“It’s hard to believe I’ve been answering questions about this book for two years,” muses author Anakana Schofield, speaking from her Vancouver home.
The book in question is her debut novel Malarky, winner of both the Amazon.ca First Novel Award in Canada and the Debut-Litzer Prize for Fiction in the US. Malarky is narrated by the flamboyant narrative voice of ‘Our Woman’, a middle-aged rural Irish widow who embarks on a voyage of erotic self-discovery after learning her husband (‘Himself’ ) was unfaithful, and witnessing her gay son in a passionate embrace with his boyfriend. To quote The Daily Telegraph, the novel “is both blackly comic and deeply felt. There is something heroic about the desperate resilience of Our Woman, and the originality of her depiction by Schofield, that leaves an indelible trace on the reader’s mind.”
Anakana, who describes herself as Irish-Canadian, spent much of her childhood in London. She also lived and worked in Dublin before relocating to Vancouver in 1998, where she lives with her partner, the visual artist Jeremy Iso Speier, and their teenage son. Her website bio reveals her mother lives in Mayo, where she keeps Kerry cows and goats (“good looking creatures,” Anakana notes ).
I commence our interview by asking about the mix of urban and rural influences in her life and work.
“If you were to split apart my brain and analyse it you’d find Mayo forms at least 50 per cent of my psycho-geography,” she begins. “That was the landscape that I visited my granny very often in as a child. It was a time when you’d go out the door in the morning and roam all day unleashed. I have my weather obsession thanks to Mayo and I hope my sense of humour. I find great humour in the west, especially among women.
“Likewise, having been exposed to urban and rural, I think this is evident in Malarky, the demarcation of outdoor space (Himself ) and indoor space (Our Woman ) and how both the narrative becomes claustrophobic - we are practically inside Our Woman’s kidneys - and expansive long sentences that give way or unroll (Red the Twit ). Curiously now I think of it: both of those are inverted as Our Woman inhabits the rural and Red the Twit is describing her time in the urban.
“I love to walk and read. I sometimes walk in the urban like it’s the rural and sit in the rural like it’s the urban - craving espresso and hunting for broadsheet newspapers in remote petrol stations that don’t have them! I’d like to buy a little field maybe in Belmullet or Connemara and build a tiny house 200sq ft by hand. But to do that I will have to sell a great deal more books in this lifetime and since my work is challenging I may have to avert such notions.”
Anakana’s CV encompasses work across a range of disciplines. She has written a well-received play about Katherine Mansfield, a video diary for RTÉ (about getting braces on her teeth ), a blog for The London Review of Books, and, since moving to Vancouver, a variety of performance art collaborative projects.
“I love to collaborate but I am first and foremost a long-form-fiction writer or a novelist,” she asserts. “I’m interested in what the novel can become rather than what we already know it to be. But my fiction work is informed by, and I draw from, especially when thinking about form, other artistic disciplines. My partner is a visual artist and film-maker. Some of my first readers are interdisciplinary artists.”
One of her strong areas of interest is labour history and in 2011 she curated Re-reading the Riot Act, a six-month series of events inspired by a famous 1935 clash between Vancouver workers and the authorities.
“I was captivated by the history of road building and the Industrial Revolution when we learnt about it in school in London,” Schofield recalls. “I remember seeing a tent full of men late night fixing the road outside Waterloo Station and wondering about the conditions under which they worked, so cold, night, physically crippling. Then I worked as a cleaner early mornings at a Dublin theatre a couple of times with women who were bionic in their work ethic. All these images have stayed with me.
“I’m always curious about watching people work. I’ve great respect for people who have endurance. I’ve kind of a practical streak, maybe I received it from the farming women around me, yet I’m barely half the woman these women are. My mother has extraordinary physical strength and endurance. I shifted muck with her a few years ago and had to make excuses to go to the toilet because I thought I’d collapse it was so hard. My interest in labour really came to the boil when I moved to Vancouver. I couldn’t understand the city until I discovered it had been a hotbed of labour activism historically and I began my artistic interrogations around that.”
Having worked as an artist in both Dublin and Vancouver, she shares her thoughts on the two cities.
“They are both expensive places to live!” she says. “I find more psychological space in Vancouver. Here, if you create a space or project people will come and join your interrogations. Dublin felt much, much, harder to crack. The price of failure felt much higher there for me. Ireland can still feel patriarchal in terms of literature. I also notice a more oppressive insistence on authenticity in the critical engagement with fiction in Ireland and this doesn’t interest me as an artist.
“I’m curious about departures in form and language, and authenticity or authenticating doesn’t offer much other than asserting what’s established or decided. One of things I admire greatly about Ireland and Irish people is the value placed on the arts and literature: there’s much more of a sense of cultural citizenship. Michael D Higgins is an incredible president and arts advocate. If you compare his frames of reference to Canadian prime minster Stephen Harper, you’d be surprised by the contrast.”
Erotic older women
Returning to Malarky, the erotic elements of the story, with the sexually curious widow and gay son fly in the face of much literary convention regarding Irish rural characters. Did she set out to subvert those more familiar images?
“I think perhaps invert,” she replies. “I like inversions. Careful readers will see that on the one hand Malarky appears to give you one thing and then just as the reader thinks they know who Our Woman is, she turns all on its head. It’s as complicated as human beings are. I felt frustrated with the appetites, or lack of, that older women’s sexuality is afforded on the page. It was important to set the book very firmly within the concerns and references that this woman, an ordinary woman, has each day.
“In this way, it’s constructed around polarities. The demarcation of space was important. Our Woman is afforded control of the indoor space, while her husband patrols outdoor space. When she crosses that threshold it’s usually to subvert, either his authority, which he knows to be wobbly or her sexuality (when she takes the Syrian to the barn to attempt to re-enact what she witnessed her son engaged in with another male ). Above all I wanted her to have an odyssey within the limitations or structures that her daily life affords. We tend to underestimate women, especially older women. We like to assume we have their measure taken. I guess I wanted to rock that and say really, you’re sure about that now?”
Malarky took Anakana 10 years to complete but the good news for admirers of the novel is that they will not have to wait so long for her next book.
“My next novel is called Martin John, it’s a footnote novel to Malarky and it’s coming close to completion. It concerns the character Beirut from Malarky. I think books take as long as they need to, to complete. It’s a bit like hurrying the building of a boat, it could take on water if you rush the corners there. The process can be very perplexing and exasperating, but never without revelations.”
Anakana concludes our interview by declaring how much she is looking forward to her forthcoming appearance at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature, where she will share the bill with Dónal Ryan.
“I was at Cúirt was I was 20-something in the audience listening to poets,” she says. “I loved the festival! I remember sending away for a ticket and catching the bus from Dublin. I am so touched to think I am returning as a writer and deeply grateful to the festival and the good people of Galway for having me!”
Anakana Schofield reads, with Dónal Ryan, at the Town Hall on Friday April 11 at 6.30pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie