An Exclusive Q&A with Nat Ogle on In the Seeing Hands of Others

Posted on 7th January 2022 by Anna Orhanen

An unforgettable story about care, trauma and healing, Nat Ogle’s debut novel In the Seeing Hands of Others follows Corina, a nurse dealing with the aftermath of bringing a rape trial to court in which the defendant – her ex-boyfriend Cameron – was exonerated. In this exclusive interview, Anna Orhanen chats to Nat Ogle about care, bearing witness, the taboo of vulnerability and the transformative possibilities of storytelling. 

The protagonist of In the Seeing Hands of Others, Corina, is a nurse who spends most of her time caring for others; she is also a victim of an act of extreme cruelty. Could you tell us a bit more about the character and how you came to explore care and cruelty – and the relationship between the two – through a story about sexual violence?

I was always drawn to writing about caring for others, and about nurses specifically, because a lot of my close family members have been nurses. My mam was a district nurse, my nana was a midwife, my grandad was a mental health nurse – it goes as far back as my great-great aunt Lily – so writing from this perspective felt familiar and stimulating. I was specifically interested in what it would mean for a nurse to have their relationship to caring for others, their daily life, disturbed completely by someone they cared for (maybe it’s a novelistic impulse to work in cruel ironies?) and this coincided with a sense of urgency to reckon with particular forms of cruelty and failures to care: male violence against women and the systemic misogyny undergirding it. 

From here I coordinated Corina’s story around the axes of care, trust, agency, intimacy, and cruelty, betrayal, control, violation. I think the nexus of all this is vulnerability, our vexed interdependence. I came to think of it as the forecondition of life itself and so it’s out of this vulnerability that the best and worst experiences of life seemed to emerge. More than anything, I think Corina’s story is about trying to come to terms with vulnerability: the likelihood of cruelty, pain, devastation—catastrophes of all kinds—and the possibilities of joy, love, comfort and agency in spite of this.

The novel is composed of a series of documents submitted as court evidence in the trial: Corina’s blog, Cameron’s journal, messages, emails, transcriptions of phone calls, police interviews...  This format produces a fantastic effect of making one think about what language can and cannot do as evidence - by virtue of being able to both express the truth and cover it. What attracted you to this format, and was it clear to you from the start that this was how you’d tell the story?

A major part of what I might pompously call “my practice” is to juxtapose conflicting accounts of a series of events, not only to refract and complexify shared experiences, but to raise questions about the various contexts that cause the conflict of perspectives in the first place. How, for instance, do class differences cause people to see and describe the world differently? 

I’ve found the documentary form especially useful for doing this, on a purely practical level, because it allows for multiple vantage points, but also creates a situation where the reader can interrogate the institutional and communicative contexts that shape the account of an experience – the ways that an experience is made legible or, in the case of a trial, what counts as an authentic, justifiable experience.  

Evidence can reveal and corroborate experiences, but I’m interested in what the particular forms of evidence can eclipse and overlook, and what this effect of moulding and contradiction has on how people themselves relate to their own experiences.

You are giving the reader a very active role in piecing together what really happened, and the idea of bearing witness is crucial to the book, all the way down to its form and its name, which I believe comes from a poem by Frank O’Hara. Could you tell us a little bit more about the title, In the Seeing Hands of Others? 

The title is really the epigraph that became the title by default after the original title was unanimously despised. This one comes from O’Hara’s ‘Poem (Instant coffee with slightly sour cream)’ and the full quote is ‘my life held precariously in the seeing / hands of others, their and my impossibilities’. I’ve always loved those lines, holding them as a sort of outlook on what constitutes being alive generally, and they seem to speak to the heart of the novel’s concerns, the knottiness of vulnerability and mutual dependence. 

Bearing witness is crucial to the book so whenever I talk about it, I end up talking in unofficial epigraphs. One is something Cassie Premo Steele writes, which I quoted in the essay I wrote for the exclusive Waterstones edition of the book, and it bears repeating here: “To witness means to decide to participate – not only with the head but with the heart – in the experience of another, an experience so painful it must be shared in order to be confronted.” I was aiming to make something in line with this, something that served as an act of witnessing, that shed some light on the contents and causes of certain painful experiences, that explored the “impossibilities” of “my life”, like O’Hara says, since a person’s life is never only their life, but something always caught up in the eyes and hands of others.

One of the things I found most impressive about In the Seeing Hands of Others is how it explores the taboo of vulnerability – and this tragic discrepancy it often creates between needing care and accepting care. We see this through Corina, but also through her mother who is in the final stages of terminal cancer and one of Corina’s patients, Ali, who suffers from anorexia. They all seem to share this sense of feeling like a stranger in your own body. How did you approach writing about this type of trauma? 

The most important thing for me was trying to avoid reducing a traumatised or unwell person to a set of typical symptoms. There’s not much difference between this and the ways that bureaucratic reports and administrative processes can deform or circumscribe a person’s experience. The ways in which someone hurts, and the causes of their pain, in relation to how they themselves experience that pain, is always particular to that person – the person precedes the pain, the symptoms, as much as their experience of pain can shape them as a person. 

