Helen Simpson’s latest collection, Cockfosters, contains a short story called ‘Erewhon’. The bulk of the tale takes place between 3.29am and 5.20am as the narrator lies awake in bed worrying about their work as a teacher; not knowing how to approach their partner to discuss going part-time; thinking about the parent who told them about the domestic abuse they’re suffering; considering unrealistic media images of people their age, and so on. It sounds like a familiar tale, until you know that the narrator is male. Simpson subverts stereotypes, creating a picture of domesticity as it might be in a matriarchy. In her fourth novel The Power, Naomi Alderman mines a similar vein but on a global scale.
A framing device introduces the reader to the idea that the book we’re about to read has been written by a male academic which he’s sent to an academic called Naomi, seeking her opinion on it. He describes it as ‘a sort of hybrid piece […] Not quite history, not quite a novel’.
The book he’s written begins with the Day of the Girls. It’s the day that the world at large discovers that young women contain a power within them, a power they can harness and use. Tunde, a twenty-one-year-old journalism student in Lagos, becomes aware of this power when he flirts with and then grabs a girl at a swimming pool. On the Day of the Girls, he’s in a shop where he witnesses a man harassing a teenage girl. Aware that she’s about to use her power, he films the incident on his phone.
Tunde is recording when she turns around. The screen of his phone fuzzes for a moment when she strikes. Other than that, he gets the whole thing very clearly. There she is, bringing her hand to his arm while he smiles and thinks she is performing mock-fury for his amusement. If you pause the video for a moment at this point, you can see the charge jump. There’s the trace of a Lichtenberg figure, swirling and branching like a river along his skin up from wrist to elbow as the capillaries burst.
Tunde posts the video online which triggers a wave of films and a wave of incidents.
The story follows three key females: Roxy, Margot and Allie.
Fourteen-year-old Roxy is the daughter of a London gangster. Her story begins when she witnesses her mother’s murder in their house. She’s one of the first to discover the power, using it to disarm one of the men attempting to kill her mum.
Margot, the mayor of a town in Wisconsin, has to make decisions about how to manage the girls and their new found powers. When her daughter Jos is sent home for fighting with a boy, Margot asks her to demonstrate how the power works. What she doesn’t expect is for the power to awaken within her too.
Allie, the sixteen-year-old, mixed-race, foster daughter of white Christians Mr and Mrs Montgomery-Taylor, discovers her power as Mrs Montgomery-Taylor sits in her living room listening to the radio and sipping sherry while Mr Montgomery-Taylor rapes her in her bedroom, as he does most evenings. She kills him, leaves through her bedroom window and walks until she finds a convent where they take her in. There a voice speaks to her. She takes the name Mother Eve and preaches about a new nation run by women.
A revolution begins: women take power in the streets, in their homes, in political administrations, in religious affairs. Tunde travels the world, documenting the changes taking place.
The novel’s so compelling, the world Alderman creates so complete and believable that when the framing device returned at the end, I’d forgotten I was supposed to be reading a text written by a male academic. What’s so clever about this though is that Alderman uses it to question almost everything the academic has included which contradicts the established narrative in their society. You can tell how much fun she had writing it:
What you’ve written here contradicts so many of the history books we all read as children; and they’re based on traditional accounts going back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. What is it that you think happened? Are you really suggesting that everyone lied on a monumental scale about the past?
All love, Naomi
What’s particularly brilliant about Alderman’s approach to all this is she refuses to allow her matriarchal society to be the soft, caring, fluffy world that some like to argue women in charge would bring. Alderman’s women are interested in power, in taking charge, in ruling the world. There is violence, corruption, sexual and domestic abuse.
