Heidi James talks Wounding and other projects to Sara Upstone.
3:AM: Wounding is an immensely powerful novel centred around two very distinctly drawn characters. When I first read it, I was struck by the desperate attempts of Cora and her husband to communicate with each other. There is a passage early on from Cora’s husband – ‘It’s silence that ruins love, not talking. Love is fed on words. It’s your silence that hurts me the most. Your secrets.’ And of course in the novel Cora is not given the first person voice that her husband has. Why did you make the choice to have different narrative viewpoints for Cora and her husband?
HJ: Cora is written in third person for a few reasons, to reflect the silencing that goes on – it is still a taboo for mothers to admit to ambivalence or negative feelings about maternity or their children, it is somehow monstrous, and of course in third person Cora remains outside language as an object of study: looked at, watched. But also from a craft point of view, third person provides a critical distance to examine and describe without sentiment that a first person point of view could need. I give the husband a voice, partly because it is a performance, so both characters ‘perform’ but in slightly different ways, but also, of course the male voice is still privileged in our society. He isn’t named though, you might have noticed, so he isn’t pinned in place by naming. I think Mallarmé wrote about the lack of a name allows a poetic freedom … it keeps them in opposition too, playing out the supposed binary opposition between the genders.
3:AM: How do these ideas of speaking and silence affect your work?
HJ: I like silence! So much of what is said in the day to day is banal, tedious nonsense, just wittering on, repetitions of tropes and clichés. I think small talk can be obfuscation and evasion, not connecting at all. The husband in Wounding feels he just wants to know his wife and that chit chat is a route to intimacy – perhaps it is, but here I think its about control and an attempt at demystifying Cora, reducing her further to simple motivations and tastes; much of his narrative is his regurgitating the tropes I mentioned earlier, he doesn’t really reveal himself either, it’s this weary conformity that he parades if only to himself.
3:AM: So here we have two characters, intimately connected, but ultimately unable to reveal themselves to each other. Do we, as readers, you think, come to ‘know’ them in a way they do not know each other? Or even in ways they do not know themselves? Or did you want them to be, even at the end of the novel, essentially unknowable?
HJ: Yes, the reader does come to know them better (in some ways) than they know each other or themselves, but of course, they are utterly unknowable – aren’t we all?
Looking at herself, naked. Reflected back, she receives herself. It’s said that one is composed only of memories, and yet her body speaks for itself, her stretch marks, scars, freckles, fading tan-lines. Large raised moles, one with a hair to pluck out regularly along with other hair removal. The thick scars where the children were cut from her body. Her belly hangs like fabric over the seam, loosely draped. Too disgusting to revel in. She could be read, as one would read a book. The body belongs first to the species before it belongs to her. But then it doesn’t belong to her, she doesn’t possess it. She can’t give it away. Neither can anyone take it. Not yet anyway, not until it becomes truly just a body, when she’s dead. It is her intermediary, SHE is only what she looks at, thinks about, says. That’s all she is. She is only ever happening, now, immediate, never recognisable to herself, always changing, only ever in the present tense. And tucked away inside her flesh is the secret of her eventual death, hers alone, the death that she will never know, because she will not be able to talk about it, or think it. When the body finally becomes just a body, only others will be able to own it, move it, rob from it. Indecent, humiliated, free floating, without meaning, innocent and incapable.But she isn’t alive, she knows this absolutely. She craves sensation, to pull her back into the land of the living. Isn’t that what they say when you are there and yet not there? When you are startled from a daydream? Welcome back to the Land of the Living? Looking at herself, the body, female, all present and correct. Her husband likes to kiss her all over, tenderly, licking her skin; he expects this to be pleasurable to her. The female body is in luck with its multiple pleasure zones, its vigour and vim, its insatiability, with its capacity for multiple orgasms, not limited to one measly climax. Always ready. Lady Luck.
