Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction, Yiddish Culture, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality historical novels are some of my Literary Interests

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy - 2017

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy - 2017

November 24, 1961 - Shillong, Indis

1997 - Wins the Booker Prize for The God of Small Things, with sales of over eight million and translations into forty languages

I read The God of Small Things about 13 years ago, before I began my blog.  I don't recall a lot about it, I know now if I had a blog post on it reading that alone would largely restore my memory of the work.  Like millions of other of her readers I was pleased when twenty years after her first book she published a second one.  The Kindle Edition was originally priced at $14.95 and that seems an unfair price for an E book of a novel.  I put it on my Amazon watch list and monitored the office until I found it on sale for $2.95. (As of today it is back up to $11.95.)

I am getting behind on my postings so this will be a brief post.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a big sprawling novel with lot of characters set in and is an intimate portrait of a huge very ancient tropical megacity, bigger than Manilla.  It is the story of people left behind in the mad rush to create wealth for New Indians.  New developments destroy very old structures of kinship that once sustained a very, I mean very diverse population.  

The aspect of the novel I like best centered on a transsexual individual, called in the culture a Hijra and her struggles to make a life for herself, find a family and love and even raise a child.  In her late teens, her father is ashamed of her, she moves in with a group of Hijra.  Hijra's are discriminated against but represent something once importantin Indian society.  The treatment of Hijras should put this on LBGTQ lists. There are lots of characters, many threads of plots and the prose is a pure delight.  

Delhi is a brutal place for those who do not fit in the vision of the future of India of the leadership.  We spent a good bit of time in Kashmir, we see the difficulties between Muslims, Hindus, and Shiks,. We witness the horrible tradgey of the Bhopal Chemical disaster.  There is violence, hatred, and decay every where along side great beauty.

This is a challenging book but very much worth your time.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Orphan Handler" - A Short Story by Chaya Bhuvaneswar - from White Dancing Elephants - 2018- Announcing a New Reading Life Project

Today we are initiating a new permanent Reading Life Program centering on  Short Stories by South Asian Women.  We will include in this program Short stories written by women set on The Indian Subcontinent and stories by writers who self identify as of South Asian ancestory.  We hope to post on classic writers as well as authors just starting out.  We are seeking suggestions.

In the nearly ten years in which i have maintained The Reading Life i have never seen as much attention given to a debut Short story collectionas that given to White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar.  So far i have posted on three of her marvelous very creative stories, all have death as a core factor and deal with the interaction of persons of Indian background with western countries.  The title story involves a miscarriage, another an Indian father’s impending murder of his mentally handicapped daughter.  Another story takes us to the horrible Bhopal Chemical plant disaster in which over 30,000 died. 

I have just finished Reading The Anatomy of Criticism by Northrup Frye.  He talks extensively and very learnedly about the various ways in which myths are used to structure literary works. In all three of the stories I read prior today we can see Bhuvaneswar very profoundly use ancient Indian myths not only as part of the rhetoric structure of her stories but she shows us how people retreat into deeply rooted ancient archetypal myths to help with the otherwise unfathomable aspects of their lives.  She overlays the ancient myths with modern reality.  

I will quote a bit from Frye to try to clarify my meaning.

“We have, then, three organizations of myths and archetypal symbols in literature. First, there is undisplaced myth, generally concerned with gods or demons, and which takes the form of two contrasting worlds of total metaphorical identification, one desirable and the other undesirable. These worlds are often identified with the existential heavens and hells of the religions contemporary with such literature. These two forms of metaphorical organization we call the apocalyptic and the demonic respectively. Second, we have the general tendency we have called romantic, the tendency to suggest implicit mythical patterns in a world more closely associated with human experience. Ironic literature begins with realism and tends toward myth, its mythical patterns being as a rule more suggestive of the demonic than of the apocalyptic, though sometimes it simply continues the romantic tradition of stylization.  

In today’s story, “The Orphan Handler” In just a few pages we see Bhuvaneswar exemplify the romantic implied  to overlap mythic patterns on human experiences in a fashion  very suggestive of the demonic.  As the story opens a new van full of girls is brought into the orphanage to have them all branded with a hot tattoo iron.  

