One of my favourite things about Northern Ireland is the sort of words that you only get here: bogging, sheugh, yammering. They’re fun to say, they sound like what they mean. This sort of language has found its way into most parts of the country, a kind of playfulness with words and the way sentences sound. So it’s a shame we don’t always see that spirit in our stories.
What you find are mostly books looking backwards, frozen for fear that it’s too soon to move on.
Go the WH Smiths in the airport or the Northern Irish section of Daunt Books and you’ll find a good selection of crime thrillers. There’s a crime anthology, Belfast Noir, that takes you through a list of some of Northern Ireland’s bestselling authors: Claire McGowan, Brian McGilloway, Robert McLiam Wilson. It makes sense that detective and thriller stories like these would jump on the subject of Northern Ireland. It’s recent history and it still feels dangerous. For the rest of the UK, Belfast can still play as an underworld of crime (let’s not get started on the rest of the world and Sons of Anarchy). But the sad thing is, it seems these are pretty much the only popular genres.
And we don’t get much relief if we look to the literary canon, either. Writers like Paul Muldoon and Brian Friel used to wield themes of entrapment and circularity like weapons. Challenging readers, saying ‘there you were thinking literature could offer a way out of all this carnage, out of the Troubles.’ Even Seamus Heaney went back on himself later in his life, denying that poetry could be a healing balm for Ireland like he once thought it was. And that was all okay, back then. Maybe it seems mean-spirited, but they were writing honestly for the times they were in.
Thoughtful literature is still caught up in the Troubles. Like we’re too close to move on. So we get satirists like Robert McLiam Wilson and playwrights like Owen McAfferty who write good quality stuff, but it’s still all about working through the pain and consequences of violence.
The fear is that it’s ‘too soon’. That to write further than we could reach as a country would be wrong. Not doing the job of literature. (When ‘the job of literature’ is only seen as reflecting reality.)
This is a problem. For a couple of reasons:
1) We’ve got readers who were born after the Peace Process.
A lot of us in the younger generations have violence in our families, in the past. And consequences which still affect us today. But the idea that violent sectarianism is the one big subject that looms over all our lives is wrong. To show a Northern Ireland still in thrall to cycles of violence is to show only one part of it.
2) That spirit of playfulness, of ‘do whatever you want’, should show in literature too.
Novels and plays and poems are great ways of dealing with the past. If people are ready to read crime novels about the Troubles now, that’s good –as Brian McGilloway puts it, ‘whenever a society tries to move to a new identity you need to do a postmortem on the past.’
But why wouldn’t we want to catch the moment (any moment) to offer hope, too? Literature can do more than one thing at one time. Crime in Northern Ireland is often sectarian in nature, and that stuff sells as fiction. But fiction has the imaginative capacity to show ways beyond it.
I just finished reading one novel that gave me an idea of what that could look like.
Lucy Caldwell’s All The Beggars Riding does this by simply writing a personal novel. She touches on sectarian trouble and obsessions with the past. But she cases it all in the individual story of a middle-aged woman, trying to deal with a break-up and find new purpose. It works for me because there’s something recognisably broader than just processing the past. It deals with Northern Irish national trauma but keeps a firm pace towards what comes next. And it sets it all in the middle of the annoying crap that comes with everyday life.
At the end of her novel, the main character returns to modern-day Belfast. She’s surprised by the change – it couldn’t have happened in so short a space of time. But it did.
The end of the Troubles made way for grittier, grimier, crimier novels. Novels that allow people to process the sectarian violence of the past. But violence is only one part of the country we know today – especially for those of us growing up after the bulk of it was over. So surely the end of the Troubles should also have made a way for brighter stories. Stories which point to the deep reconciliation we still need in this country. It sounds a bit obvious, but maybe that’s how it needs to be said.