Author Lucy Ellmann on her first essay collection Things Are Against Us, and envisioning a world led by women
In an interview with Firstpost, Ellmann talks about Virginia Woolf being among her biggest inspirations, why Trump is 'one of the biggest failures of all time', and more
Nawaid Anjum Last Updated:October 13, 2021 10:16:02 IST
In her first collection of essays, Things Are Against Us (Picador/Pan Macmillan India), US-born British novelist Lucy Ellmann, shows how anger and humour remain the two primary weapons in her arsenal. The collection is an acerbic evocation of all that ails the world, especially America. In this interview, Ellmann, who was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize for her doorstopper, Ducks, Newburyport, written in almost a single sentence, talks about why she writes what she writes.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
The wide-ranging essays in your first collection of essays, Things Are Against Us (Pan Macmillan), hewn out of the frustrations of life and the sad state of the world, give expression to your unease with, and anger at, the ways things are. What space did these essays emerge from? “All of life is pandemonium. With plague in our midst, everything feels like an emergency,” you write early in the book. Did the pandemic exacerbate the urgency and intensity of your discontents?
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Apart from making us all pretty angry and miserable, Covid-19 has produced a miasma of muteness. Socially, things feel unreal and on hold, as if we’re all just waiting for life to get back to normal. But that may never happen. I think we’re all suffering from loneliness. Writing, for me, depends on belief in some kind of future. The enormity of the pandemic makes it a subject I’m ill-equipped to deal with: I know how to talk about male chauvinism and minor domestic tragedies, but it’s not so easy to be flippant about the end of the world. It took me quite a while to lower my anxiety level enough after the first lockdown to think or write at all.
The notion therefore that the pandemic is ‘inspiring’ in some way, as promulgated by some writers and artists, seems not only cruel but highly unlikely. If illness, bereavement, and societal collapse really spur you on, fine, but it’s nothing to crow about! And it seems silly, if not disrespectful to the dead, to deny that Covid has damaged and diminished us all. So, no, I don’t find a time of plague a great writing opportunity.
Though I admit sorrow and cantankerousness have often fuelled my writing. Well, who wants to write about loveliness, laughter and joy? They’re nice enough things in real life but make lousy material. Ben Jonson is one of the few writers that can pull it off: ‘In small proportions we just beauties see; / And in short measures life may perfect be.’
These essays, frequently footnoted, are about various things — environmental concerns, your disenchantment with Agatha Christie and Donald Trump, your rage against America reaching a new level of patriarchal absurdity, and your disapproval of men’s eroticisation of bras — do you see these essays cohere at some point and crystallise into a feminist manifesto?
It works for me! I love Solanas’s S.C.U.M. Manifesto, but don’t agree with the (tongue-in-cheek?) violence she recommends. I have written a feminist manifesto of my own, “The Manifesto of the Odalisque Revolution”, which is included in my novel, Mimi (Bloomsbury, 2013). My argument is simple: we need a peaceful transition to woman-centred rule, worldwide. Most of the things I complain of so vociferously in Things Are Against Us — including climate change, social and economic injustice, animal cruelty, and war — would diminish or even disappear if we adopted matriarchy. We could also regenerate education, socialism, and the arts, and finally get beyond cop shows on TV. Things that might not be altered by matriarchy are the existence of Agatha Christie books (though most crime fiction is anti-female, I don’t like censorship), and the way inanimate objects are out to get us — even matriarchy can’t save us from spitting lemons, rebellious pillowcases, and slippery piles of envelopes.
What kind of a world do you envision being led by women?
When female officers are involved in an arrest in the US, fewer shots are fired by the police. I’m not saying women have less intrinsic violence or anger in them, but they do seem better at working with other people to defuse trouble. My confidence in matriarchy, though, is largely based on the work of Marija Gimbutas, an archaeologist and anthropologist who pieced together signs of long-lasting, prehistoric matriarchal cultures throughout Europe. I believe they existed elsewhere too — certainly in India, where they left their mark in erotic art and goddess worship.
Any mammalian culture based on despising women is obviously doomed to fail — it’s not rational and therefore lacks stability. Prehistoric matriarchies were steady, culturally advanced, communally-led societies in which labour was kept to a minimum and women were respected. This is what we could be doing with our time now, instead of cherishing masculinity and war. Matriarchies established the arts, agriculture, astronomy, and veneration of nature. Then humans got addicted to rivalry and death, and surrendered to patriarchal capitalism. As political systems go, it’s pretty crummy. I give it an F. Masculinity needs de-escalation on a grand scale.