“At dawn, another van with girls comes in and Sister Agnes takes them onto the back veranda, branding them with a tattoo iron and threatening them not to scream. Then she checks for scabies and lice, wearing non-latex hypoallergenic gloves. Then she leads them, even the ones who are weeping quietly, into a vast gay room with bright-colored streamers and balloons and glittering signs spelling out birthday greetings, even though not one of them has given us their real birthdays or names. Then she initiates the change that is our little spiritual secret: the transformation of orphaned girls with special powers, the powers to change into wild creatures of various kinds, into future housekeepers, grounds cleaners, toilet scrubbers, perhaps a secretary or two, or God-fearing wives. After the birthing rite come songs, a ritual that never fails to irritate Mother Superior Devi. Before erecting this orphanage-cum-vocational school, Devi had been arrested for drug trafficking in Kamathipura, where prostitutes lived and where indeed she was involved in heroin. In jail, she learned to read the Bible and took orders as a nun. Now she gives us orders and sporadically allows us to watch a blue movie or two, just to remind us that God accepted her because of, and not in spite of, where she had been, and how blind we would be to think that anything we ever did would be beyond his Love.”

The story is narrated by an orphanage worker in charge of new girls, seventy years old, she entered the orphanage at sixteen.  They are ritualistically given new identities.  If the girls have parents she sends letters to their parents saying they have died.  She prefers girls in filthy clothes as experience has taught her that their parents won’t look hard for them.  In one heart breaking line she tells us that once and a while a troublemaker of a mother shows us looking for her daughter.  Sadly they often are branded.  (I am assuming branded women are not acceptable as wives.)

The woman profits when concerned parents, thinking their daughters have died, send items to be included in their funereal arrangements.  

“Mother Superior Devi can smell women who change—and the girls, the special girls, with powers to transform into animals, well, many of them inherit this capacity from their mothers. Girls in grey are easy fish: calls are cursory, inquiries disinterested. It isn’t even grey that they’re wearing. It’s filth, their clothing washed if you can call it that in refuse-tainted water, in puddles that slum dwellers make do with for small ponds. There is a smell on these girls that is distinct, not just a smell but a texture—the unwashed clinging even to the newly-washed, the smell of their hair still rank though it is combed and gilded with flowers. Only the transformations astound me. At night, manacles aren’t enough. Mother Superior Devi has gone into deep pockets, money retrieved from her former lucrative life, to build tunnels and dungeon rooms equipped with chains and cages and even one exhibit with rocks and grass where girls who become panthers can be contained, where the wildness of these girls can be transformed in changes more powerful and still more devastating than their earliest age, around age five or six, when they first must have discovered that as girls, they had a secret; when they first sounded a different voice, thrilling to them in its forbidden and unexpected grace. What was it like when you discovered you could roar? I asked a beautiful fourteen-year-old girl-cub-lioness one time, a girl whose eyes were golden brown and her hair matted from life in the slum. But by then she had already been branded and subdued. Doubtful that she knew anymore what to answer; grateful she’d be, shortly after, for how the Mother made her forget, helped her attain a quieter, more durable violence.”

The nuns have license to sexually enjoy the girls and indulge in same sex activity but she is too old for that now.

I see the story as overlaying very ancient myths about female sexuality onto a very cruel setting.  The story is set Mumbai, in a world far from the glittering prosperity of the multinational corporations, elegant mansions and five star hotels but we can be sure some of the owners of the corporations, hotels and mansions have helped make Mother Superior Devi Rich.  Branded girls don’t work in The front of elegant establishments but maybe a few lucky ones scrub the floors.

You can read “The Orphan Handler" at the link below

Publisher's webpage on White Dancing Elephants

Author's Webpage

Chaya Bhuvaneswar studied Indian poetic traditions with the support of an NEH Younger Scholars grant and as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, concentrating in Sanskrit. She has received a Time-Life Writing Award as well as a Yale Elmore Willetts Prize for Fiction. Her short stories have been anthologized in Her Mother’s Ashes 2, and featured on the Other Stories podcast. An Affiliated Fellow in Writing at the Boston University Center for the Study of Asia, she lives in Newton, Massachusetts. She is a practicing physician.

