The idea of genre leaves me nervous. One book is literary and the other book is historical, his book is crime and her book is commercial fiction. Aren’t they all simply stories?
I understand the compulsion to divide them into categories – it makes that fundamentally unmanageable entity, the story, easier for publishers, booksellers and reviewers to isolate and identify.
But should we really be zealous about pinning down stories, which spring to life because of that glorious standard bearer for freedom, the imagination? Need categories be so uncompromising? Perhaps it’s not in the best interests of readers, who may never pick up a book carrying a particular label – yet might enjoy the story inside.
Recently I read ‘The Riddle of the Sands’ by Erskine Childers, a classic spy novel published in 1903 which influenced Le Carré, Fleming and others. I found it in a second hand bookshop, attracted by its battered charm.
In general, spy novels aren’t for me. But this book wasn’t presented in the rigidly defined terms which tend to brand novels today, the jacket and endorsements signalling the contents. And I’m glad I read ‘Riddle’ because I gained from the experience both as a writer and a reader.
The reason I’m puzzling over category is because I’m told I’ve changed genres for my current novel, ‘About Sisterland’. I’ve switched from historical – my last two novels – to speculative fiction, with people asking me why.
Technically they’re correct. ‘About Sisterland’ is set in the near future in an imagined society. I could present a case about the past being as foreign as the future: the writer is feeling their way through unfamiliar terrain, whether it’s the 18th or the 22nd century. But where’s the point? Hands up, my mythical state of Sisterland doesn’t pass muster as an historical novel.
So why did I look to the future this time? The reason lies in the story itself. The novel considers what a world ruled by women might be like, and initially I thought I might locate it in the present. But that wasn’t working because I wanted to explore a regime which had been in existence for a century or so. Time to hit the fast forward button.
Sisterland is a world ruled by women. Initially, its founders envisage it as a state of perfection. No more war or greed or crime. But human beings aren’t designed for perfection – and so ‘About Sisterland’ examines how a good idea in principle can mutate into something horrible in practice.
Here, women are the dominant gender and men are relegated to a sub-species. But women pay a high price for their supremacy: the system demands total obedience and conformity from them.
Every aspect of their lives is controlled by the state, from their jobs to whether or not they can mate. It tells women what to think, while emotion is suppressed on the basis that it kept them back for centuries. A licence is needed to become a mother, but women aren’t allowed to raise their babies – that happens communally. All the better to indoctrinate each generation.
Political and religious extremism, a pregnant woman’s loss of autonomy over her body and what happens when the oppressed becomes the oppressor were on my mind as I worked on the novel. The future? Hardly. Just look over the garden hedge for examples of all the above right now.
Initially, I have to admit I was going to make my Sisterland a utopia. But as soon as I started writing, I realised that an all-female community would have its own set of problems.
A warped interpretation of feminism develops – women become convinced they are better than men rather than equal. And the human need to revere and follow someone or something can never be set aside.
You may be wondering how women came to hold the reins of power, and why men were rendered docile enough to accept it. Here’s the back story: World War III breaks out in 2035 and, as in World War II, women step into the breach while men charge into combat. But when it ends two years later, women refuse to return to the home. Having become accustomed to power, and seeing what can be achieved, they decide to retain it. The use of biological weapons has weakened men, which gives women a chance to consolidate their position.
I didn’t set out to write a futuristic novel, I simply wanted to tell a story. So I made a deliberate decision to go easy on the futuristic trappings. No teleportation machines, I’m afraid. On the contrary, one of the first decisions taken by women after Sisterland’s formation is to dismantle the space programme as a hubristic male enterprise.
Perhaps where I had most fun was with emotions, which the Sisterland regime scientifically categorises and rations to control its population. Looking at the (real) world around me, I see how we still struggle to understand and deal with something as natural as emotions – there is a fear of allowing nature a free hand. So I pushed this to extremes in Sisterland.
A message? Recently I heard Joseph O’Connor quote Anne Enright, saying once books become “about-y” they’re failing. So I’m loathe to think that the message matters more than the story here. It’s a yarn, first and last.
But in the process of storytelling, I’d like to think I touch on the capacity for inate human compassion to overcome taught ideas. Now, categorise that if you can. Because it beats me.
(c) Martina Devlin
Welcome to Sisterland. A world ruled by women. A world designed to be perfect.
Here, women and men are kept separate. Women lead highly controlled and suffocating lives, while men are subordinate used for labour and breeding.
Sisterland’s leaders have been watching Constance and recognise that she’s special. Selected to reproduce, she finds herself alone with a man for the first time. But the mate chosen for her isn’t what she expected and she begins to see a darker side to Sisterland.
Constance’s misgivings about the regime mount. Is she the only one who questions this unequal society, or are there other doubters? Set in the near future, About Sisterland is a searing, original novel which explores the devastating effects of extremism.
‘About Sisterland’ by Martina Devlin has just been published by Ward River Press, and is available in all good bookshops, or pick up your copy online here!