Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

"She Had to Start Thinking like a Man": Women Writing Bodies in Contemporary Northern Irish Fiction

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

"She Had to Start Thinking like a Man": Women Writing Bodies in Contemporary Northern Irish Fiction

Article excerpt

Studies of representations of the body in literature have become so well established as to no longer require extensive explanation or justification of exploring the body as a mode of criticism but, nevertheless, the choice to apply this particular mode of reading to contemporary Northern Irish fiction cannot be glossed over without comment. The body still remains a vastly under theorised aspect of Irish writing in general. The body, however, is an area of particular relevance to Irish fiction. Irene Gilsenan Nordin comments:

the body has a long tradition [in Ireland] as a powerful trope, reaching back to early Celtic Christianity, when the body was celebrated as a source of wisdom and beauty, to the fear of the body as a site of temptation and its strong negation in the Catholic tradition, to its exploitation as a force in the construction of Irish national identity, where the body was depicted as a landscape on which the nationalist drama was inscribed (Gilsenan Nordin 2006: 2)

The concepts of religion and nationalism and their relationship with the body in Irish writing as introduced above by Gilsenan Nordin are, of course, particularly relevant to contemporary Northern Irish fiction in its depictions of national conflict, negotiations with slippery concepts of national identity and ambivalence towards the prevailing conservative cultural and religious climate.

Taking this point further, Kathryn Conrad comments:

gender and sexuality are not only useful areas to examine closely when trying to understand the dynamics of power in the North: they are essential (Conrad 1999: 54)

Contemporary Northern Irish fiction may display ambivalence towards the north's prevailing conservative cultural and religious zeitgeist, but when it comes to the issue of gender relations and the concept of identity, the depiction of the female body and what it signifies continues to require close attention in contemporary Irish and Northern Irish writing.

"The Common Good"? Delineation of the Private and Public Sectors

Eavan Boland describes depictions of the feminine in Irish poetry in largely negative terms:

the majority of Irish male poets depended on women as motifs in their poetry. The women in their poems were often passive, decorative, raised to emblematic status ... She becomes the passive projection of a national idea (Boland 2006: 135).

In many respects, this appropriative identification of the feminine with the nationalist melodrama and the reduction of the female body to being merely decorative, while restrictive and even degrading, is also, unfortunately, in many respects unsurprising. Women have traditionally been identified with the nation and the home in modern Ireland, both of which function equally as a physical space and a mental state.

It is posited by Gayatri Spivak that a social dichotomy is perceived to exist between the "public" and "private" sectors, with the male public sector representing the "political", "social", "professional" and "intellectual", while the female "private sector" represents the "emotional", "sexual" and "domestic" (Spivak 1988: 3). This dichotomy has been particularly apparent in Ireland, a country with a constitution which explicitly linked women the home and the domestic, and used the words for woman and mother interchangeably. The women's movement in the south did much during the 1970s and 1980s to challenge this identification. Spivak's distinction, however, remains of crucial significance in a Northern Irish context, where, although the women's movement attempted to erode the cast iron distinction between woman and home, progress was severely hampered by the sectarian conflict, as stated by Linda Connolly and Tina O'Toole in their study Documenting Irish Feminisms: The Second Wave:

The development of the women's movement in Northern Ireland has been complicated and shaped by the impact sectarianism, religious differences and violence have had on women's lives since the late 1960s (Connolly and O'Toole 2005: 145). …

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