Stella Duffy

Stella Duffy is one of the many women who I have happened across by chance in my life, that stops you in your tracks and makes you think ‘wow, you are an incredibly strong and inspiring woman, I want to be more like you’. She has a commanding presence, but would be too humble to recognize she has, is brave, articulate and passionate on any topic she discusses. 

Stella has made contributions to the arts and politics, written and devised numerous plays, novels as well as performing and directing theatre. She is also the co-founder and co-director of Fun Palaces which if you haven’t heard about you should check out and see what they are up to in a community near you. 

Her two latest novels, both published in the past year are The Hidden Room (Virago) and Money in the Morgue (HarperCollins)

In this interview Stella shares how we need to find the courage to say Yes to saying no, and also how taking that all important first step in to the unknown, whilst scary, is how every change that was ever needed in the world happened.

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What does it mean to you to Be Braver?

Some days, simply getting out of bed feels more than brave enough. Other days, changing the world isn’t quite as much as I’d like to achieve. I hope, one day, to manage an equilibrium, meanwhile I expect I’ll continue to do ‘too much’ (in some people’s opinion) and get on with work I think is vital and valuable.

Who do you admire for being brave?

The people who came before. The people who fought for ALL women to vote (partial suffrage simply isn’t that big a celebration to me), for contraception, for abortion rights. Those who made it possible for me to often, not always, feel free and safe as a queer woman. Those who continue to do the work for equality now – people who work to end racism, ableism, all the inequalities that are entrenched in our society, in our laws, in our lives. So many people, all doing what they can, day in day out. That’s bravery.

When was the last time you were brave?

It still, nearly always, feels brave to be out. It feels exposing and scary to talk in public, as I do fairly often, about my experiences of cancer and mental health difficulties. It feels brave to say to a white straight middle-class man that his experience isn’t the norm and it would be great if he’d notice that. I do at least one of these things every day of my life.

What's the bravest thing that you have done?

BravEST is hard to say, I’d rate these things about the same :

  • Walked down the long corridor to theatre and an 8-hour surgery.
  • Continued creating Fun Palaces – after I had accidentally started it and began to have an inkling of how much of my life it would consume.
  • Gave up trying to be a mother (after chemo-induced infertility, failed IVFs, too much loss) in order to concentrate on what is, not what is not.
  • Said yes to some of the early work of helping to set up the Women’s Equality Party.
  • Asked for help.

What lessons has that taught you about yourself?

Asking for help is a fine thing.

Where next for you to Be Braver?

I think real bravery on my part would be not only knowing there are some things I want to say ‘No’ to, but having the courage to say Yes to saying No. Like many people I suffer hugely from wanting to please, wanting to be liked, wanting to make others happy. All of us want to belong in some way and I think I have often confused doing what other people want me to do with belonging. I hope, in the last third of my life, to be more clear about my own boundaries, to take more time for myself, to do more of what I want to do, and – hopefully – a little less of what I feel I ‘ought’ to do to make others happy. I don’t mean not doing, or not being involved in vital work, but I do mean checking that the things I’m doing are the best use of my limited time. I’m very aware that life is passing, mortality feels very real to me – I want my life to be both useful AND enjoyable.

What difference do you think being braver could make?

Hard to say as it’s so individual, but I do think that if everyone was more honest about the tough stuff – coming out, mental health difficulties, illness, relationship difficulties – we might all feel a little less lonely, a little more part of the whole. Which, in turn, might help us to be more inclusive, work harder for genuine equalities.

How would you like to inspire women to Be Braver?

I think every individual has amazing and glorious qualities. Sometimes it takes real work for us to have the courage to share those qualities and to act on them. Every change that was ever needed in the world – in human rights, in women’s rights, in science, in arts, in anything – started with one person taking a step into the unknown. We have to risk the unknown in order to create and for many of us the unknown is scary and worrying and daunting – stepping into it ANYWAY is the way to make a difference.

Do you have a Mantra you would like to share?

I firmly believe in the improv mantra “yes and” – not just yes, not just accepting, but accept and build. In Fun Palaces we often say “Say yes and learn how to do it later.” The YES is everything.