The Chat: Trevor Corkum interviews Giller finalist Anakana Schofield, author of MARTIN JOHN.
Hello! I'm Trevor Corkum, and I'm pleased to join the 49th Shelf team to spearhead a new interview series, The Chat, which is generously sponsored by Publishing@SFU. To find out a little more about me, you can check out my website, but in a nutshell, I'm an author who's written fiction, essays, and creative non-fiction, and I have a new book forthcoming called The Electric Boy (Doubleday).
49th Shelf will be featuring one Giller interview per day up until October 20th, accompanied by the first few pages of each book and also a chance to win the entire shortlist (see up top). We'll start with Anakana Schofield, author of Martin John—a book described by its publisher, Biblioasis, as "a darkly comic novel circuiting through the mind, motivations and preoccupations of a character many women have experienced but few have understood quite so well."
THE CHAT, WITH ANAKANA SCHOFIELD
What did you immediately do when you found out you’d made it onto this year’s Giller shortlist?
I went to the pharmacy and continued in my pursuit of obtaining a flu shot and failed to special order one and then sat on a bench outside the hospital in disbelief at the news and stared at a tree that was filtering sunlight. Then I went home and laid down with a glass of hot port like Proust would have recommended. The phone rang and rang all day. The phone never ever rings.
How was Martin John born?
An image on television of an old man, a father, convicted of raping his daughters for years exiting the Four Courts in Dublin pushing a walker being held upright by his wife. The daughters gave a statement on the other side of the courthouse outdoors. I recall the mother declared the daughters liars perhaps in newspaper report. The father had just been convicted.
Form. Martin John was born of the cycle, the circuit the loop. I had to find his circular hum. His refrains. The language led me in and out of his refrains and thus in and out of his mind.
What’s a question no one has asked about your book yet that you wish they would ask?
I wish they would observe and note and inquire about the sites or moments of female resistance in it. They are in there, very subtle, very quiet, but they are there.
Imagine you’re spending a day with your protagonist, Martin John. Where does he take you? What do you talk or argue about? What’s the one thing you learn from him?
Train stations. He would walk me around in circles, quiz me on crosswords, and probably try to grab my leg. I would learn to swiftly avoid his clutches and I’d learn the train timetables. He would give me facts about Eurovision history and how to fill a flask.
From Martin John:
"Did she, the girl, remember?
Because he didn't remember and remember, if he didn't remember, then how could they ascertain who did remember? And who would be more likely to remember?
There was a thesaurus of vagueness about remembering. Between all the remembering she grew anxious, weary and retreated. Maybe she didn't remember either? It was easier not to remember."
What was going on for you when you wrote this passage? How does it relate to the novel at large?
Very good question.
I think this passage summed up how I felt when I thought about the endless unwelcome incursions predominantly into women’s bodies (in this novel I tackle them in public space mostly) and how at their very worst such incursions stick to women like a leech they cannot get off and that must be painfully scratched at. I guess the system and the circular nature of it: how it’s stacked against women or victims reporting incursions and assaults and how pointless I am sure many feel it is to attempt to seek justice. I have this overriding feeling or deep misery for a certain time period when I am absolutely certain women and girls and boys and men for that matter would not have been believed if they’d raised their voices. Some bravely did and were denied any ear. This sense of being trapped in a fate and a cycle that was not anything of your doing but rather of another’s refusal to break their own cycle and inclination to rape and assault you.
I wanted to find and trap that same hopelessness in the syntax and language of that passage. The escalator that never brings you anywhere you would want to be. The terminal you can never get out of. There was a time when you simply would not have been believed but I hope and pray and do feel that time has passed. We are listening now in a way it was not possible to be heard before. We are listening because we’ve finally heard from those who were not listened to and paid heed. Unfortunately we have heard from them in the most painful recordings and hundreds of thousands of pages of testimonies and recorded, denoted agony and evidence.
There was a time when you simply would not have been believed but I hope and pray and do feel that time has passed. We are listening now in a way it was not possible to be heard before. We are listening because we’ve finally heard from those who were not listened to and paid heed.
GILLER JURY CITATION
"Stylish and provocative, Martin John comes at you as soft and lyrical as a folk song. But like the tune that refuses to stop repeating itself, it is hauntingly about all those memories of suspect desires and guilty pleasures, of knowing right from wrong, of wanting to do what even your mamma would want you to do but maybe you just can’t. As readers, we find Martin John a tantalizing reflection on living the contradictions in every identity and of definitively knowing what is real. At its heart, this is a bittersweet story of personal confrontations such as asking do I always want what others—even my mother—want for me."
