Tag Archives: short stories

Readings at the Cork International Short Story Festival

When you come to literary festivals, you come to experience something new; to witness the short story form in all its brilliance and to come out the other side, having felt or learned something which you can’t quite put your finger on. You expect to be pulled into the stories, carried along and jolted out of the other side having changed inexplicably (as described perfectly by Valerie Trueblood in her interview). And this change is all thanks to a few minutes of pure indulgence; the chance to listen and be entertained by a moment… a snippet of an event or glimpse of a life. Thankfully, this has been made possible by the variety, excellence and dedication that is at the heart of the Cork International Short Story Festival.

As an audience we have journeyed along the surreal and brutally comical path of Michal Ajvaz’s The End of the Garden, tracking the internal struggles of a man faced with lewd and violent monitor lizards, musings on the misfortune of philosophy, books written by demons and unlikely journeys through a series of bizarre events. We have sympathised and worried throughout Siobhan Fallon’s Inside the Break; an emotive account of the struggles of a serviceman’s wife left at home, musing over how to deal with her husband’s suspected affair in the light of his heroic role as a serviceman.

We have travelled across oceans and through time to view the cold realities of modern Beijing through the piercing honesty of Yuyan Li; to the beautiful yet unpredictable Canadian wilderness (Deborah Wills) and the devastatingly contradictory yet colourful streets of Vancouver City (Michael Christie). We’ve experienced what it’s like to be reckless, daredevil teenagers and considered the plight of lice (Alexander McLeod) and we’ve lived as a lonely old lady finding solace in inanimate objects (Ethel Rohan).

We’ve chuckled along with the caustic thoughts of Suzanne Rivecca’s struggling counsellor intern and laughed loudly with emerging writers P. G. Connor (winner of the 2011 Sean O’Faolain Award) and Mary Costello (The Stinging Fly). But we’ve also watched with awe as international bestselling Irish authors  Edna O’Brien and Colm Tobin share their talent on stage.

Every story has emanated surprise, intimacy, honesty and energy. In turn, the stories have beguiled, taunted, teased, shocked and comforted. But, most importantly, they have entertained. Throughout the festival, there’s been a huge sense of satisfaction, a sense of relief that the short story can still find a place where it is respected, applauded and celebrated. In short, the Cork International Short Story Festival has proved that the art of short story writing is alive and well.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Cork International Short Story Festival

An interview with Peter Murphy

Unfortunately, I can’t make it through to the festival until tomorrow and so I’m missing the first evening’s events. However, I did get chance to catch up with one of the writers who will be reading tonight – Peter Murphy – for a short Q&A session before the festival began. Here’s what Peter had to say…
How does writing a novel compare to writing a short story?

They’re similar in terms of intensity, but the novel requires more stamina. A short story is a song. A novel’s an album.

What different techniques or mindset do you need to employ and how do you make the switch?

Short stories are unforgiving. There isn’t much scope for divergence. The novel comes with a different set of demands:  story engineering, modulations of tone and tempo, resolution.

When you start writing – what’s the starting point? Is it a theme, a plot, a character name – or does it change each time?

For me it’s usually a title or an opening line or maybe a fragment of the narrative voice. Character and story tend to grow from that. And there’s usually some sort of innate mystery or riddle that resists explanation.

Music is an integral part of your life – how does your music background influence your writing?

Mostly mood. A lot of times I’ll write a scene or a story because I’m attempting to replicate the feelings or images inspired by a piece of music. Throughout the writing of my second book I was listening to a couple of Doors songs, ‘Summer’s Almost Gone’ and ‘Yes the River Knows’, and also Springsteen’s Darkness On the Edge of Town album. And I was recording with the Revelator Orchestra throughout, so a lot of the music we came up with looped back into the writing.

You said in an interview that John the Revelator wasn’t the book that you meant to write. When you’re writing fiction, do you instinctively know whether the piece is going to be a novel or a short story – or do you come away surprised?

I usually know before I begin. Although sometimes I’ll write what I think is a short story, only to find it wants to integrate itself into a longer narrative. The book’s the boss.

How do your characters manifest themselves? Does this differ depending on whether they’re contained within a novel or a short story?

Short stories are more about capturing a protagonist at a moment of great change. The event defines the character. With a novel, you live with them for a few years, watch them evolve.

Your career shows that you thrive on variety – so what can fans expect next?

I finished the second novel about a month ago, so I’m going to read and make notes and let the bucket fill up for a bit before deciding what next. Regarding variety, I love Stanley Kubrick. Every film was completely different, but each one defined its genre – noir films, war films, period dramas, black comedies, sci-fi and supernatural yarns.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Only that I’m very much looking forward to the festival.

Peter Murphy will be reading tonight, Wednesday, 14th September with Órfhlaith Foyle at 9pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork

Leave a comment

Filed under Irish writers

An interview with Suzanne Rivecca

Your first book has received much attention, including being in the final list for several awards – how has this influenced you as a writer?

I was surprised by the attention the book received from awards committees and such. When the book first came out in summer 2010, the reviews were generally respectable but there were a lot of remarks along the lines of “This is self-involved and self-indulgent and repetitive, all these minute examinations of lady-problems” and a lot of presumptive comments about how every character was basically me—this from people who have never met me and know nothing about my biography beyond the snippet on the book jacket—and that this somehow rendered the book illegitimate as art.

Initially, there seemed to be a condescending critical consensus that amounted to this sentiment: “She’s a good writer; I can’t wait to see what she produces once she matures.”  There was something really Freudian about it, like my book was the equivalent of a clitoral orgasm and everyone was just holding their breath for me to come up with a mature vaginal one (sorry, Mom and Dad).  And that made me angry, I have to admit; I felt like the book was being dismissed or trivialized because it was about girls and women–not selfless, martyred, long-suffering Oprah’s Book Club girls and women, but fierce, neurotic, single-minded, obsessive girls and women–and people couldn’t see the universality in it; they got tripped up by the perceived inaccessibility of the gendered lens. So several months after publication, when the book started getting attention via these awards lists, it was a genuine shock.  And the best part was attending these awards ceremonies and talking face-to-face with people who told me how much the book meant to them.

The juxtaposition of initial dismissal with this later, sudden outpouring of support and validation was very emotional and meaningful for me. It reminded me how alone I was when I wrote these stories, the raw purity of intention that informed them, the blood and guts I poured into them, how hard I had to fight to get them on the page and how proud I was of my refusal to compromise in terms of their content and message.  And now that I’m working on a new book, I do feel pressure, like I need to recapture that uncorrupted, writing-for-myself mentality that informed the first book.  I feel kind of like Emma, the protagonist in my title story, who doesn’t know who she is unless she’s fighting, who finds it hard to live meaningfully without a goading catalyst, a reliable adversary, something to react against.

But the truth is I’m not just writing for myself anymore. I know that there are expectations now, and that makes me feel a little twice-removed from the intuitive, visceral aspect of the writing process. It’s a nice problem to have, but it’s distracting to know that there are actually things at stake now. I do struggle with that on a daily basis—locating that old urgency, the old life-or-death incentive.

Some of your writing influences are evident in your work – such as Jim Shepard – but what short stories/short story writers inspire you the most?

Mary McCarthy is my favorite short-story writer, as well as one of the most underrated practitioners of that genre.  She’s primarily known today as a memoirist and a novelist, but in my opinion her short stories— particularly those in her debut book, “The Company She Keeps”—are the finest examples we have of her vision, her scathing intelligence and her unsparing psychological acuity.

When I discovered “The Company She Keeps,” I felt a huge gush of validation and recognition. I guess it would be called a “linked” collection in today’s parlance, since each story features the same protagonist, but one of the things I like about it is that the stories are utterly stand-alone, unapologetically independent of one another, and yet together they create this riveting portrait of a human being.  I could relate to McCarthy’s themes—her Catholic, Irish-American Midwestern upbringing, her struggle to invent an artistic and autonomous self without forsaking or denying the influence of her origins, her acknowledgment of the brittleness and emotional detachment that is sometimes a byproduct of political and artistic self-actualization, especially for women—but what I took most from these stories is her utter refusal to let her fictional alter ego, Margaret Sargent, off the hook.  There is nothing remotely self-serving about these stories. They are a brutal, relentless, witty, insightful excavation of a soul in transition, and they spare no one:  not the reader, not the protagonist, and not the writer.

Consciously or unconsciously, I think I intended “Death is Not an Option” as a contemporary answer to “The Company She Keeps.”  I was especially aware of channeling McCarthy in my story “Look Ma, I’m Breathing,” which is about a woman being stalked by a deranged landlord; I was careful not to make it a straightforward narrative of victimization, but a psychological study of a character forced to reckon with own tendency to self-mythologize and court the role of stoic martyr.  The final story in “The Company She Keeps,” which is called “Ghostly Father, I Confess,” ends with a devastating moment of jagged self-awareness that definitely inspired my portrayal of Isabel in “Look, Ma,”  of Kath in my story “Very Special Victims,” and of the narrator in “Consummation.”   McCarthy’s protagonist, Margaret, is sitting in the office of an insipid psychoanalyst, not really taking it seriously, but as she sits there she realizes she’s never developed a language to explain and make sense of her troubled background. She’s struggling to find a balance between acknowledging the damage that was done and trivializing it as a cliche.

