whitehot | January 2009, Kofi Forson Interviews Emer Martin
Confessions of a Banshee
By Kofi Forson
Emer Martin, novelist, painter and filmmaker, and I met at Hunter College in a Novel Writing class. She had just published her first novel Breakfast in Babylon, which won Book of the Year in her native land of Ireland at the prestigious Listowel Writer’s Week. She won the 1996 Audre Lorde Prize and the 1996 Miriam Weinberger Richter Award for work on her second novel More Bread or I’ll Appear. She was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in the year 2000 to work on her third novel Baby Zero, which has since been published. She resides in Dublin, Ireland with her two daughters.
Kofi Forson: You have a strong footing in New York, don’t you? What with all the Irish pubs. What is it about the Irish and New York?
Emer Martin: New York is an extension of the Irish psyche. All the wild Irish end up there at some time or another. I was talking to Irvine Welsh who has settled in Ireland and he was discussing how he thought the Irish were all wild when he met them abroad but when he came to Ireland he found them rather tame. He proposed a theory that all the straight Scotts left and settled abroad and all the wild ones stayed; conversely, the entire wild Irish left Ireland and the straight ones stayed. It’s just a theory! I lived in New York for ten years. I still feel at home there. New York never felt too exotic to me. It was all strangely familiar. I suppose culturally we spent more time watching images of New York on TV and movies than we did images of our own territory. By the time I got to the United States it was so familiar I felt I was home.
KF: Have you been to Paddy Reilly’s? Perhaps you’ve heard of Black 47… They had an ongoing gig there. I was introduced to them by their original bassist Andrew Goodsight.
EM: St Dympnas was my stomping ground, an Irish bar near Tompkins Square Park. As an Irish bar it was where everyone in the 90’s gathered and got into trouble, and drank too much, and slept with the wrong people. There was quite a scene there. I’m sure it’s moved on. Scenes are even more fickle than people. One time we were in there on Christmas Day and my friend ran behind the bar to pour herself a drink. The tap broke and the beer just kept flowing. There was always a good anarchic feeling about the place. It wasn’t contrived. My generation would run from the regular Irish bar scene. We had escaped and were looking for something different. (Sigh) I remember Black 47 though, good band.
KF: Remember the party for the premier of your first novel Breakfast in Babylon? Jenny Shute (South African novelist) was nice enough wasn’t she? I was hanging out with Suzanne Mallouk at the time. We caused quite a scene when we walked in there. Word had it Frank Owen (Village Voice journalist) was after you. What a time it must have been. Early success…was it everything you imagined it to be?
EM: I remember that party. I remember all the parties. Frank Owen was there to interview me for the Village Voice. I called those years the Banquet Years. It was the best way to spend our twenties…Savage, insatiable, relentless and hungry for knowledge and experience.
KF: Much of this was visible among The Banshees. You practically owned and terrorized the city back then. Talk about a fun loving girl gang. How enlightening was it to take written texts of comedy, poetry and music and tour with it around the city if not the world. I remember there was a BBC documentary based on The Banshees.
EM: We were Irish and female… performing all around New York, Max Fish, Fez, The Knitting Factory. We had quite a following at one point and were always surrounded by madness. In its own chaotic way it was something new, a postmodern cabaret with literature, medieval Irish music and standup comedy side by side. We’d have never attempted that in Ireland in the 90’s. America gave you a license to invent yourself. In Ireland everyone would be looking at you and judging you because they knew your brother or your aunt, or what school you went to, or where your family was from. In America you were allowed to tell a story without interruption and they were willing to have faith in you; whether they believed you or not was immaterial. It has always been the land of second chances. In Ireland you were doomed before you were conceived. As Yeats said, “Great hatred, little room maimed us from the start.” And as Kavanagh said about the Irish; “We are a dark people, forever watching the liar, twist the hill paths awry.” Oh and let me throw some Joyce in there too, “Ireland is an old sow that eats her farrow.”
KF: You’ve been back in Ireland for a while now. Is it a cause for surrender? That in fact you are reborn with two lovely daughters, a mission accomplished of sorts but you are always hungry for the next adventure. How does the new Ireland pave the way for you and the futures to come?
