Are you a new or emerging writer from a working class background? Would you like to be published alongside an Impac Award-winner, a Booker Prize-winner, two Sunday Times Short Story Award-winners, a senator, playwrights and poets? What about a professional development programme with the help of leading publishers and the Irish Writers Centre.
Well, now is your chance. Next spring, The 32: An Anthology of Working Class Voices will be published in Ireland and the UK. It will include 16 well-known contributors and 16 new and emerging writers. We are launching the search for those new writers today in The Irish Times.
Last year, on May 1st, International Workers Day, Common People was launched in Britain. It was a crowdfunded anthology by novelist Kit de Waal to help answer the question she had posed in a BBC Radio 4 documentary, Where are the Working Class Writers? The book was a collection of memoirs and essays from working class writers, published and unpublished, in an attempt to give space to the voices increasingly absent from the pages of books, newspapers and magazines.
As well as well-known writers such as Louise Doughty and Malorie Blackman, 16 new writers were found with the help and financial support of writer development agencies across Britain, who also provided ongoing development and mentoring so that publication in Common People would only be the beginning of their journey as writers.
When de Waal asked me to be the editor of an Irish version of the book I jumped at the chance; a book for the whole island, north and south, with a new name, The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working Class Voices. Through a mixture of public pledging, funding and private sponsorship the project has been fully funded. The largest single pledge was £3,000 from Belfast business owner Janine Kane, who is from a working class background. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland also made a significant contribution which secured the project’s success.
Just as happened in Britain, when well-known writers were approached to take part in The 32, they immediately got on board, lending their name and their memories to the first book of its kind in Ireland and giving an enormous helping hand to the 16 new writers alongside them.
Claire Allan, Kevin Barry, Dermot Bolger, June Caldwell, Martin Doyle, Roddy Doyle, Rosaleen McDonagh, Lisa McInerney, Dave Lordan, Danielle McLaughlin, Eoin McNamee, Melatu Uche Okorie, Senator Lynn Ruane, Rick O’Shea and Dr Michael Pierse are all taking part. The 32 will also have a piece from Lyra McKee, the young journalist and writer tragically shot dead last year. We were brought together by Booker Prize winner Anna Burns; three working class writers from Ardoyne breaking bread over the shorthand of our origin stories, to support each other and the unarticulated passing on of the mantle through the generations. I had asked Lyra to be part of the anthology back then and thanks to Louisa Joyner at Faber & Faber and Lyra’s family we are extremely lucky to have some of her writing in the anthology.
So why an Irish version of the book?
The question of including Irish writers in the project was always on de Waal’s mind. “When I was putting together the list of writers to be included in Common People, I really wanted to include Irish voices such as Lisa McInerney and Paul McVeigh. I was brought up in an Irish immigrant area in Birmingham where all the men were labourers and the women worked manual jobs, cleaning or working on the buses.
“A few Irish families made enough in the building trade to up sticks and move to the edge of the city where ‘the rates put manners into them’ as my grandmother often remarked. But as a child I never knew there was any such thing as the Irish middle class. I thought everyone was like us.”
As a working-class boy from Belfast, I grew up thinking the same thing. With de Waal’s project, I was aware that, as we don’t have the same system of writer development agencies, the mechanism didn’t exist to allow new writers from Northern Ireland to participate. De Waal thought this was unfair. Not only that, she was constantly fielding requests from Irish writers about when and how an Irish version of Common People was ever going to happen.
But, of course, class in Ireland and class in Britain are not quite the same thing. “Am I working class?” is the question de Waal was asked hundreds of times and there’s no simple answer. But June Caldwell, one of the contributing writers puts it this way: “Class is the unspeakable, nobody talks about it, writes about it, no one really knows what it is. Or do they? If you need to think about class as a concept, it’s very likely you’re not affected by it. If things always seem to conspire against you, you worry sick about money, paying your way gets in the way, finding your way takes your breath away, it seems there’s always a Doc Marten on your head pushing you back down. Barriers, gauntlets, stress, fear, disincentives, hitches, hardships. This to me, is what it is to be working class.”
As de Waal says, “class is a different kind of a beast in Ireland and I’m not completely sure what the differences are. There are important issues of rural and urban, Catholic and Protestant and land ownership. What I am sure about is that poverty marginalisation, poor housing, unemployment and low wages contributes to poor life chances and a hard time. Many working class people will attest to that, no problem. But that’s only one face of it. These days working class families may also have a car and holidays, enough to eat and the flatscreen television so indicative according to right-wing politicians of laziness and a feckless lifestyle.”
And it’s not all anecdote. Common People included an essay from academic Dr Dave O’Brien, who demonstrated the real and abiding barriers to participation in the arts and in writing, in particular for people from working-class backgrounds. The 32 will also include an essay from Dr Michael Pierse who has explored the writing and cultural production of Irish working class life and has also been working recently on representations of race and marginalised identities generally in Ireland.
One of the aims of the project is to show the variety of working class experience and to get away from the single story of working class life. De Waal explains: “It’s always been important to me to have a record of all of those lives and experiences and to have conversations about class and the differences between them, to debate how those differences impact on our life chances and aspirations and most importantly of all, for people of working class communities to claim and celebrate our way of life, our ways of life without comparison or apology.”
We want The 32 to be a success, not only to showcase the talent and experience of working class lives but for the new writers to have a chance to be published and have a leg up in their literary career. The new writers in Common People have read at literary festivals, been published in newspapers and magazines, been on the radio, made a video, five have found agents and one of them has a book deal, with another on the way.
Since news of the project has spread there has been a huge amount of interest from new writers wanting to get involved. If you're interested please go to Unbound.com for details.