By Taylor Allgeier-Follett
Content Warning: this article includes descriptions of sexual violence.
The contemporary moment in Irish women’s writing has been recognised as a space of “extraordinary dynamism” for women negotiating the changing landscape of gender in Ireland (Bracken and Harney-Mahajan 3). On the heels of the 2018 repeal of the Eighth Amendment, bodily autonomy and, as pertains to this discussion, narrative autonomy are significantly prevalent in both the public consciousness and contemporary writing. This article is concerned with the way that autonomy and power are wielded in the use of narrative, taking as examples Emilie Pine’s personal essay collection, Notes to Self (2018), and Nicole Flattery’s “Abortion, A Love Story” from the short story collection Show Them A Good Time (2019). These texts contribute to breaking what Pine has called “all the silences” (qtd. in Williams) surrounding sexuality, abortion, and other topics in a predominantly Catholic Irish society.
Pine’s essays unpack complex and troubling moments throughout her life, often frankly discussing taboo topics. Flattery’s “Abortion, A Love Story” also consciously opposes silences, albeit in a fictional format, following two college students, Natasha and Lucy, as they navigate interactions with men, the regulatory structures of their university and society, and contemporary Dublin. Both Flattery’s short story and Pine’s essays have a conscious investment in the nature of narrative and its uses; reading them in conversation with Susan Lanser’s foundational essay, “Toward a Feminist Narratology” (1986), and her concept of the doubled voice illuminates this further. These texts demonstrate both the pitfalls and power of narrative: the way a lack of narrative or narrative control can be objectifying, suffocating, and even disenfranchising, and simultaneously the capacity of narrative power to break from heteropatriarchal standards and silences, ultimately providing new ways to gain understanding, empowerment, and autonomy.
The idea of a lack of access to narratives is keenly felt in these texts, a concern which derives in part from the historical exclusion of women from the Irish literary canon. In their introduction to A History of Modern Irish Women’s Literature, Heather Ingman and Clíona Ó Gallchoir discuss the way in which the “hegemonic national narrative” of Ireland has “all too often elevated symbols of femininity while erasing and silencing women’s voices, lives and experiences” (4). Indeed, symbols such as ‘Mother Ireland’ and the ‘Irish colleen’ are often found in canonical works, while literary contributions by female authors were critically neglected. This oversight is slowly being corrected, with greater attention to both past and present-day female authors within the academy, and resuscitation efforts (such as Tramp Press’s “Recovered Voices” series) focusing on publishing works by writers who may have been overlooked by their contemporaries. However, it remains that the Irish canon has largely featured symbolism which renders women “invisible in a lens that cannot see or recognize [them] as a subject” (Bracken 7). This history of writing and erasure is made manifest in “Abortion, A Love Story” where female experiences are (mis)interpreted by strangers, demonstrating how narrative appropriation can be deployed to silence women.
In Flattery’s short story, narrative is initially weaponised against women. Natasha and Lucy, both undergraduate students, meet because of their sexual involvement with a professor, who comments to Natasha, “women in this country are always being watched” (Flattery 64). A voyeuristic co-opting of women’s narrative lives is made evident in the diegetic space of the story, where both Lucy and Natasha are horrified by separate acts of narrative which fictionalise their experiences and violate their privacy. Lucy faces an unexpected staging of her life when she goes to see her ventriloquist boyfriend’s play which involves a grotesque puppet performance of an abortion she had in England some time prior:
She knew her entire life had been leading to this moment, watching it again except this time as a witness. She felt like it had never stopped happening, that somewhere it was always happening and here, finally, was the proof…That’s not how it was, she wanted to say (90).
In a graphic act of narrative appropriation, Lucy’s boyfriend has stolen a traumatic and personal event from her and turned it into a performance for his own benefit. By fictionalizing her life, he displaces Lucy from the role of participant to that of witness in an inaccurate retelling of her lived experience, which then invokes trauma in Lucy. The play further makes Lucy into an object as the puppet comes apart with “blood pooling around its body” (90), a decision which seems to mock the lack of autonomy Irish women had before the repeal of the Eighth, while also misrepresenting the medical procedure itself. This fictionalization is a particularly gendered form of narrative violence, ignoring a woman’s experience of an abortion in favour of a man’s interpretation. The narrative appropriation that Natasha faces is less graphic: she receives a series of emails from a sender she does not recognise. However, these emails contain a script based on her life: “they were written like the darkest play… all ripped directly from her life” (64). Significantly, the use of “ripped” makes it clear that Natasha feels as though this is another instance of scripted violation. In each case, the women are made into characters performing under a stranger’s gaze, rather than three-dimensional people; narrative is weaponised to reduce their humanity and agency for the benefit of others.
