How selfish are you? If you’re a woman, this question may give you an instant twinge of guilt, followed by a rush of defensiveness. If you’re a man, you might answer rationally. I just asked my husband and he said happily “Yeah, I am. So what?” (He’s not, particularly.)
It’s a question I have been exploring, in fiction and in my life, ever since I left home. The roots of it must be in my birth family, where I saw my beloved mother stifle her own desire for a life of her own so her husband and three children could have theirs. She gave us all so much, but hers was not a life I wanted.
I have just written a book, Blood, that’s narrated by a female character, Monica Ludd, a huge deputy headteacher of barrelling self-confidence. Raised by two parents of monumental egotism and cruelty, Monica has never known empathy from either. At first crushed, she slowly gets tougher, helped by sheer size, one sympathetic teacher, keen intelligence, and (after her father hits her once too often) boxing lessons at school. She stops listening to men and begins speaking her mind, loudly, whenever she wants – and, unfortunately, when she doesn’t want, accidentally voicing her worst secret thoughts, with predictably absurd results. She’s riotously selfish.
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I am definitely not the only woman who has a problem deciding just how selfish to be. Many girls still get socialised by their families or teachers into looking after others, encouraging, empathising – sometimes with people who forget to empathise with them. A few women, conversely, rail against the world if anything stops them doing exactly what they want, an unreal demand.
Most of us are stuck somewhere between the two. Only in the most recent decade of my life have I got better at holding the line between self and other. As a teenager at university – too young, fresh from a village, and from the first generation of my family to go there – I coped by becoming whatever the person I was with wanted me to be. I tried to mirror older, ‘posher’ (as they seemed to me) undergraduates: I tried to please men. I seemed to have no definition, no will, or willpower, of my own.
I don’t think anyone would say that about me now. All the same, readers tempted to confuse me with my fictional creations, the gloriously selfish Alexandra in Where are the Snows or Lottie in The Flood, might be surprised to learn that up until recently I still needed to have a filecard by my landline on which was scrawled ‘JUST SAY NO!!’.
Writing became my way out of the dark forest of non-being.
By the time I left university I had learned that being putty in people’s hands made me unhappy. I was full of feelings, desires and opinions, and longed to voice them. I felt, dimly, that I was a person, that I would be a person one day, and I began writing again, something which had made me happy as a child. Writing became my way out of the dark forest of non-being. In this new world away from home, I tried to find the answer to the question, what kind of woman would I be, if not like mum, who I still adored? In some ways I am still finding out, at every work meeting, at every social meal, every time someone asks me a favour. Must I say ‘Yes’?
This is not a simple question of applying the pleasure principle, ie asking what would make me happiest at that split second. Because actually, certain kinds of helping others make you happier in the long run. I have been teaching writing for 25 years, and as long as my own work is getting done, there is a deep sense of fulfilment in encouraging other writers.
My father didn’t want my mother to work. Maybe I married late (34) because I didn’t a trust a man not to stop me working, and I loved writing, loved having the opportunity to let my real self run out into a wide white space where I had to curry favour with no one. The page feels so much freer than the enclosures of the nuclear family. I can explore all sides of questions: Blood examines how to deal with violence by the state, by terrorists and in the family, and how, in the era of MeToo, women can be themselves.
With parents who failed to love her, my larger-than-life Monica has to be monumentally selfish to survive. But we wouldn’t like her, or love her, if that was all there was to her. At the climax of the book, when it comes to the well-being of the troubled kids she teaches, she puts self-interest aside and throws everything into a fight to save their lives.
Blood is out now (Fentum Press, £9.99)
Illustration: Joseph Joyce