The provocative Constellations reframes the way we think about bodies
When people ask Irish author and journalist Sinéad Gleeson what her debut book is all about, the word that comes to mind is “empathy.”
“I’m always thinking about myself in relation to other people,” says Gleeson, who has combated various health problems throughout her life, including acute promyelocytic leukemia (APML) and severe arthritis. “Maybe we’d learn to be a little bit more content with ourselves if we put ourselves in other people’s shoes.”
After spending “years of wishing my body could do things it couldn’t do, and explaining myself to others,” Gleeson finds a new mode of communication in Constellations: Reflections From Life. Her collection of prose and poetry knits together her own “inward” experiences of wavering health, falling in love, and motherhood with “outward” concepts — an artist like Franko B, who redefined the usage of blood as an art form, or Jo March dramatically chopping off her hair in Little Women (an act which spoke to Gleeson’s relationship with her own hair in her adolescence, and later through chemotherapy).
The book was a no. 1 best-seller in Gleeson’s native Ireland last year, and scored universal acclaim from the UK press. Now it’s finally landing stateside on Tuesday, with advance buzz around its essays about life in a body already loud and enthusiastic.
Gleeson and EW spoke by phone about standout moments of her life, her writing process, and the afterlife of her book. Read our conversation below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You open with the notion that the “body is an afterthought,” unless dealing with pleasure or pain. Why do you think we take our bodies for granted, and what do we lose in doing so?
SINÉAD GLEESON: Bodies are miraculous things. They’re these receptacles that carry us around. Most of the time, most of us are untroubled by them. Statistically, more people are members of the kingdom of the well, versus the kingdom of the sick, thankfully. I’ve been aware of mine [from] a young age, just because of the things that have happened to me. What we lose when not thinking about that is noticing that we have a very great gift in having a body that is functioning, healthy and untroubled.
You have such a sense of gratitude and positivity throughout your book, despite the lifelong battle you’ve had with your body. How have you kept that mindset?
The simplest answer is that I’ve kept it because I’m still alive. The first few days that I spent in the hospital [when I was 28, exactly six months to the day that I’d gotten married], I didn’t just have leukemia: I had a lung clot, which was more likely to kill me because at the time it was quite significant. I said to the doctors, “Am I going to die?” They said, “It doesn’t look very good, but we are going to make sure that that doesn’t happen to you.” If I ever feel sorry for myself, or grumbling, I don’t have to think that far about that night and how different it could’ve been.
I may not have written a book like this if I didn’t have those experiences. Maybe I wouldn’t have been a writer. So, if anything something already positive has come from it. I get to hear from people all the time and often it’s very emotional. I’ll often do events and sign books afterwards, and often there’s someone in the back that wants to be the last in the queue, and you know there’s something big coming.
This one woman waited until the end of a book event in Cambridge to talk to me, and she lived in a baby home in Ireland, where if you are unmarried and you had a baby, you would be put into the home and they would take your children away from you, often forcibly. She was also terminally ill at the time I was talking to her, but she came up to me and said, ‘I’m not a writer, but I read your book again and again, and you said a lot of things I needed to hear.’ She then got really upset, and I got really upset and we had a very deep conversation that I wasn’t expecting. And I’m not any sort of therapist, but I hope that I am empathetic, and I’ll stay until three hours after to talk to people, because I learn something from them too.
I read this book, and although I can never experience what you went through, I felt invited as a reader in a way that was so vulnerable.
I like work like that. I was teaching at the university that I went to myself last year [University College, Dublin], and there are a lot of students that are interested in creative nonfiction or essays. Some of them ask me, “Were you not afraid? You’re really putting yourself out there.” But if you don’t show up and be authentic on the page, one: it won’t be very good, two: readers will find you out and realize you’re ducking behind things.
Definitely true, and I love that at each chapter, you add on a new line to form a constellation. What was the intention behind this?
I have quite a bit of metal and pins and plates in my body because of surgeries I’ve had. I’m a disaster in the airport. I get the extra double scan because I beep. I think of all the metal in my body, glistening like stars. But it all comes back to the shape of the book.
I was so afraid of the idea of writing a book because I’m a critic [in Ireland], and I used to present a book show on the radio. I didn’t tell anyone I was writing, because I was so afraid that it would be terrible and people would go, ‘oh my god, get her off the radio!’ So, I convinced myself that I was just writing one off bits and pieces. At the time, I had a whole bunch of them, and I was trying to think of a name.
