On a warm and sunny Tuesday evening I jogged along the quays to Smock Alley Theatre, hoping I wasn’t too late to miss the beginning of a joint reading by Lucy Caldwell and Anakana Schofield.
I arrived just in time for the authors to be introduced by Selina Guinness, and frankly, it was one of the best literary events I have ever attended, with lively, interesting discussion following two atmospheric readings.
Belfast-born, London-based Lucy Caldwell read an excerpt from her debut collection of short stories, Multitudes, a book of stories steeped in the streets of East Belfast. Caldwell’s short but lively reading – an almost theatrical reading, really – created an intimate, romantic atmosphere on the Smock Alley stage as she spoke of the litany of streets in Belfast dubbed the Holy Land:
Palestine, Damascus, Jerusalem.
Anakana Schofield’s novel Martin John has been receiving rave reviews since it was published in North America last year. The dark, disturbing tour-de- force deals with a grim topic – a child molester – told in a daring, form-challenging way and is shot through with black humour. Schofield joked that Caldwell brought a romantic side to Smock Alley, and it was up to her to now bring the darkness.
Schofield left Ireland in 1999, first to live in London, then Canada. Though she returns regularly to visit her mother in Mayo, the International Literature Festival Dublin marks the first time she has ever read in Dublin. “This may be the last time I ever read in Dublin,” she quipped, before giving a reading no less passionate than Caldwell’s.
During the discussion part of the event, both authors spoke about their relationship to Ireland. Caldwell has lived in London for eleven years; she commented that Kevin Barry mentioned to her that you need to live in a place for eleven years before you can write about it, and indeed while most of the stories in Multitudes are set in the Belfast of her youth and memrory, the final story is set in London. Caldwell also spoke of the massive influence of Van Morrison, in particular how it’s almost impossible to write about Belfast after Van Morrison.
For Schofield, the idea of place is less important. Martin John is set in London and concerns an Irishman, but as Schofield says “I’m not interested in place as a construct in fiction … I’m interested in public spaces, I suppose.” Because Martin John concerns an Irish mother who sends her troublesome adult son to London, Schofield sees it as an inversion of the usual Irish story of how the country treats women. “I was very interested in the way in which in Ireland we’ve dispatched women historically, the fallen, pregnant woman, the way in which we federal express them to England, and then they return without a tummy. So the novel is an inversion of that idea; the idea of him being dispatched by his mother.”
Both writers spoke of how sexual desire can push characters to the extremes of society, and of their shared interest in transgressive characters. For Schofield, she couldn’t ignore the history of abuse in Ireland. “There has been a plethora of clerical abuse reports, not just in Ireland. In Canada we’ve been covered in them because of the residential schools. So I thought that I couldn’t write another novel without responding to the unwelcome incursion into women’s bodies in public spaces.”
Caldwell and Schofield also spoke about the form of the short story, which Selina Guinness pointed out has become somewhat fetishised. Caldwell commented that a short story can illuminate a whole life; it doesn’t need just to cover a single epiphany or a single event, but that it must leave the reader with a sense of something. One way in which she has achieved this is by writing in the second person. “The form is the content … I wrote several of these stories in the second person. It’s funny. It’s one of those things that actually makes me bristle, if someone starts a story with ‘You are sixteen, and this is the best summer of your life.’… But I found that it works, the second person seemed to work.”
She added “I teach creative writing occasionally, and you have to fight against these false dictats that are handed down to you, “that writing should be first person, past tense, for instance,” citing Rosaund Lehman as an example of a writer who freely flips between the past and the present. “Memory is the same,” added Schofield. “We don’t remember sequentially, we don’t remember chronologically.”
As a playwright, Caldwell finds slipping into the voices of her characters easy. “I ventriloquise easily.” But writing in the third person, past tense is something she finds very difficult. “I feel exposed; I become conscious of having a style or having an opinion.” She compares the limits of the traditional authorial voice to how well you can know someone in real life. “You can meet someone on a bus or strike up conversation, or even fall in love with them, and still not know their stresses, and what battles internally they’re fighting. So I love slipping into other people and other characters.”
Caldwell also drew inspiration from the birth of her son, who was very ill and spent weeks in intensive care. She wrote a highly autobiographical story about the experience so that she could capture the emotions that she had gone through during the time her son was in hospital. She wrote the piece in short spurts with her son swaddled and asleep, a process that she initially found disruptive, but later found freeing and bizarrely transgressive.
Following the event, I spoke briefly with Anakana Schofield. Having lived in Ireland, Britain and Canada, she regards herself as “a triptych”, and is less interested in ‘Irishness’ than in simply doing the work. The so-called current renaissance in Irish writing she finds bizarre. “Writers are always writing … I just have some issues with the notion of geography. You need to look at the language. You need to look at what they are responding to. What are they doing in terms of literature, not ‘Where did you happen to be born?’”