Emily Perkins: ‘As a woman, you’re always aware that you’re not the default position’

In conversation with the award-winning New Zealand writer.

Published : Feb 23, 2023 10:40 IST

Emily Perkins’ novels foreground women’s experience, focussing on little moments rather than on the grand and the dramatic.

Emily Perkins’ novels foreground women’s experience, focussing on little moments rather than on the grand and the dramatic. | Photo Credit: Ebony Lamb

Emily Perkins, one of the most well-known contemporary authors from New Zealand, was in India recently to speak at the Kerala Literature Festival (KLF) and Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). Her novels, including Novel About My Wife (2008) and the Women’s Prize longlisted The Forrests (2012), foreground women’s experience, focussing on little moments rather than on the grand and the dramatic. “Just the state of womanhood and whatever version of that you want to take is endlessly fascinating to me,” she says. In the process, her novels become comments on the writing process. Significantly, Perkins is the co-editor of The Fuse Box, a collection of essays on creative writing. Her next novel, Lioness, releases in July 2023.

Perkins writes for the stage and the screen too: she co-wrote the feature film adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s novel The Rehearsal. The Arts Foundation Laureate was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature in 2017. David Pine, the New Zealand High Commissioner to India, spoke to Perkins for Frontline on January 16, in between her KLF and JLF sessions. Edited excerpts from the interview:

You have just had a session at the KLF. How is it all going?

It’s fantastic! I’m having the best time. KLF was a blast; lots of great conversations, some really good events. I’ve bought only one book, but I’ve taken lots of author names to look up and order when I get back to New Zealand.

Emily Perkins’ novels foreground women’s experience, focussing on little moments rather than on the grand and the dramatic. | Video Credit: Frontline News Desk

In your writing, you centre women, including, interestingly, through the device of a male character in Novel about My Wife. Your comments.

It seemed a natural subject matter for me when I first started out. I was writing my first short stories in my 20s and was interested in writing about the kind of life I was leading, and those I saw around me—but from a particular angle [Perkins’ debut collection, Not Her Real Name and Other Stories, was published in 1996, when she was 26]. What I felt, probably not entirely correctly, was that the young female voice wasn’t very present in New Zealand literature. When I’d been taught New Zealand fiction at school, if it wasn’t Katherine Mansfield, it was fiction by older men. Of course, there were brilliant women writers—Patricia Grace, Keri Hulme, and Janet Frame—whom I read and admired, but I felt there wasn’t much about contemporary life at the time, in the 1990s.

So I wrote about a stage of life, about a woman’s experience of what happened at the time, in a semi-autobiographical manner, with a strong emphasis on semi. The rest of my work has followed from that, because I think being a woman in the world, you’re always aware that you’re not the default position. As a woman, you’re always aware of your conditioning, of the constructive nature of the social atmosphere you exist in. Clearly, this is a massive generalisation, and it’s important to take an intersectional view and not just focus on woman as one kind of mass construct, because that’s not the case. But it’s a position to start from in writing, and a kind of subjectivity to try and inhabit and express. Just the state of womanhood and whatever version of that you want to take is endlessly fascinating to me.

With Novel About My Wife, I chose to look at it through the character of a man. It was fun to write from a male narrator’s point of view.

Cover of “Not Her Real Name and Other Stories”

Cover of “Not Her Real Name and Other Stories” | Photo Credit: By special arrangement 

What was behind that choice?

I wanted to explore the masculine perspective. Again, he’s a very particular type of man—he’s English, a screenwriter himself, middle class —with all the anxieties and prejudices of his particular milieu. I liked the idea that he would be ostensibly writing about this mysterious woman he is married to whom he can’t fathom. But of course, he ends up talking about himself. So that was fun.

My new novel, Lioness, which comes out in July, is from a woman’s point of view, but again it’s very much about the experience of being a woman at a certain stage in life. I’m no longer in my 20s, nor are my characters! She’s in her early 50s, going through all the changes that come with that stage of life, and thinking about her position in the world. But actually, I was interested in exploring the way women might internalise the male gaze.

She’s conventionally attractive; married to an older, very successful man. She’s a career woman but also a trophy wife, to use that cliché: I wanted to explore her experience as she tries to grapple with and find agency for herself while being subjected to her own internal forces of the male gaze.

