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Telling Truths: Evelyn Conlon and the Task of Writing – Engrossing essays about a vital Irish writer

Superb essays about an inventive, daring and deeply humane writer

Telling Truths: Evelyn Conlon and the Task of Writing
Telling Truths: Evelyn Conlon and the Task of Writing
Author: M Teresa Caneda-Cabrera
ISBN-13: 978-1800794818
Publisher: Peter Lang
Guideline Price: £40

Thinking about the process of writing, Evelyn Conlon has observed that “to me, that is what fiction is – what’s happening in the unseen corridors”. Conlon’s comments speak to an informing principle of her oeuvre over the past four decades. In that time Conlon has been drawn towards issues of occlusion in fiction, casting light on experiences that are all-too-easily discounted, and bearing witness to lives – especially female lives – that have been systematically gagged, misrepresented or otherwise cast in shadow.

Her work has ranged across an array of subjects and settings, from her affective engagement with the death penalty, Skins of Dreams (2003), to her informed account of the plight of orphan girls who were shipped to Australia during the Famine, Not the Same Sky (2013). It has also encompassed short stories that are variously local and international, from early contestatory texts such as The Park and Taking Scarlet as a Real Colour (or And Also, Susan) – from Taking Scarlet as a Real Colour (1993) – to Virgin Birth, which imagines the first Japanese woman who decided to become pregnant after the bombing of Hiroshima (Moving About the Place, 2021). Such work is singularly challenging and courageous.

It is fitting, therefore, that the cover of this new collection of essays, Telling Truths: Evelyn Conlon and the Task of Writing, should feature a reproduction of a vibrant painting by the late Róisín Conroy, who, after all, was co-founder of the feminist publishing house Attic Press, which published some of Conlon’s earliest works, including her debut volume of short stories, My Head is Opening (1987), as well as her first novel, Stars in the Daytime (1989).

The decision to reproduce Conroy’s painting, appropriately titled Unfinished Landscape, is unremarked by either Conlon or M Teresa Caneda-Cabrera, as editor of Telling Truths. Nonetheless it provides a sensitive tribute to a pioneering figure in Irish publishing. It also gives one of two frames through which to approach the essays in Telling Truths. The second frame is offered by Michael Cronin, who adroitly identifies intelligence, integrity, and “deep investment in the craft and necessity of writing” as the defining features of Conlon’s extensive but still-developing oeuvre in his foreword to this engrossing collection – the first of its kind to honour the work of this significant contemporary Irish writer.


The craft – or the task – of writing runs as a watermark throughout Telling Truths, as 10 essays are ably curated by Caneda-Cabrera and grouped into four sections, each of which stresses the necessity of the creative act for Conlon. Thus, the first part of this book, Writing against the Norm, comprises essays by Rebecca Pelan, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and Caneda-Cabrera herself, and explores representations of women in a selection of Conlon’s long and short fiction.

The second section, Writing and Power Relations, includes work by Seán O’Reilly, Marilyn Reizbaum, and Ira Torresi, and investigates Conlon’s interest in the politics of language. Torresi, for instance, provides a searching consideration of the challenges that she has faced translating some of Conlon’s stories into Italian, while O’Reilly skilfully unpicks the metafictional qualities of two recent stories – Telling and The Reading of It – to demonstrate the ways in which Conlon provokes the realisation that the process of reading – like the practice of writing – is always a politicised act.

The third section, Writing the Past, focuses upon questions of history, legacy, and personal and collective trauma, with Patrick Leech contributing a moving account of Conlon’s involvement in the commemorative anthology Later On (2004), published to remember the atrocity of the Monaghan bombing in 1974. Margaret Kelleher, meanwhile, offers an exemplary discussion of the imaginative capacities of fiction to reclaim, and to remember, through a close analysis of Not the Same Sky.

Finally, in Writing and Ethics, Joseph Bathanti and Izabela Curyłło-Klag both survey Conlon’s negotiation with structures of justice, incarceration and commemoration. Each of these four sections inter-relate, with essays from different parts of Telling Truths talking across and to one another. If recurring attention is given to specific stories or novels by Conlon, this only enhances what Caneda-Cabrera identifies as a tendency towards “overlap and crosstalk” between the contributors.

Telling Truths ends with the transcript of an absorbing conversation between Conlon and Paige Reynolds, which is placed as a coda to the collection; and this allows Conlon to address a breadth of issues that are raised in the book in a characteristically wry and astute fashion. Conlon’s brilliant description of the foundational short-story anthology Cutting the Night in Two, which she co-edited with Hans-Christian Oeser in 2001, as “a joyous building of a neon sign”, since it included work by a constellation of female writers, “some of whom had stopped [writing] or were forgotten”, is but one instance of this. It is a fitting conclusion to a superb collection about an inventive, daring and deeply humane writer.

Paul Delaney is associate professor in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin