“Feminism is today what it always was,” Gornick says. The discussion kicked off with gender and equality - Gornick is a Second Wave feminist: “We felt revolutionary and excited and comradely. We few thousand who were there in the 1970s. We see now that it’s the longest struggle in history.”
She says of the feminism today that “the moment is stunning,” but what has surprised her most is how little has changed: “Everything being said now, we all said 40 years ago. For 40 years none of it was taken seriously... All of it has been slowly sinking in.”
But it is not all positive: “It’s a complicated moment – I never expected to see a moment of such vengeance – it shocks me. A lot of abuse is going on, as well as vindication.”
Her development of her own voice came through journalism: after many years of writing fiction – “I couldn’t bring the story to life” – she began as a journalist, and finding her voice through the contemporary style – ‘personal journalism’: “We would apply our politics using ourselves as a centre – I was a character – everything was through me.”
Finding her place as a non-fiction writer was redemptive for Gornick, who speaks of having had the sensation of a ‘rectangle of space’ inside her, which would feel 'clean and open, full of light and air' when she felt that her writing was authentic, but when she felt stressed - particularly in conflict with her mother - it would close: "When the two sides touched I would die."
“The truth of it is that the first time this sensation happened, I was on drugs – marijuana. But it happened without the drugs afterwards.”
New York City has been a huge feature for Gornick, both in life and in work: she sees herself as a part of the flaneur tradition (those who wander a city simply to observe its details)- “It’s an old tradition – but not too many women have taken part.” Her 1987 memoir ‘Fierce Attachments’ – which saw great success here in Mexico - centres around her upbringing in the Bronx, and particularly on her relationship with her mother, and the complexities of experience and emotion in the immigrant American experience.
Her memoirs are devoted to this complexity: “No single event was simple. The old stories about immigrant life are stories in which things were smoothed over – simple stories, simple people, life was good or it was bad. These are simple stories, and are not the truth.”
Particularly complex, she said, is the relationship between parent and child as the child becomes Americanised: “As soon as you become American, you are leaving family life, and it hurts. The change between the educated and the uneducated is everything.” She spoke of the arguments between herself and her mother, and universality of that tension: “At one point I locked myself in the bathroom and she put her fist through the glass of the door. We were a little over the top, but similar scenes were taking place in apartments across the city.”
And what of the risks of writing about real people? She feels guilty now and then, but her mother’s reaction was ambivalent, Gornick says, “though I gave her all the good lines, all the humour and all the warmth.”
The characters of herself and her mother, like all of the figures in her memoirs, are fragments of real people: “I am also many other things. They are not in the book. I took a part of myself – a persona – I created from myself the Vivian who would be in the character in the book. It’s a part of my life. Not my whole life.”