The acclaimed Irish writer’s first novel, ‘The Country Girls’, from 1960, was banned and burned in Ireland, but she has lived undaunted ever since and is still writing.
How many of you, in your mid-80s, would board a flight to Nigeria?
How many of you would board this flight with thousands of euro stuffed in your underwear? And not for a holiday, but in the hope of talking to young women who hadsurvived an extreme terrorist organisation?
One of Ireland’s greatest living writers, the 88-year-old Edna O’Brien, has done just that. For what will be her 19th and final novel, Girl, and with a body of seminal work behind her, she chose to go “into the zone of hell”.
In April 2014, 276 girls were kidnapped from a government school in Nigeria by the Islamic terrorist organisation Boko Haram. Some escaped. Some were married off multiple times. Many were raped and had several children as a result. And many have permanent marks around their wrists, from being tied up.
“Why would I go to Nigeria twice to write a book about horrific material, unless I wanted to go into the zone of hell and yet believe I can come out? I was fearful and fearless,” Edna said in a new BBC One documentary, Edna O’Brien: Fearful and Fearless, about her life.
But the writer has been fearful and fearless her entire life.
The actor Emma Thompson recently lamented the portrayal of women on screen, in an interview she gave to the New York Times.
“We skipped from being in the kitchen to being in the tank, and there’s nothing in between. So we still have failed to explore, and bring to the screen, what being a woman is,” said Thompson.
Here’s hoping Thompson catches Edna O’Brien: Fearful and Fearless, on the BBC player, if she missed it last Sunday night. Because Edna O’Brien, in her ninth decade, has brought to the screen what being a woman really is.
The documentary charted O’Brien’s life from her strict childhood in Co Clare to her liberation years in Dublin, and from her turbulent marriage in London to her years as a prolific writer of independent means.
And all of this, while rearing her two sons, Sasha and Carlo, who, from their interviews in the BBC One documentary, seem to love, respect, and care deeply for their mother.
Here was a woman with a dissenting public voice, bountiful talent, unapologetic ambition, and who mothered, too. She didn’t have to be either/or. She was both: she mothered, while having a life of her own.
Having moved to Dublin in the late 1940s and having qualified as a pharmacist (one of the few careers her parents would “approve of”), she met and married her husband, Irish writer Ernest Gébler. Her family was against the union and steps were taken to stop it. She calls the steps “medieval”.
Edna defied her family and moved to London’s suburbia with Gébler. Here, she felt far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city’s life.
Now wedded to that all familiar female role of enforced domesticity, Edna took to writing. No one gave her permission; here was another sign of her fearlessness.
After dropping her sons to school, she would come home and type ferociously until it was time to collect them.
In three weeks, she wrote what would become one of Ireland’s most-talked-about novels, The Country Girls.
Her mother would ring her and tell her of the furore back home: first of how the novel, which explored and articulated Irish sexuality, was being banned, and then, later, of how it was being burned.
But Edna kept writing. There was The Lonely Girl, and then Girls in their Married Bliss, published in 1964, the same year her marriage ended.
One night, after an incident which the writer palpably describes in the BBC One documentary, she walked out the door of her family home, penniless, having given all of her earnings to her husband. She found refuge on the couch of a woman she knew.
Even though her fourth novel, August is a Wicked Month, came out in 1965, she was still penniless, as one of her sons explains in the documentary; he believes she gave the advance for this book to her husband, too.
Edna got to work. She wrote magazine articles to feed and rear her two boys and she kept writing novels. Eventually, she had earned enough money from her talent and hard work that she could afford to buy a home in London’s Chelsea.
It was here that the famous parties were held. Guests included Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, and Paul McCartney, who, one night, sang the boys, who were tucked up in their beds, a song before they went to sleep.
Not a bad life for a country girl, but not just any life: a self-made one.
Edna’s prolificacy continued and she wrote such novels as Down by the River, published in 1997, about a community’s response to finding out that a young girl, Mary, is seeking an abortion, having been abused by her father.
An Irish Times review described it as “probably her best fictional performance in some time.” The New York Times liked it, too.
EDNA kept writing. Her last novel, The Little Red Chairs, published in 2015, has sold 250,000 copies in two years.
And now, for her final piece of work, she has focused not on Ireland, nor on herself, but on the stories of survivors of abominable abuses.
She didn’t rely on Google or newspaper reports for her research. Instead, as Bob Geldof says in the documentary, she put on her “knapsack and hiking boots”, and off she went to Nigeria.
It is always said that we celebrate male literary stars with much more hubbub than we do female ones.
In getting the BBC One treatment, the life and work of Edna O’Brien is shown to us in full force.
In the factual portrayal of her life, you see a most accurate depiction of a woman’s life.
You see domesticity coupled with great social contribution. You witness the love and nurturing of others, alongside the pursuit and expression of a person’s own talent. And you see the celebration and enjoyment of pleasure for pleasure’s sake.
Most of all, you see not a hint of apology for a life well-lived.