Prizewinning author and York’s Writer in Residence Michèle Roberts talks to Liam O’Brien about radical feminism, Catholicism and the OBE
Rejecting Catholicism, living in a libertarian commune, partaking in theatrical demonstrations, refusing the OBE, winning the W.H.Smith Literary Award, losing her mother: Michèle Roberts has led a full and often shocking life. Now the University’s Writer in Residence, the strongly feminist Roberts appears at first to be shy and reserved, but my conversation with this most talented of writers, after a lifetime of strong ideals and feeling perturbed by the social injustices around her, leaves the impression of someone with considerable impulse and resilience.
Roberts was invited to apply for the position at York after resigning as Emeritus professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia. “A friend of mine said to me that artists shouldn’t have power over other artists, and I realised I completely agreed,” she elucidates. This exemplifies her struggle with authority. I ask her about her youth, which she talks about with enthusiasm, including breaking away from a Catholic family. “I felt that the Church was very misogynistic, very anti-the body and sensual delight and anti-people thinking for themselves. Women really are seen as lesser than men in the Catholic Church.”
An emphasis on the sensual and the experience of women is evident in her writing and in her own life. This manifested itself in demonstrations in her youth. “One of the demonstrations was at the Miss World competition. We all wore black and had flashing lightbulbs in our armpits. We were just mocking the thing: it wasn’t anti-beauty or anti-women, it was just to question why these guys had the right to say who is beautiful and who isn’t. And it was more fun making protests via street theatre groups because of that carnivalesque atmosphere with quite violent comedy. I found that much more interesting than just saying ‘Down with so and so’.” She spoke of the feminists she most identified with: “Germaine Greer seemed to me like an individualist. I was in a very much more socialist libertarian group. We believed in women being together, we didn’t have ‘stars’. I felt closest to French philosophers like Helen Cixous and Luce Irigaray because they were trying to develop a kind of post-Freudian thought about women.” The idea of togetherness as women culminated for Roberts in living in a libertarian commune. “It was very difficult, very idealistic. We all tried to share everything: housework, clothes, lovers, beds, possessions and it was very hard to live up to such ideals. I’m pleased I did it – it was a necessary thing for me to get away from my old life.”
Maturing, though, affected her perception of certain aspects of feminism and her attitude to social injustice. “When I was a young woman I had to say what I thought in a very strong way, believing in new and radical ideas because the world was so terrible for women: we had to be outspoken and angry to change attitudes. I was more simplistic in my thinking. My extremes of anger have mellowed a bit. I still get incredibly angry about things, though – date rape, for example, which is not treated seriously. I get very angry about the way rape is used as a weapon of war. I get very angry about the way some women are trafficked into prostitution and forced to become sex slaves. I get very angry about the way anyone can think you can buy sexual pleasure, really, and not know it’s a fake.”
Conflict between liberal ideals and a world that makes carrying them out immensely difficult is something that Roberts encountered “when I worked briefly as a librarian for the British council in Bangkok in 1971-72. I hadn’t realised, because I was rather naïve, that we were implicated as supporters of America’s position in the Vietnam war. I thought the council’s existence in those days was to back up the Foreign Office, so you were purveying British culture and showing it was interesting. I anguished about it a great deal.”
Her anti-authoritarian spirit lives on though, notably when refusing the OBE for services to literature. “I just wrote back on the spur of the moment saying I can’t accept this,” she says. “I don’t think the government should reward writers, I think it’s better to be independent of them. I didn’t like the thought of going to Buckingham palace and curtseying to the Queen. I’m a republican and I wouldn’t do it.” Robert did accept a French equivalent, the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, which she claims is different: “France is a republic, and you don’t have to go curtsy to someone.”
Her writing career has been immensely successful: a Booker nomination, critical acclaim from esteemed press outlets and a stream of successful books in four different decades. I questioned her on the philosophy of creative writing she employs in both her own work and in her creative writing classes, that of writing, instead (as is traditionally advised) of about what you know, about what you don’t. “I realised that if I wrote about just what I knew, I might be writing about a side of my life that I approved of, and maybe that could be quite smug or boring. There’s a part of ourselves which I call the ‘unconscious imagination’, and it’s where we put all the impulses we don’t approve of, or all the things we doubt –it’s a real goldmine for a writer.”
As her career continued and her success became greater, ‘Daughters of the House’ was recognised by the 1992 Booker panel. “I did yearn to win,” she says “but it was so amazing to be shortlisted. It does feel as if there’s a circus going on for the audience, as if the writers are being thrown to the lions”. Her books were not received in the same, warm manner by her conservative parents, however. “I don’t think they wanted to believe in the critical acclaim, they just wanted to see them as filthy. My mother, in her dying weeks, was saying about ‘Paper Houses’ [recently published set of memoirs] ‘Ooh, I’m not going to like that book’”.
I ask Roberts to look back on her young self, and think about the woman she is now. “[I was] idealsistic, radical and determined, an artist in disguise. I was very scared of how much I wanted to be an artist and how bold that felt.” Seemingly, her spirit hasn’t gone, she simply evaluates that “I must have gotten a bit better at taking criticism. I’m writing for the people that read me.”