Niamh Campbell: I write because I want to be seen, and heard, and responded to
UCD’s writer in residence on her free online series of conversations with fellow artists
Niamh Campbell: “I have been able to invite a series of writers to reflect on their own style, craft and context as spirits speaking through a language machine.”
When I set out to write full-time I felt the act was essentially aristocratic. To create open-endedly is to invest in your own personality – to believe, that is, in its value. Anyone who does it believes their view of the world to be interesting: nobody does it for outreach reasons, or for the furtherance of human virtue.
Art is selfish, self-possessed and self-exposing. I suspect many writers want to be mirrored in the world because they don’t feel, perhaps never have felt, seen, but there is something about putting an intimate imprint on the language machine – on the common currency we use for communication – that is delightfully entitled: I am.
A recent interview in this paper with the musician CMAT has stayed in my mind because of a point she made about self-presentation when Irish and female. This is muted, never “hyperfeminine”, never loud unless packaged as androgyny, and true of female self-fashioning in the public eye across the board.
I recognise it because I published my first novel in the afterglow of the Sally Rooney phenomenon, a cultural turn that has less to do with Rooney than hostility towards the woman writer under 40 as consumable entity. It meant fielding ambient or overt derision that responds to a notional Trinity Genius, or bit-part of the Irish Women Writers “Set”, or Marketing Tool, which is ironic since writing is a practice contingent on empathy and the interface between you, reader, and me, spirit in the language machine.
I’ve been asked about the surge in writing from Ireland and I always attribute it, in part, to the financial crash, which released a post-Catholic, post-historical, always-online generation into a world without regular work. But this event has other resonances. As a student I sought out real-time analysis of the boom: I remember a sociologist remarking on the loss of Irish humility, when we became rich, by offering the example of an elderly woman dumbfounded in a Dublin cafe. “What kind of sandwich do you want?,” the waiter, exasperated, asks. The woman, too humble to assert herself, is distressed: “just give me anything,” she says.
The parable was supposed to show what we as a nation had lost – the self-denying Mammy, swallowed up by cafe cosmopolitanism – but it rubbed me up different. I also worked as a waiter at the time and Mammy was, to me, a familiar customer. She was the woman who set her strength against you for suggesting she has appetite, for having the cheek to assume eats. It took 10 painful minutes to extract an order from her.
Naturally, the sociologist who would celebrate comely maiden martyrdom was male, unconscious of the absurdity contained in the slip of a woman who only wants a bit of cheese in half a sandwich if you can, which of course you cannot, because what the hell are you supposed to do with the other half?
It’s not about the sandwich, of course. It’s about compulsory humility. Having been female for over 30 years I knew launching a book about sex into the Rooneyverse would result in a certain kind of attention I sought to offset by insisting I didn’t want a sandwich, and posing for promotional photos with a look of intense discomfort the photographer tried valiantly to undercut by making jokes and suggesting I try for “interested”.
I keep my social media interaction to a minimum and refuse the friend requests from middle-aged men I don’t know. I accept gossip circulating about me and coming to my ears. I face questions about my private life with a practiced equanimity. I am no-makeup-look, noli me tangere.
The thing is, I also want a big dirty sandwich. I want my novel to feel like the dance of the seven veils. I wants, as the Fat Boy in the Pickwick Papers wants, to make your flesh creep.
This, then, is why I write: I write because I want to be seen, and heard, and responded to, just not via the usual channels. I want to talk to you through this machine which also protects me from being answerable; I have found, since the book came out, that my own life and essence now exist in the world as a Rorschach test people interpret for me and give me, in this way, the gift of perspective and connectedness. This mirroring is subtle and nourishing.
In my capacity as writer in residence at UCD this year, I have also been able to invite a series of writers to reflect on their own style, craft and context as spirits speaking through a language machine that is also a publicity machine, a Twittering machine, a criticism machine, a world of intermediaries in which everything begins with the vulnerable, but audacious, self.
We’ll begin with Kevin Power, who inadvertently encapsulated the boom mood with Bad Day in Blackrock and returns now with White City; and Lauren Oyler, a writer-critic whose debut Fake Accounts should revise the entire field. I have long wanted to talk to the artist-writers Sue Rainsford and Adrian Duncan (Redder Days and Midfield Dynamo incoming, respectively) about the overlap between these media; and after this we’ll talk about concrete poetry – the self through other selves, other things – with Kimberly Campanello and Christodoulos Makris, writers with considerable ethical and interventionist energy. Two more Irish female debuts (“get the whole set!”) will finish off: journalist Megan Nolan, now launching the explosive Acts of Desperation, and co-editor of Banshee journal Eimear Ryan, whose gently immersive Holding Her Breath will appear later this year.
We have Zoom webinar access, an attitude, and four Tuesday evenings: March 23rd and 30th, and April 6th and 13th. Please join us, free of charge, from 7pm to 8pm, here.