Every Woman Is a Nation unto Herself: A Conversation with Sabina Murray

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Sabina Murray lives and writes with a brio you might associate with another era: one in which elections alone do not shake some segment of the populace into an awareness of moral issues and gallows humor, a tarantella on the brink of apocalypse. With her moral clarity, you could see her leading battalions or passing contraband to political prisoners before hosting a raucous salon despite official black-out orders.

While some call her work historical fiction, her quest comes from no top-down interest in a particular genre but rather from an engagement with sociocultural issues arising in milieus beyond our own. Does Angela Carter write solely fantasy fiction? Does Paul Beatty write straight-out comedy? So is the case with Murray, an author whose work could be called a Trojan horse to any genre dictates. From her earliest stories and novels—Slow Burn, The Caprices, A Carnivore’s Inquiry, Tales of the New World—through this latest novel, Valiant Gentleman, Murray remains a writer fired by a fierce allegiance to wit, incongruity, and what it means to find oneself on the wrong end of history.

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The Rumpus: What sparked this particular story?

Sabina Murray: I first read about Roger Casement in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, which I read some time around 2002. A couple of years later, I encountered him again in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Casement is an intriguing figure—humanitarian, Irish revolutionary, gay—and much had and would be written about him, notably Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2010 novel The Dream of the Celt. Regardless of this reality, there was something about his character as a conflicted man, an Irish Protestant who spent much of his time representing England in different African nations, a gay man who, true to the times, kept his sexual orientation to himself, that kept playing in my head. I read on and around him, but a historical figure is not a story—it’s not even a character—so my story, the one that I would develop into Valiant Gentlemen, had yet to reveal itself.

I decided that my narrative would have to be about a relationship. Casement needed an adversary or a friend, so I began looking around for people to fill that role. I had a couple of missteps. First, I began researching Matthew Nathan, who was a colonial administrator in a few African nations in the years when Casement was in the Congo, and then ended up as Under-Secretary in Ireland—basically the Englishman in charge—in the years leading up to the Easter Uprising. Nathan never married and although there are many reasons for this, one—the possibility that he was gay—took hold in my mind. But after following a few leads, I found myself uninspired by his connection (distant) with Casement. Herbert Ward was my next subject—an adventurer, an artist, a close friend to Casement—and that, coupled with the fact that he was married to an American woman, seemed to create enough friction for me to begin developing my story. The spark in the process was filling out the cast.

Rumpus: How did your own relation to nation inform how you developed the story?

Murray: Perhaps no man is an island, but every man and woman is a nation unto herself. I actually had to look up the definition of “nation”; this is how awkward my relation is to this concept. And it is defined as, “a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory.” Perhaps if you replace “descent” with “dissent” the definition becomes more meaningful. But the truth of nation is something more like this: “A geographical location determined by arbitrary yet defended boundaries and governed by a formal, ruling power.” Something like that. “Nation” is to be questioned, and, therefore nationality. When I decided to write on Casement, the first question I asked myself was, “Why me?” As Casement was Irish, gay, male, humanitarian, and revolutionary, what made me—not Irish, straight, female, et cetera—a good narrator of his story? But there was something in his history—a childhood largely informed by England, an adulthood forged in the Belgian Congo, a conscious choice to an Irish identity—that resonated with me, someone who has lived in Australia, the Philippines, and the United States. Maybe Valiant Gentlemen is all about my relation to “nation” because, never having been rooted in one place, I felt that I could explore that as part of Casement’s psychology. Casement’s “nation,” at least how I tell it, is Ireland, a place where the boundaries and even the language betray the true self, that the true Irish “nation” is one composed of ideals, built with a conscious collection of history and an articulated, curated now. In Valiant Gentlemen, the Belgian Congo is also false nation, encroaching England is another false nation, and as the book progresses to World War I and the Easter Uprising, the book can be seen as a prolonged undermining of notions of nationhood.

Rumpus: Does Valiant Gentlemen stand as a rupture with your past work? And—because negative capability comes forth between every line of the novel—how would you say it develops certain prior themes or approaches?

