Madoc Cairns: Your debut novel, Quinn, is concerned with the “hard cases” of forgiveness: actions where the harm done is so serious, and the wrong committed so clear, that genuine forgiveness seems impossible. Those are situations that sit at the crossing of two trends in our culture. On the one hand, there’s a much greater awareness of harm, particularly in terms of violence against women by men. On the other hand, there’s a widespread desire to find ways of responding to harm that aren’t founded on retribution. And those two currents don’t sit comfortably together.

Em Strang: They really don’t. And that’s partly why I wrote the book. I know it’s controversial territory, but it’s territory that I want us to be able to talk about, to excavate ideas and feelings around those two trajectories. Quinn is partly about a man who kills his girlfriend and then, in the course of the book, is forgiven. That’s difficult for people to swallow. I totally get that. It’s difficult for me as well.

I’m writing about it because I don’t have an answer and I want to feel a way toward possibilities, toward a different way of seeing. Those two things – justice and forgiveness – aren’t easy to reconcile. But we have to talk about them. We can’t keep going round in retributive circles, continuing to feed violence with more violence – through harsh punishment and incarceration, but also by “canceling” or silencing difficult conversations.

I think we know, intellectually, that this is not a good or fruitful way to live. But we struggle to step outside the cycle of thinking we’re locked in, and so it seems impossible that we could manifest something new in concrete, real-world terms. As I said, that’s one of the reasons I wrote Quinn: I wanted to support the conversation that’s already happening around forgiveness, for example in Marina Cantacuzino’s Forgiveness Project, and to bring more people into that field.

It’s a common idea that forgiveness is somehow “giving in” or conceding something to the perpetrator. But sometimes forgiveness can be an act of liberation for those who have been harmed.

Carol Aust, Curve in the Road, Acrylics on panel, 2020. Used by permission.

You’ve worked in prisons for many years, teaching creative writing classes to inmates. How has that informed the way you look at forgiveness?

I finished my work in prisons in August 2022. That was the end of almost a decade working with inmates. The first time I went into prison to teach, I’d never set foot in a prison before. Like all the prisons I worked in, it was a male prison, and I was teaching a class of all men. That alone was challenging. One of the prisons I worked in housed convicted sex offenders, murderers, and people who were “protected prisoners” – people at risk of being harmed by fellow inmates. I had to learn quickly to balance professional boundaries and safety protocol with open personhood. Those ten years were an extraordinary, transformative experience.

One of the most striking things was that, although I thought I was going in with no assumptions or prejudgments about the people I’d meet inside, I realized I had subconsciously separated myself out from the prisoner – I thought I could never do the things they had been convicted of. And gradually over the years of working with them and getting to know them, and them getting to know me, the whole relationship changed through incremental degrees of trust on both sides. And I say incremental, because they were minute steps, small but significant shifts, which enabled us to hold powerful conversations. By the end of my working there, I realized I was no different from them, and that the crimes they’d been convicted of, I, too, had the potential to commit.

That process of realizing the potential for evil in every one of us is partly what inspired Quinn. And I’m still very interested in how the darker aspects of our shadow manifest in our actions and behavior day to day.

A pivotal moment in Quinn is when one character narrates the story of a mother forgiving the person who murdered her child. The character is initially unable to make sense of this action: “Who behaves like this?” she asks. “Who amongst us knows how to truly love?” Do you feel the same way – that such acts are expressions of a love so powerful that we can’t really understand it?

Exactly that. I think love is a form of abundance that we struggle to understand with the mind. The actions of the woman who forgave her daughter’s murderer don’t fit into our western, materialist ideas of love. They don’t fit into a rational package at all. We just don’t get it.

At the heart of Quinn’s story is the question: Is it possible to forgive the unforgivable? That’s the question I’m asking myself as a writer, but also asking my readers, asking all of us: Is it possible to be someone like that woman? And the process of writing taught me that the only answer to this question comes in letting go of the rational mind, or going beyond it – going beyond the rational. Because I couldn’t wrap my head around the woman’s response, but I could wrap my heart around it. 

And I think that’s true for everyone – that actually we can’t rationally grasp an answer to that kind of question. Someone who commits an act that is, as far as we’re concerned, truly evil – how is it possible to forgive that? I think we can only find an answer when we shift into a different kind of space, a liminal space that’s not irrational but is beyond rational, and that enables us to change our minds in a radical way, to have an experience of what the New Testament calls metanoia, a change of heart. 

