Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read John Herbert’s fiction piece, Bloody But Unbowed: Belfast, 1998
Sommer: I like how you give us a fresh, extremely visceral take on the Northern Ireland Troubles in this story. And you do it by not naming sides. Why revisit this piece of history today?
John: The answers to that are both political and personal. 1998, of course, was the year of the Good Friday agreement when the incredible work of George Mitchell and others led to a peace that has changed the lives of millions of Irish people, most of whom would argue for the better. Today, that peace is threatened by the implications of the Brexit referendum. In most of the UK (where I currently live), Northern Ireland was barely mentioned until after the result when the reality of it dawned. The implications of a hard border between Eire and the north, and its ramifications for potential reignition of sectarian violence, demonstrate the extreme fragility of a peace that I believe should be jealously guarded by all sides. Personally, my wife is a historian of Irish Republican international relations, while the godfather of one of my children is a Protestant of proud unionist heritage—we all live these daily negotiations and interactions, happily these days. The story deals with the aftermath of a violent attack and recovery from it. Remembering the legacy of violence and its aftermath seems particularly pertinent right now.
The narrator’s physical body takes center stage in this story—his deformed face, his wired mouth, his muscled body, his tattoos. What led you to focus on the narrator’s body as a way of showing us his mind and motivation?
I have left the gender of the protagonist of the story deliberately ambivalent—one of the strengths of the second person form. I am consciously playing with issues related to the meaning inscribed upon our physical and gendered selves, and our intersections with other bodies, particularly in religiously charged communities where assertions of gender and sexual identity are fraught issues. My own academic background has been broadly in Queer Theory, and thus the meanings of bodies, gender, transformations of the physical self, and the mechanisms of constraint and punishment on dissident sexualities and physicalities, have been essential facets of my work. And, of course, irrespective of our gender, our religion and our politics, our bodies are the medium via which we experience the world.
You say you prefer second person point of view to third person. I’ve always liked it too, though some decry its trendiness. Why do you prefer it? And do you have any favorite stories told in this point of view or authors who you think do it well?
Any hope I had of trendiness receded about the time my forehead started to gain sufficient ground so that it could admire the back of my ears. Second person narration, though, has the advantage of putting you viscerally—and that comes back to the business of experiencing the physical world—in the position of people you are not. In that sense, it’s a powerful engine to drive the reader’s empathy, something essential in any situation of conflict. I’ve been inspired by many writers who use the form but, for a great example, Junot Diaz’s ‘How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl or Halfie)’ takes me to the Dominican New Jersey projects in ways that are immediately accessible to a man sitting an ocean—and a heritage—away from them. You can find it here.
Sommer: Favorite E.M. Forster book?
A tough choice, but I can’t pass A Passage to India, the crowning achievement of his career and one pertinent to issues of colonisation, otherness and repression that fascinate me.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
Embrace it. Get comfortable with it even though it’s far from comfortable. Not everyone will love your stuff. Keep writing. Believe in yourself—if you don’t, others won’t. Show the rejected work to people whose opinions you trust. Revise it. Then get it out there again. Be brave and good luck!
What are you working on these days?
The second person features heavily in the novel I am revising which, like this piece, examines a sense of home and problematic history. Sections of the story are written in varying second person, present tense narration. That’s a long-term project though, one enriched by daily focus on writing flash and short fiction, my first loves.
Thank you for doing this interview with me, and congratulations on your publication!