‘Power corrupts, irrespective of gender’: Martina Devlin on About Sisterland
About Sisterland considers what a world ruled by women might be like. I was obliged to set it in the 22nd century because there’s no sign of female hegemony happening in the present
Martina Devlin on About Sisterland: “The theme is extremism: how and why it flourishes, and why societies need to guard against it. Cheer up, there’s kissing as well. Except people aren’t supposed to enjoy it in the future. Though of course people don’t always behave as they ought”
I’ve written a novel that may end up sharing shelf space in bookshops with stories about triple-breasted Space Age women toting phaser guns. I’m wondering if readers who pick it up will expect aliens, and whether I might be asked to dress up as Princess Leia to promote it.
The book is called About Sisterland and is located in the future. A future without robots, spaceships, worm holes or warp drives, I hasten to add. The plot doesn’t even stretch to a flying car. However, it’s classified as speculative fiction because of the setting.
Why did I move from the past (my two previous novels were historical) to the future? The reason lies in the story itself. About Sisterland considers what a world ruled by women might be like, and I was obliged to set it in the 22nd century because there’s no sign of female hegemony happening in the present.
But regardless of the date, I’m busily referencing the present day in the novel, which explores not hyper space but hyper reality.
The theme is extremism: how and why it flourishes, and why societies need to guard against it. Cheer up, there’s kissing as well. Except people aren’t supposed to enjoy it in the future. Though of course people don’t always behave as they ought.
Here’s the plot: welcome to Sisterland, a totalitarian state envisaged as perfect. Well, provided you’re a woman. Men are relegated to a sub-species. Meanwhile, total obedience and conformity are demanded from women.
Sisterland controls every aspect of women’s lives – from their jobs which are channelled towards upholding the state, to their memories which are reshaped for consistency. News programmes are banned on Sisterland’s truncated versions of television and radio, and there is no internet. Emotion is suppressed on the basis that it kept women back for centuries.
A licence is needed to become a mother, but women aren’t allowed to raise their babies – that happens communally. All the better to indoctrinate each generation. Meanwhile, a young woman named Constance is chosen to attempt to become a mother, and meets a man alone for the first time. Their encounter starts to raise questions in her mind about the regime. Does she doubt alone – or do others question Sisterland, too?
Political and religious extremism, a pregnant woman’s loss of autonomy over her body and what happens when the oppressed becomes the oppressor were on my mind as I worked the novel. The future? Hardly. Just look over the garden hedge for examples of all the above right now.
The inspiration sprang from a book written by a woman with groundbreaking ideas, whose work I admire. The novel is Herland and the author is Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935). She was an American writer, feminist, social activist and lecturer who urged economic independence for women.
As I write this now, I turn my head towards my bookshelves, and pick out the striped spine of its jacket. Pausing to lift it down, it’s only now I realise that Herland was published exactly a century ago, in 1915. It was serialised in her magazine, The Forerunner.
Charlotte also wrote a chilling, partly autobiographical short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, about madness sparked by post-natal depression. She isn’t particularly known for humour – a sweeping piece of work called Women and Economics would be more representative – but Herland is a playful satire. It recounts the story of three male explorers who stumble on an all-female community in the Amazon jungle and are amazed to discover it’s a paradise without class division, crime, greed or disease. That set me to thinking. And the more I reflected, the more I concluded that an all-female community wouldn’t be utopian. Quite the reverse. And then I had to explain why.
Here’s how my thought processes developed. Imagine if women ruled the world… wouldn’t life be harmonious and nurturing? No more extremism running amok. No more wars. No more refugees fleeing from dictatorships. No more barricades to lock them out from wealthier countries. No more financial collapses. No more sex slavery. No more porn. I know, I’ll write a novel about it.
As soon as I started, two key facts struck me. One, this brave new world, which I called Sisterland, wouldn’t be a paradise. It would be saddled with its own set of problems. Two, it couldn’t be set in the present, as I intended initially. That’s because I wanted to speculate on how this reimagined society might evolve after women had held power for a century or so.
I didn’t set out to write a futuristic novel, I just wanted to tell a story. Even so, I should tip my hat to Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for the film Blade Runner). And who doesn’t admire Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale? My book was more or less finished, bar some tweaking, by the time Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours was published, but I saw that she was doing something intriguing.
My women aren’t universally sweet and reasonable (despite one of their catchphrases being “it’s nice to be nice” – a saying heard from time to time in Belfast, which I filed away mentally because it tickles me so). How can they be, when power corrupts people? Irrespective of gender. Even relatively mild-mannered individuals undergo a transition and start to inhabit ivory towers. They become convinced they are infallible and stop taking advice. I wonder if they aren’t afflicted with temporary insanity?
When I began this novel, I gave no thought to how it might be positioned in the marketplace. I simply wanted to tell a story to the best of my ability. It’s only now, at the published stage, that I find myself pondering where it will sit on bookshop shelves, and how I can direct readers who might be interested in its themes towards About Sisterland.
Ultimately, how the book is presented or interpreted won’t be my decision. That’s just as it should be – it doesn’t belong to me any more. All the same, it’s tempting to invest in a light sabre novelty pen for signings. Just in case.