Rosemary Jenkinson interview: ‘Belfast dialect is like Synge on acid’
Rosemary Jenkinson discusses The Glass Shore and her new collection Aphrodite’s Kiss and Further Stories with academic Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado
Rosemary Jenkinson’s Belfast stories tap into the lyricism of the local language and examine the post-Good Friday Agreement cityscape
In a recent Irish Times piece you mention that although you are best known as a playwright, you have actually been “writing stories for much longer”. Your first collection, Contemporary Problems Nos. 53 & 54, was published by Lagan Press 12 years ago, in 2004. Your new collection Aphrodite’s Kiss was published by Whittrick Press earlier this year. You also have a story in The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland, out this week. What prompted the return to short stories?
It wasn’t really a return – I had little phases of writing them so I never stopped. It took me a while to organise everything and send it to the publisher. I put it off because I was so busy with plays. The thing with short stories is that I can’t really mix them with plays. So I have to find a period of maybe a couple of months where I can sit down and write a few, and then I put them aside.
Your writing showcases a brilliant sardonic wit and a distinctly Belfast brand of humour, and it often makes me laugh out loud. Do you write to make yourself laugh, or others? How do you test out a particular line?
Well, I never test out a line on other people. If it makes me laugh on the inside, it works. Hopefully I’m not sitting and laughing out loud to myself; that would be a bit freaky. [Laughs] I do like to make myself laugh. I don’t like to be too serious. I do like serious literature, but I like to laugh as well. I’m not ever really sure of the mix. There’s no recipe of 2 per cent laughs to 98 per cent straight story. It just depends on how I feel.
Do you find that humour is a way into addressing more serious issues in your work?
I do get frightened that I’m going to be over-serious, so I feel the need to keep throwing in humour. But as you say, that’s a typical Belfast thing. And it’s always self-deprecating. When I’m being extremely highfalutin’ I might actually say, now come on here, let’s look at the humour in this situation. Every tragedy has its comedy. You’ll notice that often I put the humour into the dialogue, particularly if writing about people in Belfast, because they do inject that humour into their conversation. So that works for me. I would use more humour now because of the plays – I’m used to trying to entertain and that filters into my stories.
Your stories often feature American and Canadian tourists visiting post-Agreement Belfast. They take photos and videos of pubs, riots, and murals, and generally observe the locals in an unsettling, ethnographic way. What do you make of the recent efforts to increase tourism in Belfast via “political tours”, “mural tours” and “Troubles tours”?
I can see the irony in the fact that the horrors of war can be entertainment for tourists. But I also think that the murals in Belfast are fantastic and they’re one of the city’s best features. It’s fascinating what’s on our walls and it tells the story of the city. We have a whole book on our walls – there are different pages all through the city, and I think that’s pretty amazing. It’s great that tourists want to see that. But because there are two narratives, if they only go on one particular taxi tour, they’re only going to get one view of Belfast.
When you talk to taxi drivers, a lot of them take the mickey out of American tourists by making up sensational stories about a particular patch of waste ground and saying that a bomb exploded there when it never did. [Laughs] They’re a good source of jokes, Belfast taxi men.
[Laughs] Yes, that they are. But the issue is that war history tours tend to focus on much older history, and the Troubles are so recent. A lot of that residual conflict is still there.
Right. But I think it’s great if tourists are interested in that. I am really interested in our history, and I think it’s a positive thing if people learn more about it – as long as they hear both sides of the story. A lot of tourists seem to think the Troubles are totally over but that’s not the case – following the flag protests in 2012, there were sporadic riots in my area that went on for months.
When I saw you recently in Belfast we were discussing the fact that Northern Ireland is often described as a “post-conflict society” and contemporary Northern writing is frequently marketed as “post-conflict literature”. And yet, as both of your collections illustrate, conflict and residual sectarian tension are simmering beneath the surface of everyday life, and can erupt unexpectedly. Do you agree with the use of this term “post-conflict society” to describe the North?
It’s a marketing term. We’re talking about the kind of jargon here that big institutions love. But you know, I’m not going to say to somebody, “Why don’t you come over here and enjoy our post-conflict city?” [Laughs] It just isn’t used in normal parlance. It serves its function in certain discourses as a form of branding. You probably have to use it as an academic yourself!
