A CONVERSATION with the esteemed author and essayist, Marina Warner, wanders down many engaging and enlightening avenues. Warner is looking forward to her upcoming visit to the West Cork Literary Festival and speaks fondly of her time working in the North and holidays spent in the West.
“I’m delighted to be coming back to West Cork, that part of Ireland is very beautiful. I was also a visiting professor in the North at the University of Ulster. One of the last times I was in Ireland was for a big exhibition by my friend [artist] Dorothy Cross; I also went to stay with her in Connemara. I used to go to Ireland a lot because some of my early work interacted with a lot of the preoccupations of those days.”
Warner is referring to Alone of all her Sex, her cultural history of the Virgin Mary, which created quite a stir among conservative Catholics when it was published in 1976. In the book, Warner, who was convent- educated in the 1950s, examined how the female figure that was such an overarching presence in her childhood had in fact been appropriated by men to wield power over women. Alone of All Her Sex has now been reissued in paperback, with a new introduction in which Warner discusses the changing view of the Virgin Mary among the faithful.
“She has become a more attractive figure than she was in my childhood in the 1950s, much less associated with chastity and obedience, more to do with intercession and mercy. In Latin America, there is quite a renewal of the idea of Mary as the protectress of the poor rather than as the Queen of Heaven in a dominating way.”
While Warner no longer describes herself as a Catholic, she still views the changes in the Church in a positive light.
“The Church has changed a lot with all of the convulsions and investigations; that has considerably weakened its moral authority and that’s a very good thing. The Pope is a reformer and a very appealing man. He has created tremendous changes in the mood around Catholicism. He is also discussing the possibility of women becoming deacons, which shows he is much less hostile to women’s emancipation and equality than in the past.”
Warner has a vast back catalogue of non-fiction books and is in huge demand for her essays and criticism, but in recent years she has been attempting to concentrate more on writing fiction, and last year released a third collection of short stories, Fly Away Home. How does she approach the different forms of writing?
“Non-fiction requires a kind of decision — you need to make some judgments and to take a definite path. My stories are more open questions. That is why some of them are open-ended — some of the reviewers didn’t like that. I realised one of the reasons I do that is because the value of fiction is you are not quite sure where it is going to lead you. It is not authoritative, it is exploratory and dreamlike. It doesn’t necessarily have to come to a resolution. When there are neat endings and shapely plots, on the whole for me, that is more genre, like writing a thriller.”
Despite her experience and ease with the craft of writing, Warner still struggles with the process.
“I would write more fiction if I was more confident of it. My essays and criticism are much more in demand.”
Warner has written extensively on myth, fairytale and folklore, and the powerful role storytelling plays in our society and culture. Her latest project moves away from theory into practice — encouraging refugees to share stories of their culture.
“We are trying to do it in such a way that it is not just simply the stories of their own suffering. I am not saying they shouldn’t tell those stories but a lot of people who are in these conditions are encouraged to keep to a certain story — they need to for legal purposes. It fences them in — think of the range of stories and the fun people can have with them — wicked stories, trickster stories, stories of rebellion and descent.
“You can’t tell these stories if you are facing a tribunal seeking asylum. But these are what makes life worth living.
“There is also an enormous body of stories in so many of the cultures and these dislocations of peoples across the world break the threads whereby those memories are held. I am not crying doom, they do continue to survive but you need to give them space to thrive. It is amazing how they can fade. It is fine that we tell each other about our suffering, that also creates a bond but it is not the only way that people converse or exchange experience.”
Warner has written extensively on gender and the portrayal of women in fairytales and is greatly encouraged by contemporary renditions of traditional stories.
“Children’s literature now is really rather well done. There was a lot of work done on the ideological problems and I think that is better now. The girls aren’t so soppy and there isn’t always the heroic boy and the tag-along girl.
“Spirited girls have always existed in fairytales — they just got edited out in the interests of gender ideology. The film Frozen had that fruitful love relationship between the sisters, which was an innovation because that is not in the story of Snow Queen, on which the film is based.
“Just like in Maleficent, the Wicked Stepmother is moved by Snow White’s goodness and redeemed by discovering she loves the little girl. That is all to do with feminism because those are female scriptwriters and Angelina Jolie was the producer.”
Technology offers many new ways of telling stories — with ourselves as the subjects. What does Warner make of this new world of apps, platforms and social media?
“It has a dark side. Obviously, it can create atomised pressure groups of the unpleasant kind and horrible Brexiteers ranting about immigrants. But it is also a fantastic resource for uniting people and for sharing and archiving information.
“Although it is still not certain how we are actually going to keep all of this information accessible. Nevertheless, for the moment, the web is a circulation system of great riches. It has changed the way we all work. There are dangers, it is not an unalloyed boon. Of course there are problems with pornography, bullying, this kind of mass hypnosis. One should look at it as a means, not a thing in itself. ”