Tag Archives: ireland

Review: Debut Panel at Cuirt International Literature Festival, Galway

6 May

Cuirt

by Rhea H. Boyden

Last Thursday morning I took the train from Heuston Station, Dublin to Galway. As we rumbled across the flat midlands past yellow flowering gorse and dark peat bogs, I felt sorry for the many new-born lambs who must wonder, indeed, what they have been born into as they gaze at the towering grey clouds and bear the unseasonally cold weather. I was wearing my finest winter coat as I sat on the train. ‘It’s nearly the first day of May, do I really need to bring my winter coat on this trip?’ I asked myself as I packed. Yes, I do.

The cold weather did not dampen my mood, however, as I was very excited to be heading to the Cuirt International Literature Festival which is only one of many festivals Galway hosts. This beautiful town in the west of Ireland is truly a hub of arts and culture. Cuirt (which is the Irish word for Court) runs for a week every April and has been held every year since 1985. It was founded as a poetry festival but has since expanded to include events showcasing many forms of literature.

Rhea at Debut Panel Galway.jpg

Several months ago I was invited to moderate a Debut panel at the festival and I immediately said yes to such a wonderful opportunity even though I had never taken on such a job before. I love a new challenge, however, and so I threw myself wholeheartedly into preparing for it. The panel was to include four writers who have just published their first novels and one writer of short stories who has recently had her first collection published. I received all the books by post from the festival organisers and I read them all with great interest in the weeks leading up to the festival.

Roisin O’Donnell was one of these writers and she has recently published a powerful collection of short stories entitled ‘Wild Quiet’ which deals primarily with multiculturalism in modern Ireland. As I sat on the train heading towards Galway I thought of her story ‘How to Learn Irish in 17 Steps’ which deals hilariously and tragically with the difficulties encountered by a Brazilian primary school teacher living in Ireland as she attempts to learn Irish. The character in the story also takes the train from Dublin to Galway and to the Gaeltacht to learn Irish. Before taking this drastic measure, however, she has attempted to learn it at an Irish school in Dublin: Step four in her story commands: ‘Enrol in Irish for beginners at the Scoil Ghaeilge on Dame Street. Classes should begin on an October evening sweet with the fragrance of rotting leaves. Most of your classmates will be Irish retirees in search of a new hobby. If they gawk at you and ask you why the feck a Brazilian girl like you is learning Gaelic, explain that you are a primary teacher with a master’s in education from Sao Paulo University, you moved here to Ireland because you fell in love with an Irish man, and that you must learn Irish in order to teach at primary level. Notice your classmates eyes glazing over (at this point you should probably stop speaking). Learn your first phrase in Irish, and enjoy the Gaelic words undulating on your tongue. Ta tuirse orm: the tiredness is on me.’ It was this section from this story that Roisin chose to read during our panel discusssion and it was very fitting and well received.

Roisin

Roisin O’Donnell was born in Sheffield with family roots in Derry. Her stories have been anthologised in The Long Gaze Back, Young Irelanders and The Glass Shore. She has been shortlisted for several international prizes such as the Cuirt New Writers Prize, The Pushcart Prize, The Forward Prize and the Brighton Prize. ‘Wild Quiet’ has been shortlisted for the Katie O’Brien award and longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize.