Raising her hand to her face, she pulls open her eyes as wide as the lids will stretch, letting in as much light as possible. She is a medium through which light, sound, information passes. She read once that Newton had removed his own eye from its socket without causing injury, using a bodkin. The body will graciously allow all kinds of experiments, and can mend all kinds of wounds if given time. She wonders if his experiment had hurt, or changed the way his eye behaved once firmly back in his head. She ran her hand down over her neck, toward her breast. This should feel good. Should be arousing. It isn’t. She experiences the pressure of her hand on her skin, she senses that there is touch, but she feels nothing. She circles her nipple with the tip of her finger, it responds, as it should, protruding. Everything her body does – she does – is in response, well-mannered, well-choreographed, a set piece. Inauthentic, not a real response, she doesn’t answer, not for herself, she parrots the expected reply. Her nipple hardens to touch, to kisses, to suckling. She feels nothing. She is a monster, a repetition of well-rehearsed gestures.
Digging in her nails, she pinches the nipple, twisting it like a dial. There is a flicker of life. She breathes, her eyelids twitch. She chastises, punishes her body for its lack. Because it fails every expectation. Finally, she has had enough. She is enraged. In the room next to hers, the child sleeps, unaware of her mother who is not enough. Who will never be enough. Cora pinches and twists harder. The peak of her nipple is white, entirely bloodless, purified. Sensation cuts through, like a dagger through thick drapery, alive. She suffers, and it isn’t enough. She cannot pinch hard enough. She fails.
Cora wraps her bathrobe around her, the red towelling harsh against her half alive skin. She runs down the stairs, past the sleeping child, into the kitchen. She opens drawers and cupboards, looking for an instrument to help her. She doesn’t want knives, isn’t interested in cutting and slicing, in doubling herself, that would be disastrous.
There is the washing line. Outside and dangerous. No clothes hang from it; it isn’t a washday. But the pegs, all lined up like birds, grip the line tightly. Cheap plastic pincers, the pressure applied by a coil of wire, closed shut. Innocent, they have no choice but to act according to their design. Until they are broken, they will pinch together, crushing what comes between. Merciless.
Barefoot, Cora runs across the grass to the line and takes two. She isn’t afraid. She feels light, and giddy. She is as excited as a drunk. She runs back across the kitchen and up the stairs. Back in the muted light of the bedroom, she watches herself, watches the fingers of one hand compress flat the bulk of her breast forcing the nipple forward as the fingers on the other hand grip the two ends of the clothes peg. She fits the nipple into the gape of the pincers as far as she can, and lets go of the peg. It snaps shut. She silences herself and refuses to groan. Taking the other breast she feeds it to the grabbing peg. She is brand new. The surprise of the pain transforms her. She is alive. There is no blood, no filth. Only purity. She is punished and in pain. Her breathing shallow and ecstatic.
3:AM: This extract brings home for me a number of questions central to the novel regarding how women are positioned in society. At the centre of this, for Cora, seems the body as a space through which she is read and defined?
HJ: Yes, the shifting boundaries of the mother’s body are integral to the novel – who the body belongs to (lots of women I know talk of ‘getting their body back’ after pregnancy and breastfeeding), society’s comments and policing of the female body – feeding in public, thin enough? Too fat? Too old etc., anatomical difference becoming the significant difference here. But also the family as topography, a system of interrelated spaces, histories and cultures to map, negotiate, memorise routes, that shift and change. The body exists, but is more than the biological organism, inscribed by history and social constructs – so while I sympathise with anti-essentialism, a beyond gender if you like – it is our lived, embodied experiences enmeshed in continuum of competing social discourses – we can’t then generalise.
3:AM: There is performance through voice in the novel, but also perhaps the sense in which bodies exist (in Judith Butler’s terms) largely as performative structures?
HJ: Absolutely – Cora repeats herself, repetition of certain chores and responsibilities confirm her role, her identity. So yes, you got me there, I owe Judith Butler that one!