One of the positives of an essay collection versus a memoir is that you can throw a bunch of things together. Maybe the piece about haunting grandmothers doesn’t relate to the piece about the church, or whatever. Maybe they do, but it was a way for me to put different subjects side-by-side that didn’t have to neatly connect together, like a linking chain. So, I thought of a constellation, like Orion’s Belt — there are 14 stars and 14 chapters in Constellations — a constellation is a collection of stars, and each star has a distinct and unique purpose.
You reference, performance artist, Franko B, who has used his own blood and Barton Benes, who repurposed medical tools for his art. Then you yourself write about blood and a whole poetry section using words from the McGill Pain Index. What do you think is the importance of doing this?
The whole point of writing that piece about pain is quite contradictory because I’m saying that pain is quite inexpressible. So, if you break your leg, and I break my leg and we talk about our pain, we’re not going to have the same pain, same place and same way to describe it. It’s so reductive. I always feel like none of the words are adequate. Pain is like a fingerprint: it’s so distinct. I’ve had lots of conversations with doctors who have read [Constellations], and they’ve told me how they’ve found it interesting how patients individually articulate their pain.
You also mention that blood shedding is an act of heroism for men, but for women shame — menstruation as one example. How can women take agency over their bodies, and how have you been able to take agency over yours?
There’s an American performance artist [Christen Clifford], and feminist that I mention in my blood essay, who I’ve gotten to know since [I wrote that piece], and on Twitter she’s been tweeting about all the moments she’s been involved in. There’s a group show in New York where she has a piece where she collected old vials and fancy old perfume bottles and asked women to donate their menstrual blood.
So, one way [of reclaiming agency] is talking about it so it’s no longer taboo. It’s an interesting idea that being a gladiator and warrior and slashing someone with a knife is heroic, yet the reason that all of us are in the world is because people have periods, which are connected to the reproductive cycles of our bodies and pregnancies. Why isn’t that the heroic stuff?
My book is not a book in isolation. In Ireland, you didn’t talk about your body or your female-ness. We were told to be quiet by politics and the church, but nobody is quiet anymore. People are standing up and speaking up. It just to show that if you stand and speak up [things happen] like legalizing same-sex marriage (which happened before the U.S.). Agency is using your voice and talking about the taboos.
You also talk about the significance of hair, and how for women more than men this is a definition for a woman’s beauty. What kind of effect does this have for someone who has battled cancer?
I used to shave my head as a teenage girl because I thought it was fun and didn’t think anything of it. I felt quite ambivalent about hair: I used to bleach it and dye it pink and blue and stuff. My hair would often need to be chopped off to try and get it back to its normal color. My only problem was when I had gotten very expensive highlights that cost me a fortune, and my hair started to fall out from chemo.
The day I shaved it off I was in the hospital and asked for clippers. Because your hair falls off very slowly from chemo, it gets in your eyes and is very irritating. I just remember this gorgeous little nurse called Gita. She used to take my blood all the time when my veins wouldn’t work. She was watching me shave it off, and she was absolutely aghast because she had this lovely, dark down-to-her-waist plait. So, I realize for a lot of women why it could be traumatic. I think if I had a big mane of hair, which I’ve ever really had, I would feel very traumatized. But it just felt like another part of my body.
In the book, there are two distinctly separate medical experiences and yet I didn’t mind because I’d gotten my head shaved as a teenager and then the first night in the hospital that was when they said ‘you might die,’ if I hadn’t had the experience of being in a hospital, I think I would have found it 20 times more terrifying, but I was used to hospitals: the noise, the shape of them, the nonstop-ness of them. In one weird way, all that teenage stuff was helpful preparation for all the time I spent later on in hospitals.
You talk about how you met your husband and one thing that stood out to me was that feeling of electricity and fizzing you mentioned. It’s so fascinating to me that the body can betray us, but also steer us toward what the right thing or person is. That gut feeling. What are your thoughts on that?
Generally, I feel like my gut’s very in tune. There’s something very primal about it. Science is all about the body, but there are some things about the body that we can’t figure out: the way we trust ourselves or just know things. The body is not just flesh and bones, nor a product just to be studied by science. There’s something else going on.
I was a journalist for years: I’m a rationalist and a skeptic and yet things have happened that I cannot explain that has to do with bodies, whether it’s been why we’re here or not here anymore. But I’m open to possibility because none of us knows what happens. Life is about multiplicities.