Sophie Grenham and SINÉAD GLEESON discuss the resurgence of the female essay form in literature, its pioneers and champions …
“I had a conversation with somebody on Twitter about the essay, because they mentioned me and Emilie Pine. There are people coming up behind me who are doing just as good work. I see us all as part of the same circle. It isn’t about pulling the ladder up and it isn’t about competing. If you’re not championing women, I don’t want to know you, basically,” Sinéad Gleeson tells me, gentle but resolute, as we discuss female essayists one February afternoon. She’s only getting warmed up.
The award-winning journalist, broadcaster, editor and author has written Constellations: Reflections from Life, her debut collection of feminist prose about love, death, family, motherhood, hospitals, illness and turning the body into art. The complex issues she deals with are timeless, but she has made them her own. In my opinion, Constellations is already the book of 2019. Advance proofs were literally the rarest stardust for months. When I briefly left my seat in a café recently, I hid my copy under my coat.
Gleeson is whip-smart, approachable and fun. Best of all, she is egoless – a rare quality. Renowned for elevating other writers, thanks to the editorship of such anthologies as The Long Gaze Back (2015, New Island), she is currently nurturing more talent as a Writing Fellow with University College Dublin, where we meet in her office in the Newman Building. I fetch us coffee from the Arts Café downstairs beforehand, where I coincidentally spot a tall, beaming Emilie Pine, author of the best-selling Notes to Self (2018, Tramp Press). A fitting prelude to our topic – why has the essay form experienced such an explosion in Ireland of late?
“Traditionally, a lot of things have happened to women based on their bodies and their gender. A lot of that was being told to shut up, to do what you’re told, and to know your place,” she says. “We can write whatever we like now, but Edna O’Brien got banned
(The Country Girls, 1960). Ireland has changed more in the last ten years than the last 60 put together. Some of it is the rebellion of saying the un-sayable, telling stories and not needing to fictionalise them. Emilie Pine says this too about her work.”
I only recently tuned into the essay form myself, reading a sizeable stack of collections in a bid to catch up. I run through some of them with Gleeson, starting with Susan Sontag, the late American writer, film-maker, philosopher, and political activist. “Against Interpretation (1962) and Sontag’s writing on illness as a metaphor is a really big work for me, and later on when she wrote about the AIDS crisis,” she says. “I touch on it from a different angle in terms of blood artists in Constellations; people using their body as a means of representing their art.”
Indeed, it was through the discovery of works by like-minded writers, that Gleeson realised she could explore difficult and risky subjects . “Didion’s In Bed essay starts off with something like migraine headaches are terrible. Then halfway through she says – oh wait – you get to go to bed for two days and write. Essays are about making an argument with yourself or figuring out something you want to know the answer to. All good ones are, or should be.”
As diversity in literature is a subject of importance to Gleeson, she emphatically recommends Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist (2014) and Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (2017). “She has a very different body to mine, with different issues to what I’ve had, but equally awful things have happened to her. [Gleeson spent four years in hospital as a teenager and has had leukaemia.] She’s constantly battling with her body and her size, but the way she writes about it is just incredible.
“A lot of people think of Zadie Smith as a novelist, but I prefer her essays. Every time I teach or read Find Your Beach (from Feel Free, 2018), I find something else,” Gleeson says, animatedly. “There are so many layers you almost miss things first time around. Rather than sitting down to write about x subject, she stares out the window. She takes it from there and talks about everything from parenting, art and gentrification, to being an immigrant.”
Of course, no list is complete without Dublin’s own Maeve Brennan, who moved with her family to the USA in 1934. She wrote for The New Yorker as The Long-Winded Lady, a series of observations from urban life. Her articles were originally compiled in 1969, and re-introduced by The Stinging Fly Press in 2017.
“I discovered Maeve Brennan’s work initially through her Dublin fiction – furious stories of stifled houses and unhappy marriages – but it’s her non-fiction that’s under-rated. Brilliant psycho-geographical accounts of navigating a big city alone, and as a woman. It feels utterly contemporary, and I’ve written about Brennan as a flâneuse and essayist who was ahead of her time.”
Gleeson’s knowledge of female writers is staggering. I later pace the department halls, and consider how English students of today must benefit from working with writers of Gleeson’s calibre. As I wander towards the Clonskeagh exit, I notice a familiar petite figure in the distance, moving through a drizzle mist with those resilient limbs that embody so much of her art. Oblivious students dot the pavement, as a lone star navigates her night sky.
Constellations: Reflections from Life (€16.99) by Sinéad Gleeson is published by Picador and available now.
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