Irish writers explore where and why they set their works abroad
Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín and a host of Irish writers explore why when it comes to writing fiction the world is their oyster
Why do Irish writers set their works abroad? What challenges and opportunities does this create and what might this mean for the Irish literary tradition? Has the representation of the stories of the Irish diaspora, emigrants and their descendants, been a concern in their work?
I have always been firmly of the opinion that travel narrows the mind, so I cannot think why I made the unfortunate decision to set my first novel, the already unfortunate Nightspawn—the title says it all, really—in a place where I had spent no more than six weeks or so. But I had been overwhelmed by my first experience of Mykonos, way back in the early 1960s, when there were not even roads on the island, that I felt I had to use it as a backdrop to my overwrought tale of exile and angst. Since then my fiction has largely stayed at home, except for Shroud—Caroline Walsh, late of this parish, said to me, ‘Oh, John, why didn’t you go the whole hog and call it Coffin!’—which is set in Turin and a lightly disguised Portovenere on the Ligurian coast, with a brief side visit to an even more lightly disguised Berkeley in California. Of course, all that is nothing compared to the setting of my more recent novels, The Infinities and The Blue Guitar, which is an alternative universe where motor cars run on sea water and Einstein has been unmasked as a fraud . . .
One of the great surprises, when I travelled with The Gathering, was getting an open response in India or Brazil to a book that seemed to make Irish readers wary. “Abroad” is a place where you take people as you find them, as they do you. It offers simplicity - an end to the hurts and complications of growing up in a particular place, a particular class, with a set of local, often compromised, values. I often send my characters abroad, where they can be seen more clearly. The Irish went to unexpected places. There was an engineer who shored up the hills of Hong Kong as they fell into the sea - they called him Slopes Malone. I would love to write about Slopes Malone. I would love to write about the Maharaja’s nanny, they liked to call “Icky”. I would love to write about Mike Meegan, a ‘charity worker’ who went to Kenya and pretended to be a priest. The Boston Irish are too much of a community for me (heck, I can get that at home). I like my characters out there, on their own, because the world is wider than you think, and more various.
What Are You Like (Dublin, London); The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (Paris; Atlantic Ocean; Paraguay, Parana River, Asuncion; and a little in Matto Grosso del Sul [now Argentina]); The Green Road (New York ; Segou, Mali; Toronto)
In my recent collection of short stories, Gods and Angels, there are stories set in a range of different locations, including Spain, Morocco, Italy and unnamed parts of Scandinavia. Of the 13 stories only three specifically reference Northern Ireland. The majority of a much earlier novel entitled Stone Kingdoms was set in an unnamed African country that may well have been Somalia. The middle section of The Poets’ Wives is set in Stalin’s Russia.
However, it was probably in my novel The Light of Amsterdam that I travelled most committedly abroad. The warm afterglow of the Good Friday Agreement had not finally evaporated and after completing The Truth Commissioner I knew I wanted to write outside expectations of geographical setting and subject matter. I wanted also to look outward as a way of escaping a sense of artistic claustrophobia. Of not developing cabin fever. I had a reasonable knowledge of Amsterdam and I believed in the premise that sometimes we see our own lives more clearly when we look at them from a distance. I wanted the book to be my version of a Dutch interior painting, ideally one of those by Vermeer that are focused on the seemingly mundane, the everyday rituals of life, but which are suddenly stilled and illuminated. And if truth be told I suppose The Light of Amsterdam was always going to sound more inviting than The Light of Lurgan, Portadown or even Ballymena.
My novel The Closet of Savage Mementos is semi-autobiographical. It’s set in the Scottish Highlands and, like Lillis, the main character, I went in my early twenties to work in a small hotel in a coastal highland village. Also like Lillis, I met an older man and ended up with an unplanned pregnancy. Writing the novel, 20 years on, afforded me a chance to explore all that happened in Ullapool and the way that the place changed the course of my life.
My novel Miss Emily is set in Amherst Massachusetts as that is the home-place of one of the main characters, American poet Emily Dickinson. Dickinson was, famously, reclusive so the action of the novel centres around her house, The Homestead on Main Street in Amherst.
There’s great joy for me as a writer in conjuring a place from research, memory and the imagination. There’s even greater joy in walking the landscape of the story - once I have a first draft written – and then going back to the page with all I have seen, heard, smelled and felt there. Experiencing the setting of a story is not always necessary, but it can add richness and authenticity to the piece.
In Miss Emily a (fictional) 17-year-old Irish girl joins the Dickinson household as maid-of-all-work. She experiences discrimination because of her nationality, but she also sees other Irish immigrants to Amherst who have risen up, and acquired wealth, through hard work and fortuitous allegiances.
I’ve set many of my short stories abroad: Paris, Barcelona, Naples, Rome, Switzerland, Spain, England, the USA, Mexico, India, Brazil. I keep a journal when I travel and setting a story somewhere I’ve been is a glorious way to revisit beloved places.
The Closet of Savage Mementos (New Island, 2014): Set in Ullapool in the Scottish Highlands; Miss Emily (Penguin & Sandstone Press, 2015): Set in Amherst, Massachusetts; Becoming Belle (forthcoming in 2018): Set in London; Short stories set in Paris, Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, Naples, Rome, Spain, Switzerland, England.
The South (1990) is set in Barcelona, the Catalan Pyrenees and also a chapter is set in Faro in Portugal.
I lived in Barcelona between 1975 and 1978 and spent a deal of time in a small village called Farrera de Pallars in the Catalan Pyrenees in the province of Lleida. The mountain scenes in The South are set in a village very like Farrera. Some of the Barcelona scenes are set in streets around where I lived. I think the Faro chapter was actually written in Faro.
The Story of the Night (1996) is set in Buenos Aires and Barcelona, but mainly Buenos Aires. I lived in the city in 1985 and went back there a good bit in the three or four years after that. In 1985 I covered the trial of Galtieri and the other generals in Buenos Aires.
The Master (2004) is set in London, Rye in Sussex, Rome, Venice, Boston and Newport, which are the places where Henry James lived.
In Mothers and Sons (2008), the last story, A Long Winter, is set in the same parts of the Catalan Pyrenees as The South.
Brooklyn (2009) is set in Enniscorthy and Brooklyn.
In The Empty Family (2011), the first story, Silence, about Lady Gregory, is set in Cairo and London, the two places where she had her affair with Wilfred Scawen Blunt. Barcelona, 1975 is set in Barcelona, as is The Street. The New Spain is set in Barcelona and Majorca.
The Testament of Mary (2011) is set in Ephesus, which is now in Turkey, and in Jerusalem and Nazareth.
My first novel, Generation, was written around the theme of emigration. I emigrated to Los Angeles in the early nineties, as my father had, to Canada, in the fifties. Our stories, and those of the many emigrants I’ve met from other countries, inspired the book. In writing it, I came to believe that the story of migration is the story of what it means to be human.
