Chronological appropriation without sounding insulting or lame takes imagination, says Canadian author

Chronological appropriation without sounding insulting or lame takes imagination, says Canadian author
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In the long-running annual series “ Oh, The Humanities! ” National Post reporters survey academic scholarship at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, with an eye to the curious, the preposterous, and the hilarious. But this year it was cancelled due to COVID-19. Undeterred, a few sessions went virtual, including reflections by Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue on writing characters much older or younger than herself.

The Irish Canadian writer and historian Emma Donoghue was driving on the 401 Highway in Ontario when she conceived the idea for her blockbuster novel about a captive mother and child, Room, which was made into a hit movie in 2015.

She had been thinking about the case of Elisabeth Fritzl, held captive for 24 years by her rapist father Josef, who impregnated her many times, holding some of the children captive also.

Donoghue did not wish to contribute to the cultural fascination of the “sexualized captivity” of young women by “interesting psychopaths,” but as she recentred her thinking on the maternal relationship in such an extreme situation, she saw that “you could literally leave him outside the door.”

That is why she knew it would be called Room, because it rhymes with womb, the private space of mother and child. She also knew it would be begin on a birthday.

“I decided that five was perfect,” Donoghue in a keynote lecture delivered online this week instead of in a hall at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, which was to be held at Western University in London, Ont., but was cancelled by the coronavirus pandemic.

Donoghue was reflecting on the serious problem created by her plan for the book. She would have to write a child, in his voice, in his consciousness, so foreign to an adult.

A child might find isolation with his mother a heaven, for example, in a way that she finds it a hell. For the captive child in Room, his mother is always present, always ready “to meet his imagination with hers.”

Donoghue could not do as many authors do and make her character a “thinly veiled avatar” of herself. It is the job of fiction to interrogate stereotypes, she said, including age, which she contrasted with generation.

One of the things I love about children’s languages is that they are consistently inconsistent

She would have to avoid the perils of this sort of chronological appropriation, of speaking in the voice of someone at another age, without being insulting, ignorant or lame.

“At least with children, you can to a certain extent remember,” she said. “If you write characters who are older than you, there’s a lot of guesswork.”

So in a way, the writing of Room was a research project into the speaking patterns of her own children, especially her then-four-year-old son.

“I jotted down the kind of mistakes he made,” she said, and kept a “representative sample of those mistakes” for the book, aiming to show the “five-year-oldness of Jack,” the child protagonist in Room.

One example was the childish urge to impose consistency on the famously inconsistent English grammar, but doing things like making “ringed” the past tense of “ring,” instead of the correct “rang.”

“I find most kids have their little linguistic oddities. One of the things I love about children’s languages is that they are consistently inconsistent.”

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in a scene from Room, based on Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name. A24 Films

Another challenge was the child’s outlook. Children have the capacity to “bend,” she said, meaning they can come to terms with the world, almost no matter what. (As an aside, she said she was going to say “flex,” instead of “bend,” but that has a new slang meaning among young people, including her own children, who tell her what things mean but “cringe at the idea that I would try to keep up.”)

Jack is naturally animistic, sees a spirit in inanimate objects, like Bath, and Labyrinth, a tunnel model in which Bouncy Ball gets lost, and Fort, made of vitamin bottles, who he wants to take into Bath but mother said the water “would make his tape unsticky.”

He marvels that he was four last night, going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when he woke up in Bed, he was five. He wonders whether he used to be minus numbers, up in heaven perhaps.

Donoghue’s newest book is called Akin, and it presents the opposite problem, writing a much older character, Noah, 79-year-old professor of chemistry in New York, going home to Nice, France, who is also also in an unusually close relationship with a child, his great nephew.

“In a way (Noah) is me extrapolated,” she said, meaning she aimed to enhance her own traits of being a “fuddy duddy,” slow moving, reluctant to change, uncomfortable with technology. She mentioned she knows internet research quite well but did not know you could search an image on Google.

This challenge of writing differently aged characters has been an opportunity for her to do the “empathetic work necessary to imagine lives other than your own,” Donoghue said.

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