In Malarky, the world of a feisty, befuddled Irish mother and wife is turned upside down and sideways when she learns her son is gay (and he then ups and joins the army), while she herself discovers lust and longing and a few other things she’s missed during her uneventful marriage to a farmer.
The novel’s author, Anakana Schofield, talks about Irish women, grieving, motherhood, and writing about sex with Discover Great New Writers.
You have written a book about one Irish woman. What was it that drew you to her world?
I wanted to create a woman who refused to be sunk by what life served her and would choose to interrogate it instead. I also hoped to capture some of the warm humour of the women from rural Ireland who raised me. For one part of the narrative, though, I tried to think of the most disparate things I could — I came up with Syria and rural Ireland — and to unite them on the page. It was a nod to D.H. Lawrence, who could bring coal miners and Japanese wrestling together.
Grief is an immediate theme in the book — is grief a theme in your life?
I am very engaged by writings about mortality and grief has been a defining factor in my life since my father died when I was six. I also admire and find a degree of comfort in the Catholic rituals around death in rural Ireland. There are death announcements three times a day on the radio, people will flock to local funerals, there’s a tradition of pausing outside the person’s house or people blessing themselves passing the church (or graveyard). The culture is attuned to deal with death and a process kicks in over the days that follow. In someways I find things are more isolated in North America, but within diasporas I am sure there are many variables. I just sometimes sense an awful isolation and loneliness for people here when someone dies.
Grief is a different and much more extended matter. I am not sure you ever recover from the death of a loved one. It is perhaps the ultimate sadness a human being can know. I believe one’s entire life may become an undertaking on how to face it. The finality of it then gives way to trying to carry on, with that finality at the forefront of your mind. We understand very little about grief and are busy trying to medicalize it. It needs to take its place within a culture, within a community and within an individual. We need to make space for it, not confine it to disappear with a daily pill. Perhaps if we were more aware of our mortality and it was part of a healthy daily discussion the grief-stricken would feel less alone. Fiction is a place where there’s lots of space to explore these things.
Can you talk about the role of motherhood in Malarky?
I wanted to explore the darker or more turbulent side of motherhood. Malarky began as a parallel narrative. I asked the question: is it possible to love your child so much that you destroy them? and I invented two mothers in different situations and told their stories with the view that eventually their paths might cross. One mother however took over and I switched my attention to a close-up on the life of “Our Woman” Philomena, but this earlier idea lingered. That a mother might wish her adult child to be gone but certainly not to discover that the very thing that dispatched him would in turn ensure he never came back.
I was particularly struck by the pain of mothers during the invasion of Iraq, the mothers whose houses were terrifyingly invaded in the night by the military or bombs dropping all around them, the mothers who lost limbs and children and concurrently the mothers in small town America whose sons and daughters went off to Iraq. I felt for them all. I wanted to say something about the universality that co-exists in this horror. I had a relative who worked in Iraq as an anthropologist; I marched against that war with my very young child in a stroller.
Was it challenging for you to write the sexual content in your novel?
Immensely! I grew up with repressive Catholicism! I certainly never imagined I might write a novel such as this. I heard Anne Enright say in an interview with CBC’s Writers and Company in 2008 she thought “Irish women are too nice and that it’s difficult for an Irish woman to do something for which she would not be liked.” It resonated with me and I decided to do the dirty work that this particular novel demanded rather than turn away from it. So I depicted an older woman with a healthy attitude, who actively enjoys sex. There aren’t so many Irish women in literary fiction who are sexually assertive and not wincing in pain under the quilt cover. I also thought it was important to explore the notion of where people file the things they see. That we sometimes see things and have no place to put them and then witness how they return to haunt us. In this case the mother sees her son engaged in sexual acts with other men and it awakens an eroticism within her, which she is compelled to act (or re-enact) on.
Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.