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Brigidsfest — The Authors are Present: Female Irish writing comes to Berlin

From February 1-3, this festival at the Irish Embassy introduces Berliners to seven female Irish writers through discussions, workshops and events. Welcome to Brigidsfest - The Authors are Present

The Embassy of Ireland in Berlin will present “Brigidsfest — The Authors are Present’, a festival of creativity in the written and spoken word to celebrate the Irish patron saint and pre-Christian goddess, Brigid, from February 1 to 3. The festival will feature panel discussions and workshops with Roisin Kiberd, Olivia Fitzsimmons, Hilary Fannin, Elaine Feeney, Louise Nealon, Wendy Erskine and Audrey Magee. 

Ahead of the festival, Exberliner caught up with the writers on everything from motherhood and the internet to colonialism and mental illness. 

Roisin Kiberd: “Selling cheese on the internet, I saw data that was deeply personal”

Like many millennials, Roisin Kiberd can remember a time before the internet but, in a way, was also raised by it. So it stands to reason that she would start working in tech, running social media accounts. Kiberd was once even the online voice of a cheese brand. 

Everyone got so outraged over Cambridge Analytica. And I kind of felt like, didn’t you know?

Having experienced firsthand the dark side of internet marketing and the power of Facebook et al over our data, Kiberd began writing about technology and internet subcultures for publications like the Guardian and Vice

The more time Kiberd spent online witnessing the rise of the manosphere, alt-right and an increasing polarisation and rage in the lead up to Donald Trump’s election as US president in 2016, the more disconnected she became from life outside of the internet. This all-consuming relationship culminated in a breakdown. 

In her essay collection, The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through the Internet, Kiberd voyages through the lonely dystopia of the web — and tries to make sense of it all.

How did The Disconnect come about? 

I’m making the internet sound like a religion. But my faith in the internet was completely shaken, partly from doing a column for Vice where I was studying internet conflicts, and subcultures all day, and then because of how my life arranged itself around work. I was doing all this other online work as well. But basically, where I was when I wrote “The Night Gym,” that part of my life was the foundation of the book, because that led me into total crisis and depression, and then taking an overdose.

What was happening around 2016 online that changed things for you? 

Rage and fear, these very primal sort of unsophisticated emotions, were running the internet, and fake news became this really big thing. At the same time, all the major platforms took away the chronological feed, and started showing us posts out of order, thinking the algorithm will calculate what the person wants to see. 

Rage and fear, these very primal sort of unsophisticated emotions, were running the internet

I remember everyone got so outraged over Cambridge Analytica. And I kind of felt like, didn’t you know? When I was selling cheese on the internet, I saw data that was deeply personal on people who consume cheese. But didn’t you know that that could also apply to politics? It was there in plain sight. It [social media] completely alters how we see the world and is engineered to make our emotions heightened. It’s the perfect circumstances for lies, discord, and anger.

Where are you now with all of this? 

I guess I’m just trying to be kind to myself. I’ll do things now and won’t think, oh I can make a really good Instagram because I’m just not really bothered. That doesn’t mean I’m off these platforms. The reality of life is that we’re all more scattered. By the end of the book, I talk about a relationship taking form over email over the years. One of the points I’m trying to make in that essay is that the internet is a written culture. So for writers, it’s a really fun canvas to create a self, and to create realities and words. 

Olivia Fitzsimons: “Difficult women surviving in a difficult place”

Olivia Fitzsimons grew up in County Down in Northern Ireland but now lives in Wicklow with her husband and two young children. 

Fitzsimons’ debut novel The Quiet Whispers Never Stop, published in April 2022, is set in the North of Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s. In it, a mother wants to escape an oppressive place and breaks one of the ultimate taboos for women by abandoning her family. Years later, her daughter, left to deal with the repercussions of her mother’s decision, dreams of escape too. 

For Fitzsimons, who worked in the film industry before taking a break to have kids, writing a novel, particularly one set in Northern Ireland, was never something she expected to do. 

