An Interview With Writer Mary Hamer

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Mary Hamer is the author of Kipling and Trix and Incest a New Perspective; here is a link to her website:

 

http://mary-hamer.com/

 

Q:  What is Kipling and Trix about?

 

A: It tells the story of Rudyard Kipling the famous writer and his brilliant, damaged younger sister, Trix as they grow up. Happy as small children among the light and colour of India their lives change when they’re left in England while their parents go back to Bombay. Their foster-mother turns out to be a dangerous woman who tries to break the boy’s spirit while making a pet of the little girl.

 

Kipling & Trix shows how they survive this confusion: growing up each sets out to become a writer and to look for love. Moving between continents—India, South Africa, Europe– and momentous world events, it makes emotional sense of these lives.

 

Q:  What made you interested in writing a book based on the life of Rudyard Kipling and his sister?

 

A: I’d always loved Rudyard Kipling as a writer, ever since I was small and read The Jungle Book. But when I started reading about his life, with books of my own behind me, I was startled to see what a textbook case of emotional danger their childhood exile presented. One way and another I’d learned a good deal about child psychology and about the vulnerability of children separated from their parents. One of the risks that not everyone knows about, for very small children—Trix was three and a half when her mother left her—is their absolute need to attach themselves to an adult. However unsuitable/untrustworthy the nearest adult may be.

 

So I wondered whether Ruddy and Trix had indeed been damaged by those years with the unsuitable foster-mother. Asking that question seemed to make sense of the way their lives turned out. I wanted to share that.

 

 

Q:  Why did you choose to fictionalize the story rather than just write a straight bio?

 

A: There were already good bios available: no need for a new one. What’s more, I had a particular angle I wanted to highlight: writing my previous book, where I was trying to think in new ways, I found that the voice of the story-teller was surprisingly helpful in presenting an argument. Wanting readers to share what I could see — the links between the experience of Ruddy and Trix as children and the way it played out in later life—I thought it would work best if I showed that by presenting their lives in the form of fiction.

 

Plus I was sick of footnotes and thought it would be interesting to see if I could do it, write a novel.

 

 

Q:  What kind of educational background do you have?

 

A: I’ve had a lot of that stuff, education!  Raised a Catholic, a convent schoolgirl, it took me years, no decades, to learn to think for myself and to be skeptical.

 

A lot of my life has been spent in universities: I’m a PhD and published four academic books before this novel.

 

Q:  Do you think Kipling was a racist? (why or why not)

 

A: There are two questions here, really, and the answers overlap, complicate each other.

Did Kipling share the assumptions about race that were common among his educated contemporaries? The answer’s yes.

 

Did Kipling respond to individual members of other races solely according to those assumptions? The answer is no. He valued the Indians he worked amongst as a young journalist highly, reserving his scorn for cheats and liars of any race.

 

However, when he went out to South Africa, embittered and confused after the death of his small daughter, he allowed his anger to blind him. He was vicious in his contempt for the Boers and his indifference to the political rights of the black population.

 

Q:  . What kind of research did you do?

 

A: It was a blast. Lots of reading around the subject, of course, not just the published stuff, biographies, his letters, his stories and poems but scrabbling about in archives from Sussex to Massachusetts and Vermont. I had to educate myself too about the Anglo-Boer War, which played a crucial role in his life. I enjoyed that a lot, learning so much, though it was painful visiting South Africa’s Anglo-Boer War Museum and seeing the war from their angle. I visited houses the Kiplings had lived in at Southsea, Burwash and Rottingdean. Then there was the travel, for instance to Mumbai where the children’s lives began. In South Africa I followed in Rud’s footsteps, travelling up on the train from Cape Town to Bloemfontein and prowling round the house he lived in near Cape Town and taking notes. In Vermont, where he and his wife Carrie built a house, I slept in his bedroom and soaked in his very own bath! I’ve stayed in the Edinburgh house Trix lived in too.

 

 

Q:  You are the author of Incest: a new perspective, what made you interested in writing about the subject?

 

 

A: I never set out to write about incest. I was as scared of going near the subject as anyone. But once, in my book about Cleopatra, I’d pointed out a couple of facts that I thought were connected. There wasn’t much distinction between the rights of sons and daughters in Egypt; at the same time brother-sister marriage was not taboo among the general population.

 

That led to an invitation to write about incest in literature; in the course of writing that essay, I began to be interested in the issues that artists, writers and film-makers—among them Bergman, Toni Morrison, Tennessee Williams— were raising around sexual abuse, trying to pin point or measure damage.

 

Several years later that led a publisher to invite me to think and write about incest.

He didn’t want me to summarise other people’s ideas but to look at the subject with fresh eyes. So I put the work of artists, the writers and filmmakers, together with the work of therapists, among those Judith Herman. They correlated, confirming each other. That gave me a new take on incest and abuse.

 

Q:  What did you discover about incest in your research?

 

A: It’s complicated. Really, you need to read my book.

 

But here are a few points to ponder:

First, who says incest’s taboo? There’s a lot of incest about, though it’s claimed that civilized society is based on forbidding it. Why don’t we take that into account, start our thinking there? There’s a huge amount of confusion gets in the way of clear thinking about incest.

 

Perhaps one of the most important discoveries was this: not all acts that are technically incestuous involve the same kind of experience or damage. It doesn’t make sense to lump brother-sister incest of teenagers with an adult’s penetration of a young child, or a mother’s seduction of her son.  The experience and the degree of harm are not the same in each case.

 

It’s worth observing that in some cases the incestuous relationship may be the only source of warmth and closeness in the victim’s life. How does that complicate our thinking?

 

You probably know that the incest taboo concerns the relations that you’re not supposed to have sex with/marry. Did you know that varies enormously, even from one US state to another? There is no absolutely invariable veto, especially if you look at history.

 

I began to suspect that the taboo was connected more generally with separating male and female, keeping them apart and older men in charge, perpetuating a particular structure of society.

 

Q:   What do you think about the renewed interest in the Woody Allen/ Dylan Farrow case?

 

A:  For a few years now the subjects of incest and abuse have been coming forward. We’ve learned to listen. And others who had previously been silenced have found the courage to speak. I can well imagine that Dylan Farrow, who has made this claim before and received no satisfaction, was affronted to see the adulation of Woody Allen. I have no idea where the truth lies in this case. But it’s worth noting that top men are often lonely and cut off, not finding room to express simpler more childlike emotional needs except in circumstances where they retain their authority and adult sexuality—for instance with a person who is very much younger, or a child.

 

 

Q:  . If you could meet anyone you have written about who would it be? (why)

 

A: What a lovely question!  Trix wouldn’t be restful, though if I caught her when she was the toast of Simla at twenty, I’d have liked to see her. I think it would have to be Rud, at the time when he was a new father, happily married, building a beautiful house for his family and making any amount of money by his writing. They tapped maple syrup from the trees and had dances in the barn: a regular American idyll.

 

Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)

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