Books, UEA Live

UEA Live: Marina Warner and Sophie Heixheimer discuss the “truth of the imagination” in their memoirs

Professor Dame Marina Warner is an architect, engineer, and landscape gardener of the imagination; or more formally, a novelist, short story writer, critic and cultural historian. To her, stories are living organisms and since 1972 she has watered and cultivated the land of history’s oldest stories, ranging from the Virgin Mary, to Joan of Arc, to the Arabian Nights. She has spent her writing career re-imagining myths, fairy tales and historical interpretations, imbuing them with contemporary significance. For instance, she recently wrote for The Guardian about how Dante’s ‘Inferno’ could provide a more optimistic outlook on lockdown-induced boredom.

22 honours and awards, including becoming the elected president of the Royal Society of Literature and the Dame Commandant of the British Empire for her contributions to literature and arts, and 37 publications later, she has written her first autobiographical account of her life: ‘Inventory of a Life Mislaid: An Unreliable Memoir’. Rather than her typical job gravedigging the bodies of ancient stories, Marina focuses on her personal and family life growing up in Egypt before moving to Brussels at the age of 6 after her father’s bookshop was burned down during the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, and offers a first-hand critical commentary on how the British conducted themselves as self-appointed influencers.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In this UEA Live event, she is joined by poet, writer and image-maker Sophie Herxheimer in conversation about their collaborative work writing and illustrating. While Marina documented her and her family’s life, Sophie illustrated sentimental objects, each telling a story of their own. Marina is capable of hearing whispers uttered centuries ago, but Sophie is capable of hearing whispers spoken by inanimate objects. As Sophie says: “If you spend enough time with the object, it will tell a story.”

The conversation is ongoing between the pair and the narrative shapes and reshapes itself; stories come from the past to speak to the present, and the present responds to itself. On the question of truth in autobiographical accounts, Warner offers a literary-over-literally approach; that an autobiography is not a recollection of events, it is “the truth of the imagination”, that something can be both true and non-literal simultaneously. Memory is mixed with imagination, and “it necessarily takes you into invention, speculation, and feelings that you really can’t reconstruct.”

Sophie also reads from her own memoir written about her German grandmother in Velkom to Inklandt: Poems in My Grandmother’s Inklisch. In her reading, it is clear both her and Marina’s mother had similar experiences – Sophie’s grandmother escaped from Hitler’s Germany during the Second World War, Marina’s mother escaped from Mussolini’s Italy. Learning how to play a role and immerse themselves within an unfamiliar yet safer country, what it means to be a wife and more broadly a woman, and the sacrifices one makes to keep from standing out. Both reflect on their maternal figures’ views of their places as women in society. Marina recalls her mother’s highest priority in social conduct: “don’t interrupt a man”, and Sophie reflects on her grandfather’s stern decision to disallow his daughter to go to university because he found educating women to be a waste of money, only for her to save up and study at Birkbeck, University of London, where Marina is a Professor.

Listening to a cultural necromancer dig up stories from her own memories was a pleasure. Regardless of whether they were lived a few decades ago or uttered into creation a few centuries ago, stories bring the past into our present existence just as they rewrite our future.

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Jim Gell

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November 2021
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