I’m looking at the troubles inside them, rather than the Troubles that surround them.

You said you thought you would never write about the North … Why? 

The first book was a rush of ideas. I had a lot of things that I wanted to say about women and desire and the North. Ironically, I had said I would never write about home. At some point, I felt like, what right have I got to write about it, because I had moved away years ago and I didn’t live there?  But sometimes distance is quite good for your work and you bring a different perspective to it. I still feel that there’s a lot of stories to tell about Northern Ireland, and a lot of people who have things to say. 

The novel opens in 1994 with Sam Malin being described as ’difficult’ like her mother Nuala … Why that choice of description? 

It’s a novel about difficult women surviving in a difficult place. I’m looking at the troubles inside them, rather than the Troubles that surround them. At the start of the book I have a dedication: daughters stay difficult. When I say difficult, I think most women at some point have been labelled with that. I know I certainly have. There’s definitely a standard that women are held to that men are not. And when we stand up for ourselves, and don’t toe the line, or we don’t perform to the way society sees us, we’re difficult.

Hillary Fannin: “The act of writing is a relief” 

At home in the Irish capital Dublin, Hilary Fannin is an award-winning playwright and wrote a long-standing column for The Irish Times. Her plays have been performed in Europe and the US. 

In 2015, Fannin published Hopscotch, a memoir that explores growing up with non-religious parents, whose unconventional lifestyle is at odds with Ireland’s Catholic, conservative society of the 1960s and 70s.

Set in Dublin and London, Fannin’s debut novel The Weight of Love, published in 2020, deftly moves between the past and present of another unconventional romance. It looks at love, loss and grief, as well as the complicated relationships between mothers and their children. 

We were homeless for a while. But they were very bright. My dad was a brilliant reader.

How did your memoir come about? 

I had been writing columns in The Irish Times for about eight or nine years and a woman put me in touch with Penguin Random House. We talked a lot about the kind of Ireland I grew up in the 60s and 70s, especially from my point of view because my parents were very artsy and non-religious and there was a dichotomy between how the rest of the world was living and how I was living. They were very unconventional.

It wasn’t a romantic position to take because it put them in the margins. We were homeless for a while. But they were very bright. My dad was a brilliant reader. There were always books in the house. My mum was a singer and actor and she was very frustrated by the life she had. I was very aware of how anti-feminist the society that I lived in was.

Were those themes you set out to explore in The Weight of Love? 

I think the question at the centre of the book was does the past ever leave you? And what does it take to actually be in the life that you’re living? So Ruth came to a point in her life where she had to go back and kind of interrogate herself and ask: Who are you? What have you done with your life? Why have you allowed this damp sadness to invade you for so long? It’s a letting go of the past. 

But one really important thing to say about that novel is that my mother died in August 2017 and I had been spending a lot of time with her because she was ill. In September, I had applied to do a masters in Trinity and they took me in. I was working with the Irish novelist Deirdre Madden and I went in with bits of the book, just little islands written and I said: ’It’s a mess; I don’t know where I’m going with this.’ But she understood me and said just keep writing. So I just kept working. 

Elaine Feeney: “Should we have to tell our secrets?”

Photo: Julia Monard

Elaine Feeney lives in the west of Ireland with her family. She’s been writing ever since she can remember and has published three poetry collections, including The Radio was Gospel and Rise. 

She’s also a founding member of the Tuam Oral History Project, which records and archives the life stories of survivors of the Tuam mother and baby home, known, like other similar institutions, for “appalling abuse” when it was open. 

Feeney says “motherhood” and wanting to put “some same on my experience” of a long illness prompted her to write her debut novel As You Were, published in 2020. The book, set on a hospital ward, follows the story of Sinead Hynes, a property developer, wife and mother of three, being treated for a cancer diagnosis she’s kept from her family. 

Who has the right to know you fully? Do you have to share the intimate details of your body?

Sinéad Hynes, the novel’s main protagonist, hides her cancer diagnosis from her husband and sons – saying that she thinks it would be selfish to fill them with worry and uncertainty. Was this a look at how women carry secrets and burdens, partly to spare others?

