an interview with Sarah Jane Barnett
by Johanna Knox
I was bowled over by your Death Row poems in your first collection, both the concept and, oh, I want to say the execution. In those poems you worked hard to inhabit the voices of these real men sentenced to death. What did you find you were exploring through that – about morality, about right and wrong, about good and evil? Did new thoughts or realisations strike you as you worked?
The idea for the poems was sparked by my interest in voice, and the difference I found between the last words of death row inmates, which were often humane and self-aware, and the police reports of their crimes, which detailed horrific incidents in distant and procedural language. My expectation was it would be the other way around: that the killers and rapists would be cold, and that the police would be compassionate. So, I started there.
What kept me writing the Death Row poems was I wanted to understand why people hurt each other. I’ve never said this in an interview, but that was because I’ve been hurt both physically and psychologically by people I’ve trusted. What I found from trying to inhabit the men’s voices was they hurt people not because they were cold or without empathy but because they felt way, way too much.
There are, of course, rare instances where someone is a clinical psychopath, but most of these men had been brutalised in some way, whether that was through the foster-care system, or family neglect and abuse. In one man’s last words he described the reformatory schools in California, and said, ‘they create monsters in there.’ And what can someone do with that intense pain and self-loathing, especially if they aren’t in a position of privilege? Learn to bury it, or numb it, to forget yourself? The thing is, that sort of pain can’t be escaped and eventually explodes outwards.
I don’t really think about right and wrong, and morality. I don’t find them useful ideas to work with because they separate and segregate. The question that I ask is how can I make a difference, if only a small one.
Psychologists talk about different types of empathy, often comparing cognitive empathy, where you can intellectually understand another’s mental state, and emotional empathy – where you ‘catch’ another’s feelings and feel them within yourself. Empathy is obviously a key attribute for writers, but which kind? Do you think you work with a mixture of both or more one than the other? When would one come into play, and when the other? Do you direct this process?
Yes, both are important. I’ve actually talked a little about this before in an interview I did with Joan Fleming just after WORK came out. That collection is six narrative poems where I inhabit different people. The poems that are more successful are where I could ‘catch’ the character’s feelings – for instance the first poem ‘Addis Ababa’ which is about an Ethiopian man moving to Wellington after his wife dies. He experiences being ostracised and threatened, grief and also new friendships. Although this character’s circumstances are different to mine, I have experienced similar feelings, so I could feel them while I wrote.
To give another example from that collection, ‘The Woman Who Married a Bear’ is about a woman coming to terms with her asexuality and what it means for her identity as a woman. I found that much harder to write, and while I love parts of this poem, it was less successful. I think this is because I have never, past puberty, experienced an absence of sexual desire. There is value in trying to write these poems in terms of developing my craft but I think they are probably less enjoyable for a reader.
Have there been any characters or people in any of your works (published or in progress) who you’ve struggled to find a point of empathy with? How did it play out?
I’ll answer this by answering part of the question beforehand, which is do I direct the process? I definitely do, and if I can’t find a point of empathy with a character I won’t write them. There are some ways of being in the world that are inaccessible to me, or inaccessible enough that I feel I cannot do them justice. There is actually a lot of new research on emotion that shows emotions aren’t universal – that they change by culture. For me, it’s important to recognise when I can’t step into another’s shoes and to not appropriate and misrepresent cultural experiences that are truly outside my own.
You’re out as bi and as having, as you’ve said, ‘an unconventional relationship’ – you have two life partners. Although we’re lucky enough to live in a society, and a demographic I guess, where there isn’t too much judgment around this (even if some surprise occasionally!), you must nonetheless be aware that some groups of people would see one or both of these ways of being as wrong. Have things you’ve thought about from being in this position made their way into your writing?
I’m aware that people may see my life choices as wrong but I simply don’t care. I actually bumped into an old colleague the other day and she was very cold to me. She’s deeply religious, and it made me wonder if my triad family was the reason for the coldness. All I can do is let that moment go.
It is a great privilege to live in a country where I can love who I want, and where I can create a family that works for me without feeling it threatens my life or physical safety. I haven’t written directly about non-monogamy, although one poem in WORK features a non-monogamous couple. But that poem is actually about motherhood and the way it’s necessary for women to remake their identity after having a child, so, in a way, the couple’s relationship is incidental. I am definitely someone who both fears and then tries to embrace complexity, and the question of how we live in the grey areas – which is what life is truly made of – is central to my writing. So I suppose that navigating two life-partnerships is a manifestation of that complexity.
More generally, are you conscious of your own personal morality and values seeping into your works? In what ways?
I was talking to journalist David Larsen the other day about book reviewing. I admire his writing so much because he manages to insert his experience of a film or a book into a piece of criticism without it feeling indulgent or excluding the reader. I struggle to do this with criticism because I don’t want my experience to exclude other points of view. I have issues with being an authority! What he said to me was, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘There is no way to hide yourself in your writing so you may as well value your subjectivity’. We were talking about critical writing, but it holds true for all writing. If you read my two collections you will get a clear idea of what moves me – what I love and what I’m afraid of. I think that’s how it should be.