Sisterland is a 22nd century world run by women, as imagined by Martina Devlin. After a cataclysmic war in which the male population was decimated, women took over. Men in Sisterland are controlled through the administration of testosterone-reducing drugs ‘for their own good, otherwise they were inclined to be disruptive.’ They carry out boring, menial tasks and are segregated from women, except in carefully controlled circumstances and for the purpose of conception.
Emotions (‘moes’) are rationed. They have to be restricted because they hold women back. Natural moes are obsolete – women have no need of fear in a world without violence.
The world of Sisterland is relentlessly and artificially nice – right down to chemical sprays used on outdoor flower displays because flowers have lost their natural fragrance. Because of extreme pollution, women have to wear artificial skins outdoors. The effects of humidity are so extreme that clothes have to be frequently ‘vac’ed to prevent ruin by mould. Women live according to a sickly, clichéd code of behaviour handed down by Sisterland’s founder. But a Resistance movement emerges to question the dominant value system and recognise the importance of emotion and thinking – and acting – for yourself.
In a video interview, Martina Devlin says she’s always been interested in extremism. ‘Extremism grows up in the cracks where people are kept apart, whether it’s men and women, religious groupings, political groupings. (…) I suppose what I’m saying (in About Sisterland) is that there’s an innate human ability to feel compassion for others and to overcome taught ideas about who they should love and how they should live.’ This novel asks questions that go straight to the heart of the prejudices and self-interest of any society, even as it turns gender roles and stereotypes onto their various limited, useless and hopelessly outdated heads.
MD: It has its origins in my formative years, growing up in the north of Ireland, where I saw two communities co-exist while leading unconnected lives. There wasn’t hostility in Omagh towards ‘the other side’ but any friendliness was guarded. People lived in separate communities and their children went to segregated schools. There’s little to choose between the two peoples but it was as if they came from different planets. I suppose the groups I’m referring to are generally defined as Catholics and Protestants but the difference isn’t religious – it’s tribal. I noticed how keeping people apart allowed myths about the other side to take hold, unchallenged. And that’s when extremism has an opportunity to put down roots. I could have written about religious, political, racial or class differences to explore my extremism theme but I decided on gender. Same principle, however.
LM: The novel suggests that any extreme form of social control becomes a tyranny and is essentially corrupt in the end – by definition, some person or group does the controlling while another group is controlled. There’s a sickly, terminal niceness about the world of Sisterland, which takes stereotypes of femininity to extremes. Can you talk about that?
MD: We’re drawn to what’s lovely, glamorous and harmonious, and assume they represent positive characteristics in every case. This isn’t so. Occasionally, if you peel away the distractingly beautiful layer of skin, it’s clear there’s something harmful beneath the surface. Serenity, for example, is desirable. But not in all circumstances – what if it make a person so placid that they become incapable of seeing any wrong? So I began by painting a picture of Sisterland’s scenic attractions, but then I tried to show how its unrelieved beauty was cloying; how it became a form of tyranny because good taste was insisted on, and dissenting voices were silenced. For example, Sisterlanders celebrated colour – but it had to be tasteful colour, so neons were phased out.
LM: Men are only necessary for hard physical labour and for procreation, in strictly controlled circumstances. Behind the scenes, there is a secret project to develop a mechanism for parthenogenesis (virgin birth). How influenced were you by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland (which you quote in the epigraph)?
MD: She was the catalyst for writing the book in the form it took, and that’s why I quoted her at the outset. Except when I set to work on my novel, I adopted a polar opposite position to hers. In Herland the all-female society is utopian but in About Sisterland a good idea in principle goes woefully wrong in practice. Women forget to forgive men for keeping them in the domestic sphere against their will in previous generations. And – crucially – they don’t realise the oppressed has become the oppressor. Perhaps my novel is Herland after the passage of time, when those in power become corrupted.
LM: Was your thinking about the issues in the novel influenced by other writers (Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin, Lois Lowry)? Do you find it enabling or inhibiting to have such strong models?
MD: I found those strong models a wee bit inhibiting but I felt the fear and did it anyway. I concluded it would be counter-productive to be overawed to the point of silence. I didn’t think they’d want that, however inept my contribution to an ongoing discussion. It’s difficult to know how influenced we are by other writers – influences come from a variety of sources – but one of the lessons I learned from Atwood was that it was possible to set a book in the future without flying cars and lots of Space Age appendages: that the future didn’t have to be hi-tech necessarily. Here’s an example of another influence: I’ve never forgotten the ending to the film Planet of the Apes which shows the protagonist (played by Charlton Heston) realise that this strange land he finds himself in is the US. His home. For me, my novel is about the here and now, in Ireland and the rest of the world – although I call it the 22nd century and Sisterland.
LM: Can you talk about language in Sisterland? There’s a lot of euphemism, eg people don’t die, they discontinue. Conception and pregnancy are known as ‘babyfusion’.
