Advertisement

Edna O'Brien wins lifetime achievement award after novel about Nigeria's missing girls

The David Cohen Prize for Literature, worth £40,000, is awarded biennially to a British or Irish writer in recognition of his or her entire body of work.

"I've had to wait my turn," smiles Dame Edna O'Brien when we meet.

"Writers crave prizes," she adds.

She feels it was 19th novel, Girl, published in September, that tipped the judging scale in her favour.

Somewhat gratifying for the 88-year-old, as it was, she admits by some way, her most difficult book to write.

It is easy to understand why.

Girl is based on the 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in the Nigerian town of Chibok.

Extremism in Nigeria has led to thousands being displaced - including those pictured. Credit: AP

In 2016 and again in 2017, Dame Edna made trips to Nigeria to research her book.

The famed writer of The Country Girls, is drawn to female lead stories, and one newspaper article talking about a girl found wandering in a forest in Nigeria, having escaped from jihadist group Boko Haram who had kidnapped her, ignited O'Brien's need to tell a different kind of women's story.

O'Brien's latest work is an often harrowing story of one girl and her fate at the hands of the terror group and her eventual escape.

The writer's ultimate hope is that her book will highlight that there are still so many girls in captivity, enslaved and brutalised, many having had the children of their captors, in militants' camps in the country.

This book was not an ego trip she says, it's a mission.

And so the then 87-year-old went to Abuja in Nigeria and met some of the girls who had escaped.

They all had babies he says, she listened to their quiet accounts of what happened to them, and asked them what their dreams were.

Boko Haram, a terror organisation with links to so-called IS, has taken hundreds of girls from their families. Credit: AP

This she wove into her book.

She had been advised by friends and family not to make the journey, but she felt compelled she says.

She tells me that certain feminists criticise her for writing about women as victims in her books - but she says, she writes about the women who come through.

Dame Edna's first novel, The Country Girls, published in 1960, caused outrage in her home country of Ireland.

Her writing on women as sexual beings lead to the book being banned, but it came to be era-defining, establishing her as one of the most important Irish writers of the 20th century.

She has continued to give women a voice in her work, and sees a direct correlation between that first book and her most recent, Girl, six decades later.

Things have got better she concedes - it was harder for her as a female writer she says, but nowadays women are no longer relegated as she was, she feels.

She also points to Ireland's lifting on the ban on abortion, in a landmark referendum, as a sign that the world for women is changing.

But we have to keep moving she adds.

To that end I asked her if there is a 20th book in store from her?

She's not sure she admits, but this extraordinary 88-year-old hasn't ruled it out.