Emigrant characters include: an Irish emigrant to England, then Sudbury, Canada; a refugee from war-torn Germany to Chicago; a seasonal migrant, travelling each year from Mexico to Chicago; and a Japanese who emigrates with her academic husband from Tokyo to Chicago, before returning to Kyoto.
The challenges included writing, in some cases, about places I hadn’t travelled to. The breadth of the novel necessitated the diversity and my budget did not allow for such globe-trotting. The question of cultural appropriation arose, but I was satisfied that I was writing with sensitivity, based on individuals I had met, rather than on broad generalisations. Another challenge was opening the novel with what might be considered a tired trope: an Irishman emigrating for work in the fifties - there’s even an Irish wake! I hope I succeeded in making it new.
My second novel, A Difficult History (forthcoming July 2017, John Murray), follows an Irish teenage runaway to London, but suggests also the many journeys made by Irish girls and women to England over the long, difficult history between our State and women’s bodies.
Every year since 1999 I’ve gone to Spain in the winter, for a few weeks or months, for however long I can afford, for a reprieve from the sullenness and the damp cold of the Irish January, the Irish February. And every year I’ve attempted to write a story set in Spain, and they have all been hysterical disasters. But then, last year, I kind of figured out the trick of it - I wrote a story set in Spain but it was about a poor soul from Roscommon who was kind of lost and drifting down there. It’s called Extramedura (Until Night Falls) and it appeared in the Tramp Press anthology A Kind Of Compass (ed. Belinda McKeon). Really it’s as much a monologue as a story, and I think maybe getting the form right was as important as getting the voice. I’m apparently not finished with the place – presently occupying my desk is a play called Night Boat To Tangier, about a Corkman whose daughter has run off to Spain with a bunch of crusties.
My eight novels and two short story collections all contain scenes set in countries other than Ireland. Some of those books are almost completely set abroad.
Cowboys and Indians, Ghost Light and The Thrill of it All take place mainly in London, at different times, as do many of the stories in True Believers and Where Have You Been?. There are many London scenes in Star of the Sea, which also contains sequences set in Yorkshire and of course America.
New York has featured in most of my books. And the early part of my novel Redemption Falls is set in Tasmania and most of the rest in Montana. On the non-fiction side, I wrote a book called Sweet Liberty: Travels in Irish America, the narrative of which is strung around a series of visits to all the towns called Dublin in the United States.
Almost all of my novel Desperadoes happens in Nicaragua, and it has a fair bit of dialogue in untranslated Spanish.
Since the start of my career I’ve been fascinated by the stories of emigrants and immigrants, the people whose view of a community is in stereo. I think it’s because so many of my uncles and aunts had to emigrate, and a sort of glamour accompanied them whenever they came home to Dublin at Christmastime. I loved listening to them talk, hearing London or Australia in their Francis Street accents. Later, living in London and New York must have influenced me, too. Frank O’Connor wrote that “an Irishman’s private life begins at Holyhead”, and I think it’s true that emigrants gain all sorts of personal freedoms from going. Certainly, that was true for people my age. I spent a few months in Nicaragua when I was 21, and that was an experience I’ve never forgotten. My book Star of the Sea is going to be published in Cuba next year, and I’m really looking forward to going there for that.
Having grown up in England with parents from different communities in Northern Ireland, I’ve always had a confused relationship with Irishness. Perhaps my background is the reason I often set my stories abroad, writing about people in the margins of society, and those who are struggling to reconcile dual identities. I’ve lived abroad in several countries, and much of my inspiration has come from these experiences. Although I wasn’t aware of themes at the time of writing Wild Quiet (New Island, 2016), looking back on my collection, I can see that many of the stories involve the search for home. An Irish man returning to his childhood home in Indonesia; an adopted child searching for his birth mother in the streets of Seville, and a Brazilian girl leaving the lights of Sao Paulo for a new life in Dublin; all of these characters are searching for belonging in some way. Situating a story outside Ireland allows me to explore the experience of the outsider from fresh perspectives, and to question what we mean by “Irish” and by “other”.
Kamikaze Love (part-set in Kyoto and Tanabata, Japan); How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps (part-set in Sao Paulo, Brazil); Under the Jasmine Tree (Seville, Andalucia);Death and the Architect (Barcelona); Titanium Heart (Sheffield); When Time Stretches (Yogyakarta, Indonesia); Wild Quiet (part-set in Dadaad Refugee Camp, Kenya)
Sarah Maria Griffin
When I was living in California, all I could do was write. I wrote in an attempt to unravel the alienation I felt, the cultural dissonance. I wrote to try and make being there feel like something good, instead of a calendar of checked boxes: another tough day done. At least at the end of the day with more CVs sent off, there was art made. Not Lost flourished from that intensity. I wrote it to try and carve some love into San Francisco, to make my quiet journey through that city an adventure: something worth having done. There are chapters of Not Lost set in Dublin, and it warped and changed in my memory – but the vast majority of it was written in real time, a performed diary of experience. Write abroad into glamour, a journey worth having taken. It helped me navigate the strange that otherwise would just wind up anecdotal. The landscape of America was a deep challenge for me, one that I eventually stepped away from, but even as I continue my life back here in Ireland, San Francisco remains true for me in paper. I wrote Not Lost to prove that it all happened, to not let emigration disappear like some halfhearted Facebook status, liked then fading into the quiet thrum of digital noise.
My first novel Spare and Found Parts was written while in San Francisco too, about Dublin, from a distance. I burned Dublin down over the sea, it warped to dystopia, the landmarks I pass every day gnarled and darkened. If I hadn’t left, that world would never have grown. The distance does it.
Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of “What happened? “Who’s here? Who’s coming?” – and that is the heart’s ground – Eudora Welty
I’ve lived in London since 1988 and all of my poetry collections feature poems about London alongside poems from Burnfort, Co Cork where I grew up. I fell in love with London when my sister Mary brought me here for a week’s holiday when I was 11 and it’s been unconditional love ever since. I couldn’t wait to escape from Burnfort to London but the irony is that Burnfort exerts a strong pull from across the Irish Sea. It runs through all through my writing like a river. Even when I’m writing about London specifically, I can feel Burnfort bubbling underground. Sometimes when I’m walking through or writing or especially dreaming about London, it merges with Cork, the first city I knew and loved. I’m on London Bridge but I’m thinking of Patrick’s Bridge, the Georgian terraces of Hackney and Islington summon the houses from the North Mall or Montenotte.
The London Irish community has always held a great fascination for me particularly the older generation who came over in the mid twentieth century. When I was a radiographer in the ’80s and ’90s, I X-rayed many of them at the Whittington Hospital in Highgate and the Royal Northern in Holloway – their strong and sometimes heart-breaking characters are stamped in my mind. There are certain parts of Camden or Holloway like the site of the old Gresham Ballroom (now a Sainsburys Local) that will always conjure them for me.