Cover of “The Forrests”

Cover of “The Forrests” | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

In your other work, you seem interested in thinking across a passage of time.

Yes. But in The Forrests, I was looking at a woman’s life from her early years to the end. There are chunks of intensely felt experience, and quite big gaps in the narrative, and picks her up 10 years on or six years on to talk about another moment in her life. I constructed the narrative that way partly to get a sense of how we live inside moments. Not necessarily the big moments like a wedding or having a child or moving or suffering a catastrophe, but the small moments…

Moments that affect people’s thinking…

Yes, and the visceral, sensory experience of what it is to be alive. Some people experience their own lives in retrospect as one continuous narrative, and some see it more as a series of episodes that happen almost to a different version of themselves. It was that experience I was trying to capture.

Cover of “Novel about My Life”

Cover of “Novel about My Life” | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Do you want to dive in a little bit into your interest in AI?

I wrote a play called The Made, which was produced by Auckland Theatre Company in 2022, about a woman who’s an AI scientist or developer. She wants to create robots that can experience emotions. So, it’s set in some kind of sideways or future world. AI is a topic fraught with ethical problems and considerations, and there’s a huge amount of misogyny. I’m not particularly interested in AI and robotics as subjects in themselves but want to approach them from the angle of a woman working in that world, the kinds of things she might deem important and the frustrations and challenges she might encounter. That’s where the drama writes to me and the comedy too.

As a writer and a teacher, you have taken a great interest in the novel as a form. So, I am interested in, first of all, your view on the state of the novel, and then your view on the broader world of fiction and things that might be replacing it.

The novel is no longer as central to our culture as it has been. Different forms have supplanted it in terms of the centrality of storytelling, but it still does and will always do something that nothing else can do.

When you’re reading something, you are thinking the thoughts of another. People talk a lot about the importance of fiction in terms of developing empathy. That’s a function of it, but I don’t think that is its purpose. Its purpose is to enlarge our experience.

When you say fiction is a tool for empathy, it seems like something you do because it’s good and healthy, like eating granola or going for a run. But it’s more subversive than that; it’s more fun, more playful, more wild. It’s more free. It’s an art form that has got its own series of rules, one of which is to break those rules consistently.

E.M. Forster is often quoted for “Only connect” from Howard’s End, and I agree with him. Fiction is a great connecting tool, and it’s one that can be done in private. For me, it’s very beautiful, but I also have no illusions about it being less central than it used to be.

A still from “The Made”, commissioned by Auckland Theatre Company. It had the tag line: “Just because someone is made, doesn’t mean they’re owned.”

A still from “The Made”, commissioned by Auckland Theatre Company. It had the tag line: “Just because someone is made, doesn’t mean they’re owned.” | Photo Credit: Auckland Theatre Company 

What is replacing it apart from video games?

Streaming, television… a range of things. Fiction itself is changing. There is the rise of autofiction. It’s not that people weren’t writing autofiction 100 years ago, but there’s a name for it now, and it’s presented in a slightly different way and maybe a little bit more upfront. There’s this idea that readers want to read about actual, lived experience. You get a tang of authenticity perhaps, but for me, fiction doesn’t require that. I think it can be purely imaginative and still be just as vital.

Is there anything distinctive about New Zealand fiction?

That it comes from Aotearoa New Zealand! I think that’s about it. Such a range of work is being produced now and different generations are writing in so many different ways, it is difficult to pinpoint a distinctive element.

What do you hope to get out of JLF?

Well, if it’s anything like KLF, which was so wonderful, I think I will see some great events, meet some interesting writers and thinkers, and hear what they have to say about fiction. I am looking forward to a discussion on the feminine gaze and fiction, as part of a panel. It’s a chance, particularly for a New Zealand writer, to come to a big international venue to see what’s going on in the rest of the world, to experience it in person, and to see yourself and your country’s writing in that wider context.

I think it’s an important experience for New Zealand artists because it gives you a different perspective, and you can take that back and work with it. These experiences are always life-changing in ways you can’t predict.

David Pine is New Zealand High Commissioner to India. A founding member of New Zealand band Sneaky Feelings, he turns to books and his guitar to unwind.

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