In Defiance of Staying in One’s Lane: On Edna O’Brien’s “Girl”

November 28, 2019   •   By Charles Taylor


Edna O’Brien

GEORGE ORWELL SAID that when he read David Copperfield for the first time at nine, “the mental atmosphere of the opening chapters was so immediately intelligible to me that I vaguely imagined they had been written by a child.”

For much of Edna O’Brien’s new novel, Girl, it is easy to imagine it has been written by its protagonist and narrator, one of the Northern Nigerian schoolgirls who in 2014 were kidnapped and held as slaves by Boko Haram. That it is written by an 88-year-old Irish novelist who has lived most of her life in Britain and knows something of repression borne out of religion from her own experience in her homeland is a serendipitous meeting of author and subject.

To be clear: I am not saying O’Brien’s experience of having her early novels denounced from the pulpit and banned in any way equals the experience of young women who, at the hands of a misogynistic terrorist organization, were kidnapped, raped, enslaved. Nor do I believe O’Brien is suggesting that equivalence.

What I am saying is that an Irish writer who takes on the subject of Boko Haram, if she is making the mental connections that are the mark of a novelist’s empathy and imagination, cannot help but think of the young women physically and psychologically abused for decades in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries, or the 1992 Miss X case in which the Irish courts tried to prevent a 14-year-old rape victim from traveling from Ireland to the United Kingdom for an abortion (the case inspired O’Brien’s 1997 novel, Down by the River). These are all cases in which fundamentalists, or something close to them, have attempted to control not just the choices of women but their actual physical freedom. To those who’d say it’s a stretch to list what were the common practices of the Irish Catholic Church — or the Irish courts doing the bidding of the Church — alongside the common practices of Islamist terrorism, there are the 155 unidentified corpses found in 1993 in a mass grave on the grounds of Dublin’s Sisters of Our Lady of Charity convent that say otherwise. There are the accounts of those who survived the Magdalene laundries, and there are the women who, unlike Miss X, didn’t make it out of Ireland for an abortion and resorted to whatever, sometimes fatal, options that were still open to them.

Ireland is never mentioned in Girl, but the book is the product of a writer thinking of misogyny as a global force, and what’s more a force able to reach the fanatic heights represented by Boko Haram because the misogyny of everyday life gives that fanaticism something in which to take root. The novel’s opening paragraph: “I was a girl once, but not anymore. I smell. Blood dried and crusted all over me, and my wrapper in shreds. My insides, a morass. Hurtled through this forest that I saw, that first awful night, when I and my friends were snatched from the school.” This up until the last sentence could be the words of someone detailing the turmoil of menstruating for the first time or the turmoil of losing her virginity. Shame, the sense of being dirty, is present in those lines, and shame, or the attempt to inflict it, will make itself felt in the book’s later sections.

None of this is to imply that Girl is a screed instead of a novel. It would offend O’Brien’s sensibility to reduce literature to a message. Girl is a superb example what fiction is supposed to be: an act of empathetic imagination.

It’s also a novel that is at times a very tough read. The challenge that confronts a writer taking on a subject like physical sexual cruelty, or the constant threat of it, means falling into neither the bad taste of exploiting it nor the bad taste of avoiding it. O’Brien writes in a style that’s matter-of-fact and spare. O’Brien’s narrator registers each detail of her new environment, and each new horror, as she comes upon it, and because she is not allowed the luxury of looking away, neither are we. The narrator’s first experience of being gang raped is rendered in language that melds the physical violation with the violation of identity, the sense of any feeling of security being dashed: “It felt like being stabbed and re-stabbed and then a fierce yelling after he had broken into me. I said goodbye to my parents and everyone I knew.”

And sometimes there are devastating juxtapositions. The narrator’s physical condition immediately after the rape, “I was hazy when I stood up. Clots of blood dropped into the bucket,” is followed three short paragraphs later by her being shown to the place where she will work: “The woman led me across to the cookhouse. This was where I would work. It smelt of slaughter. Sides of bush meat hung from the trees outside, hosts of flies hovering and feeling on it.” This girl is, to her captors, a similar piece of meat, present for their consumption in a place that smells of slaughter.