Novels The Glass Mountain and the reworked novella-length version Through the Glass Mountain are set in Cork. In each work, a girl journeys to a private clinic in Brixton, London for an abortion. In the first version, the abortion doesn’t take place. In the second it does. Although the story uses realism and a specific character, it felt like a mythical journey too as I was thinking of all the pregnant girls and women who made this journey either to have an abortion or a baby in London.
The Irish diaspora is a central theme in Prosperity Drive, a linked collection of short stories, emanating from one fictional street in Dublin but roaming to – among other places – America and Australia which were major emigration destinations for the Irish during the period the work is set in (1960s-early 2000s). But it is also about inward immigration – featuring the voices of Hungarian and Vietnamese characters, representing groups who pre-date the post EU wave of immigration. The form of the collection, or novel in stories (it has been called both) is also diasporic in its form, representing a narrative scattering from a single source.
I have lived in Australia and Italy and for several stints in the US on teaching contracts. All of these places have appeared in my work – but generally as places experienced by Irish characters, rather than by characters indigenous to the place.
The exception to this is The Pretender, which features Polish, German and American characters. However, since this is an historical novel, based on real characters, I was obliged to be true to the characters’ cultural inheritances. Historical fiction places a second narrative wedge between author and character as regards setting. The writer has to not only imagine a place strange to her but also imagine that place in an era she has no direct experience of.
A Lazy Eye has three stories with foreign settings: In Times of War is set in an un-named city where there’s a war gong on – inspired by the first Gulf War (though I’ve never been to Iraq); A Marriage of Convenience is set in an un-named city in a South American country; Invisible Mending is set in London.
The Pretender is set in Poland and Berlin during the first World War, and briefly, in the US.
Seven out of 18 stories in Prosperity Drive have foreign settings: Lot’s Wife (Washington DC, although not actually specified in the text); Diaspora (London and Malaga); The Great Wall (partly set in Vietnam and Thailand); Love Child (partly set in New York); Twelve Steps: (Arkansas); Assisted Passage (Aden and briefly Sydney); Body Language (Umbria, Italy).
I Could Read the Sky is set in Ireland and England. It’s the story of a migrant labourer who moves from the west of Ireland to the potato fields of Staffordshire, then on to factories and roadworks and building sites elsewhere around England until he settles in London. This came in part out of my being the product of a migration myself as my grandfather left Kerry and wound up in Chicago working on streetcars. But it is mainly due to having been around so many Irish migrants in the pubs in London over two decades.
Light is a book set mainly in Poland and is narrated by a Pole, but much of his story is about a young man from Kerry he meets by chance in Krakow who is moving across Europe looking for a woman who disappeared from his life. Some of it also takes place in Barcelona, where the translator was working.
Monaghan is a provisional title for a novel not yet but very nearly finished. It is narrated by an architectural theorist from Monaghan teaching and living in New York. He tells something of his own story but most of it is taken up with telling the story of an IRA sniper who has become or is becoming a painter while living anonymously in a hotel in the San Francisco Tenderloin. Some of it takes place in the Basque Country, both French and Spanish.
I am from overseas (Chicago). Living overseas for me was initially living on Gola Island off the coast of Gweedore, which was then deserted. This certainly marked me and led to my first three books, Curious Journey, Motherland and I Could Read the Sky. I Could Read the Sky is about emigration.
Living in Donegal, spending considerable time on the Aran Islands and elsewhere in the West and seeing Caherdaniel in Kerry from which my grandfather departed for America, all greatly affected by emigration, along with being almost exclusively for many years with Irish emigrants in London, all made the issue of emigration extremely present for me in every direction I looked. I’d had the chance to see both ends of the process, as an outsider. For me emigration was an adventure; for many of the people I was around it could be an opportunity, it could be interesting, it could be ambiguous, but it almost always involved unspoken pain in both the emigrants and the people left behind.
Traditionally, the Irish writer went abroad but did not set books abroad, probably at least in part because of cultural inferiority. It took brash Americans to write The Sun Also Rises and Tropic of Cancer. However, the growth of national self-confidence has encouraged Irish writers to look further afield. John Banville has probably been a key influence by inverting the usual process and living in Ireland but setting novels abroad, and even having the nerve to create an English upper-class main character in The Untouchable.
I belong to a pre-confidence generation and so it has taken 45 years of living in London to get from novels partly set here (The Road To Notown and Getting Used To Not Being Remarkable) to working on a novel entirely set in London, though with few English characters and instead a cast of immigrants, Indian, Pakistani, and East European as well as Irish, bewildered and diffident, never assimilated but too changed to fit in again back at home. What interests me is this condition of being neither one thing nor the other. The foreign never becomes home but home quickly becomes foreign.
Almost all my fiction is set outside Ireland and maybe that’s not so strange since I left Dublin at 18 for Sweden and after five years moved to the UK where I’ve lived in London and Sussex. My first novel was inspired by the unsolved murder of a brilliant American logician that I came across as a student of Formal Semantics – 20 years later I was sleuthing around LA trying to solve the murder. The Loss Adjustor was inspired by a house I lived in that was once an army base for Canadian soldiers in WW2 – we discovered there used to an anti-aircraft gun on the flat roof and there was a bullet hole in one of the window frames. The woodland where I walked the dog in the early mornings became the setting for another murder.
When I was a banker I spent a good deal of time in Hong Kong and New York and they are the anchor points in On the Floor – there’s also a glimpse of Tokyo. My fourth novel, The Drive, is set in an unnamed location in the near future - so where to map that? Perhaps I’m drawn to writing away from Ireland since I have been so long away, perhaps it’s also a reluctance to explore the personal past but it’s most definitely the pleasure of immersion in other experiences. All I know is that it’s always the scent of story that pulls me somewhere. As VS Pritchett said, it’s the “moment glimpsed in passing” that becomes the obsession until you’re finished getting black on white.
The Semantics of Murder (California: Los Angeles and Stockton CA; London, Kensington); The Loss Adjustor (London, Aviva Building in the City; Sussex, Buxted Park); On the Floor (Hong Kong; London, the City); Arsenal (London, Arsenal Academy training ground); Larry, Lay Down; and The Book of Men (New York)
Would I have chosen – had I a choice – to set a novel entirely in London? And one with nothing Irish about it, apart from William Hazlitt’s tenuous ancestral connection with Tipperary? (Hazlitt would be my hero, or perhaps anti-hero.) Probably not. It’s preferred, indeed expected, that Irish writers should write about Ireland. But I had no choice. Once Sara Walker, Hazlitt’s great but unrequited love, took hold of my imagination I entered her world, which was London circa 1820, and she refused to let me leave until I had told her story. Not that I wanted to leave. From the start it was apparent to me that London in 1820 was as much part of my imaginative landscape as the Tipperary of the 1960s or the Dublin of the 1980s. After all I had lived in London for a time, a city whose history is still marvellously alive everywhere you look. And I had read the books, Austen, Keats, Coleridge and Hazlitt himself. Sara’s voice inhabited me in a way I find a bit miraculous. I remember the seduction of that voice seeping in from the distant past, the joy of immersion in her world, and the unexpected ease of it. And against the odds, The Far Side Of A Kiss did get longlisted for the Booker.