I don’t think carrying secrets is a particularly gender-based thing. I think we all have secrets, and sometimes I believe that a problem shared is a problem doubled. But as the novel deals with a person’s autonomy over their body and asks questions about the institutionalisation of women and their children in Ireland, and also deals with the Eighth Amendment [abortion access].

I think that the novel is asking the ultimate question: Who has the right to know you fully? Do you have to share the intimate details of your body? Should we have to tell our secrets? I think Sinead hiding her terminal diagnosis from her husband and family is a big moral dilemma. 

Focusing the narrative on the hospital ward was an interesting choice – was there a particular motivation behind doing that? 

Yes, I was trying to write away from the echo chambers we are all cuddled together in. I love situations best where people come face to face with each other, and there’s a shared humanity, that they have to look for what unites them, rather than any ideological differences they might have. All the patients on the ward come from different backgrounds, cultures, class and yet they are all in the same ward in their night clothes, trying to understand one another, as some are in the very last moments of life.

Louise Nealon: “We live in a society where we are encouraged to hide our imperfections”

Louise Nealon’s debut novel Snowflake, published in 2021, has been lauded by critics and readers alike. Manilla pre-empted it with a two-book deal and Element Pictures, which adapted Sally Rooney’s Normal People, have acquired the film and TV rights 

Snowflake, a coming of age novel, in some ways reflects Nealon’s own experiences. Like her protagonist Debbie White, she grew up on a dairy farm in county Kildare and struggled to adjust after going to university in Dublin. But the similarities end there. 

Debbie has to navigate the relationship with her mother, who believes she can enter other people’s dreams and her uncle, who drinks too much and lives in a caravan behind their house. 

Snowflakes are physical proof of the triumph of imperfection over the harsh realities of the world

Where did the name come from — is it a reference to the “Snowflake” generation?

The title, Snowflake, was inspired by a Sylvia Plath poem called The Night Dances. When I first read the poem, I was captivated by the closing image of snowflakes falling overnight. I realised that the term snowflake carried a lot of baggage in the zeitgeist. To be called a snowflake has become a slur.

According to the general consensus of the internet and pop culture, I belong to the millennial ’snowflake’ generation who can’t deal with opposition or the messy conflict of life. But snowflakes are physical proof of the triumph of imperfection over the harsh realities of the world. We live in a society where we are encouraged to hide our imperfections, and to be ashamed of our failures and weaknesses. But we humans — like snowflakes — are quite literally made of dirt. It is a miracle that we exist at all. I think that is something to celebrate. 

You bring an element of almost magical realism into the novel with Debbie’s mother and her dreams. Considering how grounded in realism the novel is, I was wondering where that came from?

Humans — like snowflakes — are quite literally made of dirt

While I was writing and editing Snowflake, my main concern was how I would marry the central idea of the book — the kernel of the dreams — with what is essentially a realist narrative. There were times when I considered getting rid of the dream element completely. But there is so much mystery in the world and things that we can’t understand.

Debbie is naïve — often cripplingly so — but the opposite of that is cynicism which is also problematic. Billy [Debbie’s uncle] denies Maeve’s [Debbie’s mother] reality and suppresses his gift of divining as a form of self-preservation, but as a result of this, he becomes unwell, physically and emotionally. Debbie is stuck between two extremes for much of the novel — Maeve’s dream world and Billy’s cynical, self-deprecating, miserable survival mode. She needs to learn how to find the common ground between them.

Wendy Erskine: “Why are these people ordinary? Who are we saying the extraordinary people are?”

Wendy Erskine is at home in Belfast where her first and second collections of prize-winning short stories — Sweet Home and Dance Move — are set. Both garnered high critical praise for their textured, dark, tender and humorous tales of everyday life filled with grief, love, loneliness and absurdity.  