EM: I never expected to be back. I hated being a teenager here and I got out of here as fast as shite from a goose when I was 17. It was like a door opened up in the world and I was finally free. I remember getting out of a metro station at Pont D’alma and there it was the Eiffel tower. I just stood staring at it in ecstasy knowing that this was a new beginning. To paraphrase Yeats, I ran around the world like wind and little time I had to pray. Suddenly however, I found myself back here after 16 years of roaming, broke, with two tiny kids and no plan. As my first husband used to say, “A poor man’s life is full of surprises.” In the end it turned out to be positive. My kids love it; they ride horses and climb in the same ruined castles and monasteries I climbed in as a child. You can’t go home again, right? Thank God for that. Has Ireland changed? Yes, a lot. It is no longer so dominated by the patriarchal child hating Catholic Church that had it in a dark fundamentalist grip from independence to the 1990’s. But there are vestiges. There still is no separation of church and state and my kids are made say prayers 10 times a day and sit though all the religion nonsense. I tell them to disregard anyone who pretends to know what God is. Life is a mystery and any person or culture who claims to have the only key to the divine is deluded.
KF: Do you find circumstances lacking concerning your hunger for literature, art and music or has Ireland reinvented itself? Is it moreover a community recharged for the sake of this our brand new world?
EM: I prefer this new Ireland and there are also new people here too, lots of Africans and Eastern Europeans and Chinese. I used to feel that being here was like being indoors because everyone was the same but now the world has shown up. Dublin has loads going on, new art, new literature, new films, the scene is thriving. It’s an exciting time to be here. The weather is shite though, these days the sun barely makes it above the horizon, it wheezes across the sky, barely skimming the trees before collapsing and leaving us with a heavy yellow light. My dreams are of light. I crave it. California golden Mediterranean light…Bright, bright light for the wicked.
KF: Your novel Breakfast in Babylon won Book of the Year. The first novel is said to be undertaking based on all your years leading up to that point. How did you manifest from your childhood in Dublin to the streets of Paris? Talk a bit about your upbringing, how you ended up on the streets and how and if are you able to head up a street gang of rabble-rousers? (Laughter)
EM: I hated Ireland as a teenager. It was a repressed, dark, dreary place. There was a deep recession that had lasted 800 years and there were bushes growing out of buildings on the main street. It was too small, I felt suffocated by its parochial morality and lack of options. Everyone was unemployed, the city was flooded with heroine so it was grim and people were spitting out bitterness in bars. There was nothing there for me and I didn’t fit in anywhere. I had not found my place at all. I was strange, lonely and intense and needed to escape.
I filled my head with literary notions of quests…The Arthurian quest of entering the forest where it was the thickest. I wanted to go on a shamanic journey that would break me apart and so I could rebuild myself as an entirely different being. In that way I was romantically searching for exile. I was looking for someone to hurt me. I needed that release. When I was 17 I left for Paris but I was so wild I didn’t even want walls around me and so I soon took to the streets and park benches. I found the underworld and there I fit in with all the black sheep of Europe. There was a true bohemian scene going on there, on the slopes of the Pompidou centre…Beggars, thieves, magicians, refugees, escapees. I loved it, at last I could breathe.
KF: Your tone, language and philosophical device meaning by what scheme you use to approach dialogue and character build-up is fair to say street-wise, a mechanism I particularly feel is very Irish, pro Beckett or Joyce… Explain the relevance of being Irish and having a grasp on what is command of the English language. (Sigh) Wole Soyinka had spoken on how foreign writers with English as second language were the more curious and speculative. What then makes for Irish wit?
EM: Yes, we Irish have a dark cunning that can dazzle and destroy. You only have to sit around a table in Ireland and the stories and slagging come fast and furious. It’s in our history and nature to mistrust all the relevant authorities. That’s why it’s so much healthier now that the church has been exposed through constant horrific scandal and the subservience to them is diminishing. We Irish are finding ourselves and our rebel souls once more.
KF: You worked for Black Book. I somehow sensed at this point in your career to be a time when you were experimenting. I felt you gained an inner curiosity towards semiotics, not just what was to be expected of a novelist but an artist overall. I thought there were signifiers in the ideas pertaining to your interest in art and painting, writing not just to tell a story but provoke the conscience whether in the essay format or interviewing the likes of Billy Bob Thornton and Jennifer Jason Leigh. How did Black Book define your career?
EM: That’s a fair assessment. You don’t miss much do you Kofi? I was so lucky in Black Book to have Anuj Desai as an editor. He was a young Indian American visionary. He made Black Book a unique and ground breaking magazine. Years later when I wrote my third novel, Baby Zero, I sent it to him to edit. He had that gift. I’ll send him the next one too. As soon as Anuj left Black Book they never asked me to do anything again. But then by that time I was living in California which was like dropping off the map in the publishing world. I might as well have been in Papua New Guinea.
