Room for Change: Anti-Slavery Rhetoric in Contemporary Literature, an Interview with Emma Donoghue

Ma’s grinning. “We can do anything now.”
“Why?”
“Because we’re free.”

– Emma Donoghue, Room (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2010).

Free of “Room” – a locked garden shed with a single skylight, the primary setting of Emma Donoghue’s award-winning fiction novel, Room.

In Room, Donoghue brings readers into Jack’s world, an eleven by eleven ‘cell,’ that he shares with Ma and a key cast of inanimate characters like Rug, Bed, Table, Tooth, and Door. While readers can sense within pages that Jack’s world is a little too small, he reminds readers that “We [Ma and Jack] have thousands of things to do every morning, like give Plant a cup of water in Sink.” It is through this eerily ‘safe’ space that Donoghue eases her readers into an alternate America: captive America. And, while Ma is never sold by her captor, it is through Ma’s story that Donoghue draws readers’ attention to a thriving 32 billion dollar minimum criminal industry: human bondage.

Donoghue wrote a book that I couldn’t put down. A suspense novel that had me Google-searching for spoilers. A book that made me want to learn more about Donoghue, how she recreated Ma’s world, and what she wanted to tell her audience about human bondage. What follows is a Q & A with Emma Donoghue and key passages from Room.

BL: In previous interviews you indicated that you conducted most of your research for Room online. What key sources helped you with your research? And, did any of the sources provide support to survivors?

ED: I don’t have a record of exactly what sources I used, because researching a novel – unlike, say, a book of history, which has to cite all its sources – is a matter of grazing and picking up impressions. What I can comment on are some of the benefits of researching a painful storyline such as Ma and Jack’s online. Some readers were surprised that I did not interview rape survivors in person, but to me that would have been horribly intrusive. By listening in on sites in which, for instance, women who have got pregnant by rape chose to share their stories anonymously, I was able to pick up many of their insights without having to put individuals through a probing interview. Because the situation in Room is such a very rare one – I only found a couple of cases worldwide in which a man kidnaps a stranger, holds her for years and children are born – I had to read much more widely, which benefited the novel because it gave it a broader focus on issues of confinement and freedom. When I was forming the character of Old Nick, in particular, I decided to think of him not specifically as a violent pervert, but more generically as the kind of person who likes to own people, likes to consider them as convenient resources: the Nazi camp guard, the Old South slaveowner, the wife-batterer…

BL: Near the end of Room, Ma speaks out against other forms of slavery, thus challenging her interviewer to look beyond sexual and/or domestic enslavement. How do you define modern day slavery? What do you see as the central importance of Ma’s definition?

ED: It’s only one sentence in the book but to me it’s a crucial one, the distillation of a lot of research; to me it was crucial for an intelligent woman like Ma to rise above her own misery for a moment and glimpse the ways in which her terrible story echoes the less headline-grabbing situations of so many captive people worldwide – anyone who, by pressure, by threats, by having their passports held, by so-called debt to pimps or traffickers or moneylenders, by parental or police authority, by any kind of compulsion is forced into a situation, whether that be soldiering, marriage, prostitution, or simply endless unpaid labour in a sweatshop or home. While it would have been unrealistic for Ma to launch into a long lecture on the subject, I needed her to say something – because otherwise I feared that in writing this novel I would be doing what writers so often do, making one white middleclass American girl’s story sound like a uniquely important tragedy.

BL: Towards the end of Room, you seem to poke fun at professionals analyzing Ma and Jack’s capture and release on television. Was this critique inspired by your research? How would you, if at all, like to see the conversation around enslavement change?

ED: Absolutely, my research prompted me to put a lot of media satire into the novel, which hadn’t been part of my original plan. I was so intrigued and appalled by how we all – and I mean contributors to message boards or Facebook as much as professional journalists – so often get it wrong when dealing with survivors of freakish crimes. The mixture of reverence and blame someone like Natascha Kampusch or Elisabeth Fritzl has attracted, for instance. The barely disguised voyeuristic focus on the sexual aspects of the imprisonment; the fascination with Stockholm Syndrome. I would like to see a lot more political context in the discussion of these cases – for instance, a drawing of the patriarchal connections between one stranger kidnapping a teenager on a street, and girls being forced to submit to FGM, child prostitution, underage marriages or marital rape.

BL: In previous interviews, you have indicated some discomfort with the connection between Room and the Fritzl case — largely a result of media buzz. What do you see as the limits (and, perhaps, benefits) of this connection?

ED: As you can tell, I am more than happy to discuss my novel in terms of real-world issues of, say, parenting, media or slavery. What I can’t stand is being called a ‘Fritzl author’, or having Room reviewed alongside a mugshot of Fritzl, when in fact all I took from that case was the basic premise of life in a locked room. I went out of my way to make the story of Room different from that and other individual cases because I was not trying to fictionalize a real person’s suffering; I was working to create a pure fiction which would get people talking about things that urgently matter.

Emma Donoghue’s Room – winner of Rogers Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize – is not only excellent fiction, but an excellent launching pad for discussions of contemporary slavery. Room‘s effectiveness as a learning tool results (in part) from the ‘naturalness’ Donoghue creates around Ma and Jack’s captivity: their story is exceptionally-unexceptional. By writing about human bondage through the eyes of a child, Jack, Donoghue made it difficult for her readers to dissociate bondage with now. Donoghue thus highlights the continuation of slavery, showing readers how seemingly eradicated practices (e.g. human ownership) continue to shape our world today – maybe in our country, our province, our town, our neighbour’s garden shed. I actively encourage anyone with a penchant for good reads and an interest in an illegal/criminal industry that affects 27 million people today to read Room.

One thought on “Room for Change: Anti-Slavery Rhetoric in Contemporary Literature, an Interview with Emma Donoghue

  1. Kathryn

    Great post! Thanks for making explicit the connection between different forms of slavery and how its continuation right to the present-day is communicated so well in fiction (as well as non-fiction historical studies). I think it’s important as historians to examine the many ways knowledge is disseminated and which ones are effective and why.

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