Our panel discussion took place in the lovely Galway Town Hall Theatre at 3pm on Friday April 28th and after I had introduced Roisin and she had read I moved onto introducing the four lovely debut novelists on our panel. The first to read from her freshly published novel ‘Harvesting’ was Lisa Harding who has written a shocking but stunningly brilliant novel that was inspired by her involvement with a campaign against sex trafficking run by the Children’s Rights Alliance. I had no idea before I spoke to Lisa and read her novel that Ireland is a destination for sex traffickers and sex tourism. The novel’s main characters are Nico, a sensitive, innocent, animal-loving 13-year-old from Moldova who gets sold by her family and trafficked to Ireland where she ends up in a brothel, and Sammy, a 15-year-old girl from a wealthy, but damaged home in South Dublin. Sammy escapes her abusive and alcoholic mother (and her father who is rarely home) by running away from home. She is smart and sassy and somehow views the brothel as a joke and a sick challenge until she gets pulled into all its horror. She and Nico meet in the Dublin brothel and form a bond to help them deal with the trauma their young bodies, minds and hearts are dealing with as they are essentially held captive as sex slaves. Lisa Harding has very bravely taken on a tough topic, and one we must face and contend with. It was estimated in 2012 that 1.2 million children are trafficked each year and with the migrant crisis this number is only increasing. According to Europol, 10,000 child migrants disappeared in 2015. It is, of course, impossible to really know how many young girls are forced into sex work and exploited in this way due to the extremely secretive nature of this crime.

Harding’s novel has beautiful prose and language and I found it especially compelling to read how she has turned a tough and very disturbing topic into art and has given a voice to the many young victims of sex trafficking. The oppression of these girls is expressed as Nico says: ‘The thing I want to say gets pushed back down and lodged in my stomach like a stone.’ Harding describes throughout the novel how the girls deal with the terrible trauma they are going through. Nico says: ‘My body is stiff and I have vacated it, watching the men hauling it. My body feels like it doesn’t belong to me, neither do my limbs, my hair, my fingers, my nails. Every part of me feels like it might float away. Sammy says: ‘I’ve kind of gone all floppy, like a rag doll, or this guy’s muppet. It’s like there is nothing inside of me.’ The novel achingly describes how the girls get lost in fantasy to escape their pain.

Lisa

Lisa Harding is an actress, playwright, and writer who completed an M. Phil at Trinity College, Dublin. She has had plays professionally produced and various short stories published in The Dublin Review, The Bath Short Story Anthology and Headstuff. Her works have been placed in various competitions including the inaugural Doolin Short Story Prize.

The next novelist I introduced to read on the panel was Alan McMonagle who has just had his first novel ‘Ithaca’ published by Picador. It is an absolutely side-splitting and hilarious novel that takes place in a town in the middle Ireland following the crash of 2008. It is set in the summer of 2009: ‘the summer all the money disappeared’. The novel tells the story from the point of view of Jason, a 12 year old who (like Sammy in Harvesting) has to deal with an alcoholic mother and a missing father. This story goes one step further however, in that the main task for Jason is to try and elicit from his mother, who indeed, his father is. He asks her if it might be Flukey Nolan (one of the many colourful characters in the novel with equally colourful names) and she says: ‘Tell me Jason, how old are you now?’ to which he responds: ‘Nearly twelve’. She just laughs at him and says: ‘Twelve years old and he wants to know who his da is.’ I absolutely loved McMonagle’s book because I have always loved dark humour, so once I picked it up to read it I couldn’t put it down again. His descriptions of the dreariness and depression of recession Ireland are fantastic, especially those of the town the story is set in: ‘Our town was slap bang in the middle of the country, miles from anywhere and built inside a hole made out of bog, weeds, and the soggiest soil you might ever see. If that wasn’t bad enough, we were surrounded by a dirty black drain that spent its time fooling everyone into thinking it was a river. There were two sides to our town. The rich side on the hill beyond the railway tracks and the side we lived on. The ghetto, Ma called it. I was walking down the back lane. Of all the places in the ghetto the back lane was the place to hang out. Anybody who was anybody on our road wanted to be seen out here, taking a stroll through the muck, hanging out by the ditch trees, making conversation about the Swamp in the wasteland beyond.’

Alan

Alan McMonagle has written for radio, published two collections of short stories (both of which were nominated for the Frank O’Connor award). He has contributed to many journals in Ireland and North America. ‘Ithaca’ is his first novel and has just been longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Award for debut novels.

