A Silencing of the Girls: A Close Reading of Edna O'Brien's "Girl"

Before we knew that we would be in quarantine, I was on a mission to read books written by Irish writers. Why read books written by Irish writers? Well, we're currently house and pet sitting in rural Ireland. I wanted to read regionally. The Irish public library is AWESOME! Firstly, it's a national library system. Secondly, anyone can join, including this Canadian halfie. Thirdly, I was able to access books written by Irish writers a lot easier than I would have in Canada.

Books that I borrowed from the library, received as gifts and stole from the Irish Chef

In addition to the books in the photo above, I read "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, "Night Boat to Tangier" by Kevin Barry (who has a home that's about a 45-minute walk away!) and "Girl" by Edna O'Brien.

O'Brien's "Girl" is a survival narrative from the perspective of Maryam, a young Nigerian girl who is abducted by Boko Haram. The account of the protagonist's abduction, imprisonment and eventual escape reads like witness testimony. The entire reading experience was extremely uncomfortable for me. Wondering if I was alone in my discomfort, I searched online for reviews that expressed how I felt. As I searched, I came to a disheartening conclusion: there was almost no (constructive) criticism or negative feedback about the book. I found one less positive review here: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/10/14/edna-obrien-is-still-writing-about-women-on-the-run which was then criticized by the Irish Times here: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-new-yorker-s-edna-o-brien-profile-is-sexist-and-cold-hearted-1.4051169. The comments in the IT article are what I found most entertaining, to be honest. I found the obscene amount of praise and the lack of conversations about the problematic elements of the book disappointing. Let me explain.

O'Brien pens the dedication "For the Mothers and Daughters of North East Nigeria". While the dedication appears at the beginning of the book, the acknowledgements appear at the end. In a book that uses the interviews of the survivors who were abducted by Boko Haram as the inspiration for the plot, I think that this was a poor decision. I suspect that O'Brien has enough sway that she could have had the acknowledgements moved to the front of the book. An acknowledgement placed before the story opens would have demonstrated that O'Brien a.) recognizes that her fictional account is inspired by harrowing true stories; b.) respects the original stories and their storytellers; and c.) is thankful to the Chibok schoolgirls for recalling their traumatic past and sharing their stories with her. Instead, the girls are an afterthought. The girls whose stories O'Brien uses aren't mentioned explicitly. O'Brien does mention that "with the help of Dr Oby, and her assistant Deborah Olumolu, [she] would meet Rebecca, Abigail, Hope, Patience, Fatime, Amina, Hadya and many others, all with stories to tell but constrained by their reserve and delicacy" (165). I assumed those girls's stories are the ones that inspired Maryam's narrative, but are they? I don't know because it's not clear.

The girls who may or may not have inspired "Girl"—and are never thanked—are mentioned after O'Brien thanks Faber & Faber, the publisher, her editor and "two beacons, Rachel Alexander and Kate Burton, who had the cruel task of steering [the book] through various media avenues" (164). O'Brien doesn't show gratitude or respect for the girls's time, stories or trauma which could have put the girls and their families in subsequent danger. Because it's not mentioned in the book, I'm curious as to how O'Brien conducted her research in order to collect the stories from the girls who were abducted. Were the girls's accounts in English? Yoruba? Hausa? Igbo? Fula (1)? If the accounts weren't in English, what were the credentials of the translator(s)? I admit that my previous questions didn't occur to me until I saw comments on an Instagram post about "Girl". The comments were written by Global Challenges Research Fellow and professor Dr Martin (University of Sheffield), and she raised important questions that are related to the ones I have above:

i.) Were the girls [O'Brien] interviewed compensated for their stories from which she made money?

ii.) Did the interview cause further harm to or (re)traumatize the girls?

I don't have answers to any of these questions, but if you do, please let me know. I think that in O'Brien's case, readers should be given more insight as to how she conducted her research. If authors explained their research process(es) and methods/methodologies, it could prevent subsequent problems from arising. For example, in 2001, Arthur Golden, author of "Memoirs of a Geisha" and his publisher were sued for defamation, breach of contract and copyright violations by the story's protagonist, Mineko Iwasaki (https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/story?id=106248). In regards to O'Brien, I think it would have been more responsible if she provided information in her acknowledgements about how she collected and conducted her research and how she was going to thank the Chibok schoolgirls (2). As someone who was in the position of privilege, O'Brien had an obligation to treat the girls and their stories carefully and respectfully. Did she do that? If we look at the book itself, then no. But without more information, how can we know for sure? And that's the problem: readers aren't provided with enough information in the book to know if this story was researched properly. Instead of providing information about and context for her research, the acknowledgements read like a journal entry of her trip abroad.