I can only say that the expansiveness of heart the woman epitomizes is something I aspire to. I don’t know if I would ever manage that if one of my own children were killed. I have no idea whether I’d have a heart large enough to do what she did, but I aspire to it. And I find it compelling and hopeful. 

Quinn is told from the perspective of the perpetrator of actions a lot of people would call unforgivable – that the protagonist himself considers unforgivable. And it seems like the flipside of struggling to understand how you can forgive, is struggling to understand how it’s possible to be forgiven.

I just finished reading Marian Partington’s book, If You Sit Very Still. Marian is the sister of Lucy Partington, who was murdered by the serial killers Fred and Rosemary West. It’s Marian’s story of coming to terms with the terrible things that happened to her sister and how she found a way to forgive Lucy’s killers. I’m blown away by these stories – that there are human beings like you and me in the world who achieve this level of expansiveness. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it?

In that kind of context, forgiveness is almost as hard for the perpetrator as it is for the victim, on some level. In Partington’s book, she talks about writing a letter to Rosemary West in prison, telling her that over the years she’d finally come to a place where she felt she could forgive what Rosemary had done.

Rosemary West never wrote back, and in fact informed the guards to not let her receive any more letters from Marian. I think it was just too painful for her to even begin to unlock that shame, to even look at what she had done. You’d probably feel like you were dying over and over again. Because how could you ever face what you’ve done when you’ve done something as heinous as what Rosemary West did?

That reflects, in an extreme case, the way shame can cause people to cut themselves off from forgiveness – because it’s too hard to front up to. I witnessed that in my decade in the prisons. I would say shame was the predominant underlying emotion I sensed in the men I worked with, an emotion that stymied and crippled them. I imagine it takes a long time to work through that much shame.

It seems to me that, in all these aspects, the questions we ask about forgiveness are also questions we ask about suffering.  What does it mean to suffer as a human and how can we find ways through it? What tools do we have right now to work with suffering?

What tools do you think we have?

I think a life that engages with spirituality and religion – being bound to the very source of our being – is profoundly necessary for humanity and offers an endlessly abundant resource and support network. There’s so much pushback against religion in our times – understandably – but I think people are confused and misinformed about what it really is. Spirituality feels to me like the most practical thing in the world because it’s largely about letting go. It’s about learning to let go of who we think we are, so that we can become freer, more joyous, more compassionate human beings. I’m Christian, so “being bound to the very source of my being” is also about practicing gratitude for and praising God (“another word for everything,” as Richard Rohr writes). Maybe when we talk about forgiveness we should also be talking about letting go?

I think we need to have more conversations around suffering, and find ways to make connections with one another in spite of the barriers we set up. How do we go beyond the stories we often hold as sacred, and come together as human beings? What would that look like? (I’m a member of the online Sacred Ground community which explores questions like these.)

Working in the prison environment was brilliant for me in that respect, because the inmates were all men that I would never have met in my daily middle-class, privileged, educated life. Having said that, a few of them had PhDs and quite a number of them had degrees, so that’s not entirely accurate. But in the context of the prison, meeting with them was really stepping out of my familiar bubble. And I’m interested in how we can do that together, how we can come to appreciate the unfamiliar, even undesirable, and stay there with an open heart.

Another significant theme in your work is the natural world, the ongoing environmental crisis, and the separation between human beings and the natural world. What does reconciliation look like against that ecological backdrop?

It looks challenging, at times bewildering – we’re facing enormous suffering and loss – but ultimately hopeful. Without hope we close down the possibility of thinking and feeling our way into a regenerative community of beings. I think it takes courage to hope today. Still, humans have always had an incredible capacity for change and adaptation, even in the worst of times. I’m reminded of the prayer found at the Ravensbrück death camp (a camp for women and children during World War II), scribbled on a piece of paper beside a dead child:

Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will also those of ill will.
But do not only remember the suffering they have inflicted on us.
Remember the fruits we have brought, thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this.
And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits we have borne be their forgiveness.

This interview was conducted by Madoc Cairns on September 11, 2023, and has been edited for length and clarity.