Your Friends in the North

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I began drafting this blog in my head on the last train home from Dublin on Wednesday evening. I was en route back to Belfast after a fabulous launch for The Glass Shore hosted by Hodges Figgis. If the Enterprise WiFi, (a phenomenon oft-cited but rarely experienced), had actually been working or, i’d had energy left for anything beyond the consumption of a jumbo KitKat, I might have written it there and then. I’m glad I waited. Everything I want to say in this blog has grown legs since Wednesday. All the nice sentiments I intended to write about, just to make us feel warm and fluffy inside, now feel less fluffy, more important, more like things we may be required to lean upon in the months to come.

It’s been a very long week. Undoubtedly there have been highs, but there have also been some really tough moments.

I’ll begin with a high note. On Monday evening an enormous amount of people turned up at the Ulster Museum to launch The Glass Shore, (an anthology of short stories by women writers from the North of Ireland). It’s fair to say we’re very proud of this wee book. Just over a year ago Sinead Gleeson edited a fantastic anthology of Irish women writers called The Long Gaze Back. For many of my friends and colleagues reading these beautiful stories and attending events and talks associated with the book catapulted us into a different mind space where, as Northern writers we began to ask, why we didn’t have such an anthology and why our voices often seemed to go unheard. Sinead, being the powerhouse of a woman that she is, heard us, more importantly, actually listened to us, and began working tirelessly to compile the collection of stories which would very quickly become The Glass Shore. We are extremely grateful for both the book and the fact that we have such a hurricane of a woman championing our writing throughout Ireland and beyond.

For me, personally, The Long Gaze Back was a really turning point in my journey as a writer. It forced me to question my own reading and writing prejudices and blind spots. Growing up Protestant, Presbyterian in rural Northern Ireland I’d consumed vast amounts of Irish literature but cannot, with hindsight, recall a single book or story where I read an account of something even roughly approximating my own life experience. I am, by default, a magic realist and had actually reached my twenties still carrying around the mistaken belief that there was nothing mystic, no wonder, beauty or intrigue worth exploring in the rural Protestant experience. No one else, (that I’d found), had written about the dark humour of Presbyterian funerals, the ritual and tradition of our Harvest suppers, our Christmases and our soggy Sunday School outings to Portrush, the old people, (as Dolmen-like on the outskirts of Ballymena as anyone John Montague ever encountered), the weekend caravan parks and runs to the North Coast, the particular sadness of provincial Ulster suburbia with all its double garage and conservatory obsessions. Eventually, I’d made the assumption that these experiences -my experiences- weren’t worth writing about, didn’t carry the same magic and mystery as a Catholic wake or a knees up with the lads from the Shipyards. I wasn’t sure  if no one had ever bothered to write stories about my wee world, or whether they’d been lost, or there was some sort of unspoken assumption that nobody was interested in reading about us.

It took years for me to realise that if these stories didn’t exist it was up to me to start writing them; to present my experience in a way that was truthful, and compelling, and proud of where I came from.

I quit writing stories set in America about people I’d only ever encountered in books and films and I began to write what I knew, albeit a little slant because I’m still a magic realist at heart. I wrote about the old people I grew up with and the things I’d overheard sitting at their feet. I wrote about places so familiar I’ll never quite escape them. I wrote with my voice, and my humour, and my odd wee ways of saying things: a mish mash of inherited American fiction and Ballymena phraseology and the King James Bible, which will always be my first and loudest literary influence. I wrote stories about middle class people, because much as I’d sometimes like to have vast amounts of money, or appropriate the romance of the working classes, I am painfully middle class, quite reserved and often awkward in my own skin. I wrote about the endless wrestling match between faith and doubt and Protestant guilt, (yes, it is a thing too), which many of my friends face as they try to reconcile the old ways they’ve learnt from their parents with a world which doesn’t have much interest in religious belief. I wrote about all these familiar things and filtered them through the lens of my overleaping imagination, which I like to believe was honed during a childhood spent sitting still through 45 minute Calvanist sermons.

People read my stories and they seemed to like them, or at very least, they did not disregard them. This felt like a long overdue settling into my own skin. It felt like being invited to come and sit at the table with all the other storytellers. I’m pretty sure this journey is also part of the reason I’ve decided to root down here in Northern Ireland and finally shrug off my wanderlust. I’ve grown awfully fond, proud even, of my identity as a woman from this part of the world. Many of the stories in Children’s Children, particularly those which explore Protestant culture against a backdrop of contemporary Northern Ireland, simply wouldn’t be if The Long Gaze Back hadn’t provoked me to think about who I am and how it impacts what I write. For this I am very thankful. It is a good thing to be heard, but an even better thing to feel confident in what you are writing even when no one is listening.

On Monday, at the Ulster Museum launch, I was asked to read a short extract from my Glass Shore story. I wasn’t prepared for how emotional the experience would be. The room was full of smiling faces, (this, in itself, is quite unusual for a literary event where most audience members usually look as if they are mildly irritated or tottering on the edge of a nap). Some wonderful women writers from the South had travelled up from Dublin, just to support us. This was the closest thing to feeling like I am part of a team I have felt since stepping down from the Under Sixteens hockey team in 1995. Poets, playwrights, musicians, readers, friends and artists had all taken time out of their busy schedule to celebrate the moment and, when Anne Devlin and I travelled down to Dublin on Wednesday for the Southern launch, the room was equally full of supporters, friends and writers who were genuinely delighted to see our work in print. Martina Devlin, who gave a wonderful speech at the beginning of the Dublin launch said, “The Glass Shore brings North closer to South and South closer to North. We’ve a great deal to say to each other. By we, in this context, I mean women.”

Which brings me to the point I’ve been mulling over since the last train home on Wednesday evening. Yes, The Glass Shore is a celebration of women writers from the North of Ireland. And, yes, it is long overdue and unfair that our voices haven’t been fairly represented in the past, and we have every right to crack open the sparkling wine and kick our heels up and enjoy the moment. But this book cannot just be a win for the fifteen living writers included in its pages, or even the Northern women currently writing and reading who will be encouraged to see their experiences, their voices represented here. This book, must bring North closer to South. It must be a celebration for all of us women who live on this island, who want to speak authentically, openly, passionately, and dare I say it, fiercely, about our experiences. Prose writers. Poets. Playwrights. Musicians. Artists. Film makers. Dancers. I don’t actually care what medium people turn to as long as the art is good and fearless and invested with something of ourselves. In order to move forwards we must be united. We need to champion each other, genuinely revelling in other’s successes and offering genuine consolation when other’s experience disappointment and difficulties. We must hold each other accountable to producing a remarkable standard of work because I think we all, deep down, know what what we’re truly capable of. We must strive for solidarity. Surely there are enough people trying to undermine the arts community in Ireland without us taking pot shots at each other.

The second half of my week has been hard. As many of you are beginning to gather some really awful things have happened with my publisher over the last few years. Many of us have been treated unjustly, experienced real isolation and felt like our voices are not being heard or properly honoured. This isn’t the platform to go into details. I’m sure the details will come out later in the week. However, while it would be so easy to feel demoralised and alone in the situation I’m currently facing, in the last twenty four hours I’ve been absolutely astounded/encouraged/humbled by friends and complete strangers in the literary community who’ve spoken up in solidarity and support for us. Publishers. Journals. Writers. Readers. Agents. Every voice is appreciated. It makes everything a hell of a lot easier to know none of us are going through this alone. It makes me realise that the solidarity, the closeness and community which exists between North and South is far from fluff and sentiment. It’s the difference between a tiny whisper and a loud roar.

 

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