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Prophets, Makers and Risk Takers

Updated: Jul 15, 2021

A Showcase of Writing from Northern Ireland

By East Side Arts, Belfast, and Arts Council NI

14 January 2021

Can you name a writer from Northern Ireland? Perhaps poet Seamus Heaney comes to mind? Or maybe you know that C. S. Lewis was born in Belfast? If you follow literary prizes, you’ll likely remember Booker Prize Winner Anna Burns and Milkman. And hopefully you managed to see 2019 European Union Prize for Literature Prize Winner Jan Carson fly the flag for Northern Irish writing with Firestarters at one of the myriad of events showcasing the winners last year. (Although I should perhaps re-think that image …).

And what about themes in contemporary Northern Irish writing? Is there only one subject—that subject—the same one people tend to mention when I say I’m from Northern Ireland? And how come so many Germans seem to have read a certain teen novel set in Belfast that I’ve somehow never set eyes on myself?

Luckily a fantastic event back in January offered some answers. Curated by the lovely Jan Carson herself, Prophets, Makers and Risk Takers showcased writers representing the breath-taking range of talent in and from Northern Ireland today.

It was a grey January day and we were in the depths of what felt like a winter of never-ending grim COVID news, but East Side Arts in Belfast had nonetheless warmly opened its Zoom room doors to a keen audience. Welcoming participants, Jan described contemporary Northern Irish literature as bold, diverse, eclectic and increasingly not what you would expect. It is reductive and unhelpful to assume there’s only one subject that interests people, she added. There is a talented, forthright and diverse collection of writers who are uniquely placed, both geographically and politically, to speak boldly and honestly about the issues that affect their work. I couldn’t wait to hear more!

Contemporary Issues in Northern Irish Writing

First up was a panel with Mícheál McCann and Nandi Jola in conversation with No Alibis Editor Emma Warnock. Place and identity have shaped both Jola and McCann’s work. South African Jola explained that home is "neither here nor there," home is a place she misses wherever she is. Language has also shaped her work as she has moved between Xhosa and English. Can she use South African words like stoep and what exactly is a peace wall? Derry poet McCann has never left the island, but admitted that he had considered leaving Derry, a place he had once thought was hostile. The queer experience, however, is one from which he can’t escape. For many young queer people, NI feels like a place where you are expected to live up to certain stereotypes. Books and writing give form to one’s experience, said McCann, and make you feel less alone. In a similar vein, Jola added that she couldn’t escape her experience as a Black woman writer either, a weight she carried on her shoulders that requires her to constantly explain things that have nothing to do with her writing. She has worked hard to disassociate from the label migrant and move towards that of writer , experiencing the most wonderful journey through the arts in the process. Both Jola and McCann take their work off the page —poetry walks for McCann and readings and workshops in schools, libraries and cultural centres for Jola. Two exciting new writers who are clearly breaking boundaries in writing in Northern Ireland today.

New Approaches to the Northern Irish Story

The next panel was a chance for journalist Susan McKay to explore how two young Northern Irish writers have revisited ideas associated with the history and politics of NI in two very different ways.

Darran Anderson’s memoir Inventory tells the story of the city of Derry, its people, the river Foyle and his own family. Anderson needed a form to structure his book, so he drew inspiration from Georges Perec, recounting stories with the help of objects, focusing on a different item for each chapter.

In Big Girl, Small Town, Michelle Gallen takes readers into Majella’s fictional world revolving around her poorly paid job in the local chipper, her bed and the only pub in the village. Set in 2004, Gallen wrote the novel in 2006, a time when there was the expectation everyone should be over the Troubles. It was a period when people were adapting to normal life, yet not really feeling normal. Majella, however, is the product of generations of trauma: her grandfather died after being interred; her dad had disappeared; her mother was an alcoholic; and her grandmother has just been murdered. She lives in a small town with limited options, both financial and romantic, yet she remains grounded, makes her own choices, and is liberated in many ways, especially when it comes to sex.