Other people, so much better at this. At all of it. Talking, laughing, being wives, mothers, fathers, even dogs are more successful than her. She is a failure. She is driving carefully, each child strapped into the correct chair. She thinks about the moment when she’ll be alone, and not required to answer their questions, or chasten their squabbles. There is always thought, not speaking, not telling a soul. Just thinking. You can’t punish a person for thoughts. She drops the boy off at school; she is late, with no make-up on and sloppily dressed. The other mothers all gather punctually, with their teeth brushed, hair washed and clothes carefully chosen. They even wear make-up. She imagines that they manage brisk but intense orgasms with their men. They stand around the school gate, and chat for another half an hour after their children have been absorbed by the building and the teachers.How easy it is to the let the child go. And not think of him for those hours. And if something happens? It wasn’t her fault, she entrusted him to professionals licensed by the government. She would be innocent, absolved.
3:AM: We see in the media now a continual discourse surrounding motherhood – a whole magazine industry telling women how to be good parents, celebrity mothers being held up as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ mothers, critiques of working mothers from the right-wing press. Where do you see Wounding in relation to these issues?
HJ: Yes, there is a political and patriarchal policing of motherhood, but what this really comes down to is women are still denied complexity as human beings. Just when women begin to claim some equality we are reminded once again that we aren’t ready yet to be individuals, with our own motivations, tastes, passions and fears. No, we have to heed the fact that we will be forever trapped in the dichotomous territory of femaleness. Good or Bad, Angel or Monster. I’ve watched how men have been praised as ‘wonderful fathers’ in my own social group, when those men are just doing the ordinary, banal tasks of parenthood – this is demeaning for all of us – men aren’t imbeciles incapable of care, and women aren’t born/natural care givers… When my first child was born I expressed exhaustion and my father said, well you aren’t a natural at this are you? Again reducing us to simple types. We’re all complex, shifting, unfixed. These archetypes drive me nuts.
3:AM: Would you be happy to see the novel described as feminist?
HJ: Absolutely. Yes, in that in a small way I wanted to challenge the absurd idea of significant difference in gendered emotion/feeling. Men aren’t unfeeling brutes and women aren’t altruistic angels, obviously and while yes, for the privileged (well educated) few these ideas are self-evident, in the main, in practice, or at least in the world of my family and friends, they aren’t.
3:AM: Cora’s name of course makes me think of Chora…
HJ: Yes, the naming is a reference to Plato’s Chora and, also, HD’s Kora from the novel Kora and Ka.
3:AM: Of course, stylistically and in terms of gender that modernist period is hugely ground breaking. Is it particularly influential for you?
HJ: I’m inspired by the modernists; it would be hard not to be I think, though I’ve not read as much as I’d like – my education was unconventional – and I need to read more; so I’d say my greatest influences are Elfriede Jelinek and Marie Darrieusecq.
3:AM: And of course, you are also a published poet yourself. Much of the description in the novel could be read as a kind of prose poetry. Was poetry more generally something that influenced you?
HJ: Yes, but mostly I’m interested in pushing language to its limits, if you like… There’s a drive it seems to keep prose simple, arising from a distrust of realism and language, an idea I have sympathy with except if language can’t be trusted, it makes more sense to me to pile up these sentences/images in a way that exposes the unreality. Prose poetry draws attention to the words themselves too of course, which is ironic as I’m using a novel – words – to question the damage that distinctions, divisions, that words, that naming, produce. The constructive impulse, this is THIS, that is THAT, not this, either/or etc. We are trapped in this abyss of language. A Fascist impulse of this/not this. Having said that, I think the prose in Wounding is simple, I didn’t try for an elaborate style.
3:AM: Yes, and I can see how this would connect to the unknowability of the characters themselves, both to each other and to us as readers. I am wondering how Cora’s very physical actions – which might in some ways be seen as animalistic – at the end of the novel might relate to this prison of language?
HJ: Cora’s attacks on her body are a way of remaking herself, a way of punishing, an attempt at pure feeling and yes, you’re right, it’s an attempt at ridding herself of language. She is communicating with herself without language, she both gives and receives. She is stuck.
3:AM: Without wanting to give too much away, Cora’s behaviour in the novel is sexualised in quite particular ways. Do you see the novel as a corrective to the post-Fifty Shades explosion of fiction positing women as sexually submissive?