In Erskine’s latest collection, a woman finds an abandoned child in the short-term lets she cleans, while another searches the streets of Belfast for missing posters of her dead son. In another, a mother watches her daughter’s friend gyrate suggestively on some garden decking, which was “made worse” because it had been put down by her daughter’s dad.

For Erskine, also a secondary school English teacher, the description of her stories as focusing on the lives of “ordinary people” is a baffling one, and leaves her wondering who the extraordinary people are. 

You’ve talked about your focus on East Belfast and how people often ask if you’re going to write anything outside of the city. How do you feel about that?  

I do think that people make assumptions about certain lives, certain locales having more complexity or richness. Would anybody ever say to someone from London, are you ever going to be able to write about people who live in places other than London? Or would you say that about somebody who’s writing but people in Brooklyn? You wouldn’t say that. 

Sort of allied with that aspect is the whole idea of ordinary people. I find that really quite a, quite a strange notion. Why are these people ordinary? Who are we saying the extraordinary people are?

I think it’s the trappings of a particular type of upper middle class culture that render people something more than ordinary. You know, if you lose someone, the feeling is the same whether you wear rubbish clothes and whether you listen to what people consider rubbish music or whether you wear fine clothes and listen to opera.

Do you think certain voices have been overlooked in the North because of the past and that is starting to change?  

For many, many decades, this was a very macho culture, you know, a very male dominated world. I don’t even just mean the North. But you know, when I was growing up, if I think about school, we studied male writers most of the time. I was aware growing up of very few writers from the North who were not male or who were working class. There just wasn’t much of a diversity of voices. It was almost as if writing from the North wasn’t interesting or it was gloomy or what people wanted to necessarily read about. But it’s absolutely brilliant now to see all the writers that are coming forward. It is really, really exciting.

Audrey Magee: “Violence and silence” 

Photo: Jonathan Hession

Audrey Magee is a writer living in Co. Wicklow, Ireland. Before turning to novels, Magee studied in Germany and then worked as a reporter for 12 years for outlets such as The Irish Times, the Guardian, and The Times covering the Bosnian War and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. 

What Magee witnessed of ordinary people thrown into circumstances beyond their control sparked the ideas for both of her novels. Her debut, The Undertaking, is a romance of sorts, set in Nazi Germany. Her second novel, The Colony, published early in 2022, is set on a small Irish-speaking island off the west coast of Ireland in the 1970s. In it, she explores the language, the Troubles and the legacy of colonialism.

The silence around the Holocaust, the silence around the Civil War [in Ireland], the silence around colonialism and colonisation 

How did you go from reporting to writing novels? 

I spent an awful lot of time in my journalism working with violence. And I needed more time to analyse it. I was driven by that need to stand back and delve deeper into a common theme in my work: violence and the way it penetrates through societies. When I was halfway through writing the second on colonisation, I realised I was writing a triptych. The first is on facism, the second on colonialism. 

How do the novels link up then? 

I had been to Germany in the 1980s. To leave deepest darkest Ireland to go to deepest darkest Germany, I saw an awful lot of similarities. There was an echo between the two. Ireland was going through the difficulties in dealing with its past. And Germany in its attempts to deal with its past. What was common in both countries was silence around these histories. The silence around the Holocaust, the silence around the Civil War [in Ireland], the silence around colonialism and colonisation. Violence and silence — my two pet areas — and I was trying to get to the bottom of both. 

I think to go forward, sometimes you need to understand where you came from. 

Why did you make the Irish language so central to your second novel The Colony?

I travelled an awful lot. You see the structures of colonisation in Sri Lanka,in India and Pakistan, in Australia, in Kenya. They’re exactly the same as we are. But we don’t see ourselves colonised in the same way. It’s much harder for us to see the impact of the structures of colonialism on us because it’s so old and we use the same language. We had to learn the language of the coloniser. 

You had a diminishment of the [Irish] language. When we got our independence, most of us ended up having a very difficult relationship with the language we had mostly lost. 

It’s very hard to see those structures when you’re living with the legacy of those structures. But I think to go forward, sometimes you need to understand where you came from. 

Excerpts from the interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.