Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Lionel Shriver doing what mothers can't do

I saw Lionel Shriver on Q&A the other night, and was curious about her wearing black gloves, so I googled it, as you do, and found this interview in the Guardian.

The article starts with corrections (which really makes you wonder about the accuracy of these things - ah, no, I should know by now, having read so many inaccuracies, to take these interviews with a bucket of salt).

The following apology was printed in the Observer's For the record column, Sunday April 29 2007

We apologise for some inaccuracies in the interview below. Shriver has lived in the UK for 20 years, but 12 of them were in Belfast, only eight in London, with interludes in Israel, Nairobi and Bangkok. Russian was only one course in her degree. And she did not change her name to Lionel to get 'more respect', but because: 'I was a tomboy. I grew up with brothers. So I chose a boy's name.'

In the interview she talks about not having children, and that she thinks people ought to have children. She was busy writing instead.

In her mid-thirties she fell in love with the non-fiction writer with whom she lived for 10 years. But her mother warned her not to have children: 'She said it would transform our relationship and the implication was - not for the better.'

Anyway, she didn't want children, but in her early forties, with time running out, she started thinking again about motherhood - and the result was Kevin, possibly the scariest take on motherhood ever devised. (What if your child becomes a campus killer?) If she had had success earlier, would she have been more willing to have children? 'That's astute,' she concedes. 'I think one of the reasons why I never got round to seriously entertaining the idea of having kids is that I was still working on the project I started out on - establishing myself as a novelist - and that produced an extended adolescence.'

In 2005 she wrote a very odd article in the Guardian saying that she was fed up with being seen as 'the Anti-Mom'; she thought women should have children; she was alarmed by how fast fertility rates are declining in Europe. I told her - flippantly - that her argument seemed to be that other women should have children in order to pay her pension and to stop Europeans being outnumbered by immigrants. I meant it as a joke but she took it very badly indeed: 'My message was positive - to pervert it is wicked. I was trying to say something that most people just wouldn't try to say because of the risk of being misinterpreted that way. That's the kind of self-censorship that we do all the time. But I'm interested in issues that are difficult. I'm very interested in the issue of immigration - expect more from me on this. Because there comes a point where it isn't the more the merrier, there's a tipping point where a population that is being inundated begins to get resentful.' In fact, she partly tackled the subject in her (very weird) fourth novel, Game Control, and tells me she has been 'obsessed' with demography since she was 15.

'When I was growing up and saying I don't want to have kids,' she goes on, 'I felt like a maverick, but when I reached my late thirties, early forties I realised I wasn't and that if you looked at the statistics - I've been keeping track of fertility rates all over the world - I was alarmed. And I'm still alarmed. That's what that article was trying to say: do as I say not as I did. It's not good, it's not healthy for the society and for us as individuals, to just be thinking, "Let's go on lots of holidays and not bother with kids." But for me it's too late - I turn 50 next month.'

Her life has changed surprisingly little since she won the Orange Prize. The prize itself was £30,000 but the real value was in hugely enhanced book sales - 600,000 in the UK alone. Yet she still lives in the same rented flat in Southwark - shouldn't she be buying somewhere? 'No, I'm too much of a coward! Large amounts of money scare the hell out of me. And the thought of going around looking at property is odious, your life passes before your eyes and you feel a bit like dying.' She still cycles everywhere, still buys her clothes in charity shops, still refuses to have a mobile phone. 'It's so bad that I have virtually no tax deductions because I don't spend any money. I don't go out to eat because I like my own cooking - nobody makes it hot enough for my taste and if I cook at home I can cram it full of chillies. I don't keep the heat on during the day, even in winter [which perhaps explains why she suffers from Reynaud's disease - poor circulation - and has to wear gloves all the time]. Other people seem to regard these little habits as peculiar. I don't regard them as peculiar. But I suppose I am bloody-minded about cycling everywhere. I bicycled to those parties last night. I wore these clothes. I'm also very frugal about laundry because I don't like to do it, so I wear the same clothes all week.'

Surely now she can afford to loosen up a bit? 'It's very ingrained, and it turns out that I don't want to buy anything. Habits I have pursued out of necessity, I now realise I like. I like going to thrift shops more than I enjoy going to, say, John Lewis. I'm not interested in their stuff. I like my old pots and pans, they have character. I like keeping my grains in old Horlicks jars. I like Horlicks jars.'

And of course she saves rubber bands, so at last I can get the answer to a question that has bothered me all my life - what are you meant to do with them? 'I use them to keep things wrapped up in the freezer. I mean I'm not surrounded by huge binliners full of rubber bands! But I'm pretty good about recycling, and for me it's not to do with saving the planet, it has to do with a natural desire to save, to use, to re-use. I am sparing about materials. And maybe I'm the same way about my life and my work - very frugal, trying to use everything. I know that I have ended up eccentric, but I like it that way.'

Personally I'm glad that not all women have children. We need women to be doing other things that women with children simply don't have the time to do. Like write novels. I find it interesting when people without children talk about the amazing benefits and joys and rewards they expect parenting would bring. The theories might sound nice, but the realities are ten times harder than they usually expect. The division between those with children and those without is huge. It is impossible to explain in the way death is impossible to describe - you can't come back and tell people in any way they can understand. You may try to imagine what it is like to live in a different colour skin, to be gay if you aren't, to be blind or deaf if you aren't, even though you may want to be empathetic, you never really know. Having children is good for you in the way that doing anything very difficult is good for you even though it isn't pleasant. It makes you have to think of others before yourself. I imagine becoming a parent is akin to winning the lottery the same day you lose a limb. In many ways, your life could change in an instant, and you'd suddenly be in another category of people with another identity. Any one of us can suddenly change categories.

I like Lionel Shriver for her cycling and recycling and second hand clothes and lack of laundering. I like her for her intellect, and I like that she has the time to explore ideas and share her work, and I like her that I can read her novels. Perhaps women who are busy mothering don't get to explore how confronting mothering can be as Lionel Shriver did in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Certainly, if a mother wrote the book she would have her mothering publicly questioned. I consider that she wrote a book about mothering with quite exceptional insights for someone who isn't a mother. I like that this is what novels do.

So, thankyou, Lionel Shriver. Thanks for being yourself.

1 comment:

Jenny said...

For a woman who doesn't know what it's like to have children she did an amazing job of articulating how hard raising children is. I think you're right - it would have been hard for her to write a book like that if she had her own children.