Oleander Bousweau
Mel u

Chaya Bhuvaneswar studied Indian poetic traditions with the support of an NEH Younger Scholars grant and as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, concentrating in Sanskrit. She has received a Time-Life Writing Award as well as a Yale Elmore Willetts Prize for Fiction. Her short stories have been anthologized in Her Mother’s Ashes 2, and featured on the Other Stories podcast. An Affiliated Fellow in Writing at the Boston University Center for the Study of Asia, she lives in Newton, Massachusetts.  She is a practicing physician.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Dark Young Man by Jacob Dinezon - first published 1877 - translated from Yiddish by Tina Lunson,edited by Scott Hilton Davis - 2019

The Dark Young Man by Jacob Dinezon - first published 1877 - translated from Yiddish by Tina Lunson,edited by Scott Hilton Davis - 2019

1851  - Born in New Zhanger, Lithuania

1877 - The Dark Young Man is published and goes becomes one of the best selling Yiddish language novels of all times.

1919 - Dies in Warsaw

I strongly urge everyone to read the fascinating biography on the Jacob Denizon Project linked to above.

I first began reading Yiddish literature in translation in December of 2012.  Yale University Press inspired my interest with a gift of The Yale Yiddish Library Collection. The alleged theme of my blog is literary works about people who lead reading centered lives and I quickly came to see how central reading was to Yiddish culture.  

I think my favorite work of Yiddish literature is the deeply hilarious profoundly revealing The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl by Sholem Aleichem, on whose work the movie The Fiddler on the Roof is based.  In the stories of pogroms by I. L. Peretz a terrible history was brought to life with incredible depth and feeling.  Denizon was friends with them both. These two writers along with Sholem Abramovitsh whom I have not yet read are considered the classic must read Yiddish writers.  Of course the issue in any literary culture  whose work endures is only partially based on merit, writers come in an out of fashion.  I think in the case of a literature like Yiddish from a partially destroyed culture dependent on translations for works to be read this is very much true.  Of course most publishers are shy to produce the works of relatively unknown writers in translation for fair to them business reasons.

Thanks to the selfless dedication and strongly focused work of Scott Davis, Jacob Dinezon (I urge all to read the very informative webpage on Dinezon I link to at the start of this post for background information on Dinezon and his relationships with other now much better known writers) Dinezon will soon become a canon status Yiddish writer.

Aside from the very exciting plot and string character development in The Dark Young Man this book is a very important part of Yiddish literary history.  It sold over 200,000 copies, written in a language many saw as not suitable for literature, below Russian or Hebrew in status.  It brought Denizon security and he would became an important figure in the largely Warsaw based literary community.

The plot begins as a young man, Yousef, leaves his family home to go to work for the family headed by Meyshe.  Yousef is essentially the hero of the story, Moyshe, the villan, is a very domineering father,very concerned with keeping traditional values, especially with regard to his right to pick, with the services of a matchmaker, an important figure in the community who were not always bcompletely truthful about a potential partners merit. ( They were paid after the match was made.). Meyshe's daughter Roza and Yousef fall in love.  They want to marry but Meyshe wants her to marry a man from a family that will be advantageous to his business.  He comes to see Yousef as his nemisis, out to steal his daughter.  The daughter wants to marry Yousef but neither she nor Yousef will violate the traditional values that require the approval of the Father.

 Moyshe begins to spread malicious lies about Yousef to turn Roca against him.  

I will leave the rest of the plot untold.  This is a melancholy and melodramatic work.  Everyone suufers as the father forces his will on his family.  It gave me better  feel for the match making process.  I have three unmarried adult daughters and can project myself into this situation. Women were bound by the rule of their father until married.  Readers of Jane Austin and many other 19th century  writers will immediately relate to The Dark Young Man.

Yiddish writers often derived much of their income from theatrical works and certainly an exciting movie could be made from this book. Lots of exciting if not happy things happen.

Jewish Story Teller Press has brought into print brand new first ever translations of two more of Denizon's novels, Hershel: A Jewish Love Story and Yosele: A Story from Jewish Life which sounds a bit like Oliver Twist.  They have also published a collection of stories and essays under the title Memories and Scenes- Shtel, Childhood and Writers (I have previously posted on this collection and it is both culturally significant and a delight to read.)

