Wendy Erskine’s collection of short stories, Sweet Home, will be published by Picador in June 2019. It was shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize and features small-time Belfast mafia, suppressed lesbianism and the precarious long-distance love between the discarded relatives of divorce. The Demented Goddess’ editor, Soma Ghosh, discusses family entrapment with Erskine. Are domestic interiors and our emotions really, as traditionally viewed, better addressed by feminine than masculine artists?
The Demented Goddess: Many of the stories in Sweet Home probe the membranes between humans living in close proximity, revealing lies, resentment and violence. Male writers have traced such interdependencies: Joyce, John Updike, Henry James; but rarely with the bitterness of, say, Edna O’Brien. Do feminine persons have more licence to ruthlessly unpick these connections? Is it a form of revenge?
Yeah! So true. I am really interested in those semipermeable membranes. I wouldn’t say that feminine persons have more licence to examine them. I think that this is an area where anyone, should they wish to venture, has licence. For sure, a forensic examination of human relations may end up as a type of revenge on the world: there is nothing wrong with that. But I have read Edna O’Brien where she says ‘I’m not bitter; bitterness is boring.’ I agree and think anger is more energizing and exciting than bitterness. A novel I love is The Bluest Eye which is unsparing in its fury. There are human beings in close proximity there and Morrison handles misogyny, racism, self- loathing and crushing poverty with such ferocity and force. It’s an amazing book as far as I concerned. In terms of my stuff, well, if art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament, as Zola says, then my temperament is doomy and watchful, alert to the seedy, the stoic and the funny.
DG: Do you prefer to write about love or disappointment?
OK, let me consult my spreadsheet for my stats in relation to that. Hmm. Well, there’s that quotation from Tolstoy that is trotted out all the time about how all happy families are alike whereas each unhappy family is who miserable in its own way. I don’t really buy that. There’s loads of different ways to be happy just as there are loads of different ways to be sad. The same goes with love, which I would say has subsumed within it a fair degree of disappointment. In my collection, Sweet Home, there’s teenage girls beating up other girls because they kind of love them, there’s a young guy having an affair with his older alcoholic boss whose husband is dying, an old teacher in love with a young Gaelic player, a girl who hates and fancies her friend’s mother. So yes, there’s plenty of love, but it’s the kind that rarely works out. I am mindful of the line sung by Cher that sooner or later we all sleep alone.
DG: You submerge your voice in multiple points of view, slipping into vernacular dialogue without speech marks, your prose suggesting the alleyways of a hopeless locality. Does gender have any bearing on a writer’s artistic skill in rendering interior reality?
If we’re talking purely about skill, then anyone regardless of gender has the chance of being useless – or good – at it. Skill is skill. Of course, the rendering of interiority has long been associated with the feminine, from, since, I suppose, Austen starting to use free indirect discourse. To say however that women have a particular ability in this area, that this is their natural province, just isn’t wise. Can James Kelman not do this? Can Will Eaves not do this? Why legitimize the idea that it’s female territory? That’s limiting. I think of the rad teenager Mary Shelley writing about science and responsibility and Romanticism and the nature of existence, the twenty-something Shelley and her post-apocalyptic sci-fi. The effective replication of interior reality is not her mission. To bring things back again to Edna O’Brien, I read that Norman Mailer said to her that she was ‘too interior.’ For me, interiority wouldn’t ever be a damning thing in relation to a novel. I wouldn’t use it in a pejorative way. But it is also a matter of choice, a stylistic approach that a woman (or man) decides to adopt.
DG: The threat of shame lurks throughout ‘Sweet Home.’ You show, without sentimentality, how women in Belfast – a woman starting up a beauty salon, women wearing hijabs in a community where more Somalis are arriving – face intimidation and ridicule. As a rebellious Asian girl of conventional parents growing up in BNP-infested Croydon, I had so much shame thrown at me, I try to reject it whenever it rears. What difference, if any, is there between male and female experiences of humiliation?
I’m glad that you find it unsentimental. Because I don’t really like unearned emotion. Shame and humiliation exercise such power, potentially cause such diminishment – it is so heartening to hear that you reject it like that. In the stories, yes, as you say, a woman faces intimidation when she sets up her beauty salon, and the Somali women are ridiculed in the local shops (although also loved sincerely by their neighbour.) I think that for women humiliation has been a means of patriarchal regulation and control for centuries: in relation to the body, to behaviour, to ideas of the self. Probably though, in this collection, the person who suffers the greatest humiliation is the young man with psoriasis who doesn’t ever really recover from being associated with the disappearance of a child. But I wouldn’t want to extrapolate any general precepts about men and humiliation from this particular character. He’s a one-off.
DG: Your stories present evasion and disguise as fundamental to family and marriage. Is that how you see it?
We’re back where we started, with people living in close proximity and the ways that needs to be negotiated. I think that evasion and disguise is, as you say, pretty fundamental to that happening. To return to our previous analogy, a membrane can be selectively permeable, only letting certain things in and out. Someone asks you how you’re feeling and you say fine, when you’re not. A kid shaves half an hour off the time they say they came in at the night before. A woman says her partner looks nice when she doesn’t. Everyone smiles at the wedding. But to be honest, I think that evasion and disguise is important generally for the individual, whether it’s changing your eyebrows each morning from blonde to brown with your Anastasia Dipbrow, or telling yourself stories about who you are and what you are about. And if at some point you decide to share all in a sleek volume of auto-fiction, you will probably be offering a different, further set of evasions and disguises.
Wendy Erskine was in conversation with Editor Soma Ghosh.
Twitter: @WednesdayErskin @calcourtesan
Sweet Home was originally published by Stinging Fly and is published in the UK in June 2019.
Main photo by Matilda Reid.