Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Emma Venables’ fiction piece, Unknown Woman, 1990
John: One of the things that I love about this piece is how it deconstructs a moment that is usually depicted as completely jubilant, showing us the ambivalence and dread underneath the party. What made you want to tell this particular story?
Emma: I’ve always been interested in telling lesser-known stories, particularly women’s stories that are often ignored in favour of masculine narratives or more acceptable narratives. In my research on the German Democratic Republic (GDR) it was interesting to read about the aspects of the GDR East Germans missed after the Wall fell and reunification occurred.
In the GDR women had high employment rates, paid maternity leave, state-subsidised childcare, a dedicated ‘household day’ once a month, which, while highly sexist, acknowledged the additional workload/roles women were expected to undertake within their homes. In some ways, at the time, it was perceived that the GDR was more feminist when compared to the West.*
The story’s set in 1990 when reunification was still in its infancy, so no one really knows how it’s going to pan out. What must that have felt like for someone from the East who’d just been living their life, who hadn’t tried to escape or dreamt of going West? ‘Unknown Woman, 1990’ is an attempt to explore what some of those feelings and emotions might have been at this seminal moment in modern German history.
*For more information on this I thoroughly recommend, The Wall in My Backyard: East German Women in Transition, edited by Dinah Dodds and Pam Allen-Thompson, which features testimonies by women in the immediate years following the Wende.
I also like the 2nd-person voice, here, the way it simultaneously separates the narrator from the crowd, amplifying both her alienation and self-consciousness. Did you decide on this style from the very beginning, or was it something that evolved as you wrote the story?
I’ve found myself using the second-person more and more in my short fiction. It’s something that has evolved naturally. I like the accusatory nature of it, the way the narrator directly addresses their antagonist. I feel it brings a kind of immediacy to the moment of the story and the character’s experience of that moment, heightening the tension and emotion for the reader.
Often my short fiction is about women addressing their constraints, usually the confines of a patriarchal society, and when writing with the second-person in this way there’s a definite lucidity, freedom, even: I find the words flow more easily onto the page somehow.
The first time I wrote in this manner was a story called, ‘Unknown Woman, 1945’ which, again, features a woman being followed by a photographer. That story was set in the immediate aftermath of World War Two and again explores the assumptions (both political and social) the photographer might make about this unknown German woman he has decided to follow.
The photographer is a great device, a person who echoes the newly-dead surveillance state while simultaneously eliding the complexities of the situation, rendering them palatable for the consumption of the more comfortable. Photographs can be very powerful, but are they too reductive to really depict the truth?
A photograph can only ever show a glimpse of a situation and therefore can only ever show you a glimpse of the truth. They need context (political/social/personal) to be interpreted and understood. After all, the people in a photograph haven’t always been immobile—their lives had movement and interactions and locations beyond the moment of the camera’s flash.
I love old photographs and frequently use them as a starting point for my short fiction. In fact, a photograph inspired this story! A photograph poses a series of questions which form the starting point of my creative process: what’s the relationship between the photographer and their subject? What’s the subject of the photograph experiencing in that moment (thoughts/feelings/emotions)? What’s going on around them? What’s the historical/political/social context? What happens in the moments before and after the photograph is taken?
Freedom is a word that is much bandied about. Usually in the west (and especially here in the U.S.) it’s shorthand for “I do what I want when I want,” and depicted as the most desirable of human states. But this story illustrates that this kind of freedom, under certain circumstances, might not be the most desirable thing. What is your definition of freedom, and have we fetishized the idea to the point that it is meaningless? Where would you put it in the hierarchy of human needs?
Firstly, I should point out that I don’t think communism is good, but I feel it’s important, as a writer, to represent and explore alternative viewpoints in my fiction: to present a different world view and what the confines of that might look like for someone experiencing it. In ‘Unknown Woman, 1990’, the protagonist doesn’t know true freedom and the concept of freedom, of vast choice, must have been terrifying for people in that situation which is something I hope I’ve gone some way to exploring within this narrative.
For me, as a woman, freedom is a contentious issue at the moment in that our autonomy is being eroded. To me, freedom is being able to give or remove my consent, to be able to decide what is right for my body without the government/society/strangers dictating what I should and shouldn’t do. I think that type of freedom is essential and is something that we women never take for granted because, unfortunately, we know how easily it can be taken from us.