[Laughs] I do encounter that term all the time in my research on Northern Irish writing. But I don’t use it myself because it’s an inaccurate descriptor.
You know, this could be another “pre-conflict” era, if it happens again. So maybe we’re actually in a “mid-conflict” lull. How long does “post-conflict” go on? It could be another hundred years. To say that Northern Ireland is “post-conflict” or that contemporary writing is “post-conflict” is the same as calling something ‘women’s writing’.
Exactly – this just shows the slipperiness of labels.
Yes, labels. Everything has to be labelled! This is the problem nowadays. And it’s like you said earlier, people are feeding off that, off the conflict, because of the whole funding thing. “Post-conflict” is a funding term.
You have said that there are two narratives in Belfast, but your new collection also portrays the influx of other cultural groups into the city due to recent immigration. Do you still see the story of Belfast as being the story of two sides?
It still is because the newer residents aren’t all from one particular country. They’re part of a more multicultural presence who can only provide mini-narratives in this city. There are two main narratives here and they are physically divided as well, which is really unusual.
There has been renewed talk about removing the peace walls within the next few years, but some people are saying that they would prefer to keep them. What do you think about this situation?
That’s a decision for people in those areas with peace walls because I don’t know what it’s like to live along those lines. I’ve written about how, particularly in summer, there’s always tension. But it’s up to the residents, and I’ve no real opinion on that, because the city’s still going to be divided by roads. Even if the walls come down, the roads are still in the way, demarcating a line.
Your stories often examine the convolutions and atavisms of sectarian logic in Northern Ireland. In The Backroom Rebellion in Aphrodite’s Kiss, IRA member Gerard recalls, “if your dad was Catholic but your mother was Protestant, you could still get into the Orange Order due to some archaic law of ‘being born of a Protestant womb’. He’d felt short-changed; by some divine cruelty his parents had got their denominations the wrong way round…He accepted that one of the reasons he had joined the IRA could in part have been to get back at his father, who…would speak of ‘my house’, ‘my chair’, exercising the same territorialism that had split the land in two.” How do you perceive this kind of logic impinging upon domestic spaces in the North?
It’s something that I’ve observed from some Protestant men, that kind of territorial behaviour, throwing your weight around. I’ve talked to a lot of Protestants about this, and part of you always wishes you were Catholic. It’s viewed as being more romantic than Protestantism. Our iconography is much more confined and strict and masculine, whereas Catholics have the mother figure of Mary. I think it is a good thing to have a feminine icon.
Regarding that story, when I think of Gerard’s father being Protestant, I’m also thinking of the imagery of the Orange Order as masculine. The story shows how sectarian conflict can occur within a family. It’s about a family divided by that logic, particularly in the case of mixed marriage.
Children of mixed marriages often have to decide which set of beliefs they hold or it’s decided for them. It can create a sense of otherness in that they might have trouble relating to the other parent. If the two sides within Northern society are perceived to hate each other so much, this hatred can sometimes come through within a family and cause confusion or alienation.
Your story Silent Giving in Aphrodite’s Kiss portrays a Polish woman’s journey to Warsaw for an illegal abortion. The protagonist states that she wants to go to Germany where abortion is safe and legal, but she can’t afford it. This week, women in Poland are going on strike to protest the abortion ban. This comes just a few days after the Repeal the Eighth march in Ireland. What are your thoughts on the current climate and this transnational response to archaic abortion laws in Northern Ireland, the Republic, Poland and elsewhere?
I wrote this story in 2007 and it’s about my time in Poland. I was there in 2001, so it’s not a recent story; and yet, we’re still having the same problems 15 year later. When I was in Poland I was very aware of the strict abortion laws, and you could go to prison if you had one. Of course abortion should be legalised – it’s not even a question. I hope that it will happen soon. But it’s strange that an old story can still be so current.
Now it’s become this transnational movement on a scale that we haven’t seen before. It’s gaining the momentum that it needed, and I do think that change will happen soon.
