On Academia & Climbing A Tidal Wave: The Sibéal Conference 2014

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“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

John Williams, Stoner 

Over a reader’s lifetime there are a handful of books that linger in the mind forever. Often these titles are consumed in the blaze of youth, when life’s possibilities – actual and intellectual – spill forth like a psychedelic tapestry. For many of us, as we age, life becomes less about the highest highs and more about the eternal questions of what life is for and what constitutes living well. To this end, John Williams’ reclaimed classic Stoner blew me away in a manner I associate with the usual literary suspects of youth (The Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar, etc. both of which I still love, without apology).

William Stoner is possibly the greatest literary hero many people have never heard of and perhaps that’s the point. Williams’ exquisite reflection on life and living is a gentle antidote to the 21st century’s obsession with a specific type of bombastic, materialistic version of success. In Stoner we see the quiet majesty of a life well-lived. It is not perfect, it is not constructed with technicolour and jump-cuts but it is imbued with purpose and passion.

Stoner is also in many ways a love letter to academia, the lifelong pursuit of knowledge and those who create and share it. Williams’ insight about the art of learning came to mind this weekend as I presented my own work and delightedly binged on gender and feminist research at the Sibéal Network’s annual conference for early career and postgraduate researchers. To say that it was a pleasure to listen and absorb the wealth of thought and research that comprised the programme is an understatement, not to mention the excellent, equally invigorating chats over wine and coffee. The theme ‘Gender and Metamorphosis’ was brilliantly chosen as so much gender research is concerned with transformations of society and the self. The papers I enjoyed are too numerous to list here but among the issues tackled were performing masculinities, intersectionality and international human rights law and the gendered construction of perpetrators and victims in sexual assault cases (the full programme is available here).

As Williams observed, our lives are short and there is so much to know and sometimes, for me at least, it feels like trying to climb a tidal wave. As a scholar it’s so good, so important to be reminded that you’re not alone and also to see the fantastic work being done to address and give voice to the myriad of inequalities sheltering under the umbrella of gender and feminist research.

To read more about the great work Sibéal do, to get involved and see their slick new website click here. And if you’re thinking of getting the fiction fan in your life a book that will warm their hearts while simultaneously breaking them (in a good way, I promise, it’s what all the best books do) then I recommend Stoner a thousand times.

Photo Credit: FuturePresent via photopin cc

Read: On Radclyffe Hall, Judith Butler & ‘The Well of Loneliness’

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“…we’re all part of nature. Someday the world will recognise this…”

Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness

Recently the universe conspired that I would be reading Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness while preparing to give a lecture on Judith Butler, whose book Gender Trouble revolutionized gender theory when it was published in 1990.  Hall’s novel caused a quasi-revolution of its own upon publication in 1928, albeit for different if not entirely dissimilar reasons. Hall’s frank depiction of lesbian desire had the British chattering classes foaming at the mouth with indignation and the book was subsequently banned.

By today’s standards The Well of Loneliness is a terribly tame affair, far from the obscene and corruptive force early 20th century moral guardians considered it to be. Although Hall’s writing can be sentimental (she does like to ponder, at tedious length, on the wonders of the natural world and religion) there is no denying the bravery in her depiction of protagonist Stephen Gordon and her plight, which cut close to the bone of Hall’s personal experiences.

Throughout The Well of Loneliness, Hall explains Stephen’s predicament – a biological female but manly in appearance, who desires other women – as that of an ‘invert’, a now discarded term coined by sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing to describe a man ‘trapped’ in a woman’s body or vice versa. The reader sees Stephen struggle to find acceptance and purpose in a society which shuns her. Even her own mother, the delicately feminine Anna, ultimately rejects her daughter to whit Stephen replies, ‘…I forgive you, though whatever it is, it is you and my father who made this body – but what I will never forgive is your daring to try to make me ashamed of my love. I’m not ashamed of it, there’s no shame in me.’

Today, thanks to the work of gender theorists like Butler and countless campaigners and activists who refused to accept heteronormativity’s stranglehold, more and more people are waking up to the realisation that gender is not the neat little binary we are socialised to believe it to be.

Butler’s assertions that biological sex is constructed via gender, that gender is a phenomenon, not a fact, which creates what it names and requires constant repetition to maintain its illusion of authority and naturalness, strike at the heart of Stephen’s predicament. Through her, Hall draws our attention to the subtle yet effective ways gender reinforces itself in our lives, regulating and policing our behaviour right under our noses. As Stephen observes while still a child, forced to play with a little girl she despises, ‘Violet was already full of feminine poses; she loved dolls, but not quite so much as she pretended. People said: ‘Look at Violet, she’s like a little mother; it’s so touching to see that instinct in a child!’ Then Violet would become still more touching.’

Stephen’s incredible wealth allows her to relocate to Paris and it is there that she finds true freedom and love. Unfortunately, back in the real world, the types of resources and let’s face it, privilege which allowed Stephen to be her true self were afforded to very few. For example, her governess, the long-serving, long-suffering Puddle, has hidden her own Sapphic desires in order to survive, a fact that makes her hugely sympathetic to Stephen’s struggle perhaps at cost to her own. If The Well of Loneliness reminds us of anything in the present day, it is that while great strides have been made to loosen gender’s grip, for many those strides came much too late and for others across the world, they have yet to come at all.

Listen: Francis MacManus Award 2014

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My short-listed short story The Last Time I Saw Valerie was broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 on July 31st as part of their Francis MacManus season. If you like fiction and tales of toxic female friendships born out of necessity rather than choice, you can listen back here. Big ‘thank you’ to actress Aileen Mythen for bringing the story to life so beautifully.

