Anne Enright: Making arguments about gender will eat your head
The writer reflects on her three years as the inaugural Laureate of Irish Fiction
Anne Enright: Hard to believe when you read some of the things they produce, but writers are often shy. Readers, especially Irish ones, are also often shy
Last year, a student writer told me that novelists are not supposed to use lists; “but you do it all the time”. She seemed a little cross. I didn’t know who was telling her (and now me) what she was supposed to do, apart from some finger-wagging inner voice – that same voice it was my mission, as a teacher, to unmask. But she had a point. Yes, they can be overdone. And, guilty as charged: I am prone to a list. I blame Faith Healer by Brian Friel. I blame Ireland, because the easiest list to fall into is one of Irish towns. In fact, you have to be careful with the name of a single Irish town, it so easily becomes a sentimental thing. These names do a lot of work on the page: put them in a list and they turn epic, lyrical, sad. Before you know, you will be singing it.
As Laureate for Irish Fiction my duties involved teaching students at UCD and New York University, writing lectures, curating an annual event and, one way or another, visiting a number of Irish towns. It is all in the way you arrange them. So Cavan, Navan, Cork and Ballyshannon sounds like a children’s rhyme, which is not the tone we are looking for here (we will leave that to PJ Lynch, who is Laureate na nÓg). Let me try for a more adult syncopation: Belfast, Limerick, Galway, Cavan, Ennis, Armagh, Howth and Ballymun. Kells and Carlow, Bantry, Ballyshannon, Dublin, Longford, and Listowel. Sligo, Tallaght, Wexford, Cork. Stradbally, Navan, Carrick-on-Shannon, Dromineer and Tullamore.
Some of these were official events, delivering lectures or meeting readers’ groups as part of a series called The Reader’s Voice, which was done with The Sean O’Rourke Show on RTÉ. There were also short-story events – because everyone loves a short story and no one, unfortunately, buys them. Others again were part of a resolution I made to accept invitations in Ireland, if I could. Added to which were a good number of book launches or celebratory events in Dublin, the occasional embassy (I seem to have given up white wine) and events in America, at NYU, the Irish Arts Centre, Princeton, and for Pen International. There were 1916 commemoration events on both sides of the pond. I did not find it exhausting. I was the laureate, I knew what I was for.
Writers are shy
Hard to believe when you read some of the things they produce, but writers are often shy. Readers, especially Irish ones, are also often shy. We meet in the shared privacy of the page and sometimes need the protection of a public voice. I realised I would not get through the laureateship if I had to write speeches, so my new discipline was to sit on some form of public transport with my eyes closed and to arrive in front of a literary gathering ready to be mildly amusing or properly angry, because the right words, if you can find them, give people a sense of common purpose, they buoy up the lonely, which is all of us, and affirm the whole endeavour of writing books.
The writers hosted by the laureateship makes another fine list: how about Kevin Barry, Claire-Louise Bennett, Mary Costello and Colin Barrett, who read in Galway with music by Feargal Murray and Camille O’Sullivan. Or Tóibin, McInerney, McLoughlin and McCormack in Dublin with music by Lisa O’Neill. And, on the radio, MacLaverty, McCloskey, Ryan, Dwyer-Hickey, Kilroy, Doyle. The last event will be in Carlow Visual on the 21st, with stories by Sally Rooney, Belinda McKeon, Colin Wash and Nicole Flattery and music by Little John Nee.
I was appointed laureate by the Arts Council in January 2015. The first official event took place in Longford Public Library, run by the mighty talent of librarian Mary Reynolds. I had plans to support Irish writing in translation and to promote the short story, but in fact what I ended up doing in the three years that followed was all, somehow, already present in that room. The people who had come to meet the new laureate were readers, by which I mean they were the silent engine of the Irish tradition, energetic consumers of fiction with strong views that were seldom sought. They were also library users and, at a guess, people who listened to the radio. They included the parents of local writer Belinda McKeon, and also Louise Lovett, who runs a women’s centre in Longford. When I came back home, I realised it was 30 years to the day since her sister, Ann Lovett, had died in Granard.
I did not think I was appointed laureate because I was a woman. The business of writing is hard enough without taking on the additional burden of gender politics. Listening to arguments about gender makes men mildly defensive and takes very little of their time. If you are a woman, making these arguments will eat your head, your talent and your life. None of this ever seemed to me fair, or even useful. But that gathering in Longford was telling me its own story. If it held the promise of books to come, it also held reminders of events that had shaped my own work, some of them unbearably sad. I am, by age and stage, a kind of bridge between a bright future for the voices of Irish women and a terrible past.
So, although I did not want to be partisan, the three lectures I wrote during the stint as laureate were about the female voice, heard and unheard. For the first, in 2015, I had the privilege of meeting Catherine Corless for a piece about Antigone, the figure from Greek tragedy who called for the proper burial of the mute and dishonoured dead. The second was about the voice of New Yorker writer Maeve Brennan, long lost and now regained, and this was delivered in NYU near the streets where she used to walk. The third was about gender representation in the canon and in the review pages of the newspapers, including this one. Ironically, for a piece about unheard voices, there was no echo or indication that it had been heard, but sometimes you just have to speak anyway.
As the inaugural laureate, I tried to balance a sense of civic engagement with the needs of my own work, and failed. Hard to call it absolutely, but I would say that publication of my next novel was set back by a year. The laureate is, first of all, a writer, but no two writers are the same, and each will have their own approach to the role. I need to meet readers. I find teaching very useful to my own work (no more lists!) and I am blocked, at the desk, by the feeling of things that are obvious going too long unsaid.
So I found it useful. I hope it was useful to others. I enjoyed my temporary elevation. Now that particular ladder is gone, as the man said, it is back to the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
Anne Enright’s final event as Laureate, The Long Night of the Short Story, will be in VISUAL Carlow on December 21st, with Nicole Flattery, Belinda McKeon, Sally Rooney and Colin Walsh, and music by Little John Nee. visualcarlow.ie