Dismembering the Myths – a Workshop on Childbearing and Power commemorating 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

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Changing the World, One Word at a ime

I am moved to blog this weekend following a Twitter conversation with some amazing and inspiring people working to improve the lives of women and families and the experiences of midwives. As my followers will know, I wear many hats, and there is a beautiful confluence of the streams of thought that inspire me, such that my creative writing and knowledge feeds into my academic work, and my academic work spills over into my creative writing, and both are fed by the streams of passion, the melting icebergs of old fears, and the equinoctial storm of anger that stirs inside me.

This week, my next novel Ash will be released. It is a work of dedication and fuelled by my passion to interrogate and explore the lived experience of womanhood. I was further inspired by the work of Virginie Despentes https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/09/05/for-the-ugly-ones-the-spiky-feminist-anger-of-virginie-despentes/.  This author creates characters who are unattractive in the conventional sense. And the reader is often left uncomfortable and disturbed by this. Yet to me, this work is more powerful because it represents the messy and untrammelled reality of womanhood.

Ash, my next novel, is about unlovable characters. Amanda, the narrator of my first novel, Inshallah, makes inexplicable choices and is an unlikeable character. When it was first published, I was apologetic to the reviewers and readers who struggled to care about her. But the consensus was that her narrative was compelling and they were affected by it. Why was it, I asked myself, that people struggled with a woman making real choices, however strange, in the way that women do? We perhaps are uncomfortable when a character exposes the best-kept secrets of womanhood – that we are unhappy in our relationships, that we struggle to make deep connections, that we feel at odds with our own bodies, that the constant dissatisfaction bred by media and culture leads us to feel unable to make effective choices until we liberate ourselves of any desire to conform.

It seems to me that in fiction as in my academic work, we need to resist the conventions that continue to define what women ‘should’ be. For a long time the messy, everyday realities of womanhood have been ignored and suppressed. Our bodies are more regulated than men’s, the expectations of us to present a controlled version of ourselves to the world continue to grow. Our emotions, our wildness, have been pathologised as hysterical. Shrill. The deep raw power of our essential bodily experience is marginalised and oppressed.

I was talking today on Twitter about resistance. Resisting a culture of oppression. And I realised that that is what I am trying to do in my writing. By naming it, by framing it, I am saying to the world that there is a narrative, a story of ‘us’ that serves the systems of oppression. Novels about women and what we experience are too often dismissed. Research about women is confined to the margins, dismissed as extreme, as alternative. Alternative to what? We are 50% of the population. We are everyone’s mothers.

Ash (www.honno.co.uk) deals with more of the difficulties experienced by women when trying to live in a world that simply does not hold a space for them to be free. My characters’ actions and choices may be difficult to understand, but they are real, and human, and not everything can be packaged neatly into a three-act-play for easier consumption. Perhaps that is our problem. Perhaps we need to challenge ourselves further to break the mould. Perhaps we need to be uncomfortable in order to change.

Writing this novel was a labour of …. not love, exactly, but determination. I wanted to tell a tale, get inside of it, to feel again the incomprehensible complexity of mind, thought, feeling and desire that creates my self and the selves of my characters. But I will no longer apologise for the unconventionality of my narrative or my characters. I will no longer apologise for breaking the mould. Only by shattering our constraints, can we hope to show the true strength within, and use that to reshape the expectations of us as women.

I am a woman, writing women.

I am changing the world, one word at a time.

BOOK LAUNCH

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Ash, by Alys Einion

This week I am pleased that my next novel, Ash,  has been nominated for the Guardian Not-the-Booker Literary Prize. Being on the Longlist is a real honour, so thank you to the person who nominated me.  https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2018/jul/30/not-the-booker-longlist-vote-now-to-decide-the-2018-shortlist?CMP=share_btn_link

Ash has been a labour of love. It is a continuation of the story of Amanda, the central character in my first novel Inshallah (www.honno.co.uk) and shows what happened to Amanda once she returns to the UK from Saudi Arabia with her five children. It is as gritting and realistic, perhaps as uncompromising, as my first book. I was inspired to write about some the struggles of parenting, particularly single parenting, but more importantly, about some of the challenges of being a young woman in our society. So the book is two narratives interwoven to build one overall story. Ash’s story is told in first person, present-tense, and is a shocking insight into how she struggles with self concept, with her place in the world, and with how the world makes her feel about herself. She is a very intelligent, creative but challenged young woman and I hope that readers will relate to some of her feelings.  Her relationship with her own physical self is … difficult.