Murray: Every book presents its own specific challenges, or should, and you’re right that this one has a preoccupation with uncertainty. In this, Valiant Gentlemen is a rupture from previous work as its obsession is with the psychology of characters who are in states of unknowing living in unpredictable times where the stakes are unusually high. In some ways, Valiant Gentlemen grows out of Tales of the New World, my collection of short stories about explorers who lived “great” lives, but whose experience of it was in the same register as all our lives are—we feel the same extent of human emotion regardless of how exceptional our actions are: nothing is more exceptional than one’s own life. I was interested in that, and the interest in explorers was first begun in A Carnivore’s Inquiry, which had an interest in the concept of “other.” So how that evolved into Valiant Gentlemen was that fiction seemed the ideal—in fact the only—way of experiencing these times and situations with the genuine psychology of characters living with uncertain futures, characters incapable of lensing their small actions through the larger historical frameworks of the Belgian Congo or the First World War or the Easter Uprising. All my work deals with notions of colonialism—an alien force subjugating other peoples and using a sense of superiority to justify the oppression—but Valiant Gentlemen is a move in a different direction as the approach, all present tense with no summary beyond that offered by characters and that narrowed and aligned according to their perspectives, presented very specific and new formal challenges for me.

Rumpus: You fully explore the title’s promise, from explicit moments regarding valor to symbolic ones such as this beautiful, isolated chapter end: “He finds himself standing, out of the bed, making his way to the window. A weight of snow lies on everything except for one assertive tree, alone by the fence: a lonely tree that casts a pale blue shadow,” and another chapter end: “perhaps valor was composed of… these small moves in a minor key that made up the narrative of life.” How might you relate some of your characters’ ideas of valor to what we might need in our precarious moment?

Murray: In this cultural moment, many of us are feeling inadequate to solve societal problems—fascism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, the list goes on—and are unsure of how individuals can affect real change. Casement’s list of ills had significant crossover with what we are facing now, notably racism and homophobia. From his letters, one clearly sees his feelings of inadequacy and futility, and part of the reason that he is so compelling a character is that we know he made a difference—with his writings in opposition to the enslavement of people in the Congo and Putumayo, with his agitating against colonial rule in Ireland, and with his heroic self as an alternative gay model to his contemporary Oscar Wilde—although the full extent of his influence, a hundred years on, has not yet been determined. Perhaps this ties in with negative capability, as Casement didn’t know what effect he would have, if any, and we, too, don’t know what effect we will have on the current political climate as we strive to effect change. All large historical decision draw from a sea of smaller decisions. One never knows what will make the difference in the long run.

Rumpus: Your pleasure in writing from particular perspectives is so clear. Which perspectives in this book gave you the most pleasure? And—perhaps this will result in the same answer—with which perspectives did you feel you most identified?

Murray: I felt fully invested in my three major characters, and was equally at home in each of their psyches. What surprised me were the minor characters who took hold of my imagination. Since so much of this book relies on dialogue, it therefore relies on what people are thinking, and how they interact. The safety of historical account needs to be abandoned in order to have them come to life. So in the minor characters, I felt very invested in Joseph Plunkett, who has short time on the page, but while there has to communicate the collective emotional state of Ireland in the weeks before the Easter Uprising. I also really liked writing about Charles Sanford, Sarita’s father: his presence was essential in getting Sarita’s character to gel. And anything with the Ward children was fun to write, particularly Cricket, who is not a feminist but does want to enjoy the full freedoms of the time, and Herbie, whose love of all things modern—poetry, machinery, fun—ends up putting him in some pretty hairy situations. In terms of complicated personal identity, I felt an understanding with Casement, and we do share a birthday. Sarita is tough and funny, and many of my friends see a lot of me in her.

Rumpus: What trio of authors sparked, early in your own apprenticeship, a sense of writing as the best realm for your own valor?

Murray: This is a good question, and not easy to answer, but I would have to say Joseph Conrad, Terrence Malick, and Valerie Martin. Valerie Martin was my mentor in college and she liked fiction that said something. That made it essential to have something to say. This seems obvious, but it’s not. And she’s taken on a wide range of subject matter: each book poses new challenges, and that’s something I think about when I’m embarking on a project. Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness loom huge in my development as a writer. I think I’m always trying to write Heart of Darkness—trying to explode an abstraction in concrete terms, although I am aware that Conrad’s story has a bit of baggage that I’d rather avoid in my work. So I guess the wildcard here is Terrence Malick. He supervised me while I was writing the script for Beautiful Country, and he is a genius, although not always easy to follow. What I learned from him is that the narrative can be tracked through all kinds of scenes, that the strong narrative thread is not always the one that is most obvious. Creating narrative with Malick was a bit like chasing a butterfly through a jungle. This approach to narrative is fun and complicated, something that makes the process of writing constantly interesting to this writer.

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Author photograph © Kathleen Hennessy.


Edie Meidav is the author of KINGDOM OF THE YOUNG, a collection of fiction with a nonfiction coda coming out April 2017, as well as other books. ​https://twitter.com/lolacalifornia​ and www.ediemeidav.com More from this author →