Elske Rahill | 'The act of women writing is in itself a pushback'

Elske Rahill | 'The act of women writing is in itself a pushback'

Elske Rahill was in between drafts of her second novel when she decided to take a break from the medium, and allowed herself to focus on short stories instead. “A novel insists on so much consistent attention and keeps trying to grow bigger,” she says. “There’s no escape from it. I only know it’s finished when the characters stop bothering me.”

Looking back on everything she’d written across the past decade, she noticed a preoccupation with the experience of motherhood and so, in trying to interrogate this theme, In White Ink (Head of Zeus/Lilliput Press) was born. 

Featured previously in various literary magazines (including the Dublin Review, the Tangerine and AGNI), this remarkable collection is a sometimes bleak, yet always compelling snapshot into maternity, nurture, the inequality of social expectations and human compassion. Rahill set out to explore “the social structures that trap people” and does so with gusto, from the stay-at-home mum struggling to feel anything at all, to the wife still in love with her peadophile husband.

Rahill, who became a mother while at university, said the experience had “an enormous impact” on her fiction and is central to this collection. “People weren’t always nice to me about being a young single mother,” she says. “Suddenly strangers were saying very cruel things. I hadn’t really understood before, that—in Ireland, anyway—pregnancy makes you public property.” While that was “not the whole story” (she cites Trinity College as being “extremely supportive” throughout; she was able to continue with her degree), she developed a “preoccupation not only with how maternity is positioned in society, but how configurations of maternity shape our culture—how we use the language of maternity, for example, to justify all sorts of violence, and how the power of maternity can be perverted to subjugate the very people who possess it.”

This feels particularly prevalent in the title story “In White Ink”, which follows a young, isolated mother locked in a custody battle with her child’s abusive father. Rahill explains that for a while she lived beside a “safe-house for crisis pregnancy”. Through learning about the lives of these young mothers, and through her own personal experience, she was able to understand “how a mother would feel useless to her child, how someone could become completely voiceless and lose all agency”. She was also keen, with this particular story, to expose “that terrible hypocrisy in Ireland... a complete disregard for mothers coupled with a notion of the ‘sanctity’ of the pregnancy itself”.

Little to like

Like in her début novel Between Dog and Wolf, published by The Lilliput Press in 2013, Rahill does not shy away from what might be considered “unsympathetic” central characters. If anything, that is what she is particularly interested in. “These are not the kind of women any of us want to be,” she explains. “But I want the reader to identify with them. I am fascinated by the idea that we are all the good guys in someone’s narrative.” These are women stuck within a very sturdy social framework, “people who had very clear roles assigned to them but couldn’t feel or perform the way they thought they should”.

These social expectations seem to be becoming a more prominent focus for female Irish writers. “I think social expectations, religious expectations in Ireland had such a devastating effect for so long that something snapped,” Rahill says, heralding such women as Edna O’Brien, Maeve Brennan and Elizabeth Bowen, who paved the way by “writing at a time when challenging these things took more bravery than it does for us today”. She adds: “Given our heritage, is it possible to be an Irish woman writer and not address these things, simply by the act of writing?”

This Irish influence can be felt throughout the collection, with Rahill directly citing James Joyce’s Dubliners as the basis for “A Wife”. As it turns out, this is for a very simple reason. “The story was written for Dubliners 100 —[author and editor] Thomas Morris was the editor. He contacted 15 Irish writers and asked each of us to ‘cover’ a Dubliners story.” This, therefore, is the only “conscious pushback” or “explicit reply” to the works and writers (predominantly male) that make up the canon of Irish literature. “But I do think there is an extent to which writing is a dialogue with everything you’ve read. For women writers, the act of women writing—as in women writing women, and women writing men—is itself a pushback.”

The recent revival

Does she think there has been a renaissance in Irish literature of late, with Lisa McInerney, Mike McCormack and Sebastian Barry taking home major prizes in the past year? “I get the impression, yes... I don’t know if this is a literary renaissance exactly, more like Irish writers getting the recognition they deserve, which is wonderful. I don’t think more Irish people are writing, or creating better work than before. By my reading, Irish work has been at this standard for a long time.”

Rahill currently lives in rural France with her partner and three children. She describes it as a “remote” existence—“I mean, I grow vegetables, make bread and so on.” She reads a lot, but doesn’t consider herself to be “on the scene”. She writes book reviews and thanks this, her very own “book club of one”, for keeping her up to date with contemporary fiction.

She is currently working on the final draft of her next novel, which spans the final year of a 91-year-old woman’s life. The book explores the interactions between her children and grandchildren, “all working, in their own way, on extracting from her all they think they deserve, be it love or money”. Like with In White Ink, Rahill is keen to explore the idea that “there is so much more going on beneath the surface of even the most mundane-seeming families.”