The Far Side Of A Kiss (London, England)
Both my novels are partly set abroad. The Ballroom Cafe (Black&White Publishing) is set in Co Wicklow and the small town of Bowling Green, Ohio in the United States. The Judge’s Wife (Black &White Publishing) is set in Dublin, Bangalore and a coffee estate in the Chickmaglur District of the Nilgiri Hills of South India.
The Ballroom Cafe has at its heart the forced illegal adoption of Irish babies from Ireland to the US. I find to look from the outside in can be an effective way to examine an issue. By partly setting the novel in the US, it gave me an opportunity to follow the life of the child taken from its Irish birth mother to the US. There was a perception that adoption to the US was a great thing for the child and while it was for a lot of children, many went to dysfunctional homes and couples who were only assessed in relation to their wealth.
I picked Ohio because a lot of the adoptions were by couples in that State and Bowling Green because I know it. It is a typical small town, though it has a university. Knowing the place, the sound of the freight train as it trundles through, the layout of the houses helped me convey that feeling of aloneness of the little girl and the isolation her mother also felt.
What happens when two different cultures collide? I lived and worked in India and since then I have wanted to base a novel there. By bringing an Indian man to Ireland in the 1950s, there was an opportunity to examine Irish society and its values by looking from the outside in. The issue at the heart of the novel is the forced incarceration of people in asylums. Grace, a judge’s wife was sent to an asylum after she had an affair with India doctor Vikram Fernandes and gave birth.
By providing a contrast between Vikram’s rich life in India and his exisitence in Dublin, where he was looked down on, the reader gets the sense of a man apart, without his homeland, the love of his family and the woman he loves.
I am told The Judge’s Wife, because it is more of an “international” story spanning from the Georgian streets of Dublin to the hills of South India, has a big appeal in foreign markets and this may be true because it has already sold to three countries including the US and Norway, before it was published in Ireland and the UK.
However, it was not my intention to write a so-called international story. I think you can only write what is in you; what you know. You can’t describe the mist coming in over the coffee plantation if you have not seen and felt it or know what it is like to meet a rat snake as it shimmies across a lonely path unless you have experienced it.
Having been part of the Irish diaspora in first England then Australia, I have always been interested in “our history - out foreign” as so much of that history is “out of Ireland”.
The Whitest Flower, set in Famine times, could not have been set in Ireland alone so I travelled to Australia to research the arrival of the Irish there...the Orphan Girls and the interaction of the Irish settlers with aboriginal people. Similarly, I went to Canada’s Quarantine island Grosse Ile to the Irish Cemetery.
The Element of Fire, set largely in Boston, led me to that city to research Irish female immigration, the Bridgets, Bloomerism and the interaction between the Irish and the Know-Nothings.
For The Brightest Day, the Darkest Night, I traversed Civil War America, from the Confederate State of Louisiana to the killing fields of Virginia to capture a sense of the Irish who fought on both sides of the conflict. I was also interested in those Irish women who bound up the wounds of the injured, from whatever side they fell.
I wanted the books to be as factually accurately based as possible. The great tragedies of Famine and Civil War deserved nothing less.The challenges were time and travel and a subject matter so vast that I wasn’t sure how I would cope with the many newspapers of the times, song sheets, army booklets, medical pamphlets and dozens upon dozens of books, that required shipping back to Ireland.
Collating the information and then eliminating most of it was difficult. Research is the most seductive displacement activity there is. It was fascinating, informative, illuminating, energising but the books still had to be written. It took eight years before the final book of the trilogy was eventually published.
The Whitest Flower Trilogy (HarperCollins, 2016)
I seem to have set what I have written in quite a wide variety of places though I can’t say I knew all these places particularly well, not when I started writing about them at any rate. Of course I did always try to find out about them when I was writing about them. However, the degree to which I succeeded in evoking those places with which I was not intimate (never having lived in them, for instance) in what I wrote I leave to others to decide.
As a writer my primary attraction is not to place but to story. So if the events that I want to narrate require a foreign or exotic setting then they get it. I would never choose to feature a foreign location because it would make a story better: my foreign locations are only ever there because the story demanded it, the story insisted on it. That said, I have found the business of writing about places and locations with which I was not familiar to be liberating. Immersion in otherness always brings me relief from myself and that’s always to be welcomed.
Fiction: August in July (Warsaw, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Libya, Egypt, London); Work & Play (London); Malachy and His Family (Budapest, Hungary, New Jersey, USA, London); Life of a Drum (Shepherd’s Bush, West London, and the English south coast); W9 & Other Lives (stories set, among other places in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico); Cienfuegos, Cuba; and all over the British Isles); August ‘44 (France and sixteenth-century Prague, especially the ghetto). Non-Fiction: Driving Through Cuba: An East-West Journey; Father & I: A Memoir (Bohemia, now Czech Republic; London); My Father’s Watch (with Patrick Maguire) (Queen’s Park, London, Guildford, Surrey, various prisons around England); The Projectionist: The Story of Ernest Gébler (Bohemia, now Czech Republic; London; Dublin; New York; Los Angeles)
I’m as restless a writer as I am a reader. By the time I came to write Crime Always Pays (Severn House, 2014), I’d written a private eye novel, a comedy heist thriller and a meta-narrative collision between a crime writer and his fictional alter-ego. The next book was to be an on-the-road caper. Ireland was too small.
The Greek islands were (and remain) my holiday destination of choice. Apart from providing a stunning backdrop to a story, I’ve always been fascinated by the opportunity the islands offer to simply disappear – there are over 200 inhabited islands in the archipelago, the larger ones thronged with tourists during the season, with ferry routes criss-crossing the Aegean and no passports required. Once a writer gets a motley crew of characters into that particular labyrinth, the possibilities are endless.
But there was also (sunshine apart) the similarities to Ireland – a history of repeated colonial invasion, a deeply rooted anti-establishment sentiment, a black sense of humour. And, at the time of writing, Ireland and Greece were both experiencing the thick end of economic collapse and betrayal by the European powers-that-be. All told, the potential was irresistible.
