Monday 16 September 2019

Parental alcoholism, infertility, drug use, sexual violence - no subject was off limits in Emilie Pine's taboo-shattering essays

Revisiting these memories was painful but necessary, the UCD academic tells Joanne Hayden

Emilie Pine. Photo: Ruth Connolly
Emilie Pine. Photo: Ruth Connolly

In 2013, Emilie Pine was sitting in a gravely under-resourced hospital in Corfu. She and her sister had flown from Dublin to the bedside of her father, who was in full liver failure. Amid the worry and fear, and the strain of waiting for adequate medical attention, she began to wonder how she would describe "the room, and the man in the bed, as if it, and he, were a scene". The impulse to transpose the crisis into words would eventually lead to the first essay in her collection, Notes to Self, which is being published by Tramp Press.

Brave, wise and beautifully nuanced, the six essays explore subjects that have traditionally been considered off-limits. She writes about the impact of having an alcoholic parent; about miscarriage and fertility issues; about body shame and the realities of the female body; about her parents' broken relationship, her difficult teenage years and her experiences of sexual violence; about overworking and the pressures of being a tenured academic.

Though in the essays she pushes herself into painful, sometimes traumatic, memories, there is humour in the darkness and vice versa. She is excellent at capturing contradiction and the complexity of human emotions - how happiness can contain grief, how the act of writing can make the writer powerful and vulnerable at once. The book will resound with many readers; it will also prompt them to tell her their own stories - which is fine with her.

"I'm actually happier listening than talking," she says. "I've said everything that I want to say in the book. I think, in a way, facilitating those kinds of conversations is the really important thing about putting some of this stuff out there. Why make this public? Why have this as a public conversation? I think it is part of a real feminist movement to start talking about things that have been kept quiet and private, and to recognise the ways that they've been kept private in order to maintain a kind of power over women. This is not to say that the essays are only about being a woman, because anybody can have a parent or a family member who's an alcoholic."

It's unsurprising that Pine is so articulate - as she says in Notes to Self, she talks for a living. As associate professor in modern drama at UCD, she also thinks for a living, and she brings the same depth and clarity to her conversation as she does to her prose.

We meet in an almost deserted Dublin hotel - the barman complains that the sun is decimating his trade; everyone wants to be outside. Having read her work, I feel a familiarity with her already, but the essay is a contained form and she has chosen to focus on certain subjects, to write about certain parts of her life. Saying that, each piece strives for truth, no matter how messy, uncomfortable or unheroic, and there's a sacrifice as well as a generosity in being so honest.

The book has had a serendipitous path to publication. 'Notes on Intemperance' - the essay about her father, the writer and critic Richard Pine - was originally a "private narrative", a "way of getting things on to paper".

Her partner found it in a drawer and encouraged her to "do something with it".

Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff of Tramp Press don't normally publish non-fiction but, having read the essay, they broke their own rules and said that if Pine had other ideas, they'd be interested in doing a book.

She had just been through four years of trying to get pregnant. She had had a miscarriage. Her sister's daughter had been stillborn at 37 weeks. The five ideas she initially wrote down evolved into the other five essays, one of the most devastating of which is 'From the Baby Years'.

"That kind of poured out of me," she says. "It's probably the essay that's changed the least."

'From the Baby Years' charts her own lived experience, and the agonising process of reconciling herself to the fact that she would never have a baby, but like the other pieces, it can be read on many levels. At one point, she talks about writing her observations on her cervical mucus into her diary, next to the schedule of classes she's teaching. It's an image of division - the physical versus the intellectual self, the private versus the professional self - but at the same time, it's an image of co-existence; the body and the mind are occupying the same space; they are together on the page. And of course it's not just the body, or her body, it's the female body - which she is reclaiming here in a consciously feminist way. She does this even more overtly in an invigorating, taboo-shattering piece: 'Notes on Bleeding and Other Crimes'.

An essay called 'Something About Me' is second last in the book - she wanted readers to know her before they reached it. Covering roughly eight years of her life, it deals with her moving to London with her mother and sister at the age of 14 and becoming "a poster wild child," drinking, doing drugs, skipping school, running away, staying in squats, having sex with strangers, not eating. Towards the end, she writes about being raped on two separate occasions, once by a boyfriend. When I ask if writing the book was in any way cathartic, she smiles. In her academic life, she's director of the Irish Memory Studies Network and writes a lot about "how narrative is a very powerful way of claiming control over a traumatic past or painful past".

"In exposing yourself, you take control of the narrative as much as you can within a public space," she says.

"The other side of that is the personal, emotional side of it. When I was a teenager, I went through a lot of really terrible things and I put them in a nice little box and I closed the box."

Before writing 'Something About Me', she had never been able to talk about her experience of sexual violence - her partner only knew the "vague shape" of it until she read him the essay. In Notes to Self, she tries to reflect that "it's hard to do, the writing thing, it pours out of you but that act in itself can be physical, almost visceral".

The collection is very current, not just in light of movements like #MeToo and Time's Up, or this year's abortion referendum - where women's stories catalysed change - but because it's part of a renaissance in the essay, by women writers in particular. She mentions Zadie Smith, Ariel Levy and Roxane Gay as writers who have inspired her, as well as The White Album by Joan Didion, one of the "gods of essay writing".

Pine never thought about fictionalising her stories. "The power of them, for me, is that they're real."

"I like the essay as a form. I like the idea of the essay. The verb 'to essay' is to try something out, I like that it takes an idea and that it pushes it, it looks at it from different angles... you don't just say here is one route through this material... But I wouldn't want someone to be put off by the idea that they're essays because I still want them to be stories. So it's storytelling in essay form."

She doesn't think that what she depicts in the book is anything out of the ordinary. "It's about recognising commonality in a way." Though the stories are deeply personal, inevitably they have a societal and political context. Her parents separated when she was five and didn't speak for the next three decades. Divorce was illegal (though her parents never got divorced) which meant that in legislative terms, her family did not exist.

This forms the core of the essay 'Speaking/Not Speaking,' but in a way the entire collection confronts the tension between speaking and not speaking. She felt like she grew up in a culture that was not speaking. In this sense, Notes on Self is partly a rectification. When she first thought about publishing 'Notes on Intemperance,' Pine reckoned it would have meant a lot to her growing up, to have had her own experience mirrored, "and that's what I thought about all the essays in the end," she says.

Notes to Self is out now and is published by Tramp Press

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