Author and screenwriter of Room and The Wonder Emma Donoghue speaks to Trevor Keegan about work, family, and living her life out and proud. Listen back above.
Born in Dublin and educated in Ireland and the UK and living in Canada, Emma Donoghue says she's equally happy to be known as an Irish writer, a lesbian writer or an Irish-Canadian writer. She’s fine with labels; as long as they don’t put a limit on her creativity:
"I’ve always been really enthusiastic about the lesbian label, or lesbian writer, even. But if anyone ever thought that meant I had to write according to some kind of programme, then I’d bristle."
Emma's been writing from the age of eight and she tells Trevor that writing quickly became a therapeutic thing, as much as a form of artistic expression. Growing up in Dublin in the 1980s, Emma was aware that Ireland, at that time, was not particularly accepting of same-sex attraction. She fell deeply in love as a teenager, and channeled her emotions into her writing:
"You could say, as a proto-writer, I was glomming on to one big subject. In many ways, I enjoyed this solitary obsession and the fact that I couldn't tell the world about it probably added to the pleasure; even though, of course, there were the usual fears and anxieties of being in the closet. But the writing and the being in love with this girl are so tied up in each other, I can't remember my teenage years without thinking of those two together."
After a degree in English at UCD, Emma quickly moved on to Cambridge in 1990 to undertake her PhD studies. She looked forward to finding a more liberal atmosphere there, than what she had left behind:
"Already I'd been looking towards Britain as a place that seemed so ahead of Ireland – I certainly don’t think of it that way now, by the way. You know, in the 80’s, when Channel 4 first came on, I remember watching programmes featuring lesbians and just thinking, wow – my people!""
There was an LGBTQI+ scene in Ireland, Emma says, but everything fell into place so much more easily in Cambridge:
"Even in Dublin, I’d been in various lesbian and gay societies at UCD and at Trinity, but in Cambridge I got to really live in that world and be out from day one. So, I think the first place you live where you’re out from day one can feel like a particular zone of freedom, you know?"
Emma came out to some of her Dublin friends before leaving for Cambridge, but she hadn't yet spoken to her mother:
"I left the country before coming out to my mother, because I was so afraid, what if she didn’t accept me? She was the one who mattered most to me. Hers was the love I wanted to keep most."
Emma had found support, solace and vegetarianism in a womens' housing co-operative in Cambridge and, cheered on by her housemates, she resolved to come out to her mum when she came home for Christmas. She tells Trevor that she kept putting it off and delayed returning to Cambridge by a week before she found her moment:
"I finally managed it, the evening before I left. I think we’d been out somewhere and she drove home and she parked the car, so I seized the last possible moment and told her. And she said, 'Oh, I’ve known since you were 16."
Emma says she was relieved and delighted at her mother's reaction:
"She was utterly loving and accepting."
Emma met her partner Chris Roulston, a univerisity professor, while at Cambridge. When Chris returned to Canada for a job, Emma commuted back and forth for a while, before deciding to settle with Chris in London, Ontario. She returns to Ireland often and is impressed by the rate of change in Irish society, especially when it comes to LGBTQI+ acceptance:
"In ’93, we went from literally Victorian laws to suddenly complete de-criminalisation; not going through any of the stages that they had in Britain. And It was a huge big deal, even for those of us who would never fear that we’d be locked up; just on a symbolic level, it was absolutely crucial to feel that we were put on the map."
Emma describes a settled, contented life, enjoying considerable success in a career she loves and living with her partner of almost 30 years and their two children. She says her younger self could never have imagined it:
"I quite often look back at the 14 year old and think, wow, it’s amazing that I didn’t have to choose. Because clearly, in many ways I’m quite conventional. So I love having the partner of 30 years and the house and, you know, weekly dinners with friends and the children, in particular - the most thrilling surprise of my adult life. And to get all that without ever having to deny my queer side, it’s just amazing."
Also in the interview, Emma responds on hearing a 30-year old letter for the first time, reacting to her Late Late Show appearance in 1993. Listen back above.
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