In April I hope to read Yosele:A Story of Jewish Life as I'm wanting an inside look at Shtel schools, then Herdhel in May.

I salute and thank Jewish Storyteller Press for these very important publications.  

Mel u

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Up North - A Short Story by Mavis Gallant -first published November 21, 1959 in The New Yorker -included in Home Truths

"A short story is what you see when you look out of the window."
Mavis Gallant

April 11, 1922 - Montreal

1950 - moves to Paris

September 1, 1951- publishes, in The New Yorker, her first short story.  She would publish 116 stories in The New Yorker. 

February 18, 2014 - passes away in her beloved Paris

Katherine Mansfield set a number of her short stories on trains, with women talking to men they never met, opening up to a stranger they knew they would never see again.  "Up North" is such a story.  Set around 1946 or so, when Gallant must've been dreaming about leaving Canada, the woman is the English war bride of a Canadian soldier, she is with her son who barely remembers his father.  They are headed  Abitibi, in northern Quebec to join her husband who drives a bull doxer for an aluminum company.  We never learn how she came to marry a Canadian soldier or anything at all about her life in England.  Gallant is a master at using small details to illuminate the past and see into the future:

"He looked all at once ridiculous and dishonored in his cheap English clothes –the little jacket, the Tweedledum cap on his head. He outdistanced his clothes; he was better than they were. But he was rushing on this train into an existence where his clothes would be too good for him."

The woman hates the train berth.  She begins a conversation with a man sitting near her and her son.  We learn her husband is a laborer.  Her son has never heard anyone speak French and in an intriguing aspect of the story mistakes a group of Frenchmen for elves.  Her son asks the man if he has ever seen a ghost.  No he has not but where the boy is going he will find lots of Indians, who do see ghosts.

I think in Quebec in 1946 the expression "up North" was more than just a location,it means an almost wild west kind of place far from civilization in Montreal, and light years from London. If the woman thought the train was shabby wait until she gets to Abitibi and takes up the life of a mining camp wife.

We leave the story worrying for the future of the woman but more so her son.  His father seems a bit of a brute.

We also wonder about the future of the man on the train.

Do you have some favorite set on a train short stories?

Mel u

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Prodigal Parent - A Short Story by Mavis Gallant - first published in The New Yorker, June 7, 1969 - included in Home Truths

"Like every other form of art, literature is no more and nothing less than a matter of life and death. The only question worth asking about a story — or a poem, or a piece of sculpture, or a new concert hall — is, Is it dead or alive?".. 

Mavis Gallant

April 11, 1922 - Montreal

1950 - moves to Paris

September 1, 1951- publishes, in The New Yorker, her first short story.  She would go onto publish 116 stories in The New Yorker. ( I greatly enjoy looking at the covers of the issue in which a story was published.)

February 18, 2014 - passes away in her beloved Paris

Thinking about the quote from Gallant with which I began this post, all her stories past her test-she can put so much life in just a few pages.

The story is narrated by a man retired with a small pension.  He has just arrived from a long drive from the East Coast of Canada to Vancouver Island on the Pacific.  His wife has divorced him and he has come to stay with his 28 year old daughter.  She is divorced , childless and having an affair with a married Irishman.  The father/daughter relationship is not an easy one.  The father's bluster covers up his shame of having to live with his daughter.  She has bought some cabins and is working on turning them into a retreat for city folks.  

Drinking plays a big part in the family history.  There is so much in this painful conversation:

"“It’s not my fault. I wouldn’t keep on falling for lushes and phonies if you hadn’t been that way.” I put my glass down on the packing case she had pushed
before me, and said, “I am not, I never was, and I never could be an alcoholic.” Rhoda. seemed genuinely shocked. “I never said that. I never heard you had to be put in a hospital or anything, like my stepdaddy. But you used to stand me on a table when you had parties, Mother told me, and I used to dance to ‘Piccolo Pete.’ What happened to that record, I wonder? One of your wives most likely got it in lieu of alimony. But may God strike us both dead here and now if I ever said you were alcoholic.” It must have been to her a harsh, clinical word, associated with straitjackets."

There is so much for us to fill in here.  We see the King Lear connection a bit further on in the story.