I’m sure that it will, yes. It’s funny, I’m not really an ‘issues’ writer, so it wasn’t something deliberate. It was based on something that happened to someone I knew in Poland. I have witnessed how awful it is to undergo an illegal abortion. I’m glad that this is a political issue that is in the forefront of people’s minds because it really needs to be. The fact that women have to travel elsewhere for an abortion is just horrific.
Yes, the fact that there is no help in the home country, no infrastructure of support – how can you feel at home in a place like that?
Right. And there’s the temptation to go down that illegal route, which is also horrific. Seeing what my friend went through was absolutely frightening, and I wanted to address how it affects the individual.
So you wanted to give a voice to your friend’s experience.
Yes, it’s very direct. The most powerful thing in literature is not to bang a drum for a cause but just to give voice to an individual’s experience of a political problem. The most effective thing you can do as a writer is to give voice to individual experience rather than trying to make a broad political statement in general.
Changing gears a bit, in your story The Mural Painter in The Glass Shore, it seems that the figure of Mother Ireland becomes conflated with that of an Eastern European immigrant in the mind of Davey, the eponymous mural painter. Why do you think this conflation occurs?
I never even thought about Mother Ireland because she’s not in the mindset of Northern Protestants. [Laughs] It’s interesting you bring that up, because to me, the murals are all about men. Only a few women appear on them, and that’s mainly in republican areas like the Falls. But certainly in Protestant areas, women do not appear on the murals. I can’t think of any that feature women.
But, in Davey’s world, the most powerful figure is his mother. Then he sees this beautiful Eastern European woman and in his imagination, her image conflicts with that of his mother. There’s no relationship between Davey and this woman, and yet there’s a power struggle between her and his mother.
For him, this struggle is very real, even though the reader doesn’t know whether the immigrant woman truly exists or is a figment of his imagination. The real issue for the loyalist guys at the Cosy Bar is that they perceive the woman Davey paints on the mural to be a Catholic woman.
That’s why I thought of the mural image as evocative of Mother Ireland.
I was thinking more of a saint. The lads at the Cosy think of her as a Catholic martyr. I was just thinking, what is the most radical image that you could put on a Loyalist mural? [Laughs]
Why do you think these murals tend to depict a hypermasculine narrative and leave women out of the equation?
Obviously, the artists are all men, and the guys who commission them are all men. I really don’t know why they can’t see women, but it seems that they think women aren’t worthy of a place in local art. It’s very strange.
That was the lingering question when I finished reading that story: why are the men so outraged by Davey’s decision to include a woman on the mural? On the other hand, the women in the crowd are thrilled.
Perhaps it’s because these murals are mainly about the military, or paramilitaries, and that is why they are masculine narratives. It’s about eulogising the hero, and that’s why the guys at the Cosy are so offended. Also, Davey violates Johnny’s order by including that woman. If anybody crosses a direct order in an organisation like that, the response is bound to be aggressive. People in the story are laughing about it, and there is a sense of Johnny feeling humiliated as well.
Right. Davey’s also destabilising their “Cosy” masculinist narrative.
He is. And the setting of this story is in the area where I live. It’s a very traditionally Protestant area, and yet there are Catholic Polish immigrants living side by side with the Protestants. But the two groups don’t mix. Davey’s making them mix by putting that woman’s image on the wall, and I think that’s the element that upsets Johnny and the boys.
Yes. Also, Davey still isn’t sure if the woman he sees is merely a vision. She is ungraspable because she is the Other, and he is unable to connect with her.
That totally reflects how these two communities operate in that part of town. They see each other, but they don’t connect.
Much of your oeuvre is set in Belfast. Is that a conscious thing or do you find that you simply return to it unaware at first?
Since I live here now, I’m completely immersed in Belfast. I tend to write about what I react to, what I see around me. I can go back to the past and use past memories of other places, but some of them are fading now. I’ve been in this city so long that it makes up my personal stimulus. Where I am right now is what gives me ideas.
You lived away from Belfast for 15 years before returning in 2002. Do you feel part of a community of writers in Northern Ireland or do you feel somewhat at a remove since you were abroad for so long?