I graduated from university in 1984 and helped start a theatre company. Everyone I knew who didn’t help start a theatre company had to leave the country that year, because they didn’t have a semi-glamorous way of being unemployed. Most of them went to America. I had already been immersed in American music, books and movies. Emigration now became the road not taken; I had a shadow self who lived in America. My first play, I Can’t Get Started, was about Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman. A later play, Shiver, featured two recently returned emigrants who start a website called 51st State. To write about Ireland without engaging with its cultural entanglements with the US felt impossible. And when I began to write fiction, the masters of my chosen sub-genre were all American. So when my detective, Ed Loy, had family troubles in his late teens, there was no mystery about where he would go. In the first novel, The Wrong Kind of Blood, he’s back in Dublin for the first time in twenty years. In the fifth, City of Lost Girls, Loy finally returns to LA to solve a case and lay some personal ghosts to rest. Neither place is home; Loy seems to occupy the space between. To reverse the old traveller’s maxim: wherever you go, there you’re not.
All The Things You Are is set in Madison and Chicago, and often on Interstate 90 between the two cities. I wanted to write a marriage thriller, and I needed a more expansive environment than Ireland offered. I was attracted by Madison, a city on more than one lake with dense forests and a major university where everything seems so Mid-Western normal and nice; meanwhile, three hours away sits Chicago, seething with all the secrets and lies the couple have told each other.
My late father – who sailed on those tiny unarmed Irish ships that made treacherous wartime journeys to bring back vital national supplies from Lisbon – never liked to talk about the times when his ship was attacked by the Luftwaffe and about friends he lost amid the Irish crews who never made it back. But even in his 90th year he could not stop a sense of wonder from entering his voice when he mentioned his first experiences of the wartime city of Lisbon. Writing The Lonely Sea and Sky (about a real-life Irish ship that reached Lisbon and rescued 168 German sailors) after his death allowed me to spend time in his world when he was a young sailor. He swapped Wexford’s narrow streets Wexford for what was surely the truly astonishing sight of the vibrant port of Lisbon, pulsating with huge neon advertisements. Its grand boulevards were thronged with expensive hotels, where Europe’s rich sat out the war in comfort, and its narrow Bairro Alto was crammed with Jewish refugees desperate to escape to America. Frank Aiken’s censorship meant that Irish people knew little about the war, but - although controlled by a dictator – Lisbon had everything from American newspapers to Nazi propaganda shops, in a city awash with spies where information was a traded commodity. I visited Lisbon while writing it, carrying a 1941 map so that I could better follow my father’s footsteps and try to imagine that extraordinary city as it must have looked through his young eyes when he survived the voyage there and explored its streets, not knowing if he would survive the voyage back.
My short novel The Fall of Ireland (New Island) takes place during one evening in a luxury hotel in Beijing in China. It is about a mid-ranking Irish Civil Servant in Beijing purely as a superfluous accessary in a delegation accompanying a Government Minister on a trade mission. It is the study of a homesick man in a gilded cage, cut off from the actuality of China on the streets below, who tries to unravel which elements of his life are real and which are subconscious deceptions.
I set it in Beijing because, on my sole visit there, I grew conscious of the void between the successful China that my hosts allowed me to see and the actuality of the more impoverished and suppressed China that I was shielded from. On the internet certain news websites vanished when I clicked on them. On a visit to Tiananmen Square, with policemen every few yards, I slipped free of my minder and a stranger – bravely or rashly – whispered, “Bad things happened here.” I nodded without making eye contact and asked him on which side of the square had the student stood in front of the tank. He looked baffled and I realised that he had never seen that famous image from 1989.
In meetings I had to decode people’s words to figure out the line between reality and illusion, and therefore that city struck me as a perfect location for a man – unsure of how to decipher the society around him – to bring this same quizzical scrutiny to his perception on the line between illusion and actuality in his own life.
Also The Family on Paradise Pier (Moscow)
My first novel used locations and incidents of which I had personal experience from working as an Africa correspondent in the 1990s, a wide-ranging and free-wheeling beat. The second novel, Toploader, was a satire on drone warfare and the “war against terror”, and reflects the confined desperation of people trapped in the constituent cells of that false-flag conflict – Gaza, Aleppo, Mosul and all those other wars in bottles. My third novel, Minds of Winter, owes nothing at all to my previous job and not much more (on the surface, anyway) to my direct life experiences. I made it all up, except for the chunks that I took from the history books. The idea was to seek an escape from harsh reality in the flaws and margins of our maps. To do this, I used a wide range of locations close to the poles, which still retain some of the mystery we lost when the aerial photographers filled in the last blanks on our maps.
Not Untrue and Not Unkind (South Africa, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Dublin); Toploader: (The Embargoed Zone, a thinly-fictionalised, near-future version of the Gaza Strip); Minds of Winter (Canadian Arctic, Tasmania, Greenwich, Orkney, London, Derry City, Paris, New York, Massachusetts, Greenland, Antarctica, South Africa, Vancouver Island, Korea, the Yukon Territory, Siberia, Madeira, Oslo, Crocker Land, Jan Mayen Island, Co Armagh).
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
My stories and novels are mainly set in Ireland, but I also have stories set in Denmark in Blood and Water; Sweden and California in Shelter of Neighbours; Greenland, Italy, France and Wales in The Inland Ice; Germany, Spain and Austria in Shelter of Neighbours; Bulgaria in a forthcoming collection; England in Eating Women in Not Recommended; Montana in Pale Gold of Alaska; and France, in YA novel, The Sparkling Rain.
Most of my fiction is set in Ireland, but – as per the list above – a number of short stories have other locations. These are usually places I have visited, or lived in for a while. Once or twice I have located a story, in both instances a historical story, in a place I haven’t visited (and in a time I haven’t visited.) But otherwise I prefer to know the place I am writing about, and I think I would describe the locations which occur in my stories as key places in my imagination and memory.
I have been influenced in particular by countries where I have spent a fair amount of time, and in which I have learnt the language and immersed myself in the literature and culture, such as Denmark and Sweden. Also perhaps places where I have spent a longish stay (ie a month!) on a writers’ residence or the like: California, Finland (although I haven’t yet written anything set it Finland), Sweden, Bulgaria. In other words, places I love, and where I feel at home.
But of course the literary landscape is international anyway – books and stories have never (or seldom) needed passports or visas to travel and I was travelling widely, in my armchair, from the moment I started to read – and being influenced I presume. In fact as a child I loved travel books.
I have written about Irish emigrants a few times – in my short story, Summer Pudding (in The Inland Ice), which is set in Wales just after the Famine and concerns a group of Irish refugees who lived in a valley called The Valley of the Gwyddeliod (ie The Irish) in Snowdonia. I also wrote a play about them, Milseog an tSamhraidh. My other Irish Abroad story is The Pale Gold of Alaska, also set in the 19th century, during the Gold Rush. My novel for children, The Sparkling Rain, sends a Dublin family to the south of France, an unusual destination for emigrants though not unknown. And my last novel in Irish, Aisling, follows a girl to London, on the abortion trail.
