‘These stories are tentative dates with a Belfast I’ve slowly fallen in love with’

The stories in Children’s Children are the products of many late-night walks, writes Jan Carson, hunting down the fractured narrative of the place I now call home

I was born in Ballymena, in the cottage hospital overlooking the duck pond. The year was 1980. Ian Paisley was still omnipotent in most every Protestant house in town. I went to a Protestant primary school and a Protestant secondary. As far as I was aware I knew nine Catholics in total and five of them were from the same family. This was considered reasonably progressive for Ballymena.

Throughout my childhood and early teens a large banner hung from the wall of the Seven Towers Leisure Centre, informing everyone approaching the town that “Ballymena Still Says No”. Raised in a largely apolitical household I hadn’t a clue what we wereall saying no to. I knew the Free Presbyterian contingent weren’t keen on line dancing, so I assumed that this was the evil in question.

I was born in 1980 in a nice housing estate in a provincial Northern Irish town. The Troubles hardly touched me. Of course, I have the same collective memories most Northern Irish children have: ghost-faced soldiers at the border checkpoints; bomb scares in department stores; Land Rovers with their backsides flung open exposing more soldiers, more guns, more grim, young faces; the occasional friend of a friend of a friend, shot or caught up in an explosion. None of this should ever be normal for a child, but it wasn’t awful either. My childhood was happy. I was for the most part unaffected by the violence and unrest taking place in the rest of the country. I was very fortunate. I realise this now.

However, it would be ridiculous to say that the Troubles haven’t affected me in a significant way. I’m part of Northern Ireland’s in-between generation: the generation who’ve lived most of their adult lives in relative peace, but are still old enough to vividly recall the unrest. We inherited our own particular legacy from the generation before.

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I can’t speak for all my peers but I know I arrived at Queen’s in 1998 with a deeply-held suspicion that nothing good could come out of the little country I called home. I understood, though I’d never been told explicitly, that if I was serious about carving out a successful career, I’d have to leave Northern Ireland and move to the Mainland or further afield. Many of my friends did. It was easy to see why. Belfast in 1998 wasn’t a particularly inspiring place. Most of these talented, passionate people never came back. They’re elsewhere now, investing in other cities and communities. It’s hard not to see this as a loss.

Later I would leave, spending time in America and London, before reluctantly returning to find Belfast a much more hopeful little city. Things had changed, mostly for the better. I knew I had to stay. I felt compelled to be part of whatever happened next in Northern Ireland. I still do. But this process has been far from easy.

Leaving gave me the objectivity to see just how much my beliefs and opinions had been shaped for me. I was lucky: most of what I’d inherited was generous, creative and, above all else, tolerant. But I still needed to go through the difficult process of leaving behind what I’d been given and cleaving to the things I actually believed for myself.

All young people must go on this journey of self-realisation if they’re to have any integrity in their adult lives. It’s not peculiar to Northern Ireland or even my generation. However, the process has always felt particularly arduous here. Perhaps, it’s the sheer geographical limitations or perhaps it’s the stronghold of church and family but it can often feel like a goldfish bowl here, like there’s nowhere to go to get away from people who’ve always known you and assume you’ll never change. How much more painful must change be for those of us who’ve inherited a legacy of violence and intolerance.

In 2013 President Obama delivered an address to the schoolchildren of Belfast. I was fortunate enough to be standing at the back of the auditorium. He said, “whenever your peace is attacked, you will have to choose whether to respond with the same bravery you’ve summoned so far. You will have to choose whether to keep going, forward not backward,” and in doing so, summed up an entire generation of Northern Irish people, who are currently journeying through the process of becoming something new.

Inevitably this process has involved painful change. It is messy, because honesty is required, and the truth is never neat. It continues to require time, enormous amounts of time, and patience. It involves leaving behind much of the legacy we’ve inherited and deciding what we, ourselves, believe about politics, religion, money, sexuality and a whole host of potentially divisive issues. This process has to happen. So much depends on how Northern Ireland chooses to deal with its troubled legacy, for no community can flourish if its people can’t or won’t think bravely and honestly for themselves.

Belfast is home for me now, specifically East Belfast. I have chosen to be here and I’ve made a conscious decision to write about the people and situations I encounter every day. I’m a naturally nosy person so this is working out reasonably well for me. The stories in my new collection, Children’s Children, are the products of many late-night walks round the east and the city centre, hunting down the fractured narrative of the place I now call home. I think they’re representative of thepeople who live here in this new, or rather “newish” Northern Ireland.

The locals may be hiding behind statues or floating 10 feet off the ground, they may be junior burglars or planters of indoor allotments – I can’t resist the pull of magic realism – but if you peel back the allegory there’s a Northern Irish soul hiding behind every one of them. These are people who are living with the implications of an inherited legacy. They’re weighed down and frightened, guilty and occasionally shot through with wild optimism, but all of them, even the oldest characters, are hesitating on the edge of their actual, honest self. They’re slowly moving forwards. Much will be lost in this process. Much will be gained. Sometimes it’s good to pause and take some snapshots from the road.

For me this short collection was a very natural progression from my first novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears. I began working on Malcolm just after returning from four years’ exile in Portland, Oregon. I was homesick, for the place I’d left and quite naturally fell to writing a novel set in the US.

However, I was also aware that Northern Ireland would be home for the foreseeable future and so I, very cautiously began writing stories set in and around Belfast. I can honestly say that the act of observing the people around me and recording their conversations, actions and odd little nuances was a big part of helping me settle back into Belfast.

Running parallel to the bigger theme of a nation beginning to grow into its sense of self, Children’s Children explores my own personal journey of coming to accept, and even love, Northern Irish culture in all its glory and grittiness. Stories like Dinosaur Act and How We Were Sitting When Our Wings Fell Off, reflect a little of the struggle I’ve had returning from a very liberal and unashamedly honest culture to Northern Ireland, where keeping up appearances is often more important than actually being happy or honest.

There’s a little bit of me in each of these characters as they struggle with an inherited faith, and try to deal honestly with their disappointment, or wonder where they fit into Northern Irish culture. It was cathartic to read these stories back and recognise so many aspects of my own journey.

I could have written another novel after Malcolm Orange, but I knew I’d want to set this novel in Belfast and I wasn’t quite ready to commit to the city yet. These stories are perhaps best viewed as a series of tentative dates with a place I have come to slowly fall in love with. I wrote them as they came to me from observations and little incidents I happened to stumble into.

I tend to work on a novel one day and the next on short stories. It keeps the book from going stale and helps me avoid writing all sorts of strange ideas and tangents into the book. Almost all of the stories in Children’s Children were written during the process of writing Malcolm Orange Disappears and the novel I’m currently working on. There are several which I’d like to go back and develop into longer pieces at some stage. I’m terrible for having too many ideas. I always seem to have about 20 writing projects on the go at the same time.

Northern Ireland is full of stories and the more I feel at ease here the more I feel compelled to record them. There’s such a rich tradition of poetry and writing here but the prose tends to be quite linear and plot-driven. I’ve always been drawn to slightly more experimental fiction and was so cheered to hear Eimear McBride say, “it’s time we told the poets they’re not the only ones who can do interesting things with language”, at the Beckett Festival in Enniskillen last summer.

I think we need to be braver and bolder as Northern Irish prose writers. I think we need to challenge our readers a little more with our subject matter, our use of form and language. I think Belfast is poised to produce some fantastic novels and shorts stories in the next few years. These are exciting times for Northern Ireland and the writers must play an integral part in helping us all step boldly into the future.

Children’s Children and Malcolm Orange Disappears are published by Liberties Press