Book Festival review: Colm Toibin | Maggie O’Farrell

Feminism in the digital age; Colm Toibin’s receives “stinking letters” after the release of his novella, Maggie O’Farrell on how illness shaped her writing. By Ninian Dunnett

[Maggie O’Farrell]

IN AN age of political apathy, could it conceivably be feminists who stoke the fires of activism? A bad-smelling wave of misogyny in social media, the circulation of the phrase “legitimate rape” and even the novel whose title was parodied in the name of this session – Fifty Shades of Feminism – certainly seem to have stirred some embers. Lisa Appignanesi, who has co-edited a book with the same punning title, agreed with Kate Mosse in the chair that feminism has had something of a resurgence in the last year.

Still, the exploratory, open-minded virtues of the conversation embodied the difficulties of the subject: the problem of defining a position. It was the writer Kamila Shamsie who came to the rescue with two stories of practical politics. Describing how the Women’s Action Forum was a potent force of opposition to the oppressive Pakistani regime of her youth, she developed her theme with an account of the vibrant feminist movement there today. In a country still “highly patriarchal and misogynist”, a quota system has ensured that 23 per cent of the members of parliament are women, she explained – and the women from different parties have collaborated to roll back repressive legislation.

Quotas, then, were a single issue on which this feminist panel was unanimous (and the superior representation of women in the Scottish Parliament relative to Westminster was duly noted). But there was broad recognition, too, of the difficulty of contesting gender roles which have been hammered into us at every level through a lengthy history. As Shamsie lamented, “It’s very hard to get what you can’t even fully imagine.”

It was a member of the audience who summarised most eloquently the sense of ground lost since the heyday of feminism several decades ago: “All these things we won seem never to have happened, or certainly a generation of young men seem to think they never happened… and you think, oh no, we’re going to have to gird up our loins and start all over again.”

Colm Toibin has had his own run-ins with a patriarchal establishment recently via his re-imagining of the Blessed Virgin in his novella The Testament of Mary. Commissioned as a play, the text’s performance in New York was picketed, and the Irish author found himself receiving “stinking letters”. Still, he conceded to Richard Holloway, he still finds a part of himself drawn to the Church, and even enjoys talking to priests and nuns. “I wouldn’t like them bossing me around too much,” he added. “But I think we’ve got them where we want them now.”

Big-jawed and with lowering brow, Toibin looks as if he might have been hewn from Wexford granite, but he is a light and mischievous comic presence in a book festival chair. “Not a bundle of laughs,” was his verdict on his book, after he explained some of the emotional difficulties of writing it. Still, there is effortless erudition and an unusual frankness on the subject of his craft which makes Toibin’s commentary unusually rewarding. Disclosures yesterday included the theft of the “exalted tone” of poets like Sylvia Plath for the voice of his Mary, his discovery of the need for a grotesque vignette involving rabbits and a bird of prey to act as a correlative to the crucifixion (“I knew it was going to be difficult for the reader, but it had to be there”) and his determined efforts to free his description of the raising of Lazarus from the image’s gaudy Gothic offspring like Frankenstein’s monster and the undead.

If Maggie O’Farrell was less detailed in her account of her writing processes, the much-travelled – and now Edinburgh-based – novelist was frank in revealing two personal experiences which have shaped her creative life. Contracting debilitating encephalitis for two years at the age of eight, as she told Jackie McGlone, the young O’Farrell became a devoted reader, poring over her favourite books again and again (a process of familiarisation and then analysis, she added, which she now recommends to creative writing students.) She is also, though there was no apparent evidence, a lifelong stammerer, and she explained how her strategies of management and concealment for the condition were echoed in the life of a severely dyslexic character in her sixth novel, Instructions for a Heatwave.

But perhaps this author’s most heartfelt admission was about the difficulty of finishing a book. “You go through a sort of grieving period… It’s a bit like having a close group of friends who don’t want to talk to you any more.”