RTÉ Radio One: Francis MacManus Award

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Ask most writers why they write and they’ll tell you they have little choice in the matter. It is an urge, a compulsion, to filter life through words, finding new ways to express things that often feel beyond language. If, along the way, you pick up a notice or two for your literary endeavors, all to the good. I always need reminding my writing may not be the worst in the world and to that end, I’m delighted to have been shortlisted for the 2014 Francis MacManus Award. The full short list and dates of broadcast (oh yes, broadcast) are listed on RTÉ Radio One’s website. My thanks to this year’s judges Christine Dwyer Hickey, Julie Parsons and Eoin Purcell, and big congrats to my fellow nominees. Well feckin’ done.

The Bohemyth, May 2014

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On a recent trip to Amsterdam, I snapped this outdoor bookshop near Mueseumplein. Ain’t it grand? I could spend hours pottering about an Irish equivalent. Keep a few bin bags to throw over the shelves in case of rain and sure, you’d be away for road. Speaking of things that are grand, the kind folk at The Bohemyth included a story of mine in their May edition. If you like photography and writing, there is much to enjoy.

Book Review: ‘The Shining Girls’, plus a ‘thank you’ to Penguin Ireland & the RTÉ Guide

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Last Friday (September 13th, but far from unlucky) I was delighted to be able to attend a writing workshop by Penguin Ireland and the RTÉ Guide in Pearse Street Library for the winner and runners up of their annual short story competition. I was shortlisted for this year’s award – hooray! – but getting invited along to meet other writers and hearing from the best in the business was an extra special treat. 

So did we all walk away with a handful of magic beans to liberally sprinkle over our scribbles, turning them into surefire best sellers? Not exactly. If there is one thing to keep in mind when it comes to writing, it is that there are no short cuts. You write to rewrite and then rewrite again. A first draft is just that, a first draft, not a finished book. Faith O’Grady from the Lisa Richards Agency stressed the importance of language, plot and character. Writers can get so absorbed by one or two of these, they can forget to balance all three. And publishers always like hearing about ‘books with hooks’.

So, you’ve submitted your story or manuscript and lo, it’s been over three months and you haven’t heard anything. Is it okay to check in with the editor you submitted to? Yes, provided you’re polite and not overbearing, as Penguin’s Patricia Deevy pointed out. No one likes feeling harassed or dealing with difficult people.

The writers panel of Sinead Moriarty, Mary Grehan and Niamh Boyce was excellent; honest, funny and full of  insight to the highs, lows and sheer hard work that goes into writing. One thing that I’ll always keep with me is Sinead’s approach to being an author. In the face of all the slaving and the rejection, she pointed out the importance of writing because you love it as opposed to writing to get published. One is about passion, the other is a business plan. One will sustain you, the other will probably always stand you up.

Thank you Penguin Ireland and the RTÉ Guide for a fantastic day out. The sandwiches were delicious and the company was lovely.

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I’m a big crime/thriller fan but every so often even I have to take a break from devouring Slaughter and Nesbo. Why? Well,  I’m so used to the conventions and the pacing of crime fiction that sometimes I get bored, which is probably my own fault for overdoing it. Reviewing The Shining Girls by South Africa’s Lauren Beukes was refreshing because although it fits neatly into the  crime / thriller genre, it takes one of the usual tropes – serial killer on the rampage – and gives it a terrifying new edge: the ability to time travel.

How do you catch a killer who can bounce through time? Beuke’s Harper Curtis is a despicable creation. He bleeds evil. His obsession with finding and brutally murdering ‘shining’ girls (that is, girls on the cusp of doing great things with their lives) continues unchecked from the 1930s until the 1990s, when he picks on the wrong shining girl, Kirby, a brilliantly sparky, tough heroine. Kirby survives, setting out to find her attacker but Harper will not be easily defeated.

If you’re looking for a new twist on crime fiction, The Shining Girls will not disappoint. Like almost every crime / thriller this year, it has been compared to Gone Girl but it is a very different beast. You can listen to my review for RTÉ Radio One’s Arena below:

Book Reviews: Alison Jameson’s ‘Little Beauty’ & Lisa Jewell’s ‘The House We Grew Up In’

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When not casting a long eye over the internets for work, I’ve been reading for Arena, RTÉ Radio One’s flagship arts programme, so if you’re heading for the sun (we had it here in Ireland, once) and are wondering what to read as you chill, these might help.

Lisa Jewell’s The House We Grew Up In has a very pretty cover but the actual story – an interweaving tale of a family with a hoarder matriarch and a host of dark secrets – was much more than the cover image suggested. Fans of Jewell (and she has many, this is her 11th novel, a sure-fire bestseller like the rest) will find a lot to love between these pages. Click below to listen.

I read Alison Jameson’s debut This Man and Me many moons ago and it really stayed with me so I was thrilled to be asked to read her latest, the gorgeous and heartbreaking Little Beauty, which tells the tale of Laura Quinn, an eccentric native of the  Atlantic-bruised Whale Island. Laura’s struggles with love, motherhood and small-minded society are beautifully evoked by Jameson,  making for a great read and leaky eyes. You can listen to my full review with the lovely Seán Rocks below:

If you are a fiction fan and like your short stories, the kind folk at Dublin online literary journal The Bohemyth published a story of mine ( Pandora453 ) recently, which you can read here. While you’re there be sure to check out the rest of the site. Lots of great writing and photography, all for free, so what’s not to love, am I right? I’m also very happy to have a story featured in the latest edition of Wordlegs, which should be out soon.

As the man says, it’s good to be back.