Amanda’s story, mostly told as a retrospective, explores the way life has bruised and battered her as much as her previous relationship did, but also shows how her sons grew from boys into men, and explores her relationships with others. In this book, unlike the previous, her relationships with women are more explicitly defined.  Her process of becoming, of reclaiming her sense of self, is slow, as her energies are mostly spent on her children, but we see how this at times difficult character carves a small place for herself in the world.

Something has happened to Ash, but the reader does not know what. Amanda questions what has brought about this cataclysm in her life. Was it losing their home at Blossom House, a community of women that was their first real haven after returning home? Was it Ash’s relationship with her mother? Was it growing up with her mother’s constant fear and insecurity? What about Ash’s relationships with her four older brothers? What has happened to them? What happens to us when we feel we belong nowhere?

It is a book about womanhood, from two ends of the spectrum, and about life and poverty and growth and creativity. It is about the ways that women are with each other, and about the constant search for belonging in this difficult and dangerous world. It is about the way that we are made to feel about our bodies, about our status, about our value. And it is a story, as always, that will make you question some of your assumptions about certain things in life.

We often talk about disaffected youth, about inexplicable choices, about declining behaviours. But do we question why people act the way they do? Do we ask what impact the world has on young people? Do we wonder what needs to change to make a better world? And do we really know what is influencing the people we are about?

This is a book of questions, and some answers, and if it makes the reader think, and reflect, then I have achieved my purpose.

Ash takes you on a journey of intimate reality, inside the minds of women. I hope that you get as much from reading it as I have from writing it.

 

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Inspiring Women and a Wider World

Inspiring Women and a Wider World
Today I am honoured to attend the @Chwarae Teg #Womenspire18 awards, as a finalist in the Leadership category. It has surprised me and made me feel so proud to be recognised in this way by an organisation whose work I so strongly admire and respect. All of my life I have had dreams and desires – to be a novelist (tick), to be a midwife (tick), to be an academic (tick). Somehow, I have found the drive and energy needed to achieve a lot. But most of all, I wanted to become the kind of woman I always admired, to be like the women who inspired me. Can it be that I have achieved that too? It seems hard to believe, but if I take the advice that I give my students, colleagues and loved ones, I must own my own achievements and celebrate my values and abilities, and I am inspired to write this blog post not because I want to grow my ego any further, but because I want to share what it means to be inspired by women, and to inspire others.
A couple of weeks ago, facilitating a class with my amazing, hard-working and inspirational students on the HE Cert in Maternity Care, I talked about the women who inspired me. One of these was Caroline Squire, who was a lecturer when I was a student midwife, and whose passionate feminism made her an instant role model for me. She called us all ‘colleagues’ and refused to play into the hierarchy that is so often found, both in healthcare practice and in academia. She was (and is) a social critic, an advocate for women’s equality and women’s empowerment in childbearing and in midwifery, and it was she who planted the idea of becoming an academic firmly in my mind. I wanted to be like her. She understood the systems within which women work and become mothers, and she inspired us all to commit to true values of empowerment and activism. A few years later, after my first (failed) attempt at a PhD, where the biggest obstacle in my way, sadly, was that very same system, she contacted me and asked me to contribute to an academic book, The Social Context of Birth, now in its third edition. I was delighted (and terrified) and have continued to contribute my critical insight and, most recently, my research, to this book. Caroline was a fantastic editor and guide through the publishing process and the book remains the best text on understanding the social forces affecting birthing.
As I spoke with the class, as usual, I let my passion and my feelings spill out into my words, and made them visible and palpable. I have always believed that if I bring my authentic self to my work, sooner or later this will make a difference to somebody. And one of the students said, as I finished my explanation, “but Alys, that is what you are to us.” I was speechless for a moment, and overwhelmed. And frankly, overjoyed. I felt that, of all my achievements, this was the pinnacle.
To find out that I inspire others is amazing, especially when it is something I am driven to do because of my desire to give every woman the chance to become what they want to become. I conceived of and started the HE Certificate in Maternity Care at Swansea University to provide an entry into the specialist knowledge of maternity care and reproduction for anyone. There are no entry criteria, and the programme has gone from strength to strength. We started with just 16 students, and this year, we are offering 60 places. The programme is now led by another inspirational colleague, Nicky Court, who has taken her leadership to new heights. The programme will be now offered on two sites – Carmarthen and Swansea – and from this September, those who complete the programme will have the option of stepping onto the second year of the BSc in Health and Social Care. Many more people will now access not only greater knowledge about women, families, pregnancy, birth and parenthood, but will be able to enjoy and be empowered by a University education.
Also a few short weeks ago, I saw a student putting a book into her bag, and realised it was my novel, Inshallah, published by Honno Press (www.honno.co.uk). Shyly, I exclaimed at the fact that she was reading my book, and was delighted that she was enjoying it. This leads me on to more inspirational women who have affected my life. My PhD Supervisors, Tiffany Atkinson and Louise Holmwood-Marshall at Aberystwyth University both recognised my drive and my ideas and gave me both roots and wings. They grounded me in the research and writing process, and enabled me to write what would become my first novel. This was such a powerful and challenging time in my life. I was working full time, first at University of the West of England, and then at Swansea, and also working part time at the Open University to pay for my PhD fees, whilst also bringing up a child in an uncertain financial climate.
Completing the PhD was a great achievement. Then I submitted the novel to Honno Press, and Caroline Oakley, Editor, changed my life. Direct, to-the-point and thoroughly inspirational, she told me exactly what was wrong with my work and what needed to happen. It was as if cogs and wheels in my brain began to turn for the first time, and suddenly I understood novels more than ever. A year later I was delighted to accept a publishing contract. Since then, Caroline and her team at Honno have continued to support, inspire, guide and drive me. My second novel, Ash, will be published this year. To me, the most powerful part of being published – which is my longest-held life ambition – is that I am published by an amazing, feminist independent press, and get to be in the company of other vital, creative and radical women writers. Ever since I first encountered Honno I knew I wanted to be published by them and now, I get to inspire others by sharing my words and changing the world just a tiny bit.
Three years ago, I stumbled across a call for papers for an edited collection by another feminist press. http://www.demeterpress.org, led by Andrea O’Reilly, who publish inspirational and radically diverse texts on motherhood and mothering, fathering, sexuality….. Having contributed to several volumes edited by amazing colleagues, I found myself with a book proposal accepted, and was lucky enough to find a Canadian Co-Editor, Jen Rinaldi, to help me bring together the work of powerful writers and artists in the book ‘Bearing the Weight of the World: Exploring Maternal Embodiment’ which will be published by Demeter Press later this year. Again, what a pleasure to be published by and with activists and critical thinkers who are rewriting the landscape of knowledge to promote better insight and equality! It seems like a dream, now, to be part of such work.
Some years ago I also had the opportunity to work with the amazing team at the Practising Midwife Journal – https://www.all4maternity.com/– and to curate the Research Series for the Journal. This has exposed me to a much wider field of activists in the arena of women’s health and also led to a blog opportunity with the Cochrane Collaboration. The world has opened up wider and wider for me as the work I do leads me to realise just how many inspirational people there are out there, paving the way.
There are hundreds of other women and people of all genders who inspire me. There was the midwife who held the space for me and grounded me when I had my first child, who made me want to be a midwife. There are the writers and artists and speakers who have opened my mind and heart, such as Maya Angelou, Margaret Attwood, Scarlett Thomas, Sarah Waters, Anne McCaffrey, Ina May Gaskin, Jenny Hall, Alice Walker, Jeanette Winterson, Starhawk, Katherine V Forrest, Val McDermid, Barbara Erskine, Joanne Harris, Manda Scott, Susan Hill, Emma Donoghue, A.S Byatt, Alice Hoffman, Julie Felix, Sheila Kitzinger, Sheena Byrom, Hannah Dahlen, Frank Duffy, Carolyn Hillyer … the list goes on and on.
Then there are the women and men I work with, inspirational leaders themselves – Professor Hilary Lappin-Scott, Chantal Patel, Sarah Norris, Susanne Darra, Cath Elms, Professor Martin Stringer… and all of my colleagues, dedicated and driven to be the best they can be. There are organisations, such as Stonewall, whose work inspires me to keep on keeping on. Then there are my friends and family, trailblazers in their own ways – my wonderful, amazing sister, Carole Ann Mortimer, who works to support women in direst need and helps them to recover from the impact of domestic abuse, my son, Aran Henley-Einion, who is a gifted musician and unequivocally his own person, my dear friends Linda Reagan and Maeve Reagan, Jay McNeill, Lee Gale, and many, many others, friends of all genders who advocate for gender equality in every dimension, and who live their convictions so powerfully.
These are the people who inspire me. These and so many, many others have changed my life for the better. There are the hundreds and thousands of authors and activists, there are the students whose lives I am lucky enough to touch, just briefly, there are the clients in my hypnobirthing classes who inspire me to continue advocating for women’s rights, there are the colleagues in the Staff LGBT+ network and the people on campus who might feel that their individuality is not only recognised, but celebrated at Swansea University, an employer which not only allows me to be myself, but rewards me for my diversity and my uniqueness. It is no surprise to me that Swansea University is a finalist for the Employer Award at tonight’s Womenspire awards.
If I can make a difference, just a small difference, in this great, wide world, then I will have achieved everything I set out to do. If I can give one other person new insight, new knowledge, or a signpost to their own inner strength, then I have accomplished more than I ever could have imagined.
All my life, people have said to me, ‘you will never’. You will never get a degree, never get married, never be successful or have a good job. To all of the nay-sayers, I only have this to say.
Watch me.
The Wider World Awaits.
Good luck to all the finalists at the Awards tonight.
@AlysEinion

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The Reawakening

Being a writer is about so much more than simply putting words on paper in the right order. After a year of turbulence, and three years of near-hibernation, during which I have retreated into a range of forms of escape, I can honestly say that the tide has turned and the writer in me is awake.

Last month I finished and submitted the final draft of my next novel, Ash, which is to be published by Honno Press this year. It was a challenge, as it meant taking the stories of my much-beloved characters in Inshallah in new directions and looking deeply into more of the ways in which women’s lives are played out in this imperfect world. This meant more research into difficult areas, and more soul-searching about the ways in which I engage with the issues I wanted to explore. It seems that a writer is more than a wordsmith. She is a commentator on culture, on experience, on society, and I became more aware of this as I took the deep journey into a new underworld, a new landscape that was paradoxically and achingly familiar.

To awake to oneself is a powerful process, and is often painful. It was only as I finished Ash, that I realised that Amanda, the main character in Inshallah, was simply telling the story of her own awakening, and sharing the symbolism of her own becoming. And through this I was able to see that we are all, as women, on a similar journey, one which challenges us to awake from the sleep of complacency, and to shrug off the anodyne effects of quick-fixes in our lives. There are multiple routes of escape available to us, and it seems to me there is no shame in taking time to switch off, but a writer needs to be awake, to be conscious, to be aware of the impact of what she writes and to understand why she is writing it.

This has become more pertinent to me over the last two months, as I have been notified that I am a finalist for the Chwarae Teg Leadership award (https://www.cteg.org.uk/womenspire-18/2018-finalists/)  an incredible honour and a complete surprise. I have become suddenly and powerfully conscious of the impact and influence I must have in the lives of others, and fully aware of the responsibility of having such an influence. I have always loved hearing feedback from my readers, always felt honoured and humbled if my work affects them, engages them, or uplifts them. It is a part of everything else that I do, working with incredible women on various stages of their own life-journeys. But writing, creating, is a solitary and often isolating experience, and to bring your work out into the world means letting go of what you believe the story to be, and setting it free to exist independently in the minds and lives of the readers. I can only hope, as I experience my own reawakening to self, to the writer I am, which, as is the case for many women, is just one fragment of the whole self, that I can continue to create and to share my work in ways that bring some new awareness into the lives of others.

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The Year of the Woman

We surround ourselves with the objects, the symbols that represent the life we want. We privileged women, who work hard but do not always have to fear for the next meal or walk miles for clean water, we women who pursue our dreams and goals in our various ways, we have dressed our lives the way we dress a room, the way we dress ourselves. We note the symbols of the status, the identity we have chosen for ourselves, and we acquire those in order to acquire the identity they represent. We study, assimilating one set of codes which suggests a particular aspect of social identity, and follow that with an occupational trajectory that is too often delimited by social codes. The main features of our lives, however, are performed, they are displayed, demonstrated – how can we be successful if others do not witness and validate our success? I have watched women from all walks of life and their intersection with the world, with each other, and I have to conclude that we are all warriors, perhaps without knowing it, working towards some invisible summit of life. And I have to conclude, here in my 48th year, in 2018, the year of the woman as ‘they’ are already calling it, that it has always been women who have inspired me the most, women who have demonstrated true strength, integrity, love, vision, determination, capability. There are some men also, and some people of varying gender identity who also inspire me, but in this age of the shedding of many of the labels that have both defined and divided us, I believe it is more important than ever to celebrate and yes, to defend, my identity as a woman.
So this year, I am writing this blog about the people who have inspired me, and in particular, the women whose voices, words, actions and lives have pushed me to a better understanding of the true value of my own life, of my own achievements and accomplishments. These accomplishments are a manifestation of my strength, a sign and a beacon for others to use to guide them in their self-quest of becoming, of being, of freedom. I am no more or less special than any of you, just woman who has survived, has learned to thrive, has come to a day of sunlight and self-love knowing that this is it.
There is only today. Only today to do the things that we love, the things that matter to us. Only today to read the books, travel, meet with people, take chances and speak our truth. Only today to be the women we were meant to be, say the things we always wanted to say. Maybe no one is listening, maybe no one cares. It doesn’t matter. I am listening. I care. It matters enough to me to write these words down, to share them, to send them out into the cybersphere for anyone to find, maybe now, maybe some time in the unknown future. But these are for today. Today I get up and I live, savouring all that has brought me to this point, all that I am and all that I can do.

Today is all that matters. The rest is still unwritten.

.

 

 
Today is all that matters. The rest is still unwritten.

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2016 = Losing and Gaining

This has been a difficult year, particularly for those of us who keep watching our icons depart this earth. It reminds us of time passing. We lose people, days, weeks, months, we wonder at the years passing and how can it be that we are that old already? We feel the bite of time’s cold grip, and fight to resist the forces of ageing that remind us that yes,  Bowie was already famous when we were born, and yes, maybe we haven’t achieved everything we thought we would.

What have I lost this year?

Mostly, illusions. This has been a year where I finally understood that the stories I have been telling myself are time-limited, and I simply don’t have any time left.

I’ve lost any illusion I had about the world being a place where justice, good sense and common decency will prevail, as I watch two political systems sink under the weight of ignorance, arrogance and capitalist supremacy.

I have completed my contract as an external examiner for a great institution.

I have lost a few people too, not irrevocably, but as part of the inevitable attrition of life moving on.

I’ve almost lost a part of my body (surgery pending….)

 

What have I gained?

A realisation that life is way too precious to waste a minute.

Why do we waste time on things that don’t matter, and yearn for more time to do the things that really do matter?

A renewed love of writing. I have published so many academic things this year, and found that I love what I do. But I still love to write fiction, and I have completed two novels this year (just squeezing the second one in the last few days of 2016). I completed my midwifery memoir which leaves me feeling both excited and terrified.

I have gained a closer relationship with my sister and niece, who have become my upstairs neighbours.

I have gained a new insight into the rare and precious gift that is womanhood, motherhood and midwifery, and I am more determined than ever that every woman should have the chance to know and understand her body and the forces that act on it throughout her lifetime.

And I’ve both lost and gained my confidence.

The most important thing I have lost?

The need for approval or acceptance from anyone else.

And what have I gained?

Peace of mind.

So that’s how I start 2017….. peacefully. Renewed. Determined. Ready for the next chapter.

 

 

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