HJ: I’ve not read Fifty Shades, and Wounding, I think, was written before Fifty Shades was published, but I certainly wrote it as a general corrective to the submissive, passive myth definitely. Much of my earlier writing was concerned with this too. In ‘Clementine’ (a short story) a group of girls sexually assault a vulnerable male, for example. I find the impulse (in some feminisms, that only reinforce sexist ideas about gender difference) to venerate the female as earth mother, goddess etc. deeply disturbing. It once again robs women of complexity as individuals; likewise, men are reduced to testosterone fuelled animals. These are reductive stereotypes that diminish and segregate.
Working in the sex industry very quickly forces you to reconsider all your notions about sex and gender, desire and response. And of course, mothers aren’t supposed to be sexy…motherhood – a product of sex, ironically de-sexes, or so it seems.
3:AM: I was struck on finishing the novel that, alongside these dramatic incidences, Wounding is at its heart a novel about a very ordinary couple with children, the kind of middle class family that many readers will be able to identify with. What brought you to this subject matter?
HJ: Well, why not? The novel’s strength, for me, is connecting with others… empathy, breaking down divisions. I’m not interested in reading tricksy, clever novels about academics or writers, as brilliant as they can be. Why should a novel about relationships and family only ever be a ‘romance’ or a soap opera? All the great dramas in our lives are played out in the midst of the family, our relationships. I’m interested too in what goes on behind closed doors, figuratively and literally, the domestic is highly political. Cora is from a working class/lower middle class background, she feels out of her depth in her husband’s world.
3:AM: In the 80s, certainly, working class women were well represented in fiction, novels like Pat Barker’s Union Street for example. But they seem to have disappeared apart from in the context of historical fiction…
HJ: They have, haven’t they? I’m working on that with my new novel, So the Doves… Art, literature ought to reflect, comment or critique the world around us, and so much work reflects a very narrow aspect, either erasing people or casting them as convenient stereotypes. It denies the integrity and complexity of our fellow beings and I despise it.
3:AM: You have strong feelings on these issues. This is a book, I would imagine, that conjures strong responses?
HJ: It was read by one mainstream publisher who loved it, thought it was ‘beautiful… but’ they couldn’t see who would buy it, that Cora was too unsympathetic. So, it’s been interesting and wonderful to get so many positive responses from readers men and women who’ve responded to the critique of so called natural parental instincts, Cora is an exception, extreme in some ways, but that extremity allows or permits the acknowledgment of one’s own smaller transgressions if you like – I’m not as a bad as… but I understand, can empathise’…
Of course, transgression only reaffirms the norm, and that is not what I want to do… Cora isn’t consciously seeking to subvert her role, she is trying to survive. I hope I haven’t written a simple reversal of gendered norms, because that of course, only keeps systems in order. I don’t think Cora actually DOES anything to the children that is horrific – nasty – she perceives herself as a monster, because she can’t share these feelings of ambivalence, afraid of how they will be received. My mother clearly found life with us kids very difficult, and that had an effect on all of us; in writing this I wanted to understand and sympathise with someone who didn’t ‘fit’ the role society had pushed them into.
I’ve been pleased that so many readers have felt sympathy for Cora and that some part of their experience of family life was reflected. But you’re right, I do feel strongly about this.
3:AM: So what is next on the horizon for Heidi James?
HJ: I’m writing a new novel, So the Doves and reworking The Mesmerist’s Daughter, which was originally published in an anthology by Apis Books but will now be published by Neon Press as a chapbook. That’s been really interesting and weird.. rewriting something that’s 10 years old. I’m looking forward to finishing it though, to seeing how much it changes (a lot, so far!). I’m also writing more for performance, I miss doing spoken word stuff, so I’m gearing up for getting back out there… girding my loins for a tough crowd!
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Sara Upstone is Associate Professor of English Literature at Kingston University, London. She is the author of Spatial Politics in the Postcolonial Novel (2008) and British Asian Fiction: Twenty-first Century Voices (2009), and editor (with Andrew Teverson) of Postcolonial Spaces: the Politics of Place in Contemporary Culture (2010).
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 29th, 2014.