I was wary of fetishizing pain, but I think if it’s done with the aim of preserving the dignity of your characters, then exploring the body in pain or the anguished mind seems to be a way of getting to the crux of ethical encounters. It compels us to think about our roles in relation to others in need. When am I required to act? Is there an unconscious (or conscious) scale of value that determines the point at which I act?

I wonder about the ways that pain informs what it means to be alive. It’s both an intimate and alien thing. It’s a part of you but it’s also this intrusive, trespassing force that fractures you, alienating you from yourself, whether physically or psychologically. This fissure, pain, seems to me to be a kind of opening for others, or maybe its evidence of our always already need for others to live as ourselves. Or maybe I just think about pain too much because of hypochondria.

We meet the defendant Cameron (an actor felicitously cast as Raskolnikov in a play he’s rehearsing) through his journal, drama scripts, his conversations on 4chan…. This is a character shot through with self-delusion and guilt that never develops into remorse. Instead, his guilt seems to manifest itself in further disturbing acts – mind games, gaslighting, physical violence. How did you approach creating this character?

Warily. This is a cruel, entitled, careless and narcissistically manipulative person. Unfortunately, there seem to be a fair amount of people like this kicking about and I pay close attention to their tactics and rationales. I can have my own bleakly misanthropic moments, so writing Cameron also required me to tap into that tendency and magnify it. It’s scary to let the inner bastard loose, but I think it’s useful to expose the machinery of their thinking and the experiences, cultures and ideologies that shape it. 

An essential aspect of Cameron’s narrative is that he believes he’s on some path of redemption, but he only really wants absolution, to escape punishment, a get-out-of-jail-free card. He’s incapable of remorse because he can’t accept responsibility for his actions, let alone make amends. He obscures himself, avoids confronting himself. He’s incredibly self-aware when it comes to the surface of his encounters, but his relation to his internal life, his desires, motivations, opinions, is messy and toxic. As extreme as his situation is, I think we all commit lesser or greater acts of trying to let ourselves off the hook.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered while writing this novel? 

Just how few reported cases of rape lead to prosecutions and end in convictions. The statistics were shocking when I started researching, six years ago, but I was staggered to read that reports of sexual violence increased by 8% this year—37% of these were rapes—while prosecutions have fallen to 1.4% and only 5.7% end in a conviction for the perpetrator. It’s an appalling situation. The evidence gathering process is increasingly intrusive and extensive, and there’s this vicious cycle where the fall in prosecutions means that police are less inclined to refer reports of rape to the Crown Prosecution Service, which in turn means that the CPS brings fewer rape prosecutions, and so on.

I understand you are donating your royalties of this book to a charity that helps victims of sexual violence?

I’ll be donating my royalties to The Survivor’s Trust, an organisation that provides invaluable support to victims and survivors of all forms of sexual violence, abuse and exploitation, and to the End Violence Against Women coalition, which launches various campaigns to educate about gender-based violence and to affect institutional change.

Despite the heavy themes, there are various moments of light, hope and humour in the book, such as this wonderful scene where Corina’s mum drops a bowl and wants to glue it back together using gold glue, to follow a Japanese concept of kintsugi – of highlighting the cracks and making them beautiful. This made me think of Corina’s blog – how she takes ownership of her story through it, and the importance of making painful experiences visible in general. What do you as a writer think of the possibilities of storytelling to repair and transform what’s been broken? 

I think a lot about the relationship between storytelling and caring, unsurprisingly. Or actually more about the extent to which storytelling can be a form of caring. With nursing, my mam says, “There is always another person at the core of what you’re doing”, and I think that applies to storytelling. Fundamental principles of both good storytelling and good caring seem to be preserving the dignity of others and continual self-reflection. Both have similar ideals and practices, but can storytelling actually heal? I’m not really sure. I know that it can work as a kind of local anaesthetic, certainly as an antidote, and, through its diagnostic and prognostic capacities, I do wonder if storytelling can illuminate a way of healing.

Over the course of writing the book, I came up with a bunch of definitions of care and I think one way of parsing it is to lend a hand in a person’s attempt to repair their relationship with themselves, their body. At the beginning of Corina’s narrative, she writes, “Showing the scars, my own sloppy stiches, that’s the point, if there is a point.” Like a scar, a story about painful experience is, at the very least, evidence of a process of healing, an assurance of our capacities to endure.

You’ve written an incredibly powerful debut. What’s next?

Another novel, hopefully. I’m going all-in with the documentary form, for better or worse, and working on something about a fictional detention centre. I’ve become a bit obsessed with the multidisciplinary research/art collective Forensic Architecture, who use what they call counter-forensic techniques to investigate potential human rights violations, and I’d like to write a novel that functions like one of their investigations, incorporating 3D reconstructions alongside eye- and ear-witness testimonies and other official documents. It will also follow the lives of a few escapees and involve a state disinformation campaign. I’m probably biting off more than I can chew, but I’m enjoying the research and it seems like a good reason to spend a lot of time fabricating documents.


There are currently no comments.