“Hope. It appears in the margins when nobody’s looking.” So reflects the narrator of Shannon Yee’s The Brightening Up Side, a new mother and Chinese-American immigrant who considers the future her baby will inherit in her adopted hometown of Belfast. Belfast Stories depicts a diverse assortment of characters who exist in the margins of Northern Irish society and are searching for hope in an ostensibly “post-conflict” city. Contemporary Belfast continues to struggle with the fraught “legacy” of the Troubles, as well as issues of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and sexual violence. However, it is also the site of an artistic explosion that is being led by many of the writers included in this 16-strong line-up.
The anthology is co-edited by Ardoyne-born author Paul McVeigh and Lisa Frank of Doire Press, and features new work by an eclectic mix of writers with a close connection to Belfast. It includes the first published story by Yee, a playwright who describes herself as “an immigrant, ethnic minority, queer artist-parent with a disability living in Northern Ireland”. McVeigh emphasises the importance of representing “Belfast voices” that we “still don’t see so much” in anthologies – namely, those of LGBTQ+, working-class, disabled, immigrant, and emigrant lives.
Fittingly, we begin at The Welcome Centre, the tourist information office in Donegall Square. In Peter Hollywood’s story, camera-clicking, costumed Game of Thrones enthusiasts have overtaken “Troubles tourists”, a change regarded as “some sign of progress” by the staff. Bustling groups “pour off coaches, having just disembarked from teetering cruise ships” and shuffle inside with inquiries: “Remind me, is this a euro zone or sterling zone?”; “Is this regular Ireland?”
Meanwhile, a cast of eccentric locals also harangue employees with seemingly odd queries. An elderly man appears intermittently and shouts, “Parades! There any parades today?” They lie automatically to assuage his fear, responding that they rang the Parades Commission and indeed there are none that day. The contrast between the concerns of foreign visitors and local inhabitants indicates that despite the current tourism boom, “regular” Northern Ireland is far from “normalised”.
Jan Carson’s Filters addresses Belfast’s image-making and rapid gentrification, which have rendered some places unrecognisable to longtime residents: “She couldn’t for the life of her remember how it was before.” Wendy Erskine’s Last Supper, also set in east Belfast, portrays a deprived corner of the city that has been left out of this “renewal” process.
Michael Nolan’s Bottles suggests that the “Spirit of Belfast” is in fact that of commerce. His account of working-class youths drifting aimlessly about the shopping district illustrates that although the post-Agreement generation are part of the city’s commercial machine, they do not reap its benefits. The narrator comments, “I ended up sitting on the base of the Spirit of Belfast sculpture. The town milled around me. People crossed and re-crossed Arthur Square like bottles on a conveyor belt”. Similarly, Caoilinn Hughes writes in her story, “Like the peace process, the material world is a paper slip that affects the spirit but does not free it.”
Other spirits haunt the collection – those of loved ones who have died, disappeared, or never truly lived. Poignant stories by Linda Anderson, Jamie Guiney, Rosemary Jenkinson, Bernie McGill, David Park and Dawn Watson contemplate the long shadow cast by the Troubles across generations. As Jenkinson observes, the residuum of the past impinges upon the present, “sitting there like an unexploded bomb.” Recurrent trauma also structures Winnie M Li’s Re-Tread, Re-Tell, a tale adapted from her autobiographical novel, which recounts her return to the city several years after she was raped by a local youth in a Belfast park.
The narratives highlight previously underrepresented figures – Lucy Caldwell, Glenn Patterson, Watson, and Yee depict LGBTQ+ protagonists who attempt to navigate a city that is not always welcoming of their identity. Yee’s narrator remarks wryly, “progress is evidenced by the artisan coffee served tepid and trendy on pressed ply in concrete-floored Cathedral Quartered coffee shops run by nouveau-Christians who tolerate the gays”.
Like Yee, Ian Sansom uses humour to explore prejudice in his story Red Eye, narrated by an English immigrant who marries a local Belfast woman. At the wedding, her family members and neighbours tease him mercilessly before welcoming him to his new home: “You’re nothing now, you people. Nothing. You used to have an empire, but now what have you got? We’ve got Van Morrison. And George Best. You know George Best?” When he affirms, “yes, I know George Best,” he is suddenly in: “Welcome to Northern Ireland, they all said. Welcome to Ulster. Welcome to Belfast.”
Belfast Stories pays homage to the contemporary city in all its vivacity, multiplicity, and complexity. The result is a composite view of local life which invites readers to view Belfast afresh through the imaginations of some of its finest writers. This compilation exhibits the extraordinary strength and breadth of writing emanating from Northern Ireland. It encompasses a wide array of talent and stylistic approaches, extending from gritty social realism to uncanny magical realism. These tales arrest the reader’s attention with their witty, bawdy banter or quietly devastating interior monologue. The collection chronicles the lived realities of urban dwellers whose stories are often omitted from anthologies of Irish literature, thereby finding hope in the city’s margins.
Belfast Stories launches on June 9th at the Belfast Book Festival. Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is visiting research fellow at Queen's University Belfast