Here’s the quote:

“You could not treat your life history as though it were an inferior novel and dismiss it with a snubbing phrase. It had after all been like that. Her peculiar tragedy (if she had one) was that her temperament was unable to assimilate her experience; the raw drama of those early years was a kind of daily affront to her skeptical, prosaic intelligence.”

In  few sentences, she encapsulates one of the central dilemmas of living a self-aware life, of being a whole person and not a catalogue of symptoms, a poster child, or an impervious caricature.

Short stories are often overlooked as a genre – what do you think is the cause, could this attitude be changed and, if so, how?

In the U.S. at least, pre-radio and pre-TV, stories were a serialized form of entertainment, meant to be enjoyed and savored one at a time. The readers waited, in suspense, for the next installment in the paper. Part of the enjoyment was in the episodic nature of the genre. Nowadays there’s so few mainstream print outlets left that regularly publish short fiction; it’s no longer integrated into populist culture the way it once was.

There are no mass-market short story collections (with notable exceptions like Stephen King’s); stories are seen as this rarefied and somewhat inaccessible medium, too “arty” for the general public, closer to poetry than to novels. They’re a lot more about language and style than novels are; plot isn’t necessarily their driving force. People always complain that nothing happens in them, or that nothing is resolved, and that the endings are too ambiguous and oblique. There’s this perception that no one reads them except other literary writers.  Plus, they’re the preferred medium for MFA students to work in, because they’re so much more manageable to workshop than a full-length novel. So that adds another layer of self-referential insulation to the genre.

There are a lot of contradictions inherent in the way stories are regarded, though: on the one hand they’re seen as less accessible and more artsy and experimental; on the other hand, a story collection is seen as training wheels for a novel—stories are what you write when you’re first finding your voice, but when you’re a fully realized artist with a unified vision, you come out with a novel.

Personally I think it takes an entirely different skill set to write a novel than it does to write a story collection. As for changing the cultural tendency to devalue short stories, I’m not sure what that would take. I guess it would help if people developed the patience to accept and value ambivalence and ambiguity, not only in art but in life, and if they stopped regarding art as an oracle that’s supposed to provide answers and morals. There’s still a Puritanism in U.S. culture that dictates that art has to be “useful” in some way, instructive or inspiring in a very moralistic, triumph-of-the-human-spirit way. And stories very rarely give that kind of warm & fuzzy inspiration. The inspiration they provide–for me, anyway–is more rigorous and challenging. A good story discomfits you, forces you to question things, to turn the lens on yourself. It leaves you with an unsettled feeling that’s almost indescribable. And in contemporary culture, there’s a reluctance to sit with that kind of unnameable sensation.

Thanks to internet communication, festivals such as this and the more sociable role of a writer, readers now understand the dedication that goes into writing. Describe your writing process – your routines, your thinking and your aims.

I’ve written since I was a child, and my motivation to do so  has always been unexamined and utterly instinctive; I just wrote because I felt inherently compelled to. I think this has informed the way I write today.  I’m not one of those methodical, ultra-disciplined writers who treat it like a day job and carve out 8 hours of uninterrupted writing time in their studies, chipping away until they meet their daily word count. I often wish I was one of those writers, but I’m not. I was conditioned from an early age to treat writing as an almost illicit, secret thing, a place I went in my head that was sacred and private, completely divorced from mundane routine and the obligations of the real world. So I have a hard time structuring my writing time in a dutiful, conventional manner. And I always feel so artificial and fraudulent when I allude to it as if it’s a chore–“Gotta go write now, see you later!”

There’s a certain feeling I get when I need to write, and I try to follow that gut feeling. If I don’t write for a few days, it finds me. And I need a very wide breadth when I’m working, which can be hard for non-writers to understand. Writing is not sociable for me, and it’s never going to be a casual topic of conversation; I need a lot of interpersonal space around it in order to feel intimately connected to what I’m working on. I need to feel that there’s no collective ownership of it; what I’m working on must belong entirely and solely to me. I’m not a natural teacher; nor am I a natural entertainer. I’m never going to be like Gary Shteyngart or Billy Collins, a cultural ambassador for a solitary art, delighting crowds with the power of my personality. I’m an introvert, and I’ve discovered that the integrity of my writing depends on my continued cultivation of my introversion.  I think that in order to be an artist, I need to feel like a bit of an outsider. The two just go together for me.

What’s next for you?

Right now, I’m working on a historical novel. It’s about Walt Whitman and the three months he spent working as a journalist in New Orleans in 1848, when he was 29. I’m trying to capture the time in his life when he was forced to a crisis point, forced to wrestle with who he was and what he believed, the incubation period before he emerged as a full-fledged artist with a distinctive vision of the world. The novel essentially tries to portray a budding artist’s baptism by fire.

Suzanne Rivecca will be interviewed on Thursday, 15 September at 5pm, in the The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork, and will follow with a reading at 9pm in the same venue.

1 Comment

Filed under International writers

Short Story Collections by Peter Murphy


Short story collections occupy the status of fetish objects in my house. I still get the chills when I thumb through the yarns collected in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology of new wave 60s sci-fi writers, or the postwar masters in the Richard Ford-edited Granta Book of the American Short Story. I could go on. I will go on… Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The River’, Bierce’s ‘Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge’, Poe’s ‘Telltale Heart’, Gibson’s ‘Burning Chrome’, Schultz’s ‘The Comet’, Borges’ ‘Death & the Compass’. The diamond hard yarns collected in Mark Richard’s The Ice At the Bottom of the World or TC Boyle’s After the Plague or Mike McCormack’s Getting It In the Head. Just this summer, in an Enniscorthy charity shop, I discovered a mind-boggling 1985 collection called In the Field of Fire, a compendium of sci-fi and fantasy tales set against the background of the Vietnam War. Genre heaven.

Three of this writer’s holy texts, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, take the form of short stories threaded into a longer narrative arc. These are modest-sized books, but the economy, the richness, the pure protein-per-paragraph factor, inspires obsessive re-reading.  I love this story-within-a-story construction. I used it in my first novel John the Revelator and developed it further in the one I’ve just completed. To date the only stand-alone short story I’ve published is ‘The Blacklight Ballroom’ for Joseph O’Connor’s collection The News From Dublin (Faber), a Depression allegory set in the near-future, featuring a cameo from a Hank Williams hologram. It’s short even by short story standards, weighing in at something like 1200 words, but it taught me some brutal lessons about compression and economy. A great short story demands the sleight-of-hand skills of a card sharp. At ten or twenty pages, there’s no room for error. No bum notes. No spare words. The form demands painful levels of discipline and self-scrutiny.

I believe the epic novel and the short story/novelette/novella have much in common in terms of scale and ambition. But the middle-ground is more treacherous: middle-brow, middle-class, mid-length, stodgy 375-page novels bogged down with flabby prose and trudging storylines. I’d rather spend ten pages on Mars, or in Hanoi, or inside Edgar’s premature burial shroud. Give us maximalism or minimalism, extreme compression or outrageous digression, but keep us safe from from literary spam.

– Peter Murphy

Peter Murphy will be reading on Wednesday, 14th September with Órfhlaith Foyle at 9pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork

2 Comments

Filed under Irish writers

An interview with Mary Costello

As a writer, and a reader, what attracts you to the short story?

As a reader I like the contained feel of a short story. I like to be taken into a character’s head, experience some small almost imperceptible shift in their being. I like to be quietly and subtly disarmed. The best short stories have a purity that both seduces and reduces the reader.

I kind of stumbled into the short story form. At 22 the need to write began to gnaw. The short story seemed like the quickest access route to something, the imagination probably.  Richard Ford says that he wrote his first story ‘because lived life somehow wasn’t enough, in some way didn’t hit the last note convincingly and was too quickly gone.’

What challenges did you have to overcome when putting together your collection, to be published by The Stinging Fly early next year?

Oh, trying to hit that last note, I suppose. In each story, in each rewrite, you’re straining for it and you think you’re close but like a mirage in the desert it’s always just that little bit further off. You’re writing towards it, to hold it and keep it. So the greatest challenge in getting the collection together was knowing when to stop tweaking.  Unlike other writers I never got to the point where I inserted a comma and then, in the next draft, removed it. I might well turn up at the printer’s door pleading to be let in and change one more word an hour before it goes to press!

Short stories are often overlooked as a genre – from curriculum reading lists to publishing opportunities. Why do you think this is?

