Ever since Man Booker Prize winner Anna Burns was plucked from obscurity with Milkman, Lisa Mc Gee’s Derry Girls stole our hearts, and Brexit threatened a hard border, a spotlight has shone over Northern Ireland’s creative prowess, with particular focus on Belfast, where a literary scene has been buzzing for years. To explore this subject, I meet Wendy Erskine, author of the critically-acclaimed short story collection, Sweet Home (2018). She has lived in East Belfast for over 20 years and reminds me of a young Debbie Harry. She’s every bit as cool and direct. “There have been so many brilliant writers working in the North for decades, like Brian Moore, Robert McLiam Wilson, Frances Molloy and Eoin McNamee,” she says. “What you’ve got now is a new wave of reception and context of production. There’s more of an interest in diversity. This is a post-conflict society – by its nature, it’s complex. I think it’s dawned on people that this is a pretty interesting thing to write about and read about.”
How does she account for the sheer volume of new writing? “I can’t quantifiably say there are more people writing than there used to be, but whenever you actually see people writing about your own experience and finding readers, that’s a very encouraging thing. I think Susannah Dickey is a really interesting character, a very vibrant individual. She’s naturally one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.” The young poet’s debut novel, Tennis Lessons, is already considered the summer read.
Rosemary Jenkinson, a playwright, poet and short story writer with three collections, including Catholic Boy (2018) and Lifestyle Choice 10mg (due next month), has this to say of her peers. “We northern writers are on the march (nothing to do with parades). In the vanguard are Jan Carson, Wendy Erskine, David Park, Richard O’Rawe, and Glenn Patterson. I’d also highly recommend Malachi O’Doherty’s novel, Terry Brankin Has a Gun.”
This is a post-conflict society – by its nature, it’s complex.
Fellow East Belfast writer Jan Carson’s latest novel, The Fire Starters (2019), was immediately embraced by readers. Like Jenkinson and Erskine, Carson has carved out a strong identity as a storyteller. “Literary hubs like No Alibis bookstore, the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University Belfast and Heaney Homeplace in Bellaghy support and nurture local writers, as does Damian Smyth (Arts Council NI’s Head of Literature),” says Carson. “I’m particularly excited about new work from Dawn Watson, a short story writer and poet whose first pamphlet, The Stack of Owls is Getting Higher (The Emma Press), was one of my favourite reads of 2019.”
Lucy Caldwell, a playwright and author of four novels and two collections of short fiction, including Intimacies (out in June) is a personal favourite. Her sense of timing, pace and suspense is remarkable. She recently edited Being Various: New Irish Short
Stories. Erskine is a secondary school English teacher, and it turns out Caldwell is one of her former pupils. This leads to a discussion about anthologies which celebrate women writers from Northern Ireland: The Glass Shore (2016) and Female Lines (2017) being two.
Another must-read compilation is Belfast Stories, co-edited by American writer Lisa Frank (who started Doire Press with her partner, Derry poet John Walsh) and prizewinning author Paul McVeigh, who hails from Ardoyne, Belfast. The book showcases the city’s talent by region, and gives cool bar and café recommendations.
Says Erskine,“In some ways, Belfast Stories is quite an unusual collection in that it’s all to do with one place. I’ve got to stress that the North is geographically quite small, but people’s experience is radically different. If you live in Ardoyne, you’re fundamentally pretty different to someone who lives on Cregagh Road. And that’s what I think Belfast Stories does really well.”
Sweet Home (€12.95, Stinging Fly Press) is available now.
Co-founder and editor of The Tangerine, won the Vogue talent contest in 2018 with her piece, The Jumper That Won A Referendum.
Writer and editor Lucy Caldwell has made waves with novels, plays and two collections of short stories, Multitudes (2016) and Intimacies (out this June).
Watson is a AHRC PhD candidate at the Seamus Heaney Centre, writing a collection of poem stories set in 1980s North Belfast, and researching the prose poetics of Elizabeth Bishop.
Dickey has published two poetry pamphlets with The Lifeboat, most recently Genuine Human Values (2018). She was shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize, and won the inaugural Verve Poetry Festival competition in 2017. Her debut novel, Tennis Lessons, is out in July.
Patterson co-wrote the screenplay for Good Vibrations. His most recent works are Backstop Land (2019) and Where Are We Now? (out later this month). He is Director of the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University.
Carson’s books include Malcolm Orange Disappears, Postcard Stories and The Fire Starters, which won the EU Prize for Literature 2019.
McVeigh has written plays, comedy, short fiction and a novel, The Good Son (2015). Inspired by Kit de Waal’s Common People, he recently compiled The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working Class Voices.
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