Katie Tobin

Octavia Bright on selfhood and the confessional

This Ragged Grace, Octavia Bright, Canongate, 2023, pp. 256, £16.99.


I’d love to talk a little bit about how the research of your thesis influenced your writing and the way you generally think about the world. What drew you to figures like Simon Weil and Louise Bourgeois?

In one interview I did for the book, someone said, I feel like your thesis is the shadow text of the memoir. I thought that was a really brilliant way of putting it because the things that interested me in my academic research are the things that I’ve always been interested in. I suppose they came under the bracket of hysteria, but psychology, philosophy, spirituality, selfhood, all this kind of stuff.

Initially, I was trying to write a kind of trade version of my thesis. So, I was writing quite a surreal book about the history of hysteria. It’s like a new Iconography of Hysteria, and it was getting more and more surreal because I was resisting a more traditional form of storytelling. It was centred around this hysterical character who went into paintings or moments from history.

So, it was a novel to start off?

I was refusing to categorise it, which was fun for my agent. It was more that we were thinking of it as a new Iconography of Hysteria. So, the kind of foundational text of hysterical studies is called the Iconography of Hysteria. It has lots of photographs of hysterical bodies and long discussions and diagnoses and everything. But it was obviously a very sexist text, and it was written in the 19th century, so my work was kind of a play on that.

I was working away on it, and it was coming along quite well, but also becoming weirder and weirder. And we realised that actually, I was still too close to the academic text in a way to be able to do it justice. In the meantime, I’d written a few pieces of journalism and some essays about my recovery and my dad’s illness and that writing was flowing much more easily.

I decided to pursue that but realised that I couldn’t leave any of those ideas behind, and I actually just needed to find a way to integrate them into this other story I was telling. And, of course, they were all there anyway because I think academics often like to pretend they’re not drawn to their subjects for emotional reasons, but I think they always are. I think if you’re going to commit yourself and your mind to a particular subject for four or five years, it’s because there’s something in it you want to resolve or work out or understand.

It’s the same for any kind of writing, whether it’s academic, fictional, or nonfiction. So, my interests spilt over, and actually, that’s why people like Simone Weil, who was actually a writer that was recommended to me by a friend when I first got sober, but her voice became a bit of a guiding principle when I was at the beginning of my recovery. And I still go back to her now. And Bourgeois came into it because of my thesis, because I was writing about hysteria, I was writing about Spanish cinema, and the films I was looking at were all by male directors. And I thought, I don’t want to only look at this from the masculine perspective, even though one of them was queer.

But in one of the films in my thesis, The Skin I Live in by Pedro Almodóvar, he actually replicates these Bourgeois work within the film. And so, it felt like an organic way to bring her in to look at the work of all these other thinkers and philosophers I was writing about. Because that was happening during the period of time that This Ragged Grace is set, it felt right to bring her into that book as well.

I’ve read a few memoirs this year that all seem to touch on escapism through intense bodily experience. I can think of a few titles this year that explore that. They talk about escape things like sex drinking, cold water, swimming, and thrill-seeking. And I was just wondering if you feel like this need to escape something that can ever really go beyond?

No, and I don’t think it’s negative either. I think it becomes pathological for some people, and that kind of addiction becomes a pathological need for escape. And if you have the disease of addiction being in reality becomes more and more intolerable and more and more difficult to do. But I actually don’t think that the impulse to escape is a negative or an unhealthy one at all. And I think that plenty of people seek escape in very nurturing ways.

I mean, it’s a very common thing to seek escape in the natural world. I have problems with the idea of nature as a cure, but I do think that nature offers the chance to escape from very, very human concerns, and specifically, I think we get crushed by the systems within which we live like capitalism, like certain patriachcal ideologies. And those are things that you do need to escape from in order to survive in a robust way.

Spending time in the natural world offers you that because it demands nothing of you, maybe a warm coat if it’s cold. I also think that it’s a very natural impulse to escape into relationships, whether those are romantic or friendship or familial, but anywhere where you feel that you can be liberated from a certain amount of self-conscious demand. And I see the intimacy of that space in a really profound way as well.

I read another interview of yours where you refer to yourself as ‘a recovering academic’. I feel like it’s quite an understated part of your book, but I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about how academia has impacted your conception of selfhood?

Oh yeah, definitely. What do you want to know?

I think it’s just quite interesting to talk about someone from the other end while I’m still in the throes of it.

I think it gave me a structure within which to pursue what I was really interested in, which was writing and reading and learning and everything. But I think it also spoke to something quite unhealthy in me, which is the need for affirmation in gold stars. And I think that’s very common across academics. And it’s also a system that I think in a very, very unhealthy way incentivizes this constant need for a very prescribed understanding of what success means.

So, I think it’s a complicated thing. My utopian ideal is that everyone who wants to stay a student gets the chance to do it for as long as they want to do it because it’s really not desirable for a lot of people as well. It’s quite a specific quest if you want to do a PhD if you want to do a master’s, the idea that everybody would want to do that is mad. Lots of people hate university hate studying and they want to pursue other things. But I think if you have the impulse towards that very specific way of living, then it would be great if everyone was able to do it. And, of course, that’s not the case because of limited funding and everything like that. And that’s where I get my soapbox and get very cross about it because it’s not really a functioning system anymore.

But in terms of how it shaped my identity, I think when you’re inside that system and you are underneath it, it’s very difficult not to identify with it because it’s kind of a way of surviving inside it. If you allow yourself more space to reflect on whether it’s good for you, then it’s hard to keep capitulating with what it requires from you. And I know I was much happier when I separated my identity from it a little bit more when I got a little bit older. I think some of that also just came with maturity.