Yes, considering Ireland has such a strong tradition and is so highly regarded in the form it is quite baffling that short stories are so rarely prescribed reading at all three levels in the education system. I don’t know why that is, apart from a certain blindness perhaps, and the perception that only writers read short stories.

What would you say was the most exciting event in your writing career so far and what would you like to achieve in the future?

Naturally, having The Stinging Fly Press offer to publish my first collection- a great thrill. These days short story writers have almost given up hope of publishing collections- I know I had. Most move onto writing novels because the novel appears to offer the best chance of getting published. I do have a draft of a novel written but I continue to write stories. I can’t not- I’m addicted. The future? Just to keep writing.

What writers have influenced you?

Early on poetry had- and still has- a great influence- Yeats and Eliot especially, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ted Hughes. When I started writing I read the Americans- Carver, Ford, Flannery O’Connor, Cheever, Updike, etc. Ian McEwan’s collections First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets made a great early impression.  Then, one August, I found myself trapped for two weeks in a self-induced nightmare- a package holiday in Cyprus. The Beggar Maid and Dance of the Happy Shades and a quiet corner of the air-conditioned hotel lobby saved me. Outside the earth fried but I was transported to Northern Ontario and tumbled into something I had hungered for. Seamus Heaney in an essay in The Government of the Tongue describes first coming upon Kavanagh’s poem ‘Spraying the Potatoes’and how excited he was to find the ordinary familiar details of rural life- things he considered beyond or below books, like headlands and blue potato spray- standing their ground in the world of literature. Alice Munro was my Kavanagh.

Another favourite writer is J.M. Coetzee. I sometimes wish he’d write stories too…  imagine, that quiet reflection, the sorrow dropping, the suffering of animals. He read in Listowel a few years ago. He was very brittle and I was very awed. I think that if I’d approached him to have my book signed one of us might well have fainted- more likely my awe would have knocked him out.

Ethel Rohan discussed three of the most influential short stories she read as a teen in an earlier blog post – do you have any particular favourites that you’d like to share with us?

Yes, like Ethel, the school stories mattered and later in college, The Dubliners. Alice Munro’s title story in The Beggar Maid, and another one, Material, were early influences. Her stories have a unique emotional reach. She does time transitions superbly too- the passage of years and generations- she does these quietly, seamlessly. In just a few words, in fact.

I know immediately if a story has that blue-potato-spray effect, that Cyprus feel. The heart races. I read with greed and cannot get enough. Clare Keegan’s stories do this, and Amy Bloom’s, and recently, James Salter’s.  Salter’s story My Lord You completely arrested me.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I’m looking forward to the weekend -thanks to the festival and The Stinging Fly for giving me the opportunity to read here.

A huge thank you to you, Mary, for agreeing to this interview. And for those of you who’d like to read more blog posts from Mary, you can read Mary Costello’s New York Diary over on The Stinging Fly website.

Mary Costello will be reading with  Kathleen Murray on Saturday, 17th September at 4pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork.

1 Comment

Filed under Irish writers

The Short Story by Valerie Trueblood

(From “What’s the Story:  Aspects of the Form,” The American Poetry Review, July 2001).
It seems fair to say the average short story is not as hospitable to readers, to modern people with their own ideas, as the average novel, nor as open to looseness and imperfection.  Perhaps this is because, as Denise Levertov once said, “The short story gives us truth, the novel truth and consequences.”  The truth uncovered in a short story is often beyond anything a character could reasonably “deal with” in the manner recommended by the old manuals; its consequences are left to the shivering imagination, or we try to formulate them and give up, because they are curiously irrelevant to what has been shown.  A novel on the subject of either “A White Horse” or “The Rocking Horse Winner” might exhaust our good will as it worried out the practical and moral consequences of a wild flight toIndia or a child’s obsession.  The story says, Take it or leave it.

Compared to poets, Glenway Wescott wrote, fiction writers “must cast an easier spell, looser and farther flung, inclusive of some imperfection; so that the reader can…retell some of it to himself in his own words, relive some of it.”  He included the long short story in this observation, but here in fact is one of the places the story diverges from the novel and comes closer to poetry.  It is hard to think of a story that one would wish, exactly, to relive.  We do reread them.  But once having seriously encountered them, we go back to the great stories for their beauty or their hold over us, as we do poems, and we approach them warily.  A story such as “The Metamorphosis,” or Paul Bowles’s “The Frozen Fields,” or Nadine Gordimer’s quiet story of a terrorist, “Some Are Born to Sweet Delight,” we have to seize like a snake, behind the head, ready to undergo the ordeal a second time.  Jean Rhys’s “The Sound of the River,” in which a woman wakes up beside her husband who has died in the night, and Elizabeth Jolley’s “Grasshoppers,” in which a frail and confused grandmother is left in charge of small children, appall us even as something drives us back to them.