How did you work on blending wry humour with streams of ceaseless fury in these essays? Your prose is provocative and irreverent, laced with the vehemence of diatribes/tirades/polemics. It betrays a compelling force and pulsates with propulsive linguistic energy/ingenuity. How do you craft your prose that also allows you to seamlessly transition from one discourse and segue into another?
So nice of you to say this! But I can’t explain why my writing is how it is, except that it requires much revision. I keep trying to rethink it, changing things right up to the last minute.
I like prose that can turn on a dime — frisky, agile writing that throws you every minute. Without that, I get bored. This is why I like Jane Austen, Lawrence Sterne, Charles Dickens, R K Narayan, Molly Keane, Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek. Every word has to count. None of these writers could exist without humour either. Humour is not an optional extra in life, nor in the arts — humourless writers are lacking something essential.
You seem to have perfected the art of making literature out of quotidian quibbles, as it is evident in your novels that outline varying degrees of hopelessness with the planet/spaces we inhabit. Did you have to rejig your scruples and shticks to venture into a new form?
Isn’t it great to spend one’s life with ‘quotidian quibbles’, instead of devoting it to some kind of arid academic research or writing ad copy? Nobody gets to tell me what to write about — I like that a lot. But essays are not really a new form for me. The first things I published were reviews of art shows. Later, I reviewed books and had opinion columns in various publications. I particularly enjoyed writing diatribes. They come so naturally to me, in fact, it’s sometimes difficult to keep my fiction from getting too didactic. Ducks, Newburyport (Pan Macmillan, 2019), my longest novel, was even longer before I put it through a sieve, taking out anything too essayish. The narrator of that book is working her way towards having strong opinions, but they’re embryonic. Nothing shouty allowed.
You have termed Trump as “one of the biggest failures of all time”. Do you see America working towards reparation of this failures? In what ways do you think Trump dented America’s body politic? How do you think he will go down in American history?
He’s a real low-rent madman and should be in jail. He’s not even interestingly mad. Just a total jerk. The terrifying thing is that some people still believe in his idiotic opinions and would gladly die for him – or, more likely, kill for him. The possibility of civil war in the US seems less acute now, perhaps, than during the final days of his presidency, but it’s still terrifying. The whole population is armed, after all – they could start extinguishing each other in droves any minute. Trump and his crowd should have been nipped in the bud somehow, early on. Why didn’t they try to impeach him every day? He started obstructing justice as soon as he was in office. This is the guy the nation entrusted with upholding the Constitution!
Eventually, thousands of insurrectionists committed treason on 6 January, invading the Capitol building and threatening the vice president with hanging – and arrests have only been in the hundreds. His emboldened fans have continued to spread their stupid anti-vaccination sentiments – while the rest of the world struggles desperately to contain the virus. Instead of popping their balloon, the Democrats constantly give them more credence than they deserve. Without a system that can restrain Trump, democracy’s finished in America.
In an ideal world, he would go down in history as the sadistic, uneducated, genocidal, narcissistic, misogynistic bully, buffoon, and lecherous monster that he is, a barely elected president who almost took his country down with him. He would by now be in prison for his crimes against humanity. But, in reality, the insane right wing in America may yet triumph. You can’t unleash all these demons and then just sweep them under the carpet. The guy essentially got his wall: he walled America off from the rest of the world. Now it’s a hotbed of barbarism.
In ‘The Lost Art of Staying Put,’ you rage against the ‘frivolous travel of the selfish kind, the act of inflicting yourself, uninvited, on other cultures, this constant movement, the whole crazy business of zooming about the globe’. While tourists do, in some ways, ruin cities they visit, tourism is a huge industry today. Do you think it needs to reinvent itself and reorient people towards responsible travelling? How often do you travel? How do your travels shape your writing?