The next novelist to read on our panel was Amanda Reynolds who is a teacher of creative writing living in Cheltenham. She read from the very beginning of her freshly published novel ‘Close to Me’ which is a gripping psychological thriller about a woman named Jo who falls down the stairs and loses her memory of the past year. Jo is afraid of her husband but she does not remember why. Amanda told us during the panel discussion that she thought it would make for an interesting story that when someone loses their memory instead of helping them to heal, you use it against them in deceitful ways. She certainly has a fantastic grasp of an interesting and intriguing use of narrative as Jo, her main protagonist tells her story in alternating chapters, both before and after her accident, building to a stunning conclusion. She really leaves you guessing until the end why Jo has such distrust of her husband: ‘My husband’s slow steady breaths and the familiar nighttime noises within the house find my ear. I pull the duvet around me and allow my subconcious to take over, unlatching from the present, an almost physical letting go. As I succumb to sleep the memories come, but I know they are unreliable; broken and unpredictable. The harder I search the further they retreat, but then something breaks through, at once unbidden and yet desperately wanted. As much as I crave the past, I fear it too.’

Amanda

Amanda Reynold’s gripping novel (which I read in a couple of days) has been optioned for T.V. starring a major Hollywood actress who will be disclosed to us soon. She has a two-book deal and is currently working on her second novel. It was so inspiring talking to her about her processes and her writing habits and it does not surprise me that such a thrilling story would be optioned for T.V. I will be following Amanda closely to see how these exciting deals work out for her.

The final novelist on our panel to read was Paula Cocozza who is a feature writer at The Guardian where she has covered everything from football to feminism. Her debut novel is the intruiging and unusual ‘How To Be Human’. Mary, the novel’s main character, develops a relationship with a fox living in her back garden in London. We are never quite sure what is real and what is fantasy in this story and while I have read different reviews of this novel, I like to think of Mary’s relationship with the fox as the perfect metaphor for an unconventional relationship which she craves being surrounded by couples after her relationhip with her boyfriend Mark has ended and he has moved out. I also see her relationship with the fox as perfectly embodying what we urban dwellers need desperately to really remain human; to regain a deeper connection to nature. Being single myself, I perfectly relate to Mary’s reaction to being at her neighbour’s Eric and Michelle’s garden barbecue party: ‘Her fellow guests were transforming before her eyes into the building blocks of family life, clicking into place as the day drew on. Had these couples been together when they arrived and she had failed to see them as such?’ The novel’s first sentence seriously grabs your attention: ‘The was a baby on the back step.’ The baby is Flora, her neighbour’s baby and how it got there is a mystery. Mary has a special connection to Flora throughout the novel; she babysits her and holds her at the barbecue. I would imagine that many single, childless women in their mid thirties can relate to Mary’s musings as she holds Flora, especially the line: ‘A baby: a passport to a socially accepted solitude.’ Mary is lonely and this novel deals with that loneliness, which is, very much a modern affliction: ‘Mary herself was barely a pinprick on the world’. Paula read spectacularly from her novel to us, her fellow panel members, and the audience seated before us in the Galway Town Hall Theatre.

Paula

Paula has an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia where she was recipient of the David Higham Award. Apart from being a features writer for The Guardian, she has also been published in The Telegraph, The Independent and the Times Literary Supplement. When she finished reading we had a lively discussion on each writer’s driving inspiration behind their works, as well as discussing the differences in form and structure between the short story and the novel. I then opened up the discussion to the audience and before we knew it the 2 hours was over. We then went to the bookshop out front so that the authors could sign their books for the audience. It was truly magical for me to meet all these talented writers in person and get to know them a little after having spent 3 weeks reading their works. And it was a real honour for me, not being a novelist, to be given the fine task of representing them at this splendid festival in the magical town of Galway. I loved it, and I as I boarded the train back to Dublin on Saturday evening I felt very satisfied and inspired and I can’t wait to read more of all of their writings.

Photo of me on stage at the Debut Panel at Galway Town Hall Theatre courtesy of Cuirt Festival organisers.