This year, the Irish literary scene has seen the nimble rise of female-crafted fiction. JUNE CALDWELL, whose work in the Long Gaze Back won an award at the IRISH BOOK AWARDS last night, examines how women are rejecting tradition and giving a much-needed voice to untold stories …
In 2010, I returned from Belfast to Dublin at the height of a miserable recession and it seemed everyone I knew was retreating back into the garret to write. The cocktails and carousing were finito.
Friends who had thrived in high gloss work environments, the architects, project managers, and bigwigs in PR were sidling up to social welfare windows like dehydrated cats.
Next came the volunteer slots and “internships” to stay sane. The men I knew had a problem dealing with ego-collapse. They got awful angry, awful quick. No one knew what to do.
Themes began to emerge in the writing workshops I sat in on as an employee of the Irish Writers’ Centre. Men were writing about disaffection, not being taken seriously, displacement, lack of sex, intimacy and belonging. The writing was good, sometimes great, but it was startlingly similar.
Women who had, during the Tiger years, concentrated on romantic relationships and the pearls of materialism and diluted neurosis were turning to more serious issues: violence, misogyny, rape culture, crime, retribution. Chick-lit fell off the carnival float and was replaced with edgy young adult and high-end literary fiction.
Sarah Griffin began writing around this time. Her novel Spare & Found Parts is published next year with Greenwillow (Harper Collins); a story about a girl who builds herself a robotic companion.
Women who are writing for young adults are writing the work they wish they had access to when they were growing up,” she says. “They’re composing their own cautionary tales, assembling toolkits for the ongoing madness of being an adult woman. I think these novels are equipping the next generation with more than we had – like a new mythology, a different compass for the road ahead.”
Justine Delaney Wilson, whose novel An Ordinary Face is published next spring by Hachette Ireland, says that women are writing about what it means to live and cope in a fractured modernity, especially since recession. “The truth of human relationships, loss of self, coping with emotional turbulence – certainly these themes are prevalent now,” she says. “I wanted to write a tale about a family, about what’s left when the structures we’re used to collapse.”
New writers are emerging and focusing on the darker themes of women’s experience. “I chose to write a novel about two young female prostitutes and their experiences that could only happen to, and be felt by, a female body as a receptacle of the male gaze and desire,” explains Lisa Harding, whose novel is currently being sent to agents and publishers.
“The book came about because I was involved in a campaign run by The Body Shop and the Children’s Rights Alliance to stop sex trafficking of children. I heard firsthand accounts of these girls’ stories. I wanted to give a voice to these invisible women.”
Selina Guinness, who is the current writer-in-residence at DLR LexIcon, maintains that Ireland has always had a tradition of strong women writers of literary fiction: Elizabeth Bowen, Kate O’Brien, Edna O’Brien, Jennifer Johnston, Deirdre Madden, and that list is expanding and warping all the time.
“I think society’s loss of faith in the authority of institutions, many of which were strongly patriarchal – banking as well as the church – means we now invest more hope in the informal communities which women have always sustained. And women tend to be supportive of other women writing,” she says.
There are some signs that contemporary fiction by Irish women may be consciously moving beyond female narrators, according to Guinness. “Sara Baume’s choice of a curmudgeonly old man as the narrator of her debut, Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither, is brave for a young woman; Anne Enright is a straight woman who inhabits the voice of a young gay Irishman with effortless conviction in The Green Road; Belinda McKeon focuses on male gay sexuality again in Tender.”
McKeon says: “It wasn’t until a year or so after I’d published my first novel that I realised how firmly and obediently it sat with respect to a male literary tradition. That wasn’t a conscious decision.”
“Pushing myself in a different direction, with a female protagonist and a female consciousness, was a conscious decision and one about which I felt nervous. Social media has made a huge difference to me, and I think to other women writers as well.
“When I started out, I felt like a woman in one of those gentlemen’s clubs on St Stephen’s Green. Now it feels more like a decent party in someone’s house. A house with a view.”
June Caldwell’s story Somat appears in The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers, edited by Sinead Gleeson (New Island, €19.99), which is out now.
This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our December issue, out Thursday December 3.
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