Irish novelist describes her work over tea

“The Country Girls,” published in 1960, was Irish novelist Edna O’Brien’s first book.

It was also her first book to be banned.

O’Brien, author of 18 published works — the first three of which were banned in Ireland — spoke to a packed audience at a Berkeley College Master’s Tea Monday. Referring constantly to the importance of her roots, O’Brien discussed her controversial career as a writer.

“The Country Girls” brought the fledgling novelist into a career-long conflict with the Catholic Church. The book was given a place on the Irish Censorship Board’s list of banned books for its free treatment of sexual themes.

“The Irish think that I have betrayed them,” said O’Brien. “But perhaps my crime is only to turn up the soil of my land.”

She described how people in her hometown, Tuamgraney, burned all copies of “The Country Girls” after the priest denounced it from the altar. But O’Brien said the response to her second book was even worse.

“When my second book came out, the opinion of the village was that the first was a prayer book by comparison,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said the bishop of London at the time claimed she had “infected” their shores.

“You would think the poor little book was a ‘Kama Sutra,’” she said.

As her family and town turned against her, O’Brien said she was forced to analyze the career choice she had made.

“I have come to the conclusion that writers have to be a sort of monster because all else must be put aside,” she said. “My own mother detested the written word. The last thing she wanted me to become was a writer.”

But O’Brien said she feels that her complex relationship with her mother ended up being one of the ingredients of her success as a novelist.

“I feel that what makes one a writer is a very early unreachable kind of trauma,” she said.

She compared herself to her friend, famous playwright Samuel Beckett — both writers spent their lives trying to escape the “matrix” of their mothers and their countries, she said.

“Kafka calls writing a criminal act, I cannot disagree with him,” O’Brien said.

Although she said she could not write outside of a rural setting, O’Brien commented on how living outside of Ireland has given her a sense of perspective.

“I am grateful to my upbringing. The landscape that I write about is haunting, haunted and beautiful,” she said.

Anastatia Curley ’07 said she thought O’Brien’s description of living away from home related to her own experiences at college.

“I think it was especially interesting when she described how living away from home makes you appreciate so much more where you came from,” Curley said.

Many students said they found O’Brien’s talk inspiring.

“She made me want to be a writer,” Rachel Mannheimer ’07 said. “I thought she was delightful.”

At the end of the tea, one student asked a question about how the novelist continues to write about Ireland even though she does not live there full-time anymore. But O’Brien said her country is a significant part of her identity.

“The landscape is branded into me,” O’Brien said. “In novels or in mysteries I find the landscape to be as much of a character as the characters themselves.”

Irish novelist Edna O'Brien speaks to students at a Berkeley College Master's Tea about her controversial career, emphasizing the importance of her background as an influence on her writing.
Ashley Hemmers
Irish novelist Edna O'Brien speaks to students at a Berkeley College Master's Tea about her controversial career, emphasizing the importance of her background as an influence on her writing.

Comments