If everyone had stayed put at the start of the pandemic, there wouldn’t have been a pandemic! As an impoverished writer, I’ve never travelled much, even before Covid. When I did, I tried to stay somewhere for at least two months. My main interest in other countries is new flora and fauna. Otherwise, travel seems a big waste of time to me, and far too much effort — the suitcases, the back ache, the language barriers, the bafflement and alienation. I had enough of it already when I was thirteen and my family moved from the US to England. That was traumatic, and I really hated England for a good twenty years or so. (I still prefer Scotland, where I now live.)
Given the climate crisis, I really don’t understand why tourism still exists. Apart from migrants and asylum seekers who must travel, I think everyone else should stop clocking up the air miles, sit still for a minute, and start thinking about how to procure a sustainable future for us and the natural world. If travel made anybody smarter, that might mitigate the devastation it causes. But people seem to troop off the planes as ignorant as when they got on. American tourists are particularly obtuse and demanding. I wish you could sue people for making you sick.
In “Three Strikes”, you draw on Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas and state that women should go on strike in three areas — housework, labour and sex — if they wish to topple male supremacy and bring our planet back from the brink of annihilation. Has Woolf been an influence? Why do you think “a new matriarchal era is a revolution that is a safe, sensible, efficient and really rather innocuous solution to the devastation caused by male mayhem?”
Woolf is one of the best writers of the twentieth century. The Bloomsbury cult leaves me cold, the fascination with Charleston and all. It seems to stem more from the group’s sexual experimentation than the quality of their work. Woolf’s the only real artist of the whole bunch. I particularly like her nonfiction, and much appreciate the subtlety of her approach in Three Guineas (1938), which was indeed a big inspiration for me. She’s able to make truly cutting remarks about men without ever going for the jugular. She never yells — it’s her faultless logic that is so unanswerable. And enviable. But it’s not my style — I prefer a screamier approach.
As for a new age of matriarchy, it would be ‘innocuous’ in that, in my vision of it, women would be merciful and forgiving towards men. The whole point would be to restore an atmosphere of compassion and the common good, not revenge or retribution. Men need only surrender their ill-gotten gains – their undeserved power – and go along with a more humane, female-oriented system. Maybe a little truth and reconciliation work wouldn’t go amiss but, really, men would be getting off very lightly for the horrors they have perpetrated: the rapes, the genocide, the greed, the hierarchies, the insults, the exploitation, the sulking, and all their sports hysteria.
Today, we have scores of women writers around the world telling incredible stories. What are your expectations from modern novels, especially those by women? What are you currently reading?
I expect women to save literature! And I won’t settle for anything less. But I don’t restrict my choices to books by women. Given the history of education and publishing, which have prioritised men for thousands of years, reading only women would mean depriving yourself of a wide range of aesthetic experience.
But there are two very male writing traits that really bug me. First, when they get lazily mysterious or mystical, as in Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), leaving the reader to do all the work for them, guessing at what they mean. It’s exhausting. You might fall for this vagueness when young, but years later you realise you still don’t know what the guy was getting at! What’s Le Grand Meaulnes really about? I have no idea. Stop being so elliptical! It’s a cop-out.
Secondly, an obvious one: men sometimes overdo the description of breasts, or the general gorgeousness of some fictional character — an affliction very similar to the one that’s left Western painting with such an abundance of female nudes (mild precursors to the porn industry). Do male writers think they’re being seductive or what? Are these bodily details vital information, without which the story could not function? It infuriates me. She’s not real anyway, man, she’s a character in your book! Sheesh, get a grip.
Being overly critical is an occupational hazard of being a writer, I’m afraid. I recently reread Primo Levi’s Periodic Table and found it a little erratic and about half-good. Right now, I have three things on the go, all by men (that is accidental): Laurent Binet’s The 7thFunction of Language (2015), which takes post-structuralist theory down a peg or two (I hope); Peter Verhelst’s The Man I Became (2013), a poignant fantasy about an imprisoned ape-cum-slave, trained to talk; and Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit (1857), which is just a blast, and refreshingly humane — life is hard in Victorian London, but (at least in Dickens’s hands) not as irredeemably directionless, discourteous, and banal as it seems today. I’m also reading The Radcliffe Line and Other Geographies (2017), a very colourful book about her colourful artworks, by my friend Sarindar Dhaliwal. And next, I want to read more by Abdulrazak Gurnah, a beautiful writer. I’m so thrilled he won the Nobel.
Nawaid Anjum is an independent culture journalist based in New Delhi. He can be reached at email@example.com