But most of my stories set abroad reflect my own happy relationship with other countries, particularly in Europe. I have lived abroad for an extended period only once in my life - I spent just over a year, in Denmark. Otherwise I’m a visitor, although where some places are concerned, rather a frequent visitor. At this stage I think of myself as essentially European as well as Irish; I have been lucky enough to get to know a few countries and cultures in Europe very well. I love the richness and diversity of European culture, but I don’t consider other European as foreign any more – even though I love the great differences we can experience on this continent just by travelling for an hour or so eastwards. I feel now that Europe is my continent just as I feel Ireland is my country. If my writing reflects that, fine. I don’t set out to demonstrate it, though. It just reflects my experience of being alive.
The Lesser Bohemians is set in London in the mid 1990s. The emigrant experience is certainly a theme here. I wanted to record how it was to be Irish in London in the years just before the Good Friday Agreement, when the ceasefire was new but the bombing campaigns were still fresh in the minds, and influential on the attitudes, of UK residents. Now that being Irish in England no longer carries the stigma of terrorism, I was keen to make note of the casual racism and overt aggression many Irish regularly experienced back then. It was also a small token of solidarity with those who that mantel was shifted onto next.
And I wanted to subvert the traditional notion of the unhappy Irish girl who finds herself lost and isolated in an English city, yearning for home. Given the size of the diaspora it’s fair to assume plenty of those who left never returned because they liked where they landed. That an Irish person may happily opt for living overseas, while still wholly identifying as Irish, seems to be problematic for some but is the reality for many Irish abroad, and the different perspectives their distance affords them has added tremendous wealth to Irish literary culture over the years.
I stopped calling Ireland home. It confused my two daughters San Francisco their mother, always, city. Out of Dublin and in the Golden State for 25 years. Yet when I take to the page my imagination almost always flies to that broken, patchwork island.
The work of 15 years, tens of stories and three novels all set 5,000 miles ago. Two novels never to be more than paper towers on an oak hardwood floor. The third alive in 2017. All windows to magnificent mangled cities. Keening, gospelling fields. Not my only view, that mess of marvellous rock.
But there the telescope pivots. Almost always back to my beginnings. My had to get away. Stories fill the loss – everything, everyone, left behind. Oh lookit, too, I gained. Reams and reams. Loves and loves.
The Weight of Him is published in 2017 by St Martin's Press
My work is constantly set in both Ireland and outside of it. I lived in Australia and travelled widely across Asia and indeed continue to travel quite a bit, I suppose. In particular the novel A Glassful of Letters is specifically about the Diaspora. Every second chapter is in letter form, mostly from New York in the ‘80s. The novel Skin of Dreams is set equally in Ireland and on Death Row in the USA. Not the Same Sky is a completely Irish/Australia novel, set in the past with present ramifications. I have mentioned short stories specifically that are set in two places, sometimes briefly. For instance The Park is a story about people who protested about the Pope’s visit in 1979, as opposed to those who went along to the various Masses. But leaving the country is a huge part of the background.
I see myself as a person who lives both in Ireland and imaginatively outside it. Then again the setting of some of my work is governed by its subject matter, for instance a short story, just published in Italy, is about the Irish woman who attempted to assassinate Mussolini so obviously it’s both inside and outside Ireland. Another, recently published in China, is about emigration as a sense of adventure. I continuously write about the Diaspora, which is why I can sometimes be deluged by letters from extraordinary places. Not the Same Sky deals specifically with memory associated with dislocation. One character states that the only way to survive is to learn to forget, the modern memorial maker wonders why we remember some things and not others. Living and continuously travelling abroad has a profound effect on my work, it’s all of a piece.
Short Stories. My Head is Opening: In Reply to Florence (Florence); Home - What Home (Australia); Taking Scarlet as A Real Colour: Beatrice (Scotland); A Little Remote (London); The Boy from Dingwall (Scotland); Petty Crime (Liverpool); The Park (New York); Telling: A night out (Paris); The Sound of Twin (Kosovo); The Long Drop (London); The Tour (France); According to Michael (Australia); Two Good Times (Australia); Escaping the Celtic Tiger, World Music and the Millennium (Ireland/elsewhere). My next collection is, so far, set in Ireland, Australia, France, Italy, Indonesia, New York, Japan. Novels: A Glassful of Letters (Ireland, New York, Italy); Skin of Dreams (USA); Not the Same Sky (Australia)
My third novel Green Glowing Skull is largely set in New York.
I set my novel in NYC because I happened to be living there when I wrote most of it. I wanted to write about Irish-American identity, and because I was moving in Irish-American circles, I had lots of references to draw on for material. But then the novel turned into something more. I was a bit of an internet zombie at the time, and I had nothing to do all day but walk around New York and be distracted by all the information and chaos. I’d always intended my novel to be a crazy, comical book, and its variety-show structure – like a psychedelic John Player’s Tops of the Town - proved accommodating for everything I wanted to write about. So yes, it was my intention to represent the Irish diaspora in the book, but only in a ridiculous way. The book became about New York itself, or rather New York as it represented the modern world: New York is the centre of the modern world, but then, everywhere is the centre of the modern world because of how connected and globalised the world is. In a way, the United States is the original internet: an experiment in society-creation that gave both intended and accidental results that in turn reshaped the world that made it.
What Becomes Of Us is set in London in 1906 and 1965 as well as Dublin in 1966. It’s a reverse-emigration story: a woman returns to Dublin after a decade in London. Characters by their nature have to have a restricted understanding of their own times, so who better to observe the restrictive and conservative world of 1960s Ireland than a woman who has lived outside it and is reluctantly forced by circumstances to return “home”? It makes her the perfect person to communicate the frustration of living in a place where directions are given as though one pub was tied to the next with string.
Out of Our Minds (1994) set in London and Oxford, 1965-1969, is an autobiography of being an emigrant and reinventing myself in the places in question.
It appears that a corollary of the fact that all my imaginative work is memory-based seems to be that it is also continually in eager pursuit of a substantive, credible present. This pursuit, partly derived from being a member of a family most of whom were dispersed all over, partly from library books, and partly from a fascination with the modern and how to inhabit it, is present throughout, and is responsible for all the dips, twists and rises in the road I’ve taken. But that road turned out not to be an escape from the past, or not merely a place from which to look back. Much more to the point, for me, is that it’s a two-way street, a necessary way forward, and an equally necessary means of reaching where it originated. And it’s not in any one place that my work is located, but in a zone of possibility, or desire, where the actual foreign countries in which I’ve resided and the cultural and psychological hinterland that is the past can speak adequately of the distance and intimacy between them.
I was born in London to Irish parents: my father was from Sligo, my mother from Dublin. I was, I understand, conceived in Golders Green, born in Narcissus Road, West Hampstead and reared in Gospel Oak - until my parents returned to Ireland when I was 12. We went to live in the border town of Dundalk, which by the late-1970s had been severely affected by the Troubles. When I was nineteen I then left Ireland and returned to London. Without a doubt then my writing is not so much influenced by these different places but born out of living in and leaving them. I seem consistently to be exploring the theme of “identity” in my work. For I’m not quite Irish, or English; I’m somewhere in between. And growing up in London I felt I had more in common with my friends from Jamaica and Trinidad than I did with other Londoners who had not this similar experience of displacement.
