Ruth Gilligan: write what you want to know

Inspired by Colum McCann to set her fiction in a world other than her own, Ruth Gilligan explored Ireland’s Jewish community in her novel, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan

In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was this: “Write what you know”.

It is the age-old adage, the number one rule, hammered into aspiring authors’ buzzing brains right from the start. So, being the dutiful, law-abiding teenager I was, I set about filling my debut novel, Forget, with details and observations from my immediate surroundings. Likewise, my second novel, Somewhere in Between, contained an almost verbatim account of my sixth-year holiday in Ayia Napa, and my third, Can You See Me?, drew heavily on my decision to leave Ireland behind and study at Cambridge University.

And it worked – praise for the novels’ “authenticity” and “accuracy” was bandied about; my friends delighted that our young-adult years had been captured in print. Yet I began to wonder if I would always be trapped (creatively speaking) within the confines of my own experience. We only live one life, but can we really only write one kind of story?

It was during this time that my long-standing admiration for the author Colum McCann flourished. Like me, McCann enjoyed a pretty normal Dublin upbringing, so when it came to producing fiction he looked elsewhere. He has published novels set in Roma camps in eastern Europe; in the darkest corners of New York subway tunnels. He challenges the dictum “write what you know” and suggests rather to “write towards what you want to know… The only true way to expand your world is to think about others.”


So I decided to expand my world, and embarked on researching what would eventually become my fourth novel, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan. Inspired by the history of the Irish Jewish community – a community to which I do not belong – it took me years of reading and interviewing and travelling and learning. I spent time all around Cork and Dublin, meeting with countless members of the depleting Jewish population. I went to Israel, and hung out with the Irish population there, listening to their stories; immersing myself in their unfamiliar narratives.

And yet, no matter the volume of research, I realised there is still so much at stake when deciding to write outside one’s self. Firstly, what right did I have to tell these stories that were not my own? Secondly, what about the risk of misrepresenting? Of ventriloquising? Of misappropriation?

Mindful of these pitfalls, I had to devise ways of avoiding – or at least, of confronting them. So in Nine Folds, while two of my protagonists – Ruth and Shem – are Jewish, the third – Aisling – is not. Instead, she is an Irish Catholic who has fallen in love with a London Jew and thus is considering a Judaic conversion. Aisling, then, became a doppelganger for me, the curious outsider, looking in; fascinated, but wary always of crossing the line; of stepping where she didn’t belong.

This doppelganger technique is one McCann also employs – be it through the journalist character in Zoli, who seeks to uncover the secrets of the notoriously private Roma community, or in Dancer, where the numerous mismatched accounts of the same Russian ballerina deliberately frustrate the reader’s desire to really know him; to discover the “truth”.

McCann has also spoken of feeling an affinity towards the “other” groups about which he writes. For example, whilst spending time with the black homeless community that inspired his novel, This Side of Brightness, McCann recounts how being an Irishman in New York helped, for it meant that he was also outside of the system; also a kind of “other”.

Such an affinity was what first led me to write Nine Folds, given I noticed countless parallels between the Jewish and Irish peoples. Both boast huge diasporas, spread out across the globe; both have been persecuted minorities over the course of history; both enjoy a huge literary tradition, a particular self-deprecating humour. However, I soon discovered the danger behind such parallels – how, in the past, many people have actually gone as far as completely aligning the Holocaust and the Famine; how blurring the two groups – however well-meaning it may be – runs the risk of overlooking the countless, complex differences which not only separate, but define them. Furthermore, such parallels conveniently overlook Ireland’s rather problematic track record of anti-Semitism, one which we all-too-often like to forget.

When McCann advocates thinking about others, he is not only referring to his fiction. In recent years he launched the international storytelling charity Narrative 4 with support from writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Terry Tempest Williams and Zadie Smith. N4 works with young people across the globe, using storytelling to break down barriers, shatter stereotypes and foster what it terms “radical empathy”.

To achieve this, N4 follows a simple “story exchange” model, which they have enacted between groups of teenagers from America, Ireland, Israel, Palestine, South Africa and beyond. Here, participants are paired off and invited to share stories from one another’s lives. Then each person tells their partner’s story back to the group, but from a first-person point of view, thus stepping into their partner’s shoes and imagining their experience as their own.

Earlier this year, I invited N4 to the University of Birmingham where I teach, and we brought together three diverse local schools for a “story exchange” project. We heard tales of bullying, abuse, racism, family troubles – it was, in many ways, a harrowing day. But to see the students – black, white, Muslim, Christian, state-schooled, public-schooled – take such care with one another’s stories, was truly moving. By the end, they had recognised the power of empathy, and had realised that behind every appearance – every uniform or religious garb – lies so much common ground.

President Obama has spoken of America’s “empathy deficit”. Living in the UK, in the wake of Brexit, I am certain the deficit exists here too – on all sides. So now more than ever, we must think of others; must step outside ourselves and into someone else’s shoes; must imagine how that feels. Fiction is a space where that can, quite beautifully, occur.

Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan is published by Atlantic Books, £12.99