Anderson explained how tricky it had been to delve into the discourse about the Troubles. He wanted to look at the history of Spring Town where his Dad had grown up and also consider the origins of the Troubles, such as the housing crisis. Large Catholic families had been forced to live in unheated Nissan huts on an abandoned US military base in the 1960s. He had grown up in a Victorian house, and whilst it had felt like progress at the time, the conditions were still ones that humans shouldn’t have had to live in. Inventory offers snapshots from the past, like the Glen, a wild place he used to explore, a wilderness where dodgy, lost souls roamed. Or the Periscope through which he watched gun-toting soldiers pass as he lay in the grass, only realising the gravity of the scene later. His style was influenced by various art movements he discovered as he grew up, such as Dada surrealism. Suicide is another major theme running through Inventory, a tragedy that has affected both Anderson's family and the city more broadly. Even today, the Foyle continues to lure young men into its depths, men who have little hope for the future. At times writing the memoir felt almost like nature writing, he explained, like the chapter on the search for something he and his father didn’t want to find, the body of a relative lost to the river. Here too, underlying issues urgently need to be addressed. Talking about feelings is good, but deprivation in big cities and the material surroundings also need to be tackled.

Both Gallen and Anderson reflected on what it means to be a Northern Irish writer in the diaspora. How are they identified? Where do they fit in? Gallen had a sense of being "othered" after leaving Northern Ireland, begging the question of who is currently being missed out right now because they don’t fit into a neat category. Anderson added that Northern Irish writers were always dealing with the identity with which they were given through accident of birth. The already fragmented identity is added to further by leaving—but being on the outside is a good position to be as a writer.

Workshop – How to Increase Your Presence Outside Northern Ireland

After two inspiring panels with writers, the symposium moved onto some very practical tips and advice for writers. Jan Carson generously shared lessons she had learned on her own journey as a writer, giving us an insight into the multitude of other things she does alongside writing (teaching, academic work, residencies, festivals, collaborative projects) and tips on how to get published. Dare we ask how she finds time to eat and sleep …?

There was also a long list of tips on how to increase your presence outside Northern Ireland once you’ve published your first book. I think I managed to note down most of them.

This Must Be The Place – Dr Dawn Miranda Sheratt-Bado

Unfortunately I had to log off briefly at the start of the afternoon, so I missed the excellent panel on Promoting Writers in Northern Ireland Internationally. I look forward to seeing more lovely writers at festivals across Europe and indeed the world!

Thankfully I managed to tune in again in time for a whistle-stop tour of contemporary women’s writing. Dr Dawn Miranda Sheratt-Bado explored the contribution of women writers and how they have changed the cultural landscape through fiction, TV and film. She took us back to The Female Line, the first ever anthology of women’s writing to be published in 1985 during The Troubles, a ground-breaking collection at a time when the literary scene was still closed off and dominated by men. The Peace process provided further opportunities and enabled new platforms and cross-border projects.

Looking back over the past 23 years, Sheratt-Bado noted the range of work currently being republished, including writers such as Linda Anderson and Dierdre Madden. Recent anthologies, such as The Glass Shore, Female Lines and Belfast Stories continue to provide space for new writers to emerge such as Shannon Yee, representing voices that aren’t often seen, such as the working class, migrant and queer. The long shadow cast by the Troubles has been explored by Anna Burns, Wendy Erskine, and Rosemary Jenkinson. Coming of age narratives are also flourishing as authors like Susannah Dickey, Geraldine Quigley and Michelle Gallen write characters on the cusp of adult life. The rural North West has featured as a popular setting, for example in Lisa McGill’s hit sitcom Derry Girls and Maggie O’Farrell’s work. Fans of crime, science fiction and magical realism aren’t left wanting either. Be sure to look up Claire Allen, Sharon Dempsey, Claire McGowan, Jo Zebedee, Roisin O’Donnell, Bernie McGill, and Jan Carson. Sheratt-Bado concluded her panorama of NI women’s writing with a couple of YA authors, Sheena Wilkinson and Shirley Ann McMillan.

The presentation was so jam-packed with dates, names, images of book covers, and entertaining quotes delivered in a variety of accents and voices that I fear I missed a few! Apologies to anyone I didn’t catch. One thing is sure, though, Sheratt-Bado is right when she says,

"NI women writers are the bomb!"

What a cracker of a day! A huge thanks to Jan Carson and the entire team at East Side Arts for throwing open your online doors so warmly at the start of 2021. I can’t wait to see what happens next— or where Northern Irish writers take us in the future. Until then, I’ll continue to make my way slowly through my very healthy TBR. How about you?

Johanna McCalmont is a Northern Irish bookworm and literary translator based in Brussels, Belgium. She translates from French, German, Dutch and Italian and also works as an interpreter.

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