KF: Fair to say I’m much the triple threat you are. Although back at the college you politely placed me as second to your throne as best writer in class. (Laughter) My novel never did get published… though I went off into the theater world as writer and director. When did you feel this panic to paint? Were you always a painter?
EM: Life always takes the most interesting turns when you lose control…When you drop the oars as you approach the waterfall. Painting came to me through a computer mistake. I sat the entrance assessment exams for Hunter College and scored very high in everything except writing. Ha! I was stunned. But it meant that I was somehow put into the system as a foreigner with no English. The only classes I could apply for were classes that didn’t involve writing in English. So I signed up for lots of Art and French classes. By the time I rectified the mistake the other classes were full and I began to do art. It became my major. I never stopped. I have another solo show coming up this month in the Origin Gallery in Dublin. That was something I never expected in life. At first I used it to have a creative outlet that was less public than my writing…One purely for pleasure. But I’m too driven as a person. I couldn’t just leave it at that. I had to keep pushing myself until I saw what I could do as a painter. It’s now my main source of income. My children get fed because of that computer mistake.
KF: Express for me the centeredness of your role as painter. I imagine you to have studied the works of all the greats. Do you have a favorite painter? What period in history do you favor the most? How have you come to terms with the current language in art whereby there’s a defining philosophical ethic which removes from the fore what would be termed fine art or hand-made art?
EM: Zang Xiaogang for his otherworldliness. Picasso for his draftsmanship… Matisse for his colour… Marlene Dumas for her eerie portraits. Joan Mitchell for painting over everything with white…I do the same sometimes when stuck and send out gratitude to her. Louise Bourgeois and Frida Kahlo for putting their life’s pain into their art… Alice Neel for capturing the soul and for her naked self portrait when she was 80…Goya for the horror he struck into my soul…. Marlene Dumas for her eerie portraits…The list goes on and on, I try to rip them all off but in my inadequacy becomes my own style….
KF: Very few writers paint. Much can be said about painters and writing. How do you explain the ability not only to tell a story with words but explore the use of color and paint? Is there a dynamic made applicable to both mediums and why do most fail or cease to attempt what you have progressively matured and continue in success?
EM: Very good reason not to attempt to master or mistress two kinds of art. Time. Time. Time. At the moment I’m painting 5 days a week full time when kids are in school. I can’t write. I ache to write. But I can’t. When my show is finished I’ll write again. But there is no balance. Something always loses out. I’m so greedy. I’d like to think I can do it all but…..
KF: You’ve written three novels published internationally outside of your other works of fiction, Breakfast in Babylon, More Bread or I’ll Appear and the current Baby Zero. Somehow I feel the heart of these novels represent pivotal moments in your life that of which are circumspect on my part. Babylon would suggest autobiography. More Bread feels as if there was a sisterhood with your fellow Banshees as if you were family and now of course you are mother to two children hence the Baby in Baby Zero. How far off am I or do I need to rethink my psychology? (Laughter)
EM: You are spot on! There is no such thing as fiction. Unless we say fiction is that which gets to the core of the truth quicker than anything else. When I look back at all my work it is intensely autobiographical, as if I was writing a diary. This is a very female thing to do. Look at Frida Kahlo! I have to say I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Otherwise I would have been paralyzed by the fear of exposure. But when I’m writing I’m in a deep place, a trance of sorts, and it’s only afterwards I worry about what my mother might think! Some people used to say to me when Baby Zero came out, how did an Irish woman living in the U.S. write about a pregnant woman imprisoned by a fundamentalist regime. It was only afterwards that I realized that it was my marriage! Hard times! Things are better now though, Kofi… so dry your tears little one. I’m ok now.
KF: Valley of Ghosts was your first film. Pivotal to this was Silicone Valley. Trace the process from screenplay, treatment, financing and whatever means it took. How was the experience of making a film? Is the satisfaction immediate or is it more of a visceral response. And who are your heroes in cinema? What circumstances led you to making films?
EM: “In the beginning was the word.” The bible proclaims in its first sentence. Conversely, John Berger states, at the beginning of his seminal work, Ways of Seeing: “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” So which comes first the story or the image? I began my journey in the arts as a writer, then a painter, so it seemed a natural step to bring the image and the word together as a filmmaker. Film is the newest and most transcendent of all the arts because it brings words and images together. Currently, it is also the most influential. As a painter the image is the totality. It is all there is. In film the image is paramount, and certainly the most effective and dominant tool of the medium; however, the power of the image must be fused to the story. For if the story is not truthful at its core, the image’s centre does not hold, and the film fails.
