The Next Chapter

Jean McNeil on her life-changing journey to Antarctica

Jean McNeil on Ice Diaries, her memoir about her time as a writer-in-residence in Antarctica.
Jean McNeil reflects on her time in Antarctica in her memoir, Ice Diaries.

Jean McNeil is the author of 10 books and teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia. She grew up in the Maritimes, but she's lived in Britain for the past 20 years. Ten years ago, McNeil spent a year touring the Antarctic as a writer-in-residence with the British Antarctic survey, and the experience was life-changing. She's written three books inspired by her time there, including her latest, a memoir and travelogue called Ice Diaries that looks at both Antarctica and her childhood in the Maritimes. 

Jean McNeil spoke with The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers from London, England.

ON HER FIRST LOOK AT ANTARCTICA

My first understanding of the Antarctic was a Maritime understanding. By the time I saw the ice continent itself — the mountains, the land masses — my eye had become somewhat accustomed to the reductive glamour of the landscape, the fact that there's very little to look at aside from ice and sky and seals. I have to say that my first impression was that I was completely dumbfounded and cowed by the pure scale of the Antarctic, which is actually very difficult to translate into words. 

HOW ANTARCTICA IS LIKE THE MARITIMES

It's living in a small community. You're never there alone — in fact, you're forbidden from being alone for your own safety. So I was constantly in a very small community which, as the winter approached, became smaller and smaller, and that was quite similar to certain chapters of my childhood. There was snow and cold and I was there with people in a pretty unescapable situation. It was both an emotional and a physical trigger, I suppose.

ON A WRITER'S ROLE AS A WITNESS

I always feel that writers are witnesses — they're there to say the unsayable. It can sound rather self-important, but I do believe in the value of witnessing, even if you yourself are not in a position to substantially change what you see. As a writer you're always in a difficult position because you're inevitably going to write something that for whatever reason may upset people, isn't what they want to hear, isn't a positive story. And the Antarctic wasn't really like that, fortunately — I didn't feel that compromised. One has to be very rigorous and only listen to your own internal compass when you're writing as a witness. The Antarctic gave me a chance to really figure out what I valued and what I stood for, particularly in light of climate change.

HOW THE TRIP HELPED HER THROUGH A DIFFICULT TIME

When I went to the Antarctic, I was particularly down. And it was such a resurrection for me. Emotionally it was a cool place in some ways, because you couldn't help but respond to the temperature and the lack of human civilization, the lack of anything there, really. And yet at the same time it was as if by going into this sarcophagus of ice, one renewed oneself — at least that's what happened to me. It was a kind of resurrection, and I know that sounds kind of melodramatic, but I'm afraid that's actually what happened.

Jean McNeil's comments have been edited and condensed.

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