When I first came across Simpson’s story ‘Erewhon’, I was present at an event where she read it aloud. It was hilarious, I howled with laughter the whole way through. As I read The Power I also found myself thrilled at moments, laughing and feeling as though I could punch the air. Hurrah for women on top, it’s about time! But seconds later as the full horror of the women’s actions were revealed, the joy turned to disgust. It’s not funny when you remember that the worries and fears of Simpson’s narrator and the actions and desires of Alderman’s characters are things women deal with every day in our current society. Here’s hoping that these stories allow more people to see this and they become catalysts for change.
Photograph by David Levene
I’m absolutely thrilled to welcome Naomi Alderman to the blog to answer some questions about her work.
Where did the idea for a matriarchal society where women have special power come from?
Heh. Really, it came from living in a patriarchal society where men have a specially large amount of upper body strength! I imagine an alien from a planet without gender asking me this question and being very puzzled by sexual dimorphism, but as we do have gender all I had to do was turn it over and see how it looked upside down.
I took a long time thinking about exactly what power I could give women that would flip it over without feeling too unbalanced or different to what men have. It couldn’t be something that gave a total upper hand: men don’t have laser beams coming out of their eyes, their physical strength advantage (on average) only works in a fight at close quarters. And I didn’t want it to feel too *silly*. The power I give women in this novel is exactly what electric eels and other electric fish have – so at least it exists in a species that evolved on the same planet as us. Those genes exist, they could theoretically have evolved in us, given the right push at the right moment.
There’s been a lot of discussion recently about unlikeable female characters. All of your lead females have unlikeable aspects to different degrees; how do you feel about these elements of your characters and the debate in general?
I really like difficult women. Ballsy, aggressive, demanding women are my bag. If I see that a woman is mouthy, if she’s ambitious and spikey and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, I make a beeline for her.
I find people who need to be liked very exhausting. Like children doing forward rolls and constantly looking back to see if you noticed and asking for approval. I mean that’s fine for children, but it’s not really the thing if you’re 43 years old with an MBA and are CEO of a company.
One of the best things I ever did for myself was to realise that not everyone will like me; and that’s not just OK, it is *desireable*. The only people who are actually liked by everyone are those who are so anodyne that no one really knows what they think about anything. They show no passion, no temper, nothing but a smooth bland facade of received opinions. For the most part, and within normal parameters of human decency: if you’re really hated by some people it means that other people will really really love you.
All of this is to say, I love the women in The Power because none of them are trying to be likeable, and those are my favourite women in the world. And honestly, how much of a shit would you give about whether people liked you if you could electrocute people with your fingertips?
There are moments in The Power which make quite uncomfortable reading. For me, this was because there’s something quite thrilling about women in positions of power until you realise that some of their actions are really quite horrific. Was this the reaction you were aiming for?
Oh yes, of course. We live in a world mediated by and patrolled by threats and reports of violence. If you don’t believe me, just think how comfortable you’d be as a woman alone walking home at 3am. And then think how often you’ve tried it, or known a woman who tried it, and how often a woman you *actually know* has been attacked. Not that it doesn’t happen of course. But mostly the violence we imagine all around us has been taught to us as a story about what it means to be a woman. And I’m offering a new story. Of course it’s thrilling, it would be!
So: of course it would be good not to be in fear of violence. But the only way we can conceive of that in the current system is by being the wielder of violence. The only conceivable route to freedom is to become the aggressor. So we want the freedom… but if nothing else were to change we’d just become the aggressor.
Or to put it another way (and in the words of Audre Lorde): the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
You interweave a number of recent events into the narrative, I’m thinking particularly of the Egyptian uprisings and the Black Lives Matter campaign. Did you find the story changing as current events took place?
The wonderful thing about writing a novel about gender is that it touches everything; gender is everywhere, gender biases and assumptions are wild in our culture and in the way we think about everything. This is also the massive *problem* with writing a novel about gender! I had a first draft that was about 200,000 words long and I knew I’d either have to rewrite it from scratch or write another 200,000 and turn it into a trilogy. (I threw it out and started again.)
So yes, the story was able to touch on anything that seemed important and of-the-moment. It didn’t *change* the story exactly, but current events gave it an interesting flavour.
