Irish author and journalist Martina Devlin was born in Omagh and her new novel About Sisterland imagines a 22nd century world run by women, following the decimation of the male species in a world-altering war. Men are the inferior sex in Sisterland controlled through the use of testosterone-regulating drugs, denied education, segregated from women and used only for menial tasks and the purpose of conception. Boy children and separated from their mothers at birth and girl children are prized.
Women are carefully controlled in Sisterland too. Emotions (‘moes’) are seen as something that holds women back and so are rationed. Natural moes have become extinct and the world women have created is almost overbearingly ‘nice’. On the surface life seems perfect, yet their flowers are sprayed with a chemical scent, birds no longer exist in the wild and women wear a youthful mask, or ‘skin’ ostensibly to protect them from environmental damage. Women must live according to the rules of Sisterland’s founder, Beloved, handed down by a mysterious group called The Nine and the utopia of a world run by women has given way to a restrictive, monitored existence – a Big Sister if you will, rather than a Big Brother.
The novel follows Constance, who is recovering from the suicide of her friend and ‘other’ Silence, as she forms a risky relationship with her designated male mate Harper and becomes embroiled in a Resistance movement who are beginning to question the values of Sisterland and champion the need for fellow inhabitants to think and act for themselves. About Sisterland is a powerful and thought-provoking insight into the old adage that power corrupts, regardless of the intentions behind it and of how we always need to question what we are being told.
I recently asked Martina a few questions about her new novel.
You’ve written two historical novels, The House Where it Happened and Ship of Dreams. Was it your intention to set a book in the future, or did the themes you wanted to explore require it?
Initially I thought I’d set it in the present. But once the writing was under way, I realised I had no choice but to relocate the novel to the near future because I wanted to show what this society would be like after women held power for a century. However, I made a deliberate decision not to have too much by way of futuristic trappings because the book may have a 22nd century dateline but it deals with the present. For example, by making Sisterland cloistered, with citizens forbidden to travel within the state or to leave it, I’m exploring isolationism and its dangers. We have too many barricades keeping one another apart. The mental walls are the most frightening.
You’ve said in interviews that About Sisterland is a book about extremism. I also grew up in Northern Ireland through the Troubles and was interested in how you explored both the distrust of and the fascination with the ‘other’. How influential was the history of Northern Ireland to About Sisterland?
It was the pivotal inspiration for the novel. I’m acutely conscious of what happens when communities are kept apart because of growing up during the Troubles. Segregating people, or to allow them to self-segregate, is a recipe for disaster because the other side becomes reduced to stereotypes at best and demonised at worst. I was also thinking about Palestine/Israel and what happens when the oppressed become the oppressors.
A matriarchal society is often discussed as something to strive for. You’ve taken the traits of femininity that are often seen as nurturing and positive and turned them into something almost overbearing. Would you agree that once a behaviour becomes a rule rather than a natural instinct, it is changed somewhat?
A narrow, rigid set of rules doesn’t allow for flexibility or individuality or self-determination. Of course, laws are needed to give society its structure – otherwise there’d be anarchy. But too many regulations are authoritarian, even if represented as being for the best. And rules become particularly tyrannical when they follow individuals into the privacy of their homes. When I was considering this society, I was referencing countries such as North Korea, to some extent. It will be extremely difficult for its population to transition to a democracy because people are no longer conditioned to make decisions about their own destinies.
There are echoes of Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, which you quote at the start of your book, but About Sisterland also brought George Orwell’s 1984 to my mind. The constant monitoring, the rationing of emotion and the manipulation of memory being some of the more frightening aspects of the Sisterland world. Was this something you had in mind?
Not to begin with. The only element I was clear on from the outset was the totalitarianism, because power always corrupts. I’m amazed when I hear people say, as they sometimes do, that a benign dictatorship or unelected group of public servants would be the most effective way to rule a country. It was suggested by some commentators at the height of the Irish financial collapse, for example. No dictator, irrespective of how benign, ever surrendered power voluntarily.
The role of men in Sisterland is similar to the role of women in many countries around the world – they are the subjugated ‘other’, doing menial work; being unable to participate fully in society; even wearing hoods to hide their faces. Was this something you wanted to draw out?
Yes, the lack of educational opportunities for girls in many countries worldwide is extraordinary in 2015. I wondered how it might be if the male sex was denied schooling, was conditioned to believe it had to cover up in public, and so on. Gender/sexual politics weren’t the only thing on my mind in this context, though. At various stages I was also thinking about apartheid, the male-centric foundation of the Irish state, the Magdalen laundries and religious cults. As the book went on, I was reflecting, too, on the importance of forgiveness for past wrongs.
The use of language in About Sisterland is fascinating and you have created an entire lexicon to tell your story. Himtime, babyfusion, silkenspeak are all very evocative words. Did you create the language of Sisterland before you started writing or did it evolve as the story grew?
The language evolved. Initially I only had a few terms –such as babyfusion and moes for emotion – and others occurred to me over the course of rewrites. With matingplace, where men and women attempted to reproduce (since artificial insemination has a low success rate in Sisterland) I was hoping to convey how sanitised and utilitarian it was. My moe themes are intended to highlight the sterility that develops when emotions are suppressed. I guess because Sisterland is such an unusual world, I decided it needed its own language. Besides, language is contantly evolving. It would have been counter-intuitive to leave it untouched in the novel.
The book leaves the reader asking more questions about your protagonists, do you feel you could return to the story of Constance and Harper in the future?
I’m uncertain about that, because I don’t know what happens to Constance and Harper. I don’t know if they get away from Sisterland or if they are caught. Even if they do escape, I don’t know if they can make a success of life in Outsideland. I’ve never written a sequel to any of my novels, although it was suggested that I do one for Ship of Dreams about my Titanic survivors. Sequels rarely live up to expectations. But I like the speculative fiction format so who knows? And there are some people in Sisterland whose story continues to interest me – the Shaper Mother, for example. I was never entirely sure if she had Constance’s best interests at heart. What would Sisterland be like if she got her hands on the controls.
Can you tell us anything about what you are working on for your next book?
History again, the 1500s, and it might just be a little bit spooky. But it’s early days. I’m still feeling my way.
I’d like to thank Martina for taking the time to answer my questions about her thought-provoking and challenging book. About Sisterland is out now, published by Ward River Press.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!