Most writers are apart from the others and they do their own thing. I know that if I got together with writers here we would just end up having a giant moaning session! [Laughs] I do socialise sometimes with them, but only at literary events. I try to have a circle that is wider than just writers. Ideas-wise, if I just hung out with writers, I’d completely vanish up myself! So I don’t think it’s healthy just to be in a community of writers - far better to be on your own most of the time.
You use Belfast dialect very effectively within your writing and it lends a sense of the texture of lived experience there. How important is dialect when you are shaping a character in your stories?
Well, it depends on class. If the characters are working-class or underclass, they tend to have a stronger dialect, whereas the middle-class characters tend to have a milder one. So it depends on which societal perspective the character comes from. I think the dialect here is incredibly rich. It’s like Synge on acid. [Laughs] I think it’s pretty amazing to use Belfast dialect because it gives the writing a heightened sense of lyricism.
It depends on how the voice of the character is coming through to you.
Yeah. And the humour comes through more in the dialect. You can be a bit more unusual in your word choice too. Sometimes people don’t understand Belfast dialect and they have to look up the words, but I think that’s a good thing! I don’t think language should always be simple and easy. I’m not trying to be more obscure for a point but I think it’s more fun if the language isn’t so obvious. That whole Raymond Carver kind of idea of short and plain sentences is boring as hell. I like something with flair, style, and character.
Your use of dialect also shows that language is a living thing.
Yeah! Sometimes I read that about writers who say, “Oh yeah, I realised that stripping back language is so much better. It’s almost like I’m educating myself through the crystallisation of language and finding real truth in simplicity.” And it’s like, come off it! Have fun, explore, go wild! That’s my view of language. It’s not something I ever want to stint on. I read an interview in the Belfast Telegraph with David Park recently where he said, “I don’t like writing that sets out to be clever”. I have the completely opposite view of that!
You’ve mentioned that your story Licence to a Black Limousine in Aphrodite’s Kiss is “the only one influenced by newspapers”. How do you see fiction, and your work more specifically, responding to reportorial or sensationalist narratives of the Troubles and the North that circulate within the media?
I’m much more interested in fiction that is based on what people have seen and heard. I prefer fiction based on inside information rather than what’s written in newspapers. I have to confess I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction these days, apart from plays. I read a lot of plays. But I don’t like an issues-led type of literature, and there’s a lot of that now.
There is currently a resurgence of interest in Northern Irish women writers due to the explosion of new writing –
[Puts hands in the air] Yes! It’s fantastic!
It is! Recent events such as the Women Aloud NI initiative and Waking the Feminists have also prompted a reframing of women’s writing in Northern Ireland. In November Ruth Carr (née Hooley) will re-launch The Female Line, hitherto the only existing anthology of Northern Irish women’s writing. It was originally published by the Northern Irish Women’s Rights Movement in 1985 and it will be digitised with the Linen Hall Library’s Digitising the Archive project. You also have a story in The Glass Shore, edited by Sinéad Gleeson. What are your thoughts on this renewal of interest in and writing by women from the North?
I think this explosion of writing and interest in it is great. As you say, it was like this in the 1980s and we saw that with books like The Female Line. Charabanc Theatre Company, Anne Devlin and Christina Reid were huge. But then for some reason it felt like that momentum just stopped. So are we in the middle of another explosion that’s going to be stopped? It’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Theatre has been the worst for women writers. This year has been great; I got a play on the main stage of the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and that never would have happened if it weren’t for the Waking the Feminists movement.
But it’s also a really exciting time now because we are the generation who will be able to write classic texts that will last. It’s up to us to write really well so that this explosion will continue. You do feel the pressure of this time – it’s exciting, but we have to make the most of it. Also, the fact that there are so many talented women writers in Northern Ireland now spurs a kind of healthy competition and pushes us to produce our best work.
Aphrodite’s Kiss by Rosemary Jenkinson is published by Whittrick Press. The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, is published by New Island Books. Patricia Craig, who wrote the introduction to The Glass Shore, will launch the anthology at the Ulster Museum, Belfast tonight, at 7pm, and contributor Lucy Caldwell will speak. There will also be readings by some of the featured authors.
Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is an academic specialising in Irish and Caribbean Studies. Follow her on Twitter @drdawnmiranda