Nicola Barker is a major British novelist (“a genius” – The Guardian), audacious and mischievous, whose work is a subject for cultural conferences. Her current novel is H(A)PPY. Her next book, I Am Sovereign, is due out in the Summer of 2019. Barker converted to Roman Catholicism in recent years and here debates her experiences of Mother Mary with Editor Soma Ghosh. She also shares her some of her photographic work, created mainly during her visits to churches.
DG: Nicola, the first time we met, you laughingly described yourself as “very religious and totally ungovernable”. You’re the boldest of writers yet say you feel compelled to accept the intercession of Mother Mary on your behalf, in prayer or meditation. Can you explain this tension within yourself?
As a kid I wanted to be a go-go dancer and a nun. I never saw these two things as being mutually exclusive. Nothing has changed. I am rife with contradictions.
My devotion to Our Lady has grown over time. For years I practiced Transcendental Meditation. Then I felt a powerful need to chant on behalf of other people using beads. Eventually this wasn’t enough and I felt an overwhelming urge to take Communion. This meant converting to become a Catholic. I think it would be fair to say that there wasn’t a single cell in my body that didn’t rebel against the notion. I am liberal, a feminist, a puritan. But I submitted. I converted. And I started to adapt my religious practices. I began by saying the Rosary. This is how my great devotion to Mary developed. Our Lady is gentle wisdom. She is Sophia: all embracing, all forgiving. Luminous. Infinitely accepting. Infinitely tender.
I read something T.S Eliot said that struck a chord with me, recently. He said that the artist is a person who “is heterodox when everyone else is orthodox, and orthodox when everyone else is heterodox.”
My latest novel, H(A)PPY, has been commended for its apparent radicalism, but I suspect that this is actually a matter of form and that the ideology behind it is deeply conservative. I’m not sure, though, because I still don’t entirely understand what it is myself.
I do know that in life we learn the most by challenging ourselves and by confounding ourselves. By twisting ourselves into unfamiliar positions. By refusing to be just one thing. By not merely accepting our contradictions but by actively embracing them.
Showing mercy over judgement is often the key. Both with regard to ourselves and in relation to others. It’s sometimes difficult and challenging, but it’s generally the gateway to an Aladdin’s Cave of infinite riches.
DG: Compassion has a sanctified image in the Virgin Mary (and, for example, The Buddha) – but mercy costs us many tears. To forgive a God who begats a child upon us who is then crucified seems too much to ask of anyone. In H(A)PPY, you explore horrific violence against women. Feminine people on this planet are abused by the military, police and their own families – in The Congo, Sri Lanka and India, to name three places at random – and a submissive goddess doesn’t seem politically helpful. Our Lady, in her familiar stories, seems to have no voice. How are Her qualities useful, to us? Is Mary passive?
Oh no, Mary can be quite pushy sometimes. Remember The Wedding at Cana? When Jesus turns the water into wine this is only (somewhat irritably), on Mary’s persistent prompting.
Mary often appears to visionaries and saints. She is generally described as being infinitely lovely but utterly uncompromising. How could it be otherwise? One of my favourite quotations of hers comes via a teenage visionary in Medjugorje (she has appeared there literally hundreds of times since the 1980s) who asked her why she was asking so much of them – on top of constant Communist persecution and bi-weekly fasts she asked for the full Rosary to be said each day. The Rosary, it seems, was the final straw. When they complained she said something along the lines of, “Oh well. I think you’ll find that there are plenty of hours in the day.”
She also said, “My angels, there has been injustice always – have no fear.”
DG: You mentioned Transcendental Meditation. Are you able to articulate what The Virgin Mary prompts you to feel, when you meditate or pray to her?
Mary is a conduit to her son and to God – an intercessor – so I don’t pray to her but through her.
I am very attached to a particular statue/likeness of her at St Mary Moorfields in Moorgate. That’s where I go if I want to ask her about something serious. There, I’ve occasionally prayed and felt a strong sense of concern, love and even amusement. When I prayed to her for a particular person (very much a lapsed Catholic) I felt her laughing – it was a laugh of infinite warmth and acceptance.
Mary, at root, is about obedience and offering. First and foremost she is a mother. Good people have mothers who love them, but so do bad. Mary – like God – loves everyone equally. She doesn’t discriminate. She loves the persecuted and the persecutor. So this is our struggle, too, and our duty.
DG: This apparent paradox in Mary, a love for both persecutor and persecuted, chimes with my love of Goddess Kali. ‘God’, whatever It is, must be beyond human justice. But the removal of Mary’s sexuality, as of other mothers of saints, bothers me. Earthly mothers are compelled to love indiscriminately, by nature. I am bound to my son through my sexual and non-sexual body yet Mary’s virginity embodies an ideal of love unsullied by sex. Going back to your early fascination with go-go girls and nuns, what’s the point, in your view, of Mary’s virginity?
I may be wrong, but from what I remember Mary’s virginity is only mentioned in one of the gospels – Luke’s – and she’s a pretty marginal figure in the New Testament in general. But I’m not really concerned with this. My faith isn’t – and has never been – intellectual. It’s instinctual. It exists through grace and is sustained through persistent desire. It would feel like the greatest impertinence for me to demand that God – or the Mother of God – make sense to me in some particular way. My faith doesn’t need to be validated and explained and justified. I am not Mary’s judge and jury.
My faith exists not because of, but in spite of.
Sri Ramakrishna (the great Hindu mystic) says that there is only one God, but that there are a multitude of ways to worship Him. Mary is one of my favourite ways. She represents a kind of magnificently coherent incoherence.
H(A)PPY is published by @WmHeinemann
Photography by Nicola Barker. Main photo of Tania Barker by Nicola.