The Irish emigrant experience exists in a kind of “site” (to quote the playwright Edward Bond): a strange but recognisable country in its own right, in which immigrants draw close to each other not because they’ve failed to integrate in the new “host” country but because they know that only other immigrants understand displacement. It’s probably true of all deracinated peoples. Immigrants have a keen sense of “out of sight, out of mind”; they feel that they are not missed by the folks at home and largely they are not. And because the people in the new country do not know of their lives before, they gravitate to other immigrants who can connect with their story. This “site” often persists after the immigrant has returned home: after 17 years in London my parents returned to Ireland only to discover that the people they were most drawn to at home were themselves returned immigrants. It’s as if once you leave the homeland you can never properly return.
Now, I not only explore this strange shadow country, this “site” of the fractured identity - but I also live again on the Irish border. This whole area of liminality fascinates me. It is and has been a rich source of material (my first collection of short stories, The Scattering, is largely set on the border; many of the stories concern returned emigrants). Also, because I have this comparatively “loose” sense of rootedness I feel free to explore other places, places to which I might have tenuous connections. For instance, my story Hellebores is set in Florida (I holidayed there once); my story The Jailbird has references to California (where I’ve family connections), my play Bohemians is set in New York – a city I’ve been to a handful of times. While I do occasionally use settings in my work that I’ve not actually lived in, I’m primarily drawn to the experience of my parents, to my own emigrant/immigrant experience, to stories about people who live now in Ireland but who’ve lived away, mostly in London. My debut novel, Black Soap, concerns a group of friends who emigrated from Dundalk to London in the 1980s - and who returned in the noughties.
My short story collection The Scattering features short stories set in Sussex, Florida, London, Cornwall, Iraq and Boston. My new collection features Paris and Manchester. Of my plays, The Mushroom Pickers has references to and memories of London; Leopoldville has references to and memories of the Congo, Africa; and Bohemians is set in New York and London.
I did set my early work largely in Ireland, while I still lived in Ireland. Recently, though, I’m setting stuff all over the place. Bear in mind, I spent my first seven years in London, and I’ve spent the last 10 in Berlin, so Ireland is by now only the ham in my cultural sandwich. (But that’s still the most important part of the sandwich, as it has all the depth and flavour: my family are Irish, both sides, all the way back.)
And I travel a lot these days, to places like Russia, Italy, and Singapore. These trips can be quite intense, and spark stories. You can collide a Galway idea with a Moscow setting, and something fun will usually happen. Also, if you’re interested in the world, it’s impossible to ignore all the fascinating things happening in Asia. The 20th century was American; the 21st, less so. (I’m off to Singapore for six months next year, and am setting a section of my next novel there.)
I’m obsessed with broadening our definition of Irishness, as I believe De Valera’s constitution was damagingly narrow, and left out far too many of us. But I feel I serve that obsession best by being free to imagine whoever I want, and have them cavort wherever I feel like placing them. I’ve had main characters who are Somali economists in the Horn of Africa, Chinese-American computer game obsessives in Nevada, and, yes, Irish orphans heading off to London. But they are all me. For Joyce, history was a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. For me, the notion of the nation is a bad trip from which we are slowly coming down.
Jude in London (Old Street, 2011): Having floated ashore inside a grand piano, Jude walks from the English (or possibly Welsh) coast, to London, up a motorway central reservation. The bulk of the book takes place inside a pub of excessive Irishness in Soho, London.
The Great Hargeisa Goat Bubble (the first ever short story in the Financial Times: also a BBC radio play: also stage play, as The Great Goat Bubble): An economic comedy which takes place in Somaliland, a newly independent part of the former Somalia, in the Horn of Africa. (I suspect I’ll have Somaliland to myself on your map!)
Connect (forthcoming, June 2017, from Picador UK / Penguin Random House US): Takes place almost entirely in and around Las Vegas, and the deserts and dry lake beds of Nevada. (With one brief section in New York.)
Why? I love Nevada. I’ve been to Burning Man more often than I’ve been to Electric Picnic. I’ve even offered to help out, and clean up, after Burning Man, and lived on their ranch for a bit. As a result, I’ve spent a lot more time in the Nevada desert than I have in most of the counties of Ireland. I’ve spent far more time in, say, Las Vegas, than I have in, say, Cork. I also like writing about territories that haven’t been done to death. Every bar and street corner in Dublin, Paris, London or New York has been written about repeatedly. So Nevada feels like a place I can stretch out, explore; make it mine. The desert’s a blank I can scribble on. And Las Vegas, with its pyramids and Eiffel tower and Colosseum and Venetian canals, is a real-world dreamscape, a crazy deconstruction of human history.
Earworm (short story, Town & Country anthology, Faber & Faber): Takes place in a depressed old GDR town, Rathenow, 50km outside Berlin. I was living in Berlin for seven years before I felt I knew the place well enough to write a story set there, with German characters. My German friend Robert helped me get the details right.
The Rabbit & Bear books take place in a valley somewhere on the North American continent. The stories require bears, beavers and wolves, etc. Ireland, being a post-Ice Age island with a very limited selection of beasts, just didn’t have the fauna for the books I wanted to write.
The iHole, shortlisted for the BBC International Short Story Award, is set in Cupertino, California.
Most of my work has been set in Wexford. There are no exotic locations in my work, more fool I. There is one story, however, that is set in London. In fact there are two tales. Sussex Gardens from my book of short stories called Tales from Rainwater Pond told the story of a man, Tommy, waking up in a little seedy hotel and setting out like Orpheus into the underworld to seek out his runaway wife who he has been told is working in a bar on the Goldhawk Road, a bar called The Dog and Bone. She, Helen, ran away with a ne’er-do-well called Ramey Savage a few years ago, leaving behind her husband and a little daughter. Inspired by this short story I wrote a follow-up short monologue for the stage called The Dog and Bone, told from her perspective. Ramey Savage has indeed left her in the lurch as Tommy suspected and, although she rails against it throughout the piece, she may have no other option but to return to Wexford with him.
My piece illustrates that there are many reasons why someone emigrates - for work mostly, to be sure, but there are other reasons too. On this side of the country London has been our Mexico, a place to hide, a place to build, a place to dream and sometimes a place to fulfil your dreams. It is no accident that The Dog and Bone is situated on the Goldhawk Road. That is where the old Bush Theatre was situated, the place that helped to make my dreams come true.