While “Abortion, A Love Story” features narrative being weaponised against women, silence and taboo surrounding female experience can also hinder the establishing of an autonomous female narrative. The need for narration becomes a central feature throughout many of the essays in Notes to Self. In “From the Baby Years,” Pine details the excruciating process of trying, and ultimately not succeeding, to have a child. When discussing the essay in interviews, Pine explains that she “wrote the essay [she] needed to read” (qtd. in Kellaway). She says that throughout her attempts to get pregnant, she “felt completely isolated. That is partly because others do not share their experiences – except on [fertility] websites” (qtd. in Kellaway). These fertility websites did not satisfy Pine’s need for a framing and cohesive conversation, due in part to the transient nature of participants on these forums, with some posters vanishing suddenly, leaving no conclusion. In “Toward a Feminist Narratology,” Lanser analyses a double-coded letter, writing that, within narration, “communication, understanding, being understood becomes not only the object of the narrator but the act that can transform (some aspect of) the narrated world” (357). In “Speaking/Not Speaking,” Pine explores the way in which, as Lanser writes, experience can be transformed with proper access to narrative, articulating her own experience while also examining whyshe is invested in writing. The essay discusses her parents’ divorce and subsequent refusal to speak to one another, using the young Pine as the conduit for any kind of communication. She writes:
I still dwell on the stories of those years, hoping they might explain the troubling residues of so many feelings and thoughts and actions […] I write them down. Perhaps they will be less overbearing that way, pinned in one place. (105)
For Pine, narrative offers a possibility of being understood, not only by the reader but by herself. The fragmented nature of her memories and, more importantly, her fragmented understanding of them, can be better negotiated by the act of writing and forming a coherent narrative.
The importance of the act of writing is further developed in “Something About Me,” an essay which demonstrates Pine’s understanding of the need for open conversations about all elements of lived female experience, in order to provide access to a framework through which she can understand and even reclaim traumatic experience. Pine reveals she did not realise she had been sexually assaulted as a teenager until twenty years later because it had not been “on a dark street” and had not corresponded with the way she “had been trained to think of all rape” (168):
The urge to write this feels not only dangerous and fearful and shameful, but necessary. I write this now to reclaim those parts of me that for so long I thoroughly denied. I write it to unlock the code of silence that I kept for so many years. I write it so that I can, at last, feel present in my own life. I write it because it is the most powerful thing I can think of to do. (175)
The final sentence of this passage reveals why Pine turns to narrative: for her, it is simply the most powerful option. The “code of silence” is one of the reasons Pine struggled with these events. It is this realization which contributes to “the urge” to write and speak about it, because the code of silence is not just one which Pine has imposed on herself. It is a sociocultural muteness which denied her the vocabulary to articulate that her experience was rape, merely because it did not align with the single standard narrative regarding sexual assault. Pine’s use of the word “reclaim” suggests that for her to narrate her experience is to deprive these events of their power over her. In writing each of the essays in Notes to Self, Pine reclaims narratives previously used to ignore or silence women’s accounts of their lives, narratives which figure women as “always object, never subject” (Bracken 7).
As Lanser argues, in feminist narratives, “women’s language becomes not simply a vehicle for constructing a more legitimate (masculine, powerful) voice but the voice through which the more global judgement of patriarchal practices is exercised” (350). Pine’s determination to break the “code of silence” is a key example of this, as is “Abortion, A Love Story.” Lucy and Natasha use narrative to reclaim their lives, writing a tragicomedy of the same title which is explicitly formulated in defiance of heteropatriarchal standards and in reaction to the plays which were written about them. They know that the audience will expect them to portray “the pain and the suffering of the women […] the violence of what they have endured” but decide to subvert this expectation: “let’s not give it to them” (111). They thus defy societal expectations of femininity by deciding to turn their stories of abortion, sex work, and disassociation into a comedic play. This structure grants them a means to laugh and embrace even the darkest elements of their lives, taking the very medium which violated their narrative autonomy to create their own regenerative narrative.
At the beginning of the performance of their play, Natasha stands in a regulatory building associated with their university called the “unemployment building,” where Lucy’s disembodied voice plays an employee demanding that Natasha “do things [their] way” (120). Natasha firmly says: “Not tonight…Tonight you’re doing things our way” (120). This assertion concisely demonstrates the significance of the narrative that Lucy and Natasha are constructing—they are removing themselves from the regulatory narrative of the unemployment building and affiliated government of the university, of the male gaze which violated Lucy’s narrative, and of the still-anonymous playwright who stalked Natasha. While it remains true that “women in this country are always being watched” (64), these women have decided under what conditions they will be watched, and the precise ways they will narrate what other people have presumed to interpret for them. Narrative becomes a kind of communion, both in their writing and in their performance, enabling Natasha and Lucy to reinterpret aspects of themselves which they find unappealing or shameful in a way that brings joy, thus reclaiming those parts which are not welcomed by society at large.
