‘Permission to write’: Emilie Collyer Interviews Marion May Campbell

By and | 31 October 2021

I feel unlike Marion. I like Marion. I feel liked by Marion. I feel envy for how she places meaning for how she finds meaning in writers and writing she loves. I feel there is wisdom in this approach. In starting first as a responder. A first responder. To have as anchors texts and writers that provide such nourishment and pleasure, such intellectual stimulation, such creative provocation, such emotional succour. Looking at the interview I note how many times Marion answers a question by talking about another writer. I don’t know Marion well. I meet her just for these couple of hours. She doesn’t tell me everything about herself. I don’t know more than I know. This is such an under-statement it is almost ridiculous to utter. But my impression is that much of her sustenance comes from these literary and poetic and writerly relationships. From being with. That here is a frame for her to place her practice and her own intellect and creativity within. But of course, this is not the full story. I heard some other snippets of the story and of course more so much more that was not spoken. Two hours. How much is really possible?

EC: what’s that relationship like between what you write and why you write and as a sense of being a feminist or what feminism is, or …

MMC: I think, um, I think it is part of the motor, which drives me to write the, um …

Both [for] the [urgency of resistance, the pleasure and …] the fury, […] of […] well, all sorts of [fury …], my fury […], a long burning fury against all sorts of oppression that women suffer, silencing and disempowerment […]

But, also, as much a kind of […] lesbian desire drives, drives a lot of it, despite the fact that I’ve, you know, had heterosexual relationships that [have surely] dominated in terms of time, I’ve always been, you know [and] consider myself fundamentally lesbian despite all these contradictions.

And that kind of desire, […] which was sort of censored and prohibited by my mother […] I think initially led me [to find oblique ways of expression…] When she was alive, she read every word I wrote. She loved reading [what] I wrote and it was kind of [inhibiting], so it drove me to find a metaphor or to look for a metaphorics of doing what I wanted to do without her being able to necessarily pounce on things.

EC: That’s an amazing insight. Did you know you were doing that while you were doing it?

MMC: […] Not really. I mean, you know, not really, [or] did I? Oh, I mean,

Um, she, [my mother] said, she’d kill herself if I was going to be a lesbian.

EC: Ooh. Okay.

MMC: So I say, oh, well, maybe I’m not.

EC: That’s just, wow.

MMC: laughs Uh, but also, you know, that, um, and I, the problem was, I mean, if she’d been, she, she, she adored me, [ and I her, as much as I feared her negative judgement] but she was horrified by whatever do those women do to one another, you know, just horrified by all that aspect of lesbian desire.

And I think deep down, she probably […] She had very passionate friendships with women, so it was a kind of internalised homophobia, because it was defensive.

EC: And do you still imagine her reading your work when you write now or does that –

MMC: Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes.

‘The pervasive model of women’s studies as a mother-daughter dynamic’, writes Judith (Jack) Halberstam in their 2011 book The Queer Art of Failure, ‘ironically resembles patriarchal systems in that it casts the mother as the place of history, tradition, and memory and the daughter as the inheritor of a static system which she must either accept without changing or reject completely’ Halberstam proposes instead ‘a feminism grounded in negation, refusal, passivity, absence, and silence,’ ‘an antisocial femininity’ that is ‘a refusal of the essential bond of mother and daughter’ (124).

Mothers and their impact and matriarchal lineage will keep coming up in subsequent interviews I undertake. I start to sense something of an attempt to ‘shake up’ an inheritance; to use writing and the creative act as a way of operating somewhere between acceptance without change or complete rejection of what has come before, either personally, creatively or socially.

Even within this very small sample this rustles something alert in me. Something about a certain discomfort as opposed to an ease of fitting in. I don’t know if any writers really fit in with ease, to the literary ‘scene’ or to a ‘career’ but perhaps some more than others. Perhaps it is more accurate to say, in regards to the writers I speak with, that they are each grappling with a certain kind of discomfort. Each unique but each in relationship with the kinds of writing that they produce and what they hope for this writing to ‘do’.

How am I in conversation with this? I read an ethnographic account about life at a truck stop, written by a person who is not a trucker. It has lovely observations of his conversations with truckers such as: ‘Dan was angry, and I had trouble writing down all his words in a standing position’ (Zollo in Chiseri-Strater and Sunstein 1997: 29)

In this piece Zollo is an outsider, looking in. The same cannot be said for my going out into the field to speak with writers. I find this essay in a book called FieldWorking: Reading and Writing Research (1997) as I examine in what way what I am doing, with these interviews, is fieldwork:

Fieldworkers investigate the cultural landscape, the larger picture of how a culture functions: its rituals, its rules, its traditions, and its behaviors. And they poke around the edges at the stories people tell, the items people collect and value, and the materials people use to go about their daily living. By learning from people in a culture what it is like to be part of their world, fieldworkers discover a culture’s ways of being, knowing, and understanding (Chiseri-Strater and Sunstein 1997: 3)

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