Mam repeatedly asks whether or not he can hear her — d’ya hear me Martin John? Because we can assume she doesn’t feel heard. She doesn’t want to hear what it is he would say, if he were to speak the truth. She saw a man on telly once. She has seen plenty men on telly, but this one frightened her. She has seen many men on telly who frighten her. But he frightened her in a particular way. He frightened her the way she feels frightened when she sees someone lash out at a dog. In actual fact, she’s not a woman easily frighted. The dark, insects, vermin, death, moths in the flour — none bother her.
He frightened her the way she feels frightened when she sees someone lash out at a dog.
But a glance, a moment, in which there’s an indication of what might be the truth of a person sits longer at her. A rat would run under the cupboard sooner than look at you. A man or woman who lets a boot fly at a dog or throws an item at a chicken in their way has a raw and sealed-in-something that she’s convinced can never be dislodged. That man on the television made her afraid because she recognized something of her son in him. There were many who talked of their crimes in that programme. They talked like they were uncomfortable ingredients in a recipe. Something hard to shop for like chopped walnuts, ground lemon rind or tamarind. They used the names of the crime, I murdered, I raped, I killed, I punched. Not him. The details are gone. He talked above and around his crime. He remained oblivious or chose oblivion. He was unsure why he was in here. He did not say he hadn’t done it. He did not say it was a mistake. He merely said nothing either way. They showed this man beside a man with a long ponytail, who said he had opted for chemical castration and then physical castration. He was the only one in that prison program who had availed of it. She thought of a small boy, being born, riding a trike, building a fort and then flash-forward all these years. She wondered if that boy building an’ deploying could ever image-forward to the man they might grow up to be. Was it that she thought criminals should suffer unto perpetuity? She thought maybe it was.
Then she pushed it all aside. It was distressing that a stranger, in another time zone, filtered through a televisual tube, could induce this in her. She returned to it being a mistake, a misunderstanding, messing gone wrong, (boys get up to stuff), which it was. Martin John was young and it was only messing.
If people coming down a televisual tube were going to disturb her it would be a long disturbance.
What about it?
She did not like the idea she had a role in it.
You would not like the idea you had a role in it.
Did she have a role in it?
Have you had a role in it? Do you have a role in this?
These are some of the questions a mother may ask herself.
Another interview, Tuesday morning radio this time, had her by the ear. An interview with a former drug-addicted mother, who wondered if the fact she was an addict was the reason her son grew up to become a drug dealer and robbed a post office in Kiltimagh. It was a strange place to rob a post office, said a priest who happened to be in there trying to buy a stamp. They wondered if her son did it because he’d been watching too much American television. The mother admitted the son glamourized his violence and boosted his profile with the words that the “feds” were after him. The mother admitted she thought the “feds” was a parcel company. I thought he thought he was being chased by the post office. I see different now. How did he get there, the priest on the panel asked. He took the bus, the radio-mother said. The woman interviewing them all said words like Now I realize this is very difficult for you all.
Except it wasn’t difficult for the priest. He was not at fault. Nor was it difficult for the Minister of Justice who was on the line. The only person it was difficult for was that mother with the veins from which her son had grown and robbed a post office. There was an advert where the radio-mother spoke to tempt the audience to keep listening, I botched up motherhood her voice said. Find out after the break, Did she botch up motherhood? annunciated the presenter. Martin John’s mam turned the radio off.
The only person it was difficult for was that mother with the veins from which her son had grown and robbed a post office.
As Martin John’s mam hears the former drug-addicted mother puzzle it out, she recognizes there are many mothers out there puzzling things out. She will have to be a mother who puzzles. Except she is not the type who puzzles. She prefers to head, bang, to a conclusion. In this case: I was not that mother. I am not that mother. I didn’t raise my son to rob a post office. So what did she raise him to?
She prays hard. She incants for him. Once she prayed to St Jude, a man who fell in his own way, so he’d understand this overwhelming need to keep her son straight. I can’t afford no three-time-cock-crowing with Martin John, one more crowing and it’s prison he’ll be.
Everything I do and have done is to keep him on the outside. Sure if it’s in he goes, they’ll kill him. Plain and simple. They’d eat him alive, they don’t spare the like of him. Someday he’ll come home to me. He’ll come home when he’s failing or an old fella and I’ll be waiting.
She’s probably lying.
ANAKANA SCHOFIELD won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award and the Debut-Litzer Prize for Fiction in 2013 for her debut novel Malarky. Irish-Canadian, she has lived in London and in Dublin, Ireland and presently lives in Vancouver. Malarky was also nominated for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, selected as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, and named on many best books of 2012 lists. Schofield has contributed criticism and essays to the London Review of Books Blog, The Guardian, The Irish Times, The Globe and Mail and more.