Living with chronic pain since she was a teenager, Irish writer Sinead Glesson tells Kiran Dass she finds beauty in unusual places
"I have come to think of all the metal in my body as artificial stars, glistening beneath the skin, a constellation of old and new metal. A map, a tracing of connections and a guide to looking at things from different angles…"
Each piece in Irish writer Sinead Gleeson's striking collection of 14 essays Constellations: Reflections From Life offers a wise, diagnostic, unflinching and generous look at trauma, the body, illness, pain, faith, pregnancy and motherhood with brilliant flashes of art criticism and political commentary.
It is something Gleeson knows a lot about. She was diagnosed with monoarticular arthritis when she was 13. After multiple medical procedures across the years including a substantial hip replacement which left "constellations" of metal under her skin, Gleeson finds beauty even in pain while there's a real tenacity to her essays reflective of her experiences.
Upon a leukaemia diagnosis, she told her parents, "I'm not going to die; I'm going to write a book."
"I don't actually remember saying that. My parents were coming in [to the hospital] and I thought, 'I can't tell them.' I thought I had to say something to my mother that would make her feel OK, as it wasn't looking good.
"When I was working on the book, my mother said to me, 'do you remember what you said to me?' I didn't. I don't know where I pulled that out from," says Gleeson, ahead of her appearance at Wellington's Verb Festival this month.
"I just thought, 'I have to get better, and see if I'm going to be a writer.' It's in those times of crisis, peril and fear - you have a flash forward. You start thinking, 'I'm not going to have children, I'm not going to write this book.' You think everything is OK until it's not."
The seed for Constellations came when Gleeson kept a blog to document pieces she wrote that weren't published elsewhere in her work as a journalist. One January 5, the anniversary of her cancer diagnosis, she was taking her daughter to daycare and was driving behind a hearse.
"And there were two coffins. So I wrote a piece about January 5 around what the story behind the two coffins might have been. A lot of people responded and a publisher got in touch asking if I'd like to write more. So I went off and wrote six chapters!
"It was very easy for me because I wasn't writing it in a chronological way. It wasn't a linear memoir. If you're just going to write about your life, call it a memoir. That's fine, but it's not what I wanted to do," she says.
Instead, she framed her life around 14 standalone essays that don't need to be read chronologically. These powerful pieces strike the perfect balance between being personal while looking outward. A well-crafted essay is something deceptively expansive that connects a lot of dots. Gleeson says she loves the form because it allows her to evaluate and explore a subject she thinks she knows about.
"An essay is a way of asking a question. If done well, we transpose ourselves in it. And it's about finding the parts you want to extract. I'm always adding things in, then I chip things away. An essay is an inquiry. A subject you're trying to interrogate.
"And the responses will always be very broad. You never know who is going to connect with your work," she says.
Gleeson writes about how women's pain in particular is treated. After two weeks encased in a hip spica, a doctor attempts to remove it with a cast saw. She remembers the very real feeling of the blade meeting the skin, describing the pain as feeling like a scald, of heat spreading. When she explains this to the orthopaedic doctor, she is told she is overreacting as a rotating blade slices into her flesh.
When the room fills with the sound of her screaming, her mother, at her side, begins to cry and is sent out of the room by the doctor. Around 20 years later, Gleeson still has the scars on her thighs and knees.
"My mother says she still feels bad about it. But I really do think I wouldn't have had this narrative without these experiences."
Gleeson writes about reproductive health of women and how as an Irish woman living in Ireland, it's difficult to avoid the politicisation and commodification of women's bodies.
"There's loads of gendering around medicine. Doctors are constantly trying to figure you out like you're a puzzle. I hyper articulate so I've been asked by doctors more than once if I'm a doctor. They're not comfortable when you have the language and ask questions."
She says that while it had never really occurred to her to write about herself, writing essays allowed her to amass a body of work. She reckons the sick body has its own narrative impulse.
"Writing your own story is your way of controlling your own narrative."
Constellations begins with the essay Blue Hills and Chalk Bones in which she writes of becoming aware of her body and it letting her down when she was diagnosed with monoarticular arthritis.
Despite the slippery and ephemeral nature of pain which makes it difficult to put into language, Gleeson's descriptions of pain - the "squatter in her bones" - are extraordinary.
Describing her own pain as feeling "like a bomb going off in my bones" and "like a rotating swastika side effect in my eye," she writes with a visceral directness and immediacy.
While pain is a universal experience, it is also unique. Gleeson writes eloquently about it and her interest in the McGill Pain Index, which was developed in 1971 as a method for assessing pain according to a scale. Doctors devised 77 words for pain, which were then divided into 20 groups, from which patients select a single word from each group to articulate their pain. She explores what the vocabulary of pain is and observes that words are often inadequate where the definition is concerned.
"It's a very inexpressible thing. My issue is that pain is as unique as a fingerprint. If everyone in a room got a headache, everyone would experience that pain differently. It's never identical. It's not one size fits all," she says. "I was interested in the inexpressibility of it. We all experience pain, whether it's biting your tongue or stubbing your toe, right down to cranial surgery. And to have chronic pain, 24/7 pain - well, it's a kind of madness."
While Constellations is her debut book, Dublin-based Gleeson has long had a career in media and literature. After studying English and History, she worked in a photography archive, as a researcher in television and as an arts critic and broadcaster, presenting a books' show on Ireland's RTE Radio One. An anthologist, Gleeson has also edited three short-story collections including The Long Gaze Back: an Anthology of Irish Women Writers and The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland.
As a reviewer of books and music, her love of these things was galvanised when they provided her a lifeline when poorly at home, on crutches, and worried about going out and injuring herself further.
"Books and music, they are the things that make us feel better and definitely saved my life when I was bored and lonely," she says.
Constellations: Reflections from Life by Sinead Gleeson (Picador) $38
Constellations: Sinead Gleeson, Verb Festival - Meow, Wellington; Sunday November 10, 2pm