However thickly sown with detail it may be, the short story steeps the reader in the feeling that one thing is at work.  We come away with this sense even from one very drawn out in time, such as Alice Munro’s “Carried Away.”  In this story, beginning in World War I and continuing into the late Fifties, a woman who has recovered from TB waits out the war, works as a traveling saleswoman and a librarian, and loves three times, each seriously–once a married doctor at the TB sanatorium, once and for all time a young soldier she knows only through letters, who marries someone else and dies in a factory accident, and last the owner of the factory where the accident happened, whom she marries.  She raises children and lives to be old.  As an old woman with heart disease she meets at last the ghost of her mysterious second love, a figure so real as to cause arguments among readers of the story.  By the time it happens, his appearance to her in the city to which she has traveled by bus, dizzy and alone, for an appointment with the cardiologist, seems a simple consummation.

This is perhaps the supreme offering of the short story, the reader’s feeling that some proof has been submitted that life, long or short, funny or tragic, is simple.  The short story is the loaves and fishes run in reverse:  many things have gone into it and mysteriously become few.

Valerie Trueblood will be reading with Yiyun Li on Friday, 16 September at 9pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel

3 Comments

Filed under International writers

Stories of my Youth by Ethel Rohan

This will be my first time to participate in the Cork International Short Story Festival. Also the first time I will read my work and teach a fiction writing workshop in Ireland. A lifelong friend and my brother and sister plan to attend my reading, another first. It’s huge to me to read and teach in Ireland and at the Cork International Short Story Festival in particular. I’ve a true sense of coming home and full-circle.

As a girl growing up in Dublin’s Northside, one of the first stories I remember having a deep affect on me is Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince (1888). It begins:

High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt.

It’s a haunting fairy tale that centers on such themes as loss, seeing, duty, sacrifice, and betrayal. The full text is here.

Think how uncanny it felt to me then, all these years later, to read the following [excerpted] blurb for my story collection, Cut Through the Bone:

These stories create a sense of loss in the reader, an ache, but thankfully they avoid dull cynicism. Instead, they bear witness to the difficulty of living for oneself while sacrificing for others. In one story a woman pleads, ‘I’m here though? Tell me I’m here.’ Ethel Rohan’s stories are like testaments to all the women and men who’ve asked the same thing of the world. Those folks remain unseen to most, but this truly talented artist isn’t blind.

— Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine

Another story that stands out from my youth is Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation” (1931). It ends:

Noble says he saw everything ten times the size, as though there were nothing in the whole world but that little patch of bog with the two Englishmen stiffening into it, but with me it was as if the patch of bog where the Englishmen were was a million miles away, and even Noble and the old woman, mumbling behind me, and the birds and the bloody stars were all far away, and I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow. And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.

This harrowing story also centers on loss, seeing, duty, sacrifice, and betrayal.

The third story that spoke to me as a teenager in a profound way was James Joyce’s Araby. The yearning and disappointment are palpable and deeply resonate. It ends:

Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

The full text can be read here.

Those stellar Irish stories that influenced me as a child and captured my imagination have stayed, and continue to inspire me today. As an emigrant, it’s fascinating to me, too, that the three stories above also center on the lure of distant places. I’m blessed to have lived two lives: The first in Ireland and the second in America. I write from both selves, but at my core I am fiercely Irish. Everything that comes out in my writing is colored by my Irish childhood. For, to borrow from O’Connor, “anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about.”

All this said, I applaud the Festival’s shift away from the old guard and its dedication to and championing of the best in contemporary short fiction. Ireland and her people are hurting, reeling yet again in its displacement and disillusionment. Yet whenever the odds are stacked against us we always harken back to the heart of ourselves and our unique language, arts, history, culture and legacy. We pull ourselves back up and raise our voices. We are a force. I don’t think it’s too grand a statement to say that stories have always played a critical part in Ireland’s psyche and salvation. Our best stories order our chaos, light up the dim and the dark, and show us who we are. Show us how to go on.

Ethel Rohan will be reading on Friday, 16 September with Alison MacLeod @ 4pm in The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork

1 Comment

Filed under Irish writers