June 10, 2014

From the Auckland Writers Festival to the Baileys Women's Prize: Eimear McBride

Iain Sharp, who chaired the AWF session with Eimear McBride, cheers her win (and his call) in the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction.

Having often in the past been proven hopelessly wrong when predicting the winners of literary awards, I can’t resist crowing a little over my successful prophecy that Irish writer Eimear McBride would take the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction with her remarkable debut novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. The innovative fragmented prose style, which the author describes as not so much “stream of consciousness” as “stream of pre-consciousness”, commands respect in itself. Beyond that, the deeply disquieting subject matter forces readers to think hard about gender divisions and expectations, not just in 1980s Catholic Ireland, where the novel is set, but in general.

I had the privilege of chairing the session with Eimear McBride at this year’s Auckland Writers Festival. In the days leading up to the event I felt quite apprehensive. This, I hasten to say, was not because I feared that Eimear would be as dark, moody and difficult as her book. I’d read, heard and seen interviews with her and she was pleasant and cooperative in all of them. My worry was that it’s impossible to discuss A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing without touching on the three topics most likely to upset or offend audiences: sex, religion and politics.

As it turned out, I was fretting too much. Eimear, I soon discovered, is skilled at discussing contentious issues eloquently but without causing umbrage and we were speaking, in any case, to a good-tempered, broad-minded and intelligent crowd.

I also quickly learned that Eimear is adept at fending off questions about how autobiographical her novel is. She clearly prefers to keep her private life private. “If you’ve read to the end of the book, you’ll know the girl can’t be me,” she said during the session, then added that ten years ago, when she first tried – without luck – to find a publisher for the book, she was told it might be more “marketable” if presented as a memoir.

Written in 2004, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was finally published in 2013. Eimear told me that its subsequent success still seemed a bit unreal to her and she was now on the international festival circuit with the likes of Alice Walker and A M Homes. When I met her in the green room, she had just come from attending the hour-long session with Homes, ably chaired by Paula Morris.

As we headed onstage, Eimear was a little nervous. She was anxious, she told me, about losing her voice. As it turned out, her voice held superbly. She not only read – inimitably – from the novel but even did an impromptu recital of the first stanza and the refrain from Yeats’s “The Stolen Child”, which features in the book.

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we've hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 19:23
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