‘Women are dying. Arguing over terms won’t save them’

Bluets, a beguiling work of prose poetry in celebration of the color blue, might not be the most obvious choice for the stage. But, as adapted by the playwright Margaret Perry, the 2009 book by the American writer and critic Maggie Nelson is appearing at London’s Royal Court Theatre.

Nelson is no stranger to performing herself. She cut her teeth on the avant-garde poetry scene, reading her work aloud in crowded bars. But in this instance, she says she was happy to leave everything in the “very capable hands” of director Katie Mitchell and actors Emma D’Arcy, Kayla Meikle and Ben Whishaw. Nelson has seen the script a couple of times, initially to approve the project, and then to make some notes – but that’s it. She’s just as intrigued as the rest of us to see the result.

As my description of Bluets might suggest, Nelson’s books are hard to categorize. She combines elements of memoir with cultural criticism, philosophical thought and prose poetry. It’s a cocktail that doesn’t readily lend itself to either stage or screen adaptation.

Jane: A Murder (2005), for instance, takes as its subject the death of Nelson’s maternal aunt, who was killed in 1969 while a first-year law student at the University of Michigan. Nelson, who was born in 1973, never met Jane, but like the rest of the family, she was haunted by her absence. The book is something of a literary collage, bringing together a miscellany of material, from documentary sources to extracts from Jane’s own diary, even accounts of Nelson’s own dreams. Her follow-up, The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial (2007), takes the shape of more orthodox reportage – recounting the trial of Jane’s killer, 35 years after the murder, which Nelson and her mother attended – yet Nelson braids this first -person narrative with interrogations of the ethics and aesthetics involved.

Published years before the most recent explosion in “true crime”, one can imagine a Netflix producer today eagerly picking up these books, looking for inspiration for their next hit series, only to find themselves reading something entirely unexpected – “a bunch of weird philosophical and personal things about me”, as Nelson puts it. She was ahead of the curve both in terms of contributing to the genre, and to her criticism: “The question of how and why we want to look at harmed women.”

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