I love women. I was reared by four of them here in Ireland – my mother and three big
sisters (my father died when I was a year old) – and when I grew up I met the love of my life who is now my wife. She, like those four other outstanding women, has helped to keep me right when I was going wrong and is a living model on how to live. They all followed in the giant footsteps of Irish mothers who through many terrible times set an example for weak, vain and often violent men.
So when in 2011 I read in a local publication here in my native Derry – Spirit of ’68: Beyond the Barricades – that Stokely Carmichael had expressed the sentiment I have quoted above I was outraged. Now outrage is as good a reason as any other to write a novel and outrage at the treatment of women even now in the twenty-first century (exemplified in Tucker Carlson’s political “analysis”) was what got me started.
But before I put fingers to keys I had work to do. I had to set about clearing the red mist from my system and then make myself better informed. I looked at the 1963 march on Washington – the I have a dream march – and discovered that, in spite of the prominent role that women had played in the African American civil rights struggle, they were virtually ignored when the march reached its destination. To pour more coal on the fires they were not invited to be part of its delegation of leaders who went to the White House.
Incensed at these and other grievances, civil rights activist lawyer Pauli Murray wrote in 1963 to A. Phillip Randolph, one of the two main organizers of the march:
“I have been increasingly perturbed over the blatant disparity between the major role which Negro women have played and are playing in the crucial grass-roots levels of our struggle and the minor role of leadership they have been assigned in the national policy-making decisions. The time has come to say to you quite candidly, Mr. Randolph, that ‘tokenism’ is as offensive when applied to women as when applied to Negroes.”
But these kinds of criticisms were treated as demands for inappropriate recognition, at odds with the spirit of the event. March organizers went back to worrying about how to pick their token woman. The idea that more than one might actually speak to the massive assembly of marchers was unthinkable. So Randolph and company came up with their solution. They would ask Mahalia Jackson the legendary gospel vocalist to sing before Martin Luther King took the stand. And she did. At the request of Dr King she sang I’ve Been ‘Buked and I’ve Been Scorned.
What is not so generally known however was that during King’s speech Mahalia intervened to say aloud to him “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” And at that moment, as can still be seen in films of the speech, Martin put away his prepared notes and improvised the next part of his speech – the part beginning “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
To learn more I moved to the present century. As I write, Hillary Clinton is favorite to win the Democratic nomination for the 2016 US election. The kind of laughable comments from political “guru” Tucker Carlson that I quoted at the beginning of this post is not untypical of US media commentary on this remarkable woman. Even those who do not support her must recognize that misogyny à la Carlson is par for the course in the world of US media.
Two hundred years before the march on Washington the first suffragette was born in London. Her name was Mary Wollstonecraft and she was the founder of feminism. Her most memorable words for me are: “I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves.” At a time when women were being routinely scorned by the male movers and shakers she was a philosopher, a travel writer, a bestselling author, an educational pioneer and a human rights activist before that term had even been heard of. On top of all this she had a profound influence on the Romantics, among them William Blake, John Constable, John Keats, and William Wordsworth as well as her own daughter Mary (of Frankenstein fame) and Mary’s husband Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Mary Wollstonecraft saw marriage as a form of slavery and lived accordingly. Her first child was illegitimate and this didn’t endear her to the holders of the moral high ground. And when she died in agony from a postpartum infection eleven days after giving birth to Mary, the vultures (not all male, it must be said) gathered to feed and hiss as they celebrated the death of this “voluptuous victim of licentious love”, one of the terms used at the time to describe her. And during the last two hundred and fifty years Mary’s reputation has never properly recovered, not even in these supposedly enlightened times. Such is the fate of women who dare flout male-engineered conventions. Even today a man who sleeps around is too often looked on benignly, even admiringly, as a stud while a woman who does the same is seen as a slut. Plus ça change.
Anyway, there I was, fired up and ready to write. But the last thing I needed was for my novel to be an impassioned argument for women’s rights. Not the right approach. I would keep the appalling treatment of women in my mind as I wrote but not brood on it. I thought back to what James Joyce once said: “When I begin to write a novel or a play or a poem I do not have to know where it is going. What I do have to know is where it starts. Then, once I have started I let my imagination and my emotions take over and lead me where they will.”
And so I began. I began with a wake, a wake held for a nasty woman by another nasty woman for one reason and one reason only: to spite a bunch of nasty women neighbors by showing them up for not offering to hold the wake in their own houses. How’s that for a book that’s out to surreptitiously champion women and personal freedom? But wait! There’s an Irish wakehouse coming down with colorful characters, most of them men who have dropped in for a free drink and all the scandal they can pick up. And then there’s Jeremiah, the son of the house who receives the mourners one by one but is waiting for the only one he is interested in receiving – an ex-lover and fiery political activist called Aisling O’Connor.
Why ex? Well, Aisling is bisexual and Jeremiah is a conservative Catholic with rigid views on extramarital sex, especially with someone from the dreaded species that hits both ways. Just a week before the wake he was so plagued with the guilt of his relationship with Aisling that he threw her over, only to realize when she was gone that he couldn’t function properly without her. And as the novel begins he has just about got to the end of his tether and knows that if she doesn’t appear in the door of the wakehouse there is just one way he can hope to get her back and that is to join local civil rights marches and hope that somehow he can spot her. For this is a further complication: she is wedded to civil rights in the US, Northern Ireland and other hotspots and to women’s rights everywhere – and to the notion that it might take bloody revolution to achieve all these rights.
Now Jeremiah hasn’t got a political bone in his body and the fact that in joining civil rights marches he may be risking life and limb doesn’t occur to him. But then he’s deeply, hopelessly in love and love of course is a crazy thing.
When I was Jeremiah’s age I was very much like him in my attitudes. So writing about him came easy to me. Well, maybe not too easy. I had to remember that honest writing was rather like taking off one’s clothes in public. Not a pretty sight in my case. I mean stripping in public of course. If you read The Wake (And What Jeremiah Did Next) you’ll have to make up your own mind as to what sort of sight that novel actually is.
Colm Herron is the author of four novels and numerous essays and articles. He hails from Derry, Northern Ireland, and his newest novel The Wake hits stores this November.