennale – the youngest in its history. I’m reminded often of the significance of that very formative experience, because alumni accomplishments are so vast and varied, something that resonates with my time both in residence at Varuna and in writing these features. I believe very much in the value of maintaining and extending links with people with whom you have a special experience in common. It’s my privilege to have that opportunity here, so thank you.

Ben Okri From my own long ago college days in Canada, Eleanor O’Keeffe, one of my closest college friends and former roommate, went on to co-found 5x15 in London with Rosie Boycott and Daisy Leitch. Eleanor’s the reason we’re in Europe at all: she married her long-time partner John Gordon in London last month. John co-founded global debate and discussion forum Intelligence Squared and has since launched the How To Academy; so they are a bit of a power couple as far as literary events in London go.

Simone de B As you’d expect, the 200-plus guest list for the reception was lousy with London literati; 1991 Man Booker winner and wedding guest Ben Okri’s affecting Grenfell Tower poem was the talk of the night. I hadn’t yet seen it, which was a bit embarrassing given I had a decent chat with the author (which ended when my – ahem – rather well-watered husband actually dared Ben Okri to write a poem on the spot – oh, for shame!), but the Financial Times published Grenfell Tower online the following week and you can now also watch the poet and novelist reading the work himself. I commend it to you in the strongest possible terms. I rode to the venue with the bride and two of her McGill university friends and we passed close by the charred remnants of the structure – it’s an overwhelming, very chilling sight, and the celebratory mood in the bridal car turned very sombre indeed. May those poor people rest in peace – and they largely were poor in an economic sense too, the toll of which continues to weigh heavily on everyone we spoke to who lives in the City of London.

I don’t want to end on such a grim note, so I’ll just say that today my family and I arrived in Paris. We’re staying in Le Marais for the next couple of days before heading home. I’ll do my utmost to immerse myself in this city so beloved of authors and artists for centuries – oh, the things I do for you!

Until next month, au revoir!

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  • A wonderful post Di. There's something brilliant and true about your essays and blog posts - always has been. They leave me blindsided and wondering. PS Have fun in France!

    Jennifer Scoullar Wednesday, 09 August 2017 18:52 Comment Link
  • Aww, thank you, Jenny - that's a lovely thing for you to say. And it was so brilliant seeing you at (and after!!) Peter's launch and having the extra treat of lunch the next day with you both. Just what this Darkling needed. Must do it again very soon. Xx

    Diana Jenkins Friday, 11 August 2017 14:19 Comment Link
  • Great post Di.
    You are traveling in many ways.
    Stunning idea for post - the effect of one writer on another ( yes we are open to more!) especially when it is so alive. I am so glad you seized your courage and wrote that memoir/essay. And that you sent it off. Respect. May you go strength to Strength.

    julie bail Tuesday, 12 September 2017 11:38 Comment Link
  • Julie!! JULIE BAIL, it is so good hearing from you. Thanks so much. Unfortunately the memoir essay didn't make the cut - which sucks - but it exists now, and there are other anthologies out there. I'll be doing a blab blab about all this for the November Feature (you poor people), but I also hope to see you soon?

    All the big, best feelings -
    Di xxx

    Diana Jenkins Thursday, 19 October 2017 20:10 Comment Link

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