Australian author says French female writers gave her courage to write about suicide
For French female writers, Nikki Gemmell has nothing but praise, turning to them when she feels she hasn’t been "brave" enough. “Their honesty, their courage, their audacity, is my tuning fork as a writer”.
The author and journalist is in Paris to promote her new book After, which explores the life and death of her mother who committed suicide.
Despite the harrowing nature of what Gemmell and her family went through at the time, she describes the process of writing After as a way of ultimately making peace with what happened.
Gemmell says despite writing about women for years, she had never written about her own mother or a mother-daughter relationship like this before and she perhaps underestimated how complex it would be to work through her own story.
“It was the hardest book that I’ve ever written…” she told RFI in Paris.
A love letter to a mother
“My mother was the love of my life, but she was also the hate of my life and I hate even saying that I used to say to girlfriends sometimes I’ll be relieved when my mum dies and I feel awful saying that now.”
Except that when Elayn Gemmell died, her daughter wasn’t expecting to be informed of the death by a policeman knocking at her door, nor becoming involved in a lengthy investigation, which in her words “broke her family”.
“Writing was a way of understanding what this woman had done and why she had done it…why she’d done it in secrecy and in a way it’s my love letter to her, to say Mum, I’m sorry, I was awful as a daughter just as much as you were awful as a mother”.
Comfort in female French writers
As a writer, Nikki Gemmell finds comfort in Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, as she does with many other female French writers over the years.
“When I read that book about a very tricky mother-daughter relationship, it was like Oh! Finally I feel normal!” she says happily remembering the discovery.
“I don’t feel weird or strange, or awful or abnormal, or drowning. There’s someone else who understands out there who’s written about this before.”
Referring to French literary icons such as Colette and Simone de Beauvoir, Gemmell says “I feel like all their voices have informed my voice, as a very honest female writer, whether that’s about sex within marriage, or motherhood, and now an elderly mother suiciding and euthanasia and all the rest of it… it’s those French female writers who always inform me”.
A turning point in writing and life
Gemmell openly admits she has finally come to terms with her mother’s decision to take her own life, but it took her a couple of years.
“I’ve never felt such a vulnerability, I was broken by grief …writing was a way of getting myself through a fractured time”.
Elayn Gemmell was in her late 70s, she had a chronic pain in her foot for years, was addicted to opioids and couldn’t wean herself off the drugs.
Nikki Gemmell explains how her mother went through Exit International, a group that promotes euthanasia, and her mother did everything “by the book” except that she didn’t tell her children or her close friends.
Struggle to understand why
Bewildered by her mother's choice, the author took the opportunity in the book to explore the euthanasia movement, why elderly people feel compelled to do this and why they don’t necessarily articulate it to their family members.
People have given her feedback and said it helped them get through their own grief and helped them learn to live in the aftermath of a suicide of someone close to them.
Listen here to the rest of RFI’s interview with Nikki Gemmell, who discusses other topics such as why she chose Australian citizenship for her four London-born children - the subject of book Why you are Australian - a letter to my Children. She also gives her take on Brexit, and her unique relationship to France.
She has picked up a particularly large following in France where the French literary magazine Lire has included her in a list of what it called the fifty most important writers in the world.
After has just been published in French by Le Diable Vauvert under the title Après.
Her book is published in English by HarperCollins Australia