A sister can be seen as someone who is both ourselves and very much not ourselves, a special kind of double – Toni Morrison
Michèle Roberts recently advised us to acknowledge our differences.
As fans of her work and beneficiaries of her teaching on UEA’s Creative Writing MA, we were particularly keen to learn from her. With male friends, she told us, differences are delightfully obvious, but with fellow women we must mine deeper to discover the disparities between us:
‘Mothers and daughters identify with each other because they are of the same sex, and yet also they have to recognise themselves as separate people; the struggle for them to differentiate from each other can be troubled at times. With women friends, particularly, perhaps, if they are very close, and particularly, perhaps, if they are very idealistic about friendship, this struggle can occasionally be re-enacted. One of the roles of friends is to cherish and respect their differences as well as delight in their identification!’
Since our similarities are so obvious and we’ve never once had a feud, we found Michèle’s advice simultaneously resonant and troubling.
In our profile of Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, we mention that they are often grouped together for the crudest of reasons. This is something that we’ve experienced too. We’re both writers; both northern; both brunette and petite; both teach at the same universities; both share a taste for vintage fashion, second-hand bookshops, and long conversations over afternoon tea. We even share variations of the same name: Emma and Emily. When one of our colleagues persistently mistakes us for the same person, we roll our eyes and laugh but are secretly pleased.
Emily’s poem, ‘Things We Didn’t Do’, depicted a childhood very similar to Emma Claire’s: we both staged plays in our back gardens, practised cartwheels, created dens, shared secret cigarettes.
Yet it is our differences that might have most enhanced our formative years: in Emily Midorikawa’s home, you would have found chopsticks that rubbed along easily with the knives and forks, whereas at Emma Claire Sweeney’s you would have been more likely to stumble across holy water contained in a bottle the shape of Our Lady; Emma Claire could have eavesdropped on conversations between Emily’s academic parents, whereas Emily could have discovered a less obvious kind of intelligence in Emma Claire’s autistic sister.
More important and problematic, though, are the differences in our characters and in the lives we’ve forged for ourselves. If we fail to accommodate them, they could damage our friendship in the long run.
One of the things Emma Claire admires in Emily, and tries (but frequently fails) to emulate is her ability to broach difficult matters with honesty. It takes a particular kind of tact and courage to acknowledge the things that divide us: if we go about it the wrong way, we risk falling out.
We learnt from Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf that competition can be constructive – something that tends to go without saying about male friendship but is still taboo about women – but we don’t want to repeat their cycle of feud and reconciliation.
In the process of writing this post, we’ve realised that Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison have already taught us a thing or two about positive recognition of difference. In our responses to this month’s activity, for instance, Emily mentions that she’s never ‘known anyone quite like Emma Claire for taking an idea and running with it’, whereas Emma Claire admires the way Emily ‘accurately predicts the length of time a task requires and only undertakes work she can complete to the highest of standards’. These are attributes and yet they are also often our undoing. Looked at from another angle: Emma Claire needs to learn to say ‘no’, whereas Emily could more often say ‘yes’.
Something Rhymed may never have got off the ground without Emma Claire’s drive, but it could not have thrived without Emily’s pragmatism. We have only scratched the surface when it comes to acknowledging our differences, but we’re exploiting some of them each and every time we make a post on this site.