Girl would scarcely be bearable, no novel would, if it were nothing more than a relentless listing of atrocities. Such a book would recast the narrator as nothing but a victim, and, in effect, succeed in defining her in the manner that Boko Haram defined the girls they kidnapped. Without resorting to the clichés of the plucky survivor, which would be grotesque in this context, O’Brien gives us a character not willing to have her life determined by her captors. Her story is one of a forced marriage, a birth, and, eventually, escape. But the triumph is muted, and the book doesn’t end on a triumphant note. A great writer, and O’Brien surely is, knows that large emotions can blot out nuance, can suggest an unrealistically rosy future. It’s no accident that when the narrator finally makes it home, O’Brien assigns the note of triumphalism to the Nigerian government and the media, both institutions colluding in just that kind of celebratory charade the author avoids, reducing the girl to a prop for the president’s pronouncements of defeating the terrorists who are threatening the North.

As detailed in a report issued by UNICEF after the kidnappings, the girls who did survive were often pariahs when they returned to their villages, treated in the way victims of sexual violence often are — damaged goods. That is a matter of public record. Still, I think it’s daring for O’Brien to link the shunning her narrator experiences as well as the intimation that she has reason to be ashamed, to the mentality that persecuted her in the first place. The challenge that Islamist terrorism has presented to liberals is that the rhetoric, and occasionally the measures, taken against it have sometimes been clearly motivated by bigotry, and liberal criticism has too often been muted, or nonexistent, so as to avoid being seen to approve of that bigotry. But there is no getting around that groups like Boko Haram and the other fascist death cults that make Islamism are an affront to every value liberals claim to hold dear. Girl does not forget the primary victims of this terrorism are the peoples in the lands where it exists. But the accepted misogyny O’Brien’s heroine faces on her return home is the author’s way of insisting on an unpleasant reality, namely that Boko Haram is not an aberration, and its fanaticism not just conjured out of the air.

But there is a larger piece of daring at work in Girl, though I suspect O’Brien would regard it not as daring but simply as what writers are supposed to do. Fiction does not pretend that having written or read about some calamitous subject the writer or the reader has now lived that experience. But as, in both its creation and experience, fiction is an act of daring imagination — it gives readers the tools to imagine a faithful simulacrum of the emotional and psychological contours of the particulars it describes. It used to be that when a writer failed in such an attempt, the failure was attributed to a want of gifts. But O’Brien is writing in the time of a new shibboleth, a time when some very vocal though not particularly bright people are insisting that it is an act of arrogance or bigotry or theft to write in the voice of someone other than yourself. It is, we are told, cultural appropriation, usually by those who haven’t yet figured out that culture is appropriation. Where this leaves the writer who believes it’s a writer’s job to understand and encompass as much of the world as possible might be summed up by a friend of mine, a novelist and playwright, a gay Canadian man who, some years back, on hearing of a move to get Canadian arts councils to restrict grants to writers who wrote only about their own experience, greeted the news with, “Oh, great. Now I’m stuck writing about old queens from the provinces.”

Zadie Smith took up the matter in a recent essay in The New York Review of Books. “The old — and never especially helpful — adage write what you know has morphed into something more like a threat: Stay in your lane.” (Almost the exact words Roxane Gay issued about the poet Anders Carlson-Wee who had a poem published by and then vanished from The Nation online because he used black vernacular.) Smith described this new principle as “[o]nly those who are like us are like us. Only those who are like us can understand us — or should even try.” And she went on to note, “What does it mean, after all, to say ‘A Bengali woman would never say that!’ or ‘A gay man would never feel that!’ or ‘A black woman would never do that!’? How can such things possibly be claimed absolutely, unless we already have some form of fixed caricature in our minds?”

Given the rot that most of us have to keep from taking up permanent residence in our minds these days, I would like to think, for O’Brien’s sake, that she’s writing oblivious to these limiting and deluded arguments. But given a body of work that now spans nearly 60 years, and the price she has paid for a determination to be true — to the vagaries and ecstasies and dependencies of the human heart — I think it’s more likely she is writing in defiance of them. In this case, her defiance is not rebellion but fidelity to a deeper understanding of fiction. In likely the most controversial political ad ever, the “daisy” ad, Lyndon Johnson said, echoing W. H. Auden, “We must either love each other, or we must die.” Girl is Edna O’Brien saying, we must write — and read — about each other, or fiction will die.


Charles Taylor’s writing on movies, books, music, and politics has appeared in The New York TimesThe New YorkerThe Yale Review, and The Nation.