In the acknowledgements section, O'Brien writes about the people she spoke with and what she did while she travelled to Nigeria. Towards the end, she notes that during her trip, she "decided the [her] only method was to give the imaginative voicings of man through one particularly visionary girl" (166). I'm unsure of what "imaginative voicings" means and to. Are they the voices in O'Brien's head? Are they an imaginative group of narrators? Are they the imaginative voices of the girls who were actually abducted? The stories as imaginative events? O'Brien's words aren't clear and therefore could be misinterpreted. Her statement could have done with an edit or further clarification. Her editor and/or Faber & Faber could have done a more thorough check of that information. Although considering the brief blurb on the inside of the dust jacket (front), I'm not sure what the publisher's stance is on clear writing. The blurb reads: "How do we love in a world that has lost its moorings? How can we comprehend the barbarism of our enemies, and learn forgiveness? Edna O'Brien's new novel pieces to the heart of these questions..." No, it doesn't. There aren't any conversations about forgiving those who have hurt and harmed Maryam. Although the blurb is misleading, I feel that what is most upsetting is that O'Brien could have made textual decisions that would have prevented the negative backlash that has appeared, minimal as it is.

-O'Brien could have written this in the third person, not the first. Why did O'Brien choose to write Maryam in the first person? This is where the criticism about whether O'Brien was the right person to tell the story could have been avoided. I don't want to go into that discussion yet, especially since it's a difficult issue and needs to be examined case-by-case. What I am saying is that Maryam could have been written in the third person and that could have been one way that O'Brien showed respect for the girls and their stories. Those stories do not belong to O'Brien. They were given to her. I recognize that O'Brien herself is not (necessarily) the narrator or protagonist, Maryam. However, in order to create Maryam, she did have to inhabit Maryam and envision herself as the first-person "I" in order to write Maryam's narrative That's a responsibility that O'Brien chose to take on. By doing so, she needed to show respect for the actual speaker she is portraying as O'Brien is neither Nigerian (black) nor a survivor of Boko Haram. By not explaining why she chose to write in the first person, O'Brien fails to show that was she aware of the precarious nature of her actions and that she had a clear literary purpose for doing so. Think about it from a different perspective: if O'Brien had changed "I" to "she", would she still have been paying tribute to a very important story that is still an ongoing problem today? Yes, and she would have preserved the integrity of the narrative and all of her research the girls proffered.

-O'Brien could have been clearer about whether Rebecca, Abigail, Hope, Patience, Fatime, Amina, Hadya and many others were the inspiration for Maryam, and if they were, O'Brien could have shown them her appreciation in the acknowledgement section at the beginning of the book.

-O'Brien could have included how she conducted her research (process, procedure, methodology, how to support the girls and/or their children if they underwent any subsequent trauma).

-O'Brien could have noted how the women were compensated for their stories.

-O'Brien could have written this as a nonfiction or journalistic piece and thereby presented the story/stories in a more honest and authentic way and credited the Chibok schoolgirls for their stories.

If O'Brien had done any of the aforementioned, perhaps feedback and reviews about cultural appropriation and "own voices" wouldn't have cropped up. I suspect "Girl" would have been scrutinized if it had been short listed for the Women's Prize for Fiction. But I'm suspicious about why most reviews of "Girl" in newspapers, journals and even on blogs and goodreads.com have primarily been positive—especially when there has been so much controversy surrounding "American Dirt". But I'm more interested in the lack of critical and negative reviews about "Girl". Now I've read a lot of feedback about the research that O'Brien conducted for "Girl", but Jeanine Cummins also did research. She spent five years conducting research for "American Dirt" (https://www.npr.org/2020/01/24/799164276/american-dirt-author-jeanine-cummins-answers-vocal-critics). Perhaps the lack of negative reviews of "Girl" is because some North American readers have a different understanding of "own voices" and racism.

