Has there ever been any other?
I was privileged to be included in the anthology ‘Her Other Language’, which was launched at the Irish Secretariat in Belfast last week in the run up to International Women’s Day (proceeds to support Belfast and Lisburn Women’s Aid) . It was a powerful experience. The room was full of Northern Ireland’s female literati. The book is beautifully produced by Alan Hayes at Arlen House, and superbly edited by Ruth Carr and Natasha Cuddington. I am in the company of so many wonderful writers, I couldn’t even begin to name. There were speeches from Monica McWilliams of the Women’s Coalition, who also wrote the preface, and Damian Smyth, Head of Literature at the Arts Council. And there was a reading by a range of contributors that took my breath away. One of those readers was Nancy Mattson, whose technically superb and shocking poem lends its title to the whole anthology.
The poem is a lipogram avoiding, as Ruth and Natasha explain in their introduction, use of plosives b and p, and the fricatives f, v and z; because the speaker in the poem is a woman whose mouth is so mangled by assault that she cannot properly speak. It is horrifying. And is such an accomplished poem. As described in the introduction, it ‘conveys(s) to us again the language of effacement and victimisation’ through ‘poetic constraint (and) … the constraint of voice, imposed on the body by violence’.
It wasn’t the only stunning reading that evening but it is the one that has most stayed with me. However, as as other writers read their work, I found myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable. I found myself thinking things like ‘This is too much’, and ‘Is this how we celebrate International Women’s Day? By focussing on our pain?’ I felt a bit ashamed of myself having these thoughts, at the very launch of a project I was proud to be part of, and for a cause I support. But I was having them.
I can’t remember who said ‘Women bond in weakness; men bond in strength’ but it has stayed with me for years. There’s a part of me that recoils from misery/trauma/violence as a subject for female writers. There’s just so much of it. But when I mentioned my discomfort to a friend, feeling somewhat treacherous as I did so, she was nonplussed. And since then I’ve been wondering, is this me? For the truth is I’ve suffered a fair amount of misery/trauma myself. And if not actual violence, certainly a good deal of cruelty.And the truth is, I just don’t know how to write about my experience. Which is weird, because I can talk the talk. I spout in workshops about how constraint frees. Which is what the poem ‘Her Other Language’ illustrates so superbly.
As a writer, I draw on my own experience as it is transmuted through form, metaphor or fiction. So I am thinking about these things. I am thinking about language as an act of transformation.
In the meantime, I heartily recommend this book. It’s not an easy read but it’s a great collection.