‘To talk about things that have been kept pri­vate is part of a real fem­i­nist move­ment’

Parental al­co­holism, in­fer­til­ity, drug use and sex­ual vi­o­lence — no sub­ject was off lim­its when Em­i­lie Pine wrote her deeply per­sonal, taboo-shat­ter­ing es­says. Re­vis­it­ing these mem­o­ries was painful but nec­es­sary, the UCD aca­demic tells JOANNE HAY­DEN

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - BOOKS -

In 2013, Em­i­lie Pine was sit­ting in a gravely un­der-re­sourced hos­pi­tal in Corfu. She and her sis­ter had flown from Dublin to the bed­side of her fa­ther, who was in full liver fail­ure. Amid the worry and fear, and the strain of wait­ing for ad­e­quate med­i­cal at­ten­tion, she be­gan to won­der how she would de­scribe “the room, and the man in the bed, as if it, and he, were a scene”. The im­pulse to trans­pose the cri­sis into words would even­tu­ally lead to the first es­say in her col­lec­tion, Notes to Self, which is be­ing pub­lished by Tramp Press.

Brave, wise and beau­ti­fully nu­anced, the six es­says ex­plore sub­jects that have tra­di­tion­ally been con­sid­ered off-lim­its. She writes about the im­pact of hav­ing an al­co­holic par­ent; about mis­car­riage and fer­til­ity is­sues; about body shame and the re­al­i­ties of the fe­male body; about her par­ents’ bro­ken re­la­tion­ship, her dif­fi­cult teenage years and her ex­pe­ri­ences of sex­ual vi­o­lence; about over­work­ing and the pres­sures of be­ing a tenured aca­demic.

Though in the es­says she pushes her­self into painful, some­times trau­matic, mem­o­ries, there is hu­mour in the dark­ness and vice versa. She is ex­cel­lent at cap­tur­ing con­tra­dic­tion and the com­plex­ity of hu­man emo­tions — how hap­pi­ness can con­tain grief, how the act of writ­ing can make the writer pow­er­ful and vul­ner­a­ble at once. The book will re­sound with many read­ers; it will also prompt them to tell her their own sto­ries — which is fine with her.

“I’m ac­tu­ally hap­pier lis­ten­ing than talk­ing,” she says. “I’ve said ev­ery­thing that I want to say in the book. I think, in a way, fa­cil­i­tat­ing those kinds of con­ver­sa­tions is the re­ally im­por­tant thing about putting some of this stuff out there. Why make this pub­lic? Why have this as a pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion? I think it is part of a real fem­i­nist move­ment to start talk­ing about things that have been kept quiet and pri­vate, and to recog­nise the ways that they’ve been kept pri­vate in or­der to main­tain a kind of power over women. This is not to say that the es­says are only about be­ing a woman, be­cause any­body can have a par­ent or a fam­ily mem­ber who’s an al­co­holic.”

It’s un­sur­pris­ing that Pine is so ar­tic­u­late — as she says in Notes to Self, she talks for a liv­ing. As as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in mod­ern drama at UCD, she also thinks for a liv­ing, and she brings the same depth and clar­ity to her con­ver­sa­tion as she does to her prose.

We meet in an al­most de­serted Dublin ho­tel — the bar­man com­plains that the sun is dec­i­mat­ing his trade; ev­ery­one wants to be out­side. Hav­ing read her work, I feel a fa­mil­iar­ity with her al­ready, but the es­say is a con­tained form and she has cho­sen to fo­cus on cer­tain sub­jects, to write about cer­tain parts of her life. Say­ing that, each piece strives for truth, no mat­ter how messy, un­com­fort­able or un­heroic, and there’s a sac­ri­fice as well as a gen­eros­ity in be­ing so hon­est.

The book has had a serendip­i­tous path to pub­li­ca­tion. ‘Notes on In­tem­per­ance’ — the es­say about her fa­ther, the writer and critic Richard Pine — was orig­i­nally a “pri­vate nar­ra­tive”, a “way of get­ting things on to paper”.

Her part­ner found it in a drawer and en­cour­aged her to “do some­thing with it”.

Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff of Tramp Press don’t nor­mally pub­lish non-fic­tion but, hav­ing read the es­say, they broke their own rules and said that if Pine had other ideas, they’d be in­ter­ested in do­ing a book.

She had just been through four years of try­ing to get preg­nant. She had had a mis­car­riage. Her sis­ter’s daugh­ter had been still­born at 37 weeks. The five ideas she ini­tially wrote down evolved into the other five es­says, one of the most dev­as­tat­ing of which is ‘From the Baby Years’.

“That kind of poured out of me,” she says. “It’s prob­a­bly the es­say that’s changed the least.”

‘From the Baby Years’ charts her own lived ex­pe­ri­ence, and the ag­o­nis­ing process of rec­on­cil­ing her­self to the fact that she would never have a baby, but like the other pieces, it can be read on many lev­els. At one point, she talks about writ­ing her ob­ser­va­tions on her cer­vi­cal mu­cus into her di­ary, next to the sched­ule of classes she’s teach­ing. It’s an im­age of di­vi­sion — the phys­i­cal ver­sus the in­tel­lec­tual self, the pri­vate ver­sus the pro­fes­sional self — but at the same time, it’s an im­age of co-ex­is­tence; the body and the mind are oc­cu­py­ing the same space; they are to­gether on the page. And of course it’s not just the body, or her body, it’s the fe­male body — which she is re­claim­ing here in a consciously fem­i­nist way. She does this even more overtly in an in­vig­o­rat­ing, taboo-shat­ter­ing piece: ‘Notes on Bleed­ing and Other Crimes’.

An es­say called ‘Some­thing About Me’ is se­cond last in the book — she wanted read­ers to know her be­fore they reached it. Cov­er­ing roughly eight years of her life, it deals with her mov­ing to Lon­don with her mother and sis­ter at the age of 14 and be­com­ing “a poster wild child,” drink­ing, do­ing drugs, skip­ping school, run­ning away, staying in squats, hav­ing sex with strangers, not eat­ing. To­wards the end, she writes about be­ing raped on two sep­a­rate

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