 I admit that being half-Japanese in Canada has made me extremely aware and (self-)conscious about race and racism. In Canada visible minorities are treated worse than Caucasians. Canada's history is fraught with racism, and unfortunately, racism in Canada hasn't gone away. I've listed a few articles that shed a little light on Canada's recent race problems:


Sadly, I could add many stories of the racism that my family and friends have endured in Canada. If racism wasn't a problem in Canada, we'd definitely still understand it as a problem because of the blatant racism in the US. And if the research in Reni Eddo-Lodge's novel, "Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race" is accurate, then it's true that there's a race problem in the US (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/03/why-no-long-talking-white-people-review-race-reni-eddo-lodge-racism). My understanding and experiences with racism is why I don't believe it's okay for racial minorities whom have historically been oppressed, erased and silenced to have their stories taken and written by Caucasian writers who profit from the publication and distribution of those stories. Who has been oppressed, erased and silenced by the publication of "Girl"? The Chibok schoolgirls who have been abducted by Boko Haram. The girls' immediate families, children born from the repeated rapes and forced marriages, the husbands they may have had or might have and the girls's extended families.

In spite of my own feelings, I think that writers should write about what they want to. I don't think that they should be limited to "what they know". They can do research and write about things which they don't have firsthand knowledge of or experience with. The resulting work may not always be believable or good, but that's not the point. The point is that I don't believe that Caucasian authors are looking to steal stories from racial minorities. However, I have concerns with the financial benefit that Caucasians or oppressors or colonizers or those who hold power receive from writing and publishing stories about a subjugated group of people as if the stories are the writer's/writers's own. It is not simply about whether or not writers should be free to write about whatever they want to. Because of course they're free to write about whatever they want—and they do. But at what cost? At whose expense? Does the text cause (further) harm to the person/people being written about? Is the text silencing an already subjugated person/group of people? Does the writing project an image of a person, society, culture, society, nation, race, in a way that reinforces stereotypes and/or romanticizes or demonizes a person/group of people?

Let me ask these publishing questions specifically about "Girl": who does the publication of "Girl" benefit? Well, we know that Edna O'Brien has profited from it. Some readers admitted they have. Some readers claim that "Girl" taught them about the situation with the Chibok schoolgirls...I'm still curious as to why O'Brien's publication of "Girl" received more publicity than a book about the same subject matter that was written by a Nigerian writer. Because "Girl" received a lot more attention than "Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree" by Nigerian author Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani. In fact, Nwaubani's fictional work was published in 2018 and "Girl" in 2019. Additionally, O'Brien's "Girl" was shortlisted for the An Post Irish Book of the Year award and long listed for the Women's Prize for Fiction and the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction this year. If people want to further reading material about the Chibok schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram, I found many goodreads users quite helpful in offering alternative recommendations that are written by Nigerian authors. For nonfiction, you could try "Beneath the Tamarind Tree: A Story of Courage, Family, and the Lost Schoolgirls of Boko Haram" (2019) by Isha Sesay or "The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria" (2016) by Helon Habila.

At the end of the day, I don't feel that Edna O'Brien's intentions in writing "Girl" were nefarious or malicious, but she is a prolific writer who could have lead by example and shown writers how to respectfully and carefully collect and share important stories with an English-speaking audience. Instead, she created a piece of work which highlights her privilege and a lack of care and appreciation for her interviewees and their stories. If the girls didn't receive any compensation for their stories, then "Girl" is also a reminder of who is benefiting from the proceeds and who truly owns the stories, and it isn't the Chibok schoolgirls.

*All opinions expressed in this essay are the authors own.

1 Edna O'Brien interview: https:///www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJX-ZJfjcA8 (In this interview, O'Brien explains that the interviews weren't always in English). Comments disabled.

2 Many thanks to Dr Martin for providing further information regarding proper processes, procedures and methodologies when conducting interviews with survivors. She kindly recommended "Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples" (2012) by Linda Tuhiwai Smith and also "Revictimizing Victims?: Interviewing Women About Interpersonal Violence" (2007) by Heather R. Hlavka, Candace Kruttschnitt and Kristin C. Carone-L