Both my novels were set in thinly fictionalised versions of Wexford county, but Shall We Gather at the River had a short section (called Frank O’Reilly’s War) set on the 38th Parallel during the Korean War. It was inspired by Kildare writer James Durney’s interviews with an Enniscorthy man named John Hawkins, who fought in both Korea and Vietnam (he passed away in 2012).
I am not an Irish writer. Then again, if I am not an Irish writer, what am I? I labour under the double disadvantage of having been born in England and then having lived most of my adult life in Northern Ireland - which some would regard as a double disqualification.
Yet if one takes the example of Wilde, say, or Shaw, Yeats, Joyce, Elizabeth Bowen, William Trevor, Edna O’Brien, and goodness knows how many young and contemporary Irish writers who work and live and mentally inhabit both this place and elsewhere then one might begin to see multiple Irish literary identities not as not the exception but as the rule.
My own most recent novel, Westmorland Alone (HarperCollins, 2016) is book 3 in a projected 44-book series of novels set in the historic English counties (39 historic counties, plus Yorkshire divided into the Ridings, the city of London as a separate entity, and the bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey). It seems to have taken me more than 20 years to work out how to write about England - for me it seems possible only from a distance and from here. I fully intend to write about Ireland when I retire to the Home Counties.
That old saw how one should write about what one knows, attributed to Mark Twain and Hemingway both serves my childhood hometown setting of Cambridge, Massachusetts for a first novel, Nighthawk Alley, though unlike its three central characters, I’ve never laboured as an auto mechanic. A second novel, Colours Other Than Blue, takes place in part across the Charles River in Boston, though unlike its protagonist Maeve, I’ve not worked as a nurse either. However, I have visited Crete twice and such was that island’s magic that Maeve and her daughter Katy clearly had to holiday there too!
A short story from one of my two collections is also set in Cambridge, while two others unfold on the isle of Mallorca, where I lived in an isolated inland town with its small, beguiling plaza, bougainvillea, caves and nightingales in 1979. Yet another is set in Nicaragua, Central America, just across the border from the small rain-forest village in Costa Rica where I served in the US Peace Corps from 1968 to 1970. And how could that locale, the river outside my door, the red-clay roads, crushed-rock airstrip, and relentless mosquitoes not cry out for a tale to be told therein
Lisa Coen, Tramp Press
Flight by Oona Frawley
A character from Zimbabwe travels to the UK and then Ireland. Her story includes flashbacks to her home. The Irish family she joins, we learn, lived in America and Vietnam for years, before moving back to Ireland with their daughter, so she doesn’t feel she belongs anywhere.
Dubliners 100 by Thomas Morris
Tom’s intro talks about being from Wales and moving to Ireland and whether he’s qualified to write about Joyce.
All the stories are set in Ireland with the exception of Belinda McKeon’s Counterparts, in which an Irish immigrant in New York tunes into the daily Twitter and Facebook feeds of people back in Dublin. As Belinda often puts it, she lives in a “Dublin of the mind” and that temporal dissonance is the start of her troubles.
A Struggle for Fame Charlotte Riddell
This 1883 novel is about an Irish woman, Glen, who decides to try make it as an author, so she travels to London with her father. There are other Irish characters over there already; the one who has successfully passed himself off as an elegant Englishman, and the Peig-like relatives who iron his shirts and help maintain the facade until another clumsy countryman comes along and threatens to expose him. Glen’s problems are less to do with her being Irish (because of her class no doubt), then her being a woman.
A Kind of Compass by Belinda McKeon
This book has “distance” as a common theme for the contributors, sparked by Belinda’s story in D100. It’s the most international of our titles: Sam Lipsyte’s story is about a man travelling by plane within the US for a funeral, Sara Baume’s protagonist is on her way to London to retrieve her uncle’s homing pigeon. In Kevin Barry’s gorgeous Extremadura, an Irish man has exiled himself in Spain. Yoko Ogawa’s story is very witty and sad: two Japanese women in Vienna seek out a former romantic partner of the older woman, and end up sitting by his deathbed. Elske Rahill and Kristín Ómarsdóttir both write about women who want to travel into outer space! (One succeeds). Ross Raisin contributed a Synge-like story of life on an island somewhere in Northumberland, where a girl waits to see if her father’s fishing boat will come back. We also have stories in Nigeria, NYC, an island in the Indian Ocean, the Philippines and of course Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s heartbreaking story of grief set in Kerry.
The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle is about an Irish brother and sister in England, looking for a home outside London. They get a bargain at Cliff House and soon learn about the house’s dark past. They bring with them Lizzie, a more identifiably Irish character.
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
This all takes place at a kitchen table in Mayo, but includes the narrator’s trip to Prague, his son’s immigration to Australia and most importantly it reaches for the afterlife and arguably includes a trip there and back. It’s maybe the furthest reaching of all our titles!
It strikes me that the only one of our books not to reach outside of Ireland is Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither, in which Ray is kept within a fairly tight radius.
Our Recovered Voices title, Maeve Kelly’s Orange Horses includes stories about student nurses in London.
Lisa Coien is co-founder of Tramp Press
My father-in-law Antony Tatlow has made Bertolt Brecht’s relationship to Asia his life’s work. Even though Brecht never visited Asia, his work was profoundly informed by Asian texts. In this comparative way, it’s interesting to see how Asian writers and thinkers influenced Irish writers.
George Bernard Shaw visited Shanghai in 1933, a difficult period in European history, for one night, and said during his visit:”It is not for me, belonging as I do to a quarter of the globe which is mismanaging its affairs in a ruinous fashion to pretend to advise an ancient people striving to set its house in order.”
Prof Jerusha McCormack has written how the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi (which is written as Chuang Ts? in the old Wade-Giles romanisation) influenced the thinking of Oscar Wilde and is name-checked in The Soul of a Man under Socialism, which in turn was an inspiration to the Republican movement which deposed the Qing Dynasty in 1911.
WB Yeats was interested in Indian philosophy, and inspired by Japanese Noh theatre the (I think Irish-American) academic Joseph Lennon gave a talk on Yeats’ Irish Noh in the Chester Beatty Library last year - as well as Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism (he owned a copy of DT Suzuki’s well-known book on Zen Buddhism from 1927), and of course Byzantium, to which he lyrically sailed, is in Asia. Chinese and Indian statues of Buddha had a profound effect on his imagination, and he was interested in how tradition and modernity intersected in Asia. He owned one of 50 copies of Arthur Waley’s hugely influential An Introduction to the Study of Chinese Painting. Jerusha has also spoken about Yeats Lapis Lazuli within a Chinese context.
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was first translated in 1965. When the Gate brought its great version of the play to China a decade ago, the non-specialist section of the audience was baffled, with one man asking: “Do foreigners like waiting?”
In 2013, Dai Congrong’s translation of Finnegans Wake became a bestseller, shifting 8,000 copies which is more than double the original print run of Finnegans Wake.
Clifford Coonan is Beijing correspondent of The Irish Times