Land of mirrors and metaphors

jean mcneilpic
Jean McNiel Photo: Anna-Karien Otto

The beautifully desolate, frozen landscape of the polar regions has fascinated many people for centuries.

Prize-winning writer and activist Jean McNeil gave us a rare glimpse into what she calls “the oracle at the end of the world”‒ the Antarctic, by presenting a talk the English department last week.

A senior lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, McNeil is a visiting scholar of the Mellon Foundation and the University of the Western Cape, where she teaches creative writing for part of the year. “Wild Places – Imaginative Writing and the Environment” discussed the experience of writing fiction, narrative non-fiction and poetry with wild places as the primary inspiration and idea driving creative work.

Spending four long and wintry months in the Antarctic, she accompanied a group of paleo-glaciologists on an expedition in unchartered waters to map the sea-bed, gathering data on what had occurred between 400 and 450 million years ago. The crew of the James Clark Ross visited Jakobshavn Isbrae, one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world, in order to determine if the glacial movements are part of a natural cycle or a solely recent phenomenon attributed to climate change. As an anti-nuclear advocate, McNeil was quick to point out the importance of the region as a font of research. “We have been extraordinarily lucky as conditions have been stable compared to the paleontological ice floor record. And ignoring the signs, points to an element of lack leading to apocalypse.”

Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, McNeil is the author of ten books of fiction, travel and poetry. Her work has been shortlisted for major international awards, including the Governor-General’s Prize (Canada) and the Pushcart Prize (Canada-USA). In 2005 she was awarded the singular opportunity to join the British Antarctic Survey as a writer in residence. She was one of only three writers to be accepted to the programme, but also the last, as it has been discontinued. Being asked to submit a proposal for her work and how it would benefit from the experience, she says it was like “a kiss of death for any fiction writer,”‒to talk about your work before you’ve actually written it ‒“as inspiration is an elusive thing”.

Her time in the Antarctic brought a work of non-fiction into being: The Ice Diaries (2006), which describes how her life was changed by the experience. “Living in such a sparsely inhabited, inhospitable landscape, strips people of their cultural expectations and social responsibilities. This makes the bonds between people, as well as your relationship to yourself and to the landscape, all the more mesmerising and intense.”

In the thriller The Ice Lovers she tells of two women and three men, one of whom is a pilot. Just like her own experience, these three characters can’t escape how the landscape affects them, “so when it goes wrong, it really goes wrong”. A lack of 24 hour day/night cycle with three to six-month long day, sleeplessness became a way of life, coupled with a sense of boredom and excitement, which compelled her to do dangerous things such as steer a canoe through an iceberg!

Showing slides of this landscape of mirrors, she says: “The Antarctic basically shuts you up, as it the realm of pure metaphor…” With mountains the size of the Himalayas, as well as a range of atmospheric and nautical effects, it is as though light, sky and water are compressed. “The light is so strong,” she says, “that we often found that our eyes would inadvertently tear up; the regime of light is just so different from anywhere else.”

In discussing the theoretical aspects of the trip, she admits that she felt somewhat challenged by the long-standing tradition of classic fiction written by explorers such as Sir Walter Scott and Ernest Shackleton, as these compelling narratives revolve around death and/or the fear of death. Death is certainly a core theme in such an unconsoling landscape, but in finding beauty in the futility, “the opposite of the pastoral [takes place]. The human need for seeking solace or joy within Nature is never achieved, as this place offers neither. It negates your existence, so it’s the perfect unrequited love. It’s like its saying, so you think you own this planet? but it knows you aren’t needed, which creates an interesting frisson.”

In concluding her talk, she said: “The truth is I don’t know what I’m doing, and I have always allowed myself this freedom.” Despite the challenges, both physical and literary, she emphasised how “Fiction is experiential- you live it when you write it”. Then, briefly touching on the esoteric, she talked about the ancient practice of scrying, where the future is divined by looking through ice crystals. This metaphor is echoed in an aerial photograph that was taken in the summer, depicting the island as an enormous crystal. “What is this great oracle at the bottom of the planet telling us? It sounds very esoteric but that’s why I think it’s there.”

First published on in 2012.

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