Belfast Stories: seeing a complex city through the eyes of its writers

Belfast is a hugely complex place and that is reflected in the diversity of these stories

Douglas Gresham, the adopted son of  CS Lewis, stands beside a bronze sculpture of his most famous character, the lion Aslan, as he helps open CS Lewis Square on November 23rd, 2016 in Belfast. Photograph:  Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Douglas Gresham, the adopted son of CS Lewis, stands beside a bronze sculpture of his most famous character, the lion Aslan, as he helps open CS Lewis Square on November 23rd, 2016 in Belfast. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

 

Editing Galway Stories in 2013 was for me a homage to my newly-adopted city. I was in love with Galway and I wanted to share that love with the world through stories. The anthology was not only a celebration of the city, but also of its writers. Still, I wanted it to be more than just that. And so the idea for including photos and background information for each neighbourhood came about, then the idea of including local listings of pubs, restaurants and hotels, as well as a map depicting each location in which the stories took place.

In talking about it all these years later I often say that it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done, which is where the idea for having sister companions came about-hence, Belfast Stories, which we’re soon to launch at the Belfast Book Festival.

As with many first endeavours, I realised, in hindsight, the things I would do differently with Galway Stories if I could. In this way Belfast Stories, funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, has benefited. The most significant change was deciding to have a co-editor, in this case Belfast writer Paul McVeigh, who we chose because he has been such a staunch supporter of other writers and of the short story form.

Perhaps the best thing about working with Paul – besides the fact that our tastes and opinions on the stories complimented each other well – was that he not only knew the more established Belfast writers, but also the emerging writers, which for us as a press has always been very important. These writers include Jamie Guiney, Michael Nolan, Dawn Watson and Shannon Yee, who I’ve no doubt we’ll be hearing a lot more of in the coming years. As Paul says in his introduction, it was very important for him as an editor to seek out his tribes – the LGBTQ and working-class communities – which has made the anthology all the more culturally rich.

Though I was familiar with many of the writers included in the book by name, as someone relatively new to Ireland, I still had only read a few of their works, including Jan Carson’s Malcolm Orange Disappears and of course our own Rosemary Jenkinson’s Catholic Boy. But reading the many brilliant stories led me to seek out many of the books by the writers included in the anthology and by the time we went to print, I’d collected nearly a whole shelf-full, which I hope readers of this book will do as well.

Belfast Stories contains many of the usual themes, such as love (Lucy Caldwell’s story), tragedy (Winnie M Li’s story), comedy (stories by Peter Hollywood, David Park and Michael Nolan), grief and the past (stories by Linda Anderson, Rosemary Jenkinson and Bernie McGill), the everyday (Wendy Erskine’s story) the absurd (Caoilinn Hughes’s story), and those rich with Belfast voices (stories by Jan Carson, Glenn Patterson and Ian Sansom). But still working on Belfast Stories was, in the end, a wholly different experience for me than with Galway Stories. This time I got to truly experience it as would the reader.

The best part of working on Belfast Stories, as was the same for Galway Stories, was seeing the city through the eyes of the writers. But unlike Galway, where I’d already lived for five years when working on the book, I’d only been to Belfast as a visitor and hadn’t ventured much out of the city centre past the Queen’s Quarter. So this time, with Belfast Stories, I really needed the writers’ eyes to guide me.

What often happened was after reading a story I might Google a place, such as Colin Glen Forest Park, where Winnie M Li’s story takes place, or the bronze sculptures in the CS Lewis Square that are featured in Jan Carson’s story.

After the stories were finished – the text laid out and proofed – I then moved on to the research bit of the book, where I got to really learn more about Belfast, such as that the Albert Memorial Clock, which is mentioned in Glenn Patterson’s story, is known as Belfast’s leaning tower, or that the peace wall, mentioned in Rosemary Jenkinson’s story, is longer than the Berlin Wall.

A Belfast scene. Photograph: Malachi O’Doherty
A Belfast scene. Photograph: Malachi O’Doherty

But through all that perhaps my real education to Belfast, the real Belfast, came in the form of Malachi O’Doherty’s brilliant preface, which talks of the many changes that have taken place over the years that have shaped the city and its people – the hippy movement of the sixties, the punk movement of the Seventies and of course the Troubles. Besides his words, Malachi also took the photos for the book, many of which were taken to illustrate the stories, such as the graveyard photo in west Belfast, where Jamie Guiney’s story takes place.

The last part in putting the book together was placing the story locations on the map, meticulously created along with the icons, by our graphic designer, Tríona Walsh. Some of the stories weren’t specific in their location, such as Ian Sansom’s or David Park’s; but others were very specific, such as Michael Nolan’s story, which takes place in Boots in the city centre, or Shannon Yee’s, whose main character walks her baby through the Waterworks neighbourhood.

It wasn’t until writing the foreword for the book – which repeats a little of what I’ve said here – that I realised the significance of my work on Belfast Stories and what I had learned, which is that Belfast is truly a hugely complex city – much more so than Galway – a complexity that is reflected by the diversity of the stories included in the anthology. In this way Belfast Stories is truly a celebration of the city and its people.
Belfast Stories is launching at the Belfast Book Festival on Sunday, June 9th, at 5pm, in the Crescent Arts Centre. Next up is Galway Stories: 2020 – in connection with Galway as the city of culture in 2020 – edited by Alan McMonagle and Lisa Frank.

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