The terrible childhoods of literary giants | Heather O'Neill | Walrus Talks

The terrible childhoods of literary giants | Heather O'Neill | Walrus Talks

From Enbridge Presents The Walrus Talks Resilience at Blue Metropolis. Recorded April 13, 2016, in Montreal.

Heather O’Neill is a fiction writer and essayist whose books include the novels Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and the short story collection Daydreams of Angels. She won the CBC Canada Reads competition and has been shortlisted twice for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her essays have appeared in the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, The New York Times Magazine, and The Walrus. Her novel The Romeo Hotel will be released in fall 2016. @lethal_heroine

hi I'm Heather O'Neal this talk is called the terrible childhoods of literary giants the beginning of life is when we have the least agency over our own narrative we are born in the middle of our parent stories some of us delight and our childhoods and many of us are horrified by them the purpose of all abuse is to render the victim voiceless to allow others to write your tale there are many writers who defied this they had miserable childhoods but through their imaginations and writings they decided to redefine their own worldviews ones was deserted their own nobility and dignity and those of others like them Maxim Gorky's father died when he was a very little boy he was so young that he was concerned as much about the frogs being buried alive in his father's grave as he was about the contents of the coffin gorky's grandfather regularly beat him unconscious his grandfather was so good at beating him that the neighbors within their children over to be beaten – after his mother died when he was 11 Gorky ran away from home he decided to shoot himself but the bullet missed his heart at that point work Gorky changed his name which to Gorky which means bitter and decided to be a writer with his writing he discovered that joy and not anger was the bolder more terrifying stance for a young man to take hating your life is an acceptance of your circumstance to love your life as an act of rebellion is a declaration of its worth Gorky laughed in the face of adversity and began to reposition himself as a hero and those around him as heroes up until Gorky Russian literature was the domain of the upper and middle classes in Gorky you might find a character like a redheaded child with a blind sheep sailing on the deck of a ship to stay with a great-uncle that doesn't want her or a vagabond with a jar filled with vodka and a glass eye in his front pocket for a fancy occasion if Gorky wrote Macbeth have narrative would have followed the witch's home the rest of the play would have been about their trouble joints their recipes for I of new soup in how fine they were back in the day in Glasgow Canada's own Lucy Maud Montgomery lost her mother to TB when she was 20 months 21 months old she was sent to live with her maternal grandparents who were strict and cold her aunts and uncles were allowed to come over and insult her her only friends were her reflections in the window two dolls one with a missing arm other with another with half a head in a geranium plant named Bonnie with her plant Bonnie she discussed principles of being in nothingness actually I don't know what she discussed with her plant however anyone who has ever read Montgomery will know she has an affinity and love for all things peddled be peddled or with pedals Lucy was confessor convinced of her own value even though the people around her told her she was unlovable and she created a character much like herself and surely he found a freer life inside a book although she was lonely for much of her life she succeeded in creating a beloved friend for lonely girls everywhere Tennessee Williams father was a traveling salesman a poker player a gambler and a heavy drinker by the time Williams was 15 he had lived in 16 different homes tiny confined spaces the color of mustard in blood his father took out all his frustrations on his family drinking and terrorizing them nightly William's mother Smith smothered the children with neurotic melodramatic affection but Williams turned his family for dysfunction into gold when your family fights they pulled down the window so the neighbors don't hear them but what the writer does is throw those windows wide open they record the squalor that his family life and exposed the deviant human heart if it weren't for writers like Chinna C Williams we would think that our family members were the only assholes out there I thought I was the only person who had an uncle who fell asleep drunk in the bathtub and set the shower curtain on fire the only one whose cousin got arrested for sneaking his black kitten onto a Greyhound bus or had an aunt who yells at bank tellers dressed in a fur coat with nothing on underneath he also gave Marlon Brando his first-grade part as and streetcar named desire when Maya Angelou was seven years old she was raped by her mother's boyfriend he was arrested tried convicted and eventually killed by Maya's uncles after this unspeakable act occurred Maya stop talking for over a year how can a child describe rape and shame when they do not have the vocabulary for it how can they be expected to put into ordinary words the way they are feeling what is the language of dignity when your agency and rights have been taken away from you Maya's neighbor a woman named mrs. flowers gave her poetry and novels to read by supplying literature to her mrs. flowers offered Angelou an alternative language one which is able to translate the sublime feelings of beauty and love but also one which is able to capture the depths and gravity of injustice and tragedy it was literature that allowed her to speak and speak and speak and be heard all over the world Rudyard Kipling was born in India but at five he was sent to a boarding house in London to get himself a proper accent in a taste for tea in later life he referred to this house as the house of desolation for six years he was beaten humiliated insulted and locked in an addict he was made to wear a placard with the word liar written on it as he walked down the street when Kipling was older people asked Rudi man why didn't you tell anyone about what was happening but he did and this is how he put it there was a small boy who was lost in a jungle he was raised by wolves who despite their smoke colored hair and sharp teeth were kind mentors who would loan you a dollar if they could although they could not he was pursued by a tiger who had a Napoleon complex despite his enormous size but he met a bear and the bear said you can borrow my giant heart it will make you stronger and allow you to survive but in exchange you have to feel things seven times as much thank you

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