‘Whatever you say, say everything’

Rosemary Jenkinson responds to an author’s criticism of her views on Northern writing

Rosemary Jenkinson: perhaps it is now time for us to move away from labels that identify us as a type rather than a talent. Photograph: Stuart Bailie

Disagreement between writers can often be positive, as it shows the complex vitality of the contemporary writing scene, but I feel it imperative to defend my recent essay in Fortnight and to pen a right of reply to Sharon Dempsey's article in the Irish Times. Dempsey said that "to call into question the role of the artist in harking back to the Troubles, within the pages of a publication that did much to allow the realms of politics and arts to sit together, is particularly galling".

That is surprising as my essay is completely in the tradition of Fortnight’s “intersection between politics, culture and the arts”, and the reason I write for them is because of their fearlessness in posing contentious questions. They welcome think pieces and polemic; moreover, they appreciate the rhetorical arts of satire and hyperbole, and indeed nuance.

My Fortnight article pointed out a rising imbalance within Northern Irish literature, fostered by the appetites of publishers and producers currently craving Troubles drama. We need only look at the recent premiere of Kenneth Branagh’s Troubles film Belfast to see the trend but, I wrote, “many writers feel pressurized into writing work that fulfils external expectations”, and by no means referred to all writers.

I support the right of anyone to write about the Troubles when they feel driven to do so. I’ve examined the repercussions of the Troubles myself and my latest collection Marching Season includes a story about an ex-IRA man who tries to free the local youth from the clutches of dissidents.


Yet, while Belfast may be famed for its war, the city to me is a modern, vibrant microcosm of the world, containing many differing voices. Northern Ireland has evolved into a very different place from what you might assume. My attitude is not, as Dempsey wrote, “Whatever you say, say nothing”. I believe in “Whatever you say, say everything,” and, rather than condone silencing, I actively encourage self-expression.

No doubt some writers will dismiss this as a northern spat, but let’s widen the argument. The primary problem is with reductive labels. I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a Troubles writer, a post-conflict writer or a Protestant writer just because I’m from Northern Ireland. I choose to be a universal writer, neither confined by the country I come from, the body I was born into, nor the era I’ve lived through.

These days, more than ever, we find ourselves conveniently packaged and branded, and become more renowned for one identifiable feature than for our writing ability, exacerbated by a public expectation to write about that one aspect. The very borders of possibility seem to be contracting and we need to transcend these external limitations.

For over 40 years, anthologies published on this island have been allocating labels to writers. I was proud to appear in the all-female line-ups in Female Lines and The Glass Shore and there have been other recent fine anthologies such as Queer Love, The 32 and Look! It’s a Woman Writer! These groundbreaking collections have given great exposure to many previously overlooked writers. But perhaps it is now time for us to move away from labels that identify us as a type rather than a talent.

Whether people agree with the essay or not, Fortnight acts as a locutory for new ideas. I never meant to cause hurt and don’t believe I have, but I am dealing with a serious topic about stereotypes and labelling. The most important thing is for writers to write passionately about the issues that concern them, and for other writers to allow them the latitude to do so, without feeling personally slighted or that their genre of writing is threatened.

All genres of literature should be confident in their own value. It’s good to keep asking ourselves, in the words of Flann O’Brien, “Do I take that rather Irish thing, O’Fence, too easily?” Just as we must maintain our freedom to write about our own individual fascinations, we must continue to uphold the freedom of both thought and speech.

Rosemary Jenkinson’s collection of short stories, Marching Season, is published by Arlen House and internationally distributed by Syracuse University Press. It was launched in Bray, Dublin, Galway and Kerry alongside collections by David Butler and Tanya Farrelly.