Meaghan Delahunt is the author of The Night-Side of the Country, a genre-crossing novel exploring the creative process as a place of refuge, ambiguity, and as a starting point for resistance.
What does feminism mean to you?
For me, feminism means being alert to the hurts of the world. It means: Fight the Power. It means that life doesn’t always have to be this way, that together we can change things.
Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint as crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism?
I was just a kid during the Whitlam era of the 70s, but I remember the ferment and the desire for change and women coming to the fore. It was all very exciting. And women like Germaine Greer who were so different and outspoken in public life. I remember the outrage about women wanting to be called Ms. The change to divorce laws and the fight for equal pay. The tent embassies too. It all had a big impact on me. My understanding of feminism has been informed and deepened by life experience. It continues to evolve. But I do think that #metoo has caused one of the seismic shifts of our time. On a personal level, it made me re-think my own feminism and question male dominance in a way I hadn’t before. Men asked, ‘Is it really that bad?’ And our collective global response stunned everyone, even ourselves: ‘Yes, it is.’
At one point in your book, the protagonist realises that ‘there is nothing for it but to write your way out.’ How important is the writing out of women’s stories generally, but especially in this time of #metoo? And where do you sit on the catharsis versus re-triggering?
Well, stories are our lifeline. I read somewhere that only five percent of recorded history actually includes the stories of women. Women speaking up at work or at home or in their art, telling our stories is a way to understand ourselves and our world. To realise we are not alone. And the fact is, historically, women’s stories have been dismissed or not believed. Still today, it’s easy to dismiss women coming forward.
I’d been reading Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey (the first by a woman in English) and I actually borrowed one of her opening lines and gave it a twist: ‘Tell me the story of a complicated man’ – I give that to B in my novel: ‘Tell me the story of a complicated woman.’ It’s important that the stories we tell give women back their complexity and agency. Something that many male writers overlook.
Definitely, in the immediate aftermath of #metoo, many women around the world had their trauma re-triggered. I was one of them. And I think catharsis can take time. It’s not immediate. In fact, I think the short-term consequences of speaking up or speaking out can be traumatic and you need support. I’ve certainly experienced that. But over time, the psychological consequences of not speaking up, or of not ‘writing your way out’ are even worse. It’s a question of survival.
Can you share briefly something of the rather unique genre-bending side of the book?
I’d been writing a different novel for a couple of years before the Weinstein revelations and #metoo. But when all of that hit, I found I just couldn’t go on with the writing. But then, after about six months, I found a way to fold in what had happened to me as a writer, as a woman, by combining different modes of storytelling. I got that electric jolt one day – am I really doing this? Can I have a writer and her character co-create the novel? Can I get away with this? It’s always at the point when you feel most out of your comfort zone – it requires a leap of intuition and of faith – that’s when you have to commit totally to where you appear to be heading. It’s not unusual for me to have this experience with novel writing and there’s usually a point where it collapses into something totally different. But this time, I actually made the process of collapse part of the novel. I went all out. I consciously played with conventions of the ‘novel’ and of ‘character’ and different ways of telling a story. Basically, I went back into the sandbox. I made different shapes and then bulldozed those shapes. In the end, I had a lot of fun with it.
‘A boot in the neck’ is oft-repeated in the book – both literal and metaphorical. What other ways of harming and silencing women do you explore in the book?
The novel deals with violence, but it’s the everyday silencing that some readers have focused on, especially the degree to which we silence ourselves. That line from Claudia Rankine – ‘take your foot off your throat.’ We’re so conditioned by the culture to keep quiet. To not make men feel uncomfortable – often at the expense of our own comfort. Then there’s also the tricky question of female collusion. That’s so painful, I think, to recognise and to write about. We often internalise the harm done to us – one of the narrators cuts herself when she’s a young woman. M loses a job as a result of speaking out and is also threatened with litigation; B is forced to go on the run after she goes public. These are all forms of everyday harm and silencing. They both become gender fugitives, of a sort. Perhaps all women become so, eventually.
Which women, queer, or non-binary writers should everyone be reading right now?
Here are some of my favourites in translation: Jenny Erpenbeck: The End of Days; Olga Tokarczuk: Flights; Cristina Rivera Garza: The Iliac Crest; Alicia Kopf: Brother in Ice; Lina Wolff: Brett Easton Ellis and Other Dogs; Norah Lange: People in the Room. And finally, because I can’t resist – anything by Rebecca Solnit, Claudia Rankine and Lucia Berlin.