Through the writing and performance of this story, narrative becomes both a healing act through which the two young women reclaim power and connect to one another: “Natasha learned all of Lucy’s lines; Lucy learned all of Natasha’s lines […] There was no impulse that was wrong” (115). While before, other people learning their “lines” was violatory, this act is one of intimacy and an embrace both of themselves and of each other in a space of absolute acceptance. Narrative becomes something joyous and shared with permission, rather than something “ripped” from them:
They talked about everything, everything distasteful and rotten and shameful about their lives. They tore the skin off it. They found beauty in it; they put it all in the play. And they would laugh at it. (115)
In her work, Lanser concludes that the writer of the double-coded letter cannot be satisfied “without narrative itself,” outlining how “[…] the act of writing becomes the fulfilment of desire, telling becomes the single predicated act, as if to tell were in itself to resolve” (357). It is neither the final product of the letter nor the reading that is most meaningful, but the act of narration itself. In line with Lanser’s reading, Lucy and Natasha use collaborative writing and narration to reclaim some form of power. Both story and play end with Lucy saying, “I don’t know if I get it” (138). But, as Lasner assesses, meaning is not the purpose of their narrative – rather, narrative is the “single predicated act” of “the telling” (357) which allows Lucy and Natasha to reclaim control, producing not only ownership of their narratives but also joy within the act of telling. Ultimately, the titular “love story” becomes one between Lucy and Natasha, and a love of narrative that facilitates this connection.
This act of telling is again formulated as a defiance of sociocultural standards and a reclamation of narrative in the final essay of Notes to Self. In “This is Not On The Exam,” Pine reflects on her relationship to academia, in regards to both gender dynamics and the rigorous expectations placed upon academics. Listing the litany of gendered and sociocultural fears she has internalised and her daily anxiety arising from them, she concludes: “I am afraid of being the disruptive woman. And of not being disruptive enough. I am afraid. But I am doing it anyway” (203). Throughout this essay, Pine reflects on how she is called to be both acquiescently non-disruptive and representative as a woman in academia; she must simultaneously maintain the status quo and be “the disruptive woman.” Just as Lucy and Natasha refuse to concede the expected tragic element of female narratives, Pine uses the essay’s final lines to disavow the (contradictory) constraints placed on her as a woman. In writing these essays Pine is, as she says, “doing it anyway,” acknowledging and then disrupting the silences surrounding her own life and ultimately creating a narrative frame through which to understand her experiences.
In these texts, narrative is ultimately understood as a form of power which can be used to understand and process experience. Much of the content of these works deals with negatives—Pine and Flattery each portray how female experience is often coloured by disassociation, objectification, misogyny, and a lack of bodily autonomy. For both writers, narrative offers the most powerful and, indeed, the most accessible alternative to these negatives, offering a tool with which to challenge existing heteropatriarchal structures. From Pine’s writing to fill her own narrative need in “From the Baby Years” to Flattery’s complex story which unravels a stock narrative of female trauma and replaces it with a collaborative “love story,” Flattery’s characters and Pine herself wield the formal and diegetic features of narration. In foregrounding, as Lanser suggests, “the act of writing as the fulfilment of desire” (357, emphasis mine), both writers ensure that meaning, interpretation and understanding are in the making; by highlighting the power of narrative construction, Pine and Flattery sidestep the “lens that cannot see or recognize [them] as subject[s]” (Bracken 7), and refuse the possibility of narrative commandeering. As such, in Notes to Self and “Abortion, A Love Story,” Pine and Flattery are “doing things [their] way” (Flattery 120).
 While it is implied that the playwright is Lucy, it is never confirmed or addressed.
Taylor Allgeier-Follett, “The Pen is Mightier: Narrative power in contemporary Irish women’s writing,” Alluvium, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2021): n.pag. Web 8 March 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.1.07
About the Author
Taylor Allgeier-Follett is a PhD candidate at University College Dublin, where they are investigating women in the family in contemporary Irish novels under the supervision of Dr. Anne Fogarty. Additional research interests include an investment in Irish women’s writing, LGBTQ+ representation in Irish literature and beyond, and gender theory.
Bracken, Claire. Irish Feminist Futures. London: Routledge, 2016.
Bracken, Claire, and Tara Harney-Mahajan. “A Continuum of Irish Women’s Writing II: Reflections on the Post-Celtic Tiger Era.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, 28:2 (2017), 97–114: https://doi-org.elib.tcd.ie/10.1080/10436928.2017.1315547
Flattery, Nicole. “Abortion, A Love Story.” Show Them a Good Time. Dublin: Stinging Fly Press, 2019, 61–138.
Ingman, Heather, and Clíona Ó Gallchoir. “Introduction.” Eds. Heather Ingman and Clíona Ó Gallchoir. A History of Modern Irish Women’s Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018, 1–17.
Kellaway, Kate. “Emilie Pine: ‘I Wrote the Essay I Needed to Read.’” The Guardian, 26 January 2019 (accessed 25 February 2021): https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jan/26/books-interview-notes-to-self-emilie-pine
Lanser, Susan S. “Toward a Feminist Narratology”. Style, 20:3 (1986), 341–63: https://www-jstor-org.elib.tcd.ie/stable/42945612
Pine, Emilie. Notes to Self: Essays. 3rd ed. London: Penguin Random House, 2019.
Williams, John. “‘I Was Done With All the Silences’: How an Academic Got Personal in ‘Notes to Self.’” The New York Times, 30 June 2019 (accessed 25 February 2021): https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/30/books/emilie-pine-notes-to-self.html