The journalist who reports on these events is a young African male. Why did you decide to have a male character witness this change in society?
It seemed to me that, right at the start, men would still have the feeling they have now: that the world is open to them, free and exciting and that there are very few if any places where they’re not allowed to go. Most women don’t have this feeling, and it would take us a while to get there. So Tunde made sense as the character who would instantly set off to investigate the changed world. And of course it gives him a nice series of realisations about how slowly and insidiously his freedom’s been curtailed.
It also became clear to me that if I didn’t have a man’s perspective in at the start of the novel, I’d have – in essence – no ‘woman’s’ perspective in by the end. Where the ‘woman’s’ perspective isn’t about genitals but about a position in the world, and a mental shift.
You use a framing device which suggests a male academic has written the text of The Power, while a female colleague critiques and questions the validity of the text. Why did you choose to frame the novel in this way?
In a way it was: to make myself laugh. Because I wanted to be able to write a bit of *full reversal*, where the whole thing was done and dusted several thousand years ago and this new world order is now just normal. But once I’d decided to do it, I found there were so many useful things I could talk about this way. One was: the uses of history. We use the stories we choose to remember from history as a way of justifying and shoring-up the society we live in: it must be this way, it’s always been this way. We forget the parts of history that don’t fit with our smooth narrative. I thought that if this really had happened there would be a lot of forces wanting our world, this strange “world ruled by men” to be forgotten. And that seemed a pretty mind-bending place to end up. And I love a mind-bending story.
A conversation about religion seems to be a significant part of your writing – in earlier novels as well as in The Power. Is writing about religion a way of working out your own feelings about it?
Funnily enough, I feel fairly settled in my own feelings about religion these days. I grew up an Orthodox Jew and now I say that God is somewhere between my imaginary friend and my ex-boyfriend. So: my ex-imaginary-boyfriend. We used to spend a lot of time together, and not all of it was terrible or I wouldn’t have stayed so long, but in the end I decided that I was better out of that relationship. This is – pleasingly to me – an answer that will satisfy neither the religious nor the atheists nor, I suspect, even the agnostics. I don’t think that “does God exist?” is anywhere near being the most interesting question about God or religion at all.
So why do I write about religion? Because I think that Matthew Arnold was wrong and the sea of faith hasn’t really receded – or it’s only receded among a smallish group of people in a smallish area of the world. Most people on the planet still worship, pray, practice their faith, for billions of people their religious life is the centre of their day or week. Or near the centre, anyway. I think the instinct to religion is as inevitable as the instinct to violence; of course we can learn to do and think differently, and maybe it’s advisable that we do, but that doesn’t mean the instincts will ever fully go away. I think at a time of global cataclysm – the kind that might happen if all the women suddenly developed the power to electrocute people at will! – some world religions would have a field day. Or would offer people wonderfully helpful comfort. Maybe those are the same thing.
You were paired with Margaret Atwood through the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. What influence has she had on your writing in general and on The Power specifically?
Margaret is my dear friend now – as are her family! So her – and their – influence has been as much on my life as on my writing. She’s introduced me to some wild places in the world: we went birdwatching in Cuba and travelled to the Arctic together. That’s rearranged my head in some interesting ways. And I’ve been able to see the disciplined daily schedule that means that Margaret Atwood is able to get her writing done wherever she is in the world: inspirational and strangely calming, because all that brilliance doesn’t just come effortlessly. Good writers work hard.
As for The Power: it was Margaret who first suggested the word ‘convents’ to me in this context. So that was a good steer.
My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite women writers?
Ursula Le Guin, Toni Morrison, Ali Smith, AL Kennedy, Han Kang, Joanna Russ, Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Knox, Daphne Du Maurier, Josephine Tey, Elizabeth Goudge. I could go on, and on, and on….
Huge thanks to Naomi Alderman for the interview and to Penguin for the review copy.