‘Did you notice when you said the word feminist an alarm went off?’
Deborah Levy’s recent novel was declined for being ‘too literary’. A Booker-nomination followed
In that novel, and in her new collection of short stories, Black Vodka , Levy has a way of writing that is very present. “Its originality,” says the New York Times , “lies in its ellipses, its patterns and repetitions”.
Individual paragraphs are almost standalone stories in themselves. Nothing is extraneous and, in a handful of pages, Levy creates conflicting worlds.
In Cave Girl , a young woman decides to have a sex change – not to become a man, but to transform into “a pretend woman”.
“It’s quite a playful story,” the writer says, “but it’s very serious, too. To this young woman, a new, pretend version of herself is a fragile projection of what femininity is. Post-operation, she comes back, doesn’t have opinions and wants to please. To me, it’s based on a mix of anthropology, pop culture and feminist theory.”
From Cave Girl ’s protagonist to Kitty Finch and Isabel from Swimming Home , or the two Louises in Billy & Girl , Levy wants her female characters to be more than tropes.
“Any female writer who is worth reading has a job on her hands when it comes to female characters. She’s got to unknot a lot of stuff. How do you make a female character a subject rather than an object? Kitty is fragile, but really astute. Isabel – to do the thing she needed to do [have a career] – has to sacrifice her place in the home. These days a lot of women are asking themselves, ‘what is that place?’ anyway.”
There is a pronounced vein of feminism in her work and it’s a topic she has written about in non-fiction terms recently. In the hotel lobby, a fire drill starts.
“Did you notice when you said the word ‘feminist’ an alarm went off?” Levy laughs mischievously. “The patriarchy doesn’t like feminism, but what does it mean when women don’t like it? Women have a hard time at work and a hard time at home.
“There are all kinds of domestic and economic humiliations that they suffer all the time. We are very good at politicising it, but then it’s an entire culture’s gaze so we have to.”
Talking to Levy, there is a strong sense of politicisation, which possibly stems from her childhood in apartheid-era South Africa. Her father was an activist who taught township children to read and write, which was illegal. “I come from an ANC family and that whole generation . . . ” she trails off.