"She had sent for me. I had come to Rhoda from her half sister Joanne, in Montreal. Joanne had repatriated me from Europe, with an air passage to back the claim. In a new bare apartment, she played severe sad music that was like herself. We ate at a scrubbed table the sort of food that can be picked up in the hand. She was the richest of my children, through her mother, but I recognized in her guarded, slanting looks the sort of avarice and fear I think of as a specific of women."

The man and his daughter get into arguments that seem to reveal a lot.  

“Oh,” she cried, with what seemed unnecessary despair, “what did you come for? All right,” she said. “I give up. You asked for it. You can stay. I mean, I’m inviting you. You can sit around and say, ‘Oxbow was a Cheswick charmer,’ all day and when someone says to me, ‘Where jer father get his accent?’ I’ll say, ‘It was a whole way of life.’ But remember, you’re not a prisoner or anything, around here. You can go whenever you don’t like the food. I mean, if you don’t like it, don’t come to me and say, ‘I don’t like the food.’ You’re not my prisoner,” she yelled, though her face was only a few inches from mine. “You’re only my father. That’s all you are.”

I have three adult daughters.  Once my wife would go out of town to family property she would give me instructions on taking care of the girls, now it is the other way round.

Mel u

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Red Dragonfly and the Cockroach - A Short Story by Akiyuki Nosaka- 2003- translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori - 2015

The Red Dragonfly and the Cockroach - A Short Story by Akiyuki Nosaka- 2003- translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori - 2015

Works I Have So Far Read for The Japanese Literature Challenge 12, ending March 31, 2019.

1 “Insects” - a Short Story by Yuchi Seirai, a post Atomic Bomb work,2012
2 The Great Passage by Shion Miura, 2011, a deeply moving work centered on the creation of a Japanese Language Dictionary 
3 "The Whale That Fell in Love with a Submarine" A Short Story by  Akiyuki Nosaka- 2003- translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori - 2015
4 “Bee Honey” - A Short Story by Banana Yoshimoto- 2000 - set in Argentina during the annual Mother’s March for Disappeared Children.
5 Killing Commendatore: A Novel by Huruki Murakami- 2017
6 The Master Key by Masako Togawa - 1962 - translated by Simon Grove
7 "The Elephant and its Keeper" - A Short Story by Akiyuki Nasaka- 2003. translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemari
8 The Emissary by Yoko Tawada - 2014 - translated by Margaret Mitsutani
9 “The Prisoner of War and the Little Girl” - A Short Story by Akiyuki Nasaka- 2003. translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemari. I did not post on this story.
10 “The Soldier and the Horse” - A Short Story by Akiyuki Nasaka- 2003. translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemari. I did not post on this story
11. Mr. English" - A Short Story by GENJI KEITA -1985- no post
12.  "The Old She Wolf and the Little Girl" by Akiyuki Nasaka - 2003

Akiyuki Nosaka’s Stories, set in the closing days of World War Two, Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945 a date noted at the start of each story, focus on the most innocent victims of the war, very young children and animals.  The stories have a fairy tale feel, the animals are very effectively  
anthropomorphic rendered, putting us totally seeing things from the animals perspective.  One of the three stories I have posted upon is about a very lonely whale brought to a very bloody end by his love for a Japanese submarine.  The other begins in the Tokyo Zoo.  There is no money to feed the animals so a decision is made to kill the animals, including a very gentle elephant raised in the zoo.  His keeper of many years takes him out into the countryside.  We feel the great bond between them, not even shattered in death. The other is about an old she wolf and the orphaned by war child she adopts.

Today's story, "The Red Dragon and the Cockroach" set in the final days of the war when most Japanese realized they had no change to win and focuses on an eighteen year old man selected to fly a kamakazi suicide raid on an American battle ship.  He would fly an old outmoded one propellor plane known as the Red Dragon.  Zeroes were too valuable for this. The planes were very slow and have in many attempts never successfully hit a target.  The young man is politically naive.  He   wonders if in the end the full population of Japan will be massacred, as he is told.  When he is told to be proud of dying for his emperor, he thinks only of the pension he hopes his mother will get.  He adopted a Cockroach as a pet.  He took it with him on his flights.  In three attempts his squad of three planes has not found a Target.  He takes his pet along on his last flight.  His plane runs out of fuel and crashes.  The roach survives.  He does also but as the story ends he had jumped into the Sea of Japan, planning to swim to his mother's house.

