Eimear McBride (Sophie Bassouls)

Eimear McBride is the author of three novels: “A Girl is a Half-formed Thing”, “The Lesser Bohemians” and “Strange Hotel”. She has received a number of awards, including the Goldsmiths Prize and Irish Novel of the Year. McBride recently published “Something Out of Place: Women and Disgust”, a polemical essay in book form.

“Something Out of Place” argues that the contradictory forces of disgust and objectification continue to control women in western culture. Does religion play a part in this?

It has its roots in Judaeo-Christian attitudes towards women’s bodies. There are many cultural prejudices that have come down to us through biblical ideas that we have since disregarded and decided are no longer useful for contemporary living. But this issue has been transmuted and updated over the generations and continues to take different forms. It’s clearly serving a purpose for the patriarchal system that still holds power.

You call for an end to shame and taboo. What does this mean in practice?

There is still a struggle for women to find a place where their bodies are accepted and allowed to function [naturally]. Women cannot own the experience of their bodies. It’s still a badge of honour for a woman to go into work and nobody to know they are having a terrible period. Women are not expected to have a difficult time when they’re going through the menopause. That’s something that they are supposed to privately talk about in the kitchen! So accepting the realities of the problem of physical experience and normalising it will help women form a more contented relationship with their bodies.

Does this relate to your writing about the female body in metaphorical terms as “meat”?

I borrowed this term from Angela Carter’s book The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (1978). Men’s bodies [in our culture] are not seen as meat, but flesh, almost divine, separate and set apart. But women’s bodies go through many more changes throughout their lives. This has then been used as a way to condemn women to the place of the animal. Their bodies are seen as a measurement of their humanity, and the mind that inhabits the body is of no consequence. And so women’s bodies are treated like pieces of meat.

Does anything give you hope for the future?

The progress made in Ireland in recent years has given me hope, like the changes to the abortion law there. I didn’t think I would ever see that in my own lifetime. Also, the #MeToo movement made a lot of noise, but I worry that the momentum for real legal change slowed down in the years after that.

You seem to be concerned about the rise of social media and online culture.

The arrival of the internet seemed like it was going to open a platform for discussion, but it has instead closed and compartmentalised it. The problem with cancel culture is that it does not look for places to overlap. It’s creating a very poisoned public space where people are unable to find their places of connection. It was possible before to argue with people, and that was useful for trying to discover what it was that you believe yourself. It meant you could be open to ideas that you may not have previously even considered. Now people are put into a box, and if you don’t agree with every single thing that person does, they’re trash. That is a mistake that is going to take a long time to undo.

Pornography is another concern of yours. How can this be addressed?

Regulation is one aspect. But there should be a huge amount of education too, especially with teenagers: it really isn’t representative of actual adult sexual relationships. There are so many things in porn that are just untruthful. People want to look at other people having sex. That has always been the case. But also, how do you create a situation where people who perform are not being exploited?

Your novels are celebrated for the way they play with language and make use of ambiguity. What attracts you to this style?

It’s a mixture of many things. I was interested in modernism, especially James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. It also felt that there was a type of experience that was very much underrepresented in contemporary fiction, not just for women, but people in general: life that exists underneath rational thought. It’s a very powerful force that influences the decisions we make, how we behave and who we are. It seemed to me that modernism was a tool that could be used to explore that idea. We had been told that the future of the novel lay in social realism. But I felt it was worth going back to modernism and to look at those techniques again and to use them in different ways and describe different kinds of experiences. Fiction has been compartmentalised. But it’s possible to be a bit more promiscuous. And that’s the pleasure and point of fiction: you write it in order to get to a kind of truth that biography, memoir or journalism won’t get you to in understanding what it is to be a person. And everything’s fair game when you are doing it.

What other writers have influenced you?

Shakespeare, weird Jacobean tragedies, Thomas Mann, Gertrude Stein. To name a few.

The success of your debut novel, “A Girl is a Half-formed Thing”, came quite late in your career. Did that long struggle put you off writing?

After finishing A Girl is a Half-formed Thing I didn’t write anything for three years, then I decided to write The Lesser Bohemians. But at that stage, A Girl is A Half-formed Thing was still six years away from being published. Clearly, nobody wanted my writing. And I did wonder: is it right to start another book? But the truth was that I knew that there was nothing else I could ever do with my life. I had a kind of dark night of the soul moment. But being a writer and having a writing career are two different things. And even for successful writers that is also true. The career is often very disruptive to the writing. I kept going even though I thought I was writing into a void.

What makes you want to keep returning to the themes of the female body and the trauma of sexual abuse?

Every writer just has the thing that is interesting to them. For me it’s been the life of the female body, and what happens to a woman who has experienced sexual violence. But there is a progression [in the books] too. A Girl is A Half-formed Thing is about situating the reader right in the very moment of the abuse, in that complete sort of inferno of suffering that the girl goes through. But The Lesser Bohemians is about what it’s like to live after that, many years later. It asks questions like: what is it to be a survivor of abuse when you are alone again in the world and there is nobody putting a hand on you that you don’t want? Or how do you live in the world with that history, and what do you then become? Then in Strange Hotel there is an echo of those things in the background. I feel like Strange Hotel has sort of completed that period for me as a writer.

Will your fiction be going in a different direction now?

I feel as though each book has its own set of rules and requirements. And with each new book it feels like I’m starting again, like I feel like I have to write again from scratch. I don’t know if I will be interested to write about sexual abuse again, so explicitly. I feel like that might be over now. But then again, it might not be.

This piece is from the New Humanist winter 2021 edition. Subscribe today.