Maura Hanrahan on birth, artists & culture

Our Toronto correspondent Hans Rollmann catches up with Maura Hanrahan on her new book, ‘Sheilagh’s Brush’, and they chat on birthing babies, politicizing artists and representations of culture

What do tsunamis, medieval mystics and the usage of salt pork in Newfoundland have in common?

Maura Hanrahan, that’s what.

The multi-faceted Newfoundland author has already produced a wide range of work covering all these subjects and more. Now she can add midwives and the reproductive lives of Newfoundland women to the list. The industrious writer’s eleventh book was released late last year, and we caught up with her at the Toronto launch to discuss her work, her reflections on our culture, and her advice for aspiring artists at this unique juncture in Newfoundland and Labrador’s history.

Painting a picture of women’s lives

It’s not the first time a novel of women’s lives in Depression-era Newfoundland has been written, but what distinguishes Sheilagh’s Brush is the vivid richness of the stories it contains. Hanrahan drew on stories she heard as a child from her great-aunt and grandmother who grew up on the south coast of the island. The story’s central narrative is fictional, but many of the background incidents reflect stories she heard as a child. Although she inherited much of their history and knowledge, one notable gap they did not pass on to her was any recollection of their reproductive lives.

“I didn’t have that information passed on to me, so I wanted to fill that gap,” Hanrahan explains.

Growing up amidst her great-aunts’ rich storytelling, she was haunted by the question of how she would have reacted, had it been her growing up in those times.

“I always wondered growing up, if I was born in that community, what would I have done? It was remote, especially for women, with no opportunities…I don’t think I would have been very content to live my whole life in that community, living a traditional life. I always wondered about that, and felt an almost claustrophobic feeling coming out of me. Yet at the same time I’m very attracted to rural Newfoundland, have a lot of respect for the people, and I’m amazed by the stories I have from that era from these women. So there’s kind of a push-pull thing going on there…”

Unraveling a complex society

This ambiguity is reflected in the book’s central characters, with one sister content to live her life in the outport, and the other sister–full of questions unanswered and challenges unmet–unhappy and yearning for something different. Needless to say, the audience at the launch is intrigued at the prospect of growing up in such a setting, which they quickly take to describing as isolated.

But Hanrahan makes them re-think their assumptions. She points out Newfoundlanders were some of the most travelled people in the world, albeit according to a very gendered pattern. While men sailed their boats to ports from one end of the globe to the other, often women’s only opportunity lay in going ‘in-service’ as housekeepers and child-minders to wealthy families in Canada, the US, Europe, or farther afield.

Still, the desire to explore was not born with airplanes and globalization, but holds to far deeper roots. She quotes Newfoundland parliamentarian Robert Parsons: “How can you say Newfoundland is isolated? Our Argosies [boats] whiten every sea…”

“I’ve become quite politicized about the lack of support for the arts in this country and in this province.” –Maura Hanrahan

Hanrahan’s sociological background serves her well. Her particular talent lies in seizing on the minutiae of everyday life depicted in the historical record, and using that to paint a complex picture of class and social difference, woven into the wonder of deeply compelling narratives and characters.

She honed this technique with her recent bestselling novel Tsunami, drawing even on insurance claim records in her research to paint a picture of the lives of Newfoundlanders struck by the tragedy of the 1929 tsunami on the Burin Peninsula. Sheilagh’s Brush draws on the same strong research skills to provide an equally powerful story of women’s reproductive lives in early twentieth-century Newfoundland.

Hanrahan doesn’t just have stories to tell, she has opinions to share. And one of those opinions is clearly articulated against the backdrop of Newfoundland and Labrador’s recent economic boom. In an era defined by the province’s new-found courage to stand up and demand ‘our fair share’, she’s not afraid to call on the arts community to demand its ‘fair share’ of that collective ‘fair share’.

“I’ve become quite politicized about the lack of support for the arts in this country and in this province,” she says. “I see our provincial government making a lot of hay about our arts community, while the support is minimal.”

She’s the recipient of much-appreciated grants, but considers her books more a gift to the people of the province–a contribution back to the land that endowed her with such depth of experience and imagination–since it’s virtually impossible for a writer to make a living out of it. In her own case, she’s forged a variety of daytime careers, from professor to consultant for aboriginal organizations, conducting research for land claims across Canada. She notes her previous book Tsunami was a repeat bestseller, and even that didn’t provide enough income to live on.

“It’s not unique to Newfoundland,” she’s quick to emphasize. “But what bothers me about Newfoundland is the way the province just crows about the arts, and uses artists to market the province, yet has very little support for artists despite that.”

A Story-Telling Culture

Despite the challenges of the writer’s life, it’s an unmistakable fact that plenty of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians–like Hanrahan–pursue it with an almost obsessive need to write. The shelves of local books filling downtown shops and the string of new releases advertized on Facebook underscore a culture that seems devoted to chronicling itself in dramatic flourishes of the pen. I asked Hanrahan whether there was something special about Newfoundland and Labrador that inspires this zealous drive to pen our stories.

“For so long ours was an oral culture,” she muses. “I was going to school in the 1970s and that was when I first heard of Cassie Brown’s book ‘Death on the Ice’. And I was astounded that a Newfoundlander could write a book. It blew my mind. Couldn’t believe it! And here she was a woman. So that’s how much it has changed. But we were an oral culture, so when we moved into being a written culture, it seems to have happened very, very rapidly. I mean, prior to Cassie Brown we had Harold Horwood, Margaret Duley–a lot of people don’t know about her–EJ Pratt, maybe a handful of other writers, and now as you say book signings are so commonplace that nobody goes to them anymore. I guess when we moved from oral to written, we really REALLY moved to it…it’s like there is a drive to write everything down.”

Future plans?

Hanrahan plans to stay in Newfoundland, where she has a husband and young daughter. One of her upcoming projects includes an updated biography of Bob Bartlett.

“There’s no modern biography of him,” she observes. “He’s such a heroic figure in Newfoundland culture, but I want to look at him as a real person and see what was really going on there, what was motivating this guy, who was he. Let’s get past the heroics. So I’m working on that now.”

Like any good writer, though, her craft is part of her life, and of her dream for what the creative arts can offer to Newfoundland and Labrador’s future.

“I’d like to see the arts community more politicized, becoming more politicized about the status of the artist and about representations of our history and culture,” she emphasizes once more, just for good measure. “I’d like to see us mature as artists – to move away from the court jester antics of Rick Mercer and 22 Minutes. As artists who don’t just have a laugh with the elites.

“I’m not a Newfoundland nationalist and I don’t believe art should celebrate cultures, though it can celebrate moments. Sometimes there’s pressure to celebrate who we are – or who we think we are – as a people, but art and artists have a role to critique, to criticize, to make the invisible visible.”

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