Naomi Alderman’s Fictional Worlds
Caroline Owen WintersgillMMUe
Caroline Wintersgill (University College London)
Mike Witcombe (Royal Holloway, University of London)
Bryan Cheyette (University of Reading)
The proposed panel examines the distinctive literary identity of Naomi Alderman, exploring key strands in her work including spectrality, otherness, loss, self-expression, feminism, religious identity and the relationship of past and future, through readings of her four ‘literary’ novels: Disobedience (2006), The Lessons (2010), The Liars’ Gospel (2012) and The Power (2016). The panel emerges from a 2019 symposium at Bath Spa University, with Naomi Alderman as an engaged participant, where early versions of some papers were workshopped.
The format is four ten-minute papers followed by ten minutes for the discussant to draw out shared themes, a brief response from each contributor and questions from the floor.
Ghosts in the Text: Disobedience
Ruth Gilbert (Reader in English, University of Winchester) reads Disobedience as a profoundly haunted text. The most obvious ghost is of Rav Krushka, whose death prompts daughter Ronit’s return from New York. As past and present intersect, other, more diffuse, ghosts begin to emerge: the lingering, absent presence of Ronit’s mother, the unresolved relationship with her revenant first love, Esti. But perhaps the most significant Jewish ghost in this text is North London. Like the piece of bark lodged in Ronit’s flesh that had ‘healed unevenly’, Hendon continues to leave its mark. The 2017 film adaptation, in reawakening the text, invokes further spectral layers into Alderman’s oeuvre.
Remembrance of Things Lost: The Fetishism of Objects in The Lessons and The Power
Shareena Hamzah (Honorary Research Associate, University of Swansea) reveals how striking depictions of love and loss in Alderman operate through the use of substitute objects in ritualised forms of remembrance, with religion’s role as a repository for collective cultural memory providing a fetishistic link between the mythological and the historical, the traditional and the contemporary, the absent and the present. Hamzah analyses the projection of affective and emotional value onto prominent fetish objects in The Lessons and The Power, revealing an alternative fetishism in Alderman, that is not an operation of suppression and repression, but a radical act of self- expression.
‘It’s More Complicated Than That, Sugar’: Indeterminacy in The Liars’ Gospel and The Power
Lois Wilson (PhD candidate, University of Edinburgh) suggests that Alderman’s multiple storytellers in The Liars’ Gospel and The Power exercise Alicia Ostriker’s ‘holy trinity’ of hermeneutical strategies: suspicion, desire, and indeterminacy, as they retell biblical narratives from different perspectives. We see characters plant distrust at the heart of a patriarchal text; tease new intimacies from it, draw gleeful attention to the ambiguities and contradictions that threaten to destabilize scripture’s monologic power. Wilson argues that Alderman joins the long tradition of Midrashic literature in wrestling new meanings from ancient texts and bringing to life their marginalized figures. The conflicting testimonies awaken us to dialogic and heteroglossic voices in the Bible and other literary classics, asking whether any narrative can claim to be authoritative.
Epistemological Electro-Shock Therapy: Cyborgs, Hybridity and Temporality in The Power
Hannah Marcus (independent scholar) places The Power in a lineage of feminist epistemology, reading it through the lens of Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’. The multiple perspectives of Haraway’s cyborgs match the ‘monstrous’ existence of Alderman’s electricity-shooting women. The Power’s formal construction plays with archaeological time, establishing temporal distance as a subjectivity. It addresses Haraway’s concern with the difficulty of accessing multiple perspectives when seeking new modes of knowledge, while challenging Haraway’s suspicion of apocalyptic renewal and female violence, both integral to The Power’s narrative. For Marcus, the narrative is underpinned by the hybridity of scientific distance and revenge-fuelled violence, serving to diffract Haraway’s own false dichotomy; not goddess or cyborg, but both, or neither.