Well, on a tangential note related to France, I feel like there’s been this massive call for confessional candid writing since Annie Ernaux’s Nobel Prize win. And I just wonder if you have any reservations about being so honest? I feel like it’s looked at through a slightly different lens now where these stories are kind of given the gravitas they deserve.

I very much resisted the confessional mode in this book. So, it’s interesting that you made that connection. I think that there’s a huge amount to be said for confessional writing. I also think that the term confessional is one that’s used often with quite a misogynistic slant to it.

I don’t even know if Annie would describe her work as confession, actually. She exists in this space where she recognises that to construct a story from memory is always going to be a falsehood because memory is completely fallible. But she’s also always reaching for a very profound emotional truth, I think, and lived truth. If you think about an artist like Tracey Emin, people are always trying to denigrate her work by labelling it confessional. I think there’s a suggestion that the confessional mode doesn’t include any artfulness, but it’s just like someone spewed something into their diary and then they put it on the page.

When I came to writing This Ragged Grace, I was very clear with myself that I wasn’t going to write in the confessional mode because there is a lot of writing about addiction and recovery out there that does that. I wanted to do something that used the structure and the construction of each chapter to encourage the reader to reflect on certain things rather than just describing my experiences and also refer to this sort of philosophical text that runs through it and reaching outwards, towards things like Jung’s archetypes rather than really, really going only inwards to the lived experience.

I think the other thing about it is that the rules of, I mean, I say rules in inverted commas, but the rules of writing from life are just getting looser and looser, which I think is a really positive thing. The memoir mode used to mean something very specific and largely based on masculine experience. I think men who achieved a certain status socially would then write their memoirs about their time in the cabinet or whatever.

I think that claiming the confessional space is something that has historically been feminised and therefore denigrated. So, claiming it robustly is a very, very useful positive thing. But I also think it’s a category that it’s worth tussling with a little bit because I think a lot of writing that is from life but isn’t confessional, gets labelled confessional. And it’s interesting to think about why. And it’s interesting to notice why certain things are and certain things aren’t. And I think that the truly confessional mode is all about excavating lived experience.

So, the book spans so many wonderful places, and I just want to know which place I feel impacted and shaped you the most?

My goodness. What a question. It’s really hard to choose. I think my time in Margate was incredibly important, it had a very big impact on what came next, but I don’t know how much of that had to do with the place itself and how much of that had to do with the state I was in when I went there and what I was looking for from it.

But I do think that my longstanding relationship with the sea is very crucial in my ongoing life and the life that I wrote about in the book. The period of time I wrote about in the book and actually being able to live by the sea for a while was very, very important and very affirming, even though it wasn’t necessarily a particularly gentle or lovely experience. The coastline in that bit of Kent is not particularly soft or welcoming. It’s quite intense, but the intensity of the coastline matched the intensity of my feelings.

Another thing I wanted to talk about was your piece where you turned ancient philosophers as a guide for dealing with your father’s illness. I’m just wondering if you could talk about how writing and reading have helped you process crises, both in your recovery and his illness?

They helped me beyond description. I’ve always been someone who’s gone to writing and to the experience of others or the thoughts of others to try and help me figure out what it is that I think and what it is that I feel. I go to literature for solace, but I also go for new ideas and new ways of thinking about things.

I think reading is always self-discovery in one way or another, because you may find that you disagree with something and that helps you realise how you feel about something else. Or you may find voices who show you completely new ways of thinking about things, thinking about the world, and thinking about yourself within the world.

My dad’s illness was such a long and painful experience for everyone in the family, but there were also moments of really profound joy and really profound beauty. I needed to find literature that would kind of reflect that. And philosophy, actually was kind of the only place that could hold the complexity of all of that experience, that truth of your very deep and profound humanity being something that is full of contradictions and that those contradictions are really what lie at the very heart of human experience.

We create structures to contain human experience that allow us to simplify things that should never be simplified. Like love contains grief. Grief contains love. Ambivalence is totally natural and normal. And human certainty is actually a completely unhuman way of thinking about things when you really get to the heart of what constitutes a really deep connection with others and with the self.

So, yes, there was something in philosophy and writing from very, very long ago that seemed more able to hold those contradictions. But the more I read, the more I realise how much I don’t know, which I think is a really wonderful experience to have as well. It’s good to be reminded that you are still profoundly ignorant.

And the kind of related note, my last question. Your work spans a lot of different forms, from the podcast and memoir to your academic work. And I just wondered where you see yourself going next with writing?

I’m working on a new idea for something. I continue to do bits of journalism, whatever comes my way really. I used to write Librettos, which I don’t do anymore, but they were fun. Yeah, I mean, I like to balance more collaborative work with solo work. The broadcasting I do is a really nice way of working collaboratively with other people. And the writing I do is mostly very solitary, but I would love to write more books. So, hopefully, that’s the way it’s going.

Author image courtesy of Richard Round-Turner.

Octavia Bright is a writer and broadcaster. She co-hosts Literary Friction, the literary podcast and NTS Radio show, with Carrie Plitt. Recommended by the New York Times, Guardian, BBC Culture, Electric Literature, Sunday Times and others, it has run for ten years and has listeners worldwide. She has also presented programmes for BBC R4 including Open Book, and hosts literary events for bookshops, publishers and festivals – such as Cheltenham Literature Festival and events for The Southbank Centre. Her writing has been published in a number of magazines including the White Review, Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE, Wasafiri, Somesuch Stories, and the Sunday Times, amongst others. She has a PhD from UCL where she wrote about hysteria and desire in Spanish cinema.

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