These images become part of my cellular structure. The king at the end of Ran blindly standing on the cliff’s edge; the huge, sick-hearted Marlon Brando raving in Apocalypse Now; Mad-eyed Klaus Kinski stumbling alone and doomed on his raft in the murderously fragile rainforest in Aguirre, Wrath of God; Roman Polanski finding a tooth buried in the wall of his Parisian apartment in The Tenant. I can’t remember being born but I remember these moments. I can’t remember last week and I remember all of this. I can’t remember where I put my keys and I remember this. Why? These images have their potency because I was moved by the story. The story had to take me to the point where the image could puncture me.
KF: Last year David Foster Wallace met his death in a suicide. I hope you and I can agree that he was indeed the greatest writer of our generation. I remember reading his first novel Broom of the System. The only other novel that made such a strong first impression on me was Nabakov’s Lolita. As a cultural society where have we come from an upbringing of writers like Foster Wallace, Jay Mclnery, Brett Easton Ellis…These were our F. Scott Fitzgerald’s and Tom Wolfe’s. (Sigh) Does Foster Wallace’s death neutrally put to rest that period in our lives and how do we evolve within a virtual world of bloggers? Retrospectively did the “yuppie writer” get a fair burial and is the blogger irreplaceable?
EM: Berger claimed that artists are not creators they are receivers. Artists do not invent anything. We channel the culture. We are vessels who receive influences and mix them with our dreams, until, in some strange alchemical process, we pour out work that we pray means something.
The notion of genius annoys me. It is a very capitalistic notion. No one is a genius. Art is not a competition. Genius is something that comes and rests on your shoulder like a startling raven. You must work fast and furious while its claws dig in because it can take off at any second. People access the power of life and the force within the world and create something unique and meaningful. Most artists, singers, writers, filmmakers can only do this for a short time. With many successful people ego gets in the way and the work dries up. For the majority no one listens and they stop. This culture needs more outlets for humans’ immense creativity. Maybe that’s the web. Maybe that’s why we blog.
KF: I remember meeting Sharon Horodi, Israeli video artist, at a Kathy Acker reading in the summer of ’93 at New York City’s performance space The Kitchen. We debated on the topic of women and how they subject themselves to the use of emotional and physical violence as a literary mode. (Sigh) Certainly there’s a circumstance regarding your depiction of language. Is this the result of having traveled and lived all over the world? Does experience beget sophistication?
EM: I certainly felt at one time of my life that I had to crush myself and smash myself to rise like a phoenix out of the ashes. My endless wanderings were very instructive in that I learnt that there is no center. The center is where you are. Everyone is their own centre.
KF: Is this not a dream Emer? What is the greatest lesson told a Dubliner having traveled the world to return home a better example to those around her, experienced at love able to share in it and watch and listen as her friends remark at her name mentioned in newspapers. Is this the dream we all dream as artists? What advice do you have for aspiring artists and do you sway your daughters from following in your footsteps?
EM: Of course I’ll crush any sign of creativity out of them. Ok Ok. They’ll find their own way I’m sure. Yes it is a dream, Kofi. Any life that doesn’t grind you down with boredom is a wonderful dream. I still don’t have a home, I still don’t own anything but a few clothes and lots of books, but I left Ireland at 17 and I wanted to be a writer and now I am one. Now I am a painter too. I didn’t even understand that was in me. I have two amazing daughters that make me laugh every hour I’m with them. They are my new teachers. This is my new adventure. It is a dream. I wake in the morning, rush the kids to school, go to my studio on a farm to dip my brushes into paint and sit in solitude.
One day when I am done I will head off to Papua in Indonesia and go live with the Asmat when I’m 80. That’s how I’d like the dream to fade out. I’d like to go to the tribes. I’ve been impressed with the Asmat since they ate Michael Rockefeller.
KF: You’ve come a long way Emer. I’d imagine the streets are more quiet without you…
EM: I walk in spirals Kofi. Round and round and round and down and down and down.
KF: I own a proof of More Bread… Think it’ll fetch me a good penny when you win the Oscar for best screenplay?
EM: Good luck with making any money out of me. I never did.
KF: Remember the small people… we knew you when.
EM: You were not one of the small people Kofi. You were one of the shining ones. The small people were the ones who told us to keep the noise down.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief