Novelist puts autism center stage

Writer and scholar Emilie Pine tells me she loves a challenge, and taking up a position as writer-in-residence at a maternity hospital — after enduring the pain of infertility — certainly sounds like one.

The Dublin professor has won acclaim for her startlingly honest collection of autobiographical essays, Notes to Self, published in 2019, which explored her own experiences with infertility and miscarriage, among other topics.

She was recently named one of The Guardian’s Top 10 Debut Novelists of 2022.

For her highly anticipated debut novel, Ruth & Pen, Pine returns to the theme of baby loss, examining a couple’s painful journey of infertility as it brings a strong, loving marriage to the brink.

The novel follows two women – you guessed it, Ruth & Pen – on a single day in Dublin. Ruth is a therapist in her thirties who is about to break up with her husband after several failed IVF attempts and a miscarriage. Teenager Pen is autistic and struggling to find her place in the world.

The pair are strangers but cross paths briefly as they spend their day in the bustling city, against the backdrop of a protest against climate change.

The idea for the novel came to Pine while she was writer-in-residence at the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin. Given the painful infertility that Pine and her partner have endured, the decision to place themselves in a maternity ward may seem to many like a unique form of self-punishment.

“It was like a challenge. And I don’t like to back down from a challenge. It was… very, very difficult to be in the building and to have this space that was away from the work rooms, but I had to cross the labor rooms to leave.

“I had no idea how difficult it would be on a daily basis. And I’m really glad I did. I went to the hospital with a patient’s mindset and with my experience… (then) I started to understand it as an institution from the perspective of the people who worked there.”

Set in Dublin for 24 hours, the characters roam the streets of the city, meeting various people along the way. So what was the influence of James Joyce and modernist literature?

“It was totally conscious!” Pine laughs. “I love it. I thought about that moment of deciding to allow myself to write, ‘Well, I’m going to write the books that I like, in a style that I like to read, and why not aim high ?’ And Mrs Dalloway [Virginia Woolf] is probably more of an influence.

“But Ulysses is… the context in which everything written about Dublin feels like it’s written inside. And I work at University College Dublin, which is Joyce’s alma mater. is a very rich context in which to work.

“The ending of Ruth & Pen resonates a lot with the ending of Ulysses. But I also took Ulysses and put it very far away from me while I was writing so I didn’t have to watch it. It’s there , but it’s like the unconscious.”

Pen and Alice attend a climate change protest in Dublin

While the narrative is largely written from Ruth’s point of view – notably the brutal physical experience of her miscarriage – Pine says it was also important to give a voice to Ruth’s husband, Aidan – and he received several chapters to him.

“Part of my experience at the hospital has been seeing how women are identified as the main parent and as the main victim. Aidan said at one point that he was not entitled to counseling at the hospital without Ruth present.”

While she had her own experience to draw on for Ruth, Pine had more research to do for Pen and her story, which runs parallel to Ruth’s: “I’m going to look like one of those people floating that I really am not, but I just knew that Pen had autism.

“I’m sick of characters who have something interesting about them on the sidelines, aren’t I? And it’s the same with barren women. It’s the weird aunt at the party, but not the center of the party. And so (it’s about) moving characters who are so often marginalized to the center, and empowering them. You see the world through Pen’s eyes, I hope .

Teenage sex

In a blog post for Research Autism Last month, Adriana White discussed stereotypes and tropes of autistic characters, including “boring brother/sidekick” and “unrealistic inspiration”.

Pen is none of that – for starters, she’s female whereas autistic characters are mostly male. She is a fully formed protagonist with her own narrative and sense of self, her own dreams and aspirations that sit alongside her struggles.

Pen has a supportive mother and a strong friendship with Alice, whom she would like to become something more. She struggles with noise, crowds and anxiety, has been bullied at school and has self-harmed.

“Pen is a teenager, and I had written about my own crazy teenage life in Notes to Self, but I also wanted to represent that not all 16-year-olds have sex, but they might want to or think about it. It’s that moment when you’re on the border between childhood and adulthood, and how you negotiate that, and how difficult it is.”

In the final chapter, Pen has a moment of reflection when she says “there is no such thing as normal”.

As a society, are we moving away from a rigid idea of ​​normality?

“Mandatory maternity”

“I think we are, but I think it’s slow and there’s a long way to go. I also think the people moving it bear all the cost and emotional labor of doing it, and often it has a huge impact on their So I think the more it can be part of a shared, open, multi-perspective conversation, the better.”

Perhaps the most powerful moment in the novel is when Ruth and Pen, who are strangers, meet in a gallery. Ruth stops to help Pen, who is having a panic attack. Ruth may not be physically capable of being a mother, but that doesn’t stop her from being a mother figure.

“There’s this feeling that Ruth is just what Pen needs in this moment. And it’s an act of deep caring between strangers. And I love that,” Pine says.

“Ruth can be a meaningful and caring person without having this dimension [being a mother]. The feeling of compulsory motherhood that so often manifests itself in the culture is something that I find really oppressive and makes it incredibly difficult when you’re in the position of not being a parent when you want to be one. »

For Pine, writing her first novel was something of a liberating experience.

“When my life hasn’t turned out the way I wanted it to, in terms of having kids, I think that forces a conversation. It’s not that the novel is my baby, it’s more that I really wanted to m ‘imagining in a new way, and that’s been a big part of that.”

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