MD: In a sanitised world, euphemisms would rule supreme. So that was my thinking for terms such as silkenspeak for propaganda, and unmapping for taking away someone’s memory. But pregnancy is hard to achieve in Sisterland because of falling birth rates, so I thought babyfusion suggested something noteworthy. Language constantly changes, and I felt I needed to reflect that in the novel by using new combinations of words to produce different meanings. Co-Equals is a ruling body but that’s a tongue in cheek name – I’m questioning equality even under the revised system. With MUM (a scary place where memories are deleted), I was thinking of the antithesis to motherhood and hoped the juxtaposition would make it more chilling. On the same principle, I called all the department heads ‘mothers’ because motherhood generally is regarded as sacred, and mothers are held to have their children’s best interests at heart. But what if they don’t? Himtime is the mating encounter and not that positive for everyone in my interpretation. However, a reader told me recently he’s started using it to demand space to himself in a predominantly female household: “I want some Himtime!” See how slippery language is?
LM: This may be an extension of the previous question: the characters have names that reflect approved personal qualities: Constance, Fidelity, Modesty and so on, with the addition of an identifying number instead of a surname. But the men are Harper and Leaf … what was the thinking behind that?
MD: In Sisterland women have virtue names but men are regarded as incapable of virtue. But I didn’t want to give them vice names – it seemed over-the-top (says the writer who segregates the sexes, puts all-covering hoods on men and has baby boys taken away from their mothers at birth to prevent bonds forming). So I decided to give them outdoors names linked to their place of work. Harper’s name reflects the way he moves Constance, like a storyteller or musician, with his stories of a world beyond the city.
LM: Men must wear hoods and be covered up when they move around Sisterland. This seems to be a comment on veiled women. Is it?
MD: Outed! Indeed, I do resent women being forced to wear a veil – and sometimes conditioned to believe it’s what they want. Obliging them to cover their faces in public concerns me even more. As a woman says in the film Timbuktu (about life under sharia law): “If you don’t like what you see – don’t look.”
LM: In your last novel, The House Where it Happened, there was a subtext concerning sexual politics and class: Ellen is in a clandestine relationship with her ‘Master’. She thinks she loves him but in fact she has little choice, he has all the power. In About Sisterland, you reverse the dynamics of power in the relationship between Constance and Harper. Were you deliberately playing with questions of choice and consent?
MD: Yes, it’s deliberate. There is an unequal master-servant relationship in The House Where it Happened and another unequal relationship in reverse between Constance and Harper in About Sisterland. And it reflects well on neither Ellen’s master nor on Constance. But Constance recognises it, whereas Master Haltridge never does. I see the current novel as a natural follow-on from The House Where it Happened in ways such as that, even though there are four centuries between the two stories. The past is as unknowable, fundamentally, as the future.
LM: You raise the terrifying prospect of manipulation of memory. There are memory-keepers who are revered and seen as necessary. But memories are dangerous – not only because they pose a threat to the status quo but because they are linked to emotion. Memory can be altered or erased. In extreme cases a person can be ‘unmapped’, resulting in a devastating loss of self. This reminded me of the cruelties of dementia – can you talk about that?
MD: I fear dementia. I don’t feel that way about wrinkles, job loss, loneliness, ill health or death. But dementia is a living death. One’s sense of self and place in the world are taken away. The incremental process, when realisation of what’s going on rears its head, must be terrifying. That’s why I make memory unmapping, or total memory deletion, the ultimate penalty in Sisterland. Partial memory deletion also exists as a lesser punishment. Harper – a forester who feels truly alive only through interaction with nature – has his memory of trees taken away from him to bring him to heel.
What would it hurt you most to lose? The sound of your father’s voice? The feel of your mother’s cheek against yours? The memory of your wedding day? The birth of your child?
LM: Thoughts in Sisterland are ‘crafted’ and ‘shaped’. They can also be read, in a process of mindmapping. These are actual career paths, to be a thought hatcher or a thought shaper. And you do this through nothing more extreme or overt than anything a skilled PR consultant or spin doctor would do today. Can you talk about that?
MD: I intended it as a commentary on the way information is shaped, tweaked, withheld, deflected, used selectively and above all spun in today’s society. A PR professional at the top of their game can be extremely influential – it’s power without responsibility, except to the paymaster. Political parties, business conglomerates, celebrities and others pay top dollar for their skills. I don’t suggest that all PRs are unethical or guns for hire. But watching some of them in action is deeply unsettling.
LM: Do you have a favourite character in the novel, other than Constance?
MD: I like the Shaper Mother because she kept me guessing about how she’d turn out, and whose side she’d come down on ultimately. She’s more complex than Constance. If I was to write the book again, I might tell the story from her perspective. Except, of course, she’d be an unreliable narrator.
LM: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
MD: Back to history, this time the 1500s. Although sometimes I fall to wondering about what happens next for Constance…