Wednesday 24 July 2019

'When I was in Ireland, I always felt like a lesbian writer' - Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue on how emigrating to Canada 20 years ago unshackled her skills as an author

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in Room
Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in Room

Maggie Armstrong

Have you heard of the Canadian writer Emma Donoghue? I hadn't either until today. Her Irish readers might prefer to claim the author of Room, historical novels like The Wonder and Frog Music, and plays like The Talk of the Town all to themselves.

But in Canada, Donoghue is a Canadian writer. She has lived in Ontario for 20 years, raised her children there and has dual Canadian and Irish citizenship. She is "regularly front-page news" in her adoptive city of London, Ontario, even when "nothing happens," she laughs heartily. ("Once the local paper did a headline - 'Donoghue not longlisted for Booker Prize'." More laughter.)

Freedom: Emma Donoghue has never felt pigeon-holed as an author in Canada
Freedom: Emma Donoghue has never felt pigeon-holed as an author in Canada

"Sometimes I say Irish-Canadian. It's hard to find the perfect label," says the ebullient storyteller. "When I'm pressed I say Irish because I think the first two decades form you. But Canada has offered me a huge amount in my adult life. Canada has allowed me the space for getting on with my work and not feeling remotely self-conscious or watched."

Next week Donoghue will be among other literary heavies - Margaret Atwood, Anne Enright, John Banville, Frank McGuinness and Victoria Glendinning - appearing at the 'Imagining Home' literary festival in UCD, which celebrates connections between Ireland and Canada. So there is more to the Irish-Canadian frisson than Leo and Trudeau's jogs in the park; more to build on than our tied history (between 1830 and 1850, more than half a million Irish emigrated to North America).

Donoghue grew up in South Dublin's Mount Merrion, the youngest of Frances and literary critic Denis Donoghue's eight children. Having scored a two-book deal with Penguin at 23, and had plays staged in the Project, she studied at Cambridge where she "fell for a Canadian," her partner Chris. They have two children, Finn (14) and Una (10).

The author of some 16 works of fiction and several plays, it was only in her 40s that she found international success, not to forget that time her film Room went to the Oscars. If she had stayed in Dublin, could she have become anything like the writer she did?

"It's hard to tell. I might have felt the bonds of that smaller society more tightly around me. When I was in Ireland I always felt like a lesbian writer, because that was the new and difficult subject in my work and that was the one thing that people commented on. Staying in Ireland would have made me hyper-aware about the gay thing in my work.

"Being gay is so easy here. That has enormously boosted my energy for so many writing projects because I never felt pigeon-holed. Canada offered me this possibility to be free from identity politics. I didn't have to be a lesbian writer or tick all the boxes of being an Irish writer - I could just be a writer.

"There's a respectful approach to diversity here. People don't impose their cultural norms on you. Our family has two mothers. If somebody in a playground asks is my son's father tall, is it him you get the height from? I say he has two mothers and they don't look at you like you're a freak. I get nourished by difference - by the stimulus of writing about a different century or a different place. Canada is a really international place, it's made up of layers and layers of immigrants. I found that quite liberating. The national literary tradition is very permeable, it allows in outsiders. To be a Canadian author is to follow in the footsteps of people like Rohinton Mistry, originally from Bombay, and Michael Ondaatje, originally from Sri Lanka. It's far less homogenous than Irish literature has traditionally been."

So in Ireland, we might have to wait another generation before we have the stories of immigrant communities sold at novel fairs?

"If you are from Sri Lanka, it's going to be very hard for you to feel truly accepted as the voice of Ireland. Whereas in Canada, many of our biggest names are immigrants. In Canada, they take their authors very seriously. I'm not claiming that we're like ice hockey stars. I don't want to exaggerate what treasure we are." More hearty laughter.

Donoghue has a way of being sharply critical without being at all unkind or controversial. An immigrant Canadian writer herself, she feels "treasured" and it shows. There is a fine tradition of Irish writers leaving home to write about home. From Joyce and Beckett and Maeve Brennan to Rob Doyle and Emma Donoghue. Or is there? Donoghue debunks this myth of the fugitive writer escaping home to find themselves. "Sometimes we exaggerate our exile. After all, it was a tradition of people having to leave the country to get jobs in any form. It's not specific to being a writer. Plenty of Irish writers like Roddy Doyle or John McGahern stayed really rooted on their home soil."

But what does "home" mean to Donoghue, a globetrotting celeb of an author. "I often puzzle over this. When I'm landing in Ireland and I see green fields, it triggers something in me and I think, this is where I'm from. Then once I'm reading the papers - the country can be a bit self-obsessed, as any country can - all the scandals and corruptions, the endless enquiries, it can feel like this quite intense place. Sometimes there's a real relief leaving Ireland."

Asked which Canadian writers have influenced her work, she credits two abstract entities instead: motherhood (including her own mother's attentions) and history.

"Motherhood gave me a beautiful new subject to write about. History is really important to me. I happen to know that the first white baby born to settlers in Ontario was to an Irishwoman. Little facts here make me feel like I've been part of the story here for at least two centuries. That feels good."

She calls her novels her children ("Room is like some teenager that went off and became a YouTube star, who needs taking down a peg or two."). She writes like a mother - everywhere. "I always have my laptop with me. I write if I'm on a Greyhound bus for two hours, in a parked car, waiting at my kids' tennis lesson." When at home, Donoghue spends two hours of her writing day on a treadmill built on to a desk. Literally, dashing off words (at 2.5mph). She is a veritable writing factory, at the moment working on a sequel to her children's book The Lotteries Plus One, a new novel, and - she casually drops - six different projects for TV and film. And yet, she still feels like "a chancer" sharing a platform with the like of Margaret Atwood. At next week's festival, the two Canadian authors will discuss turning their novels from script to screen - Atwood being a sensation reborn since The Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace were massified via Netflix.

"Margaret Atwood is a very good Cassandra, she's very good at spotting the creepy aspects of our society. And also, she's very aware of her history. With The Handmaid's Tale she drew on things that had happened to women through history." The 78-year-old was front-page news too after she distanced herself from the #MeToo movement in an opinion piece headed, 'Am I a Bad Feminist?' Does Donoghue question Atwood's feminist credentials?

"Any time I use an ATM I remember that scene in The Handmaid's Tale where suddenly the women's cards don't work anymore. That makes her, for me, one of the feminists who formed feminism. So I don't think it's possible for her to be a bad feminist." In that clipped, ambassadorial tone, she adds: "We may disagree on the details, but no, she's been hugely important."

So, important literary rendezvous await her. But what does Donoghue really look forward to in Dublin? "Cheese and onion Tayto crisps," is her immediate answer. "As soon as I left Ireland I developed a compulsion, which I've now passed on to my children. Last time we were there, we brought back 24 packs."

  • Emma Donoghue will be at UCD for 'Imagining Home' hosted by novelist Jane Urquhart, Visiting Professor of Canadian Studies in the College of Arts and Humanities, March 1-2.

Irish Independent

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