Mel u

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Danielle McLaughlin - A Post on the Occasion of her winning the Windham-Campbell prize

The Gateway to Danielle McLaughin on The Reading Life includes links to stories

"Yale University today announced the 2019 recipients of the Windham-Campbell Prizes. The eight writers, honored for 
their literary achievement or promise, will receive $165,000 each to support their work.
This year’s prize recipients are: in fiction, Danielle McLaughlin (Ireland) and David Chariandy (Canada); in nonfiction, Raghu Karnad (India) and Rebecca Solnit (United States); in poetry, Ishion Hutchinson (Jamaica) and Kwame Dawes (Ghana/Jamaica/United States); in drama, Young Jean Lee (United States) and Patricia Cornelius (Australia).

“I am thrilled and astounded to be awarded this extre
generous prize,” said McLaughlin, whose debut short story collection, “Dinosaurs on Other Planets,” was published in 2015. “As a writer in the early stages of my career, the Windham-Campbell Prize is hugely important to me, both in terms of the financial freedom it provides, and its recognition of my work. It’s always a joy to learn that my stories have resonated with someone!”- from Yale University 

"The Irish writer Danielle McLaughlin was on a trip with her family to mark her 50th birthday when the phone rang and she discovered she’d won one of this year’s Windham-Campbell prizes, announced on Wednesday evening. The $165,000 (£125,000) award came at a good time, McLaughlin revealed.
“It was like a miracle,” she said, “arriving at a time when I was experiencing a bit of a wobble, psychologically, in my writing life. In a sense, it was like an answer to a question I had started asking myself.”
The Windham-Campbell prizes are among the richest literary prizes in the world, with eight authors writing in English selected each year to “call attention to literary achievement” and allow writers to “focus on their work independent of financial concerns”. - from The Irish Times

I first posted on the work of Danielle McLaughlin seven years ago, including her in an extended feature on emerging Irish Women Writers.  I guess we can safely say no she has emerged in a spectacular fashion!

My Q and A session with Danielle McLaughlin. From April, 2013

1.Who are some of the contemporary short story writers you admire? If you had to say, who do you regard as the three best ever short story writers?

I really admire the work of Kevin Barry, Alice Munro, Anne Enright, Éilís Ni Dhuibhne, Mary Costello, William Trevor, Ethel Rohan, Claire Keegan, David Means, Clare Wigfall, Sarah Hall, James Salter, Tessa Hadley, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Tania Hershman, Ron Rash, Lane Ashfeldt,   Jhumpa Lahiri, Yiyun Li - I could go on but the list is getting too long. I’m not going to attempt to name the three best short story writers ever – there are so many writers I haven’t even got around to reading yet.

2. I have read lots of Indian and American short stories in addition to Irish and alcohol plays a much bigger part in the Irish stories. How should an outsider take this and what does it say about Irish culture.   Drinking plays a big part in several of your stories.

 I don’t consciously add alcohol to my stories, it’s not something I’ve ever set out to explore particularly, but when my characters, who are mostly Irish, get together, drinking often happens. Perhaps that in itself says something. The small rural parish where I grew up and where I now live, managed at one point to support six pubs, one of them owned by my family, so I suppose it’s no surprise that something of that makes its way into my work.

3. Declan Kiberd has said the dominant theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father? In reading your wonderful story "Midnight at Ali's King Kebab Takeaway" I said:

I pondered if this story is another text book case of this.  The young woman lived in a foster home so her real father and mother were gone from her life, her foster father took advantage of her sexually, Ali's wife takes his kids from him and sets up as a father replacement figure a man we know is not going to work out at all.  We also do wonder why the woman left Ali, was it just she, we think she is Irish as she is described as having porcelain skin,  wanted an Irishman or was Ali too caught up in his food business to me a good father or husband.  So for sure we have one missing father, her real father, an abusive foster father, and Irishman we know will be a bust as a step father and we do have to wonder about Ali.  So how many weak fathers are in this story?  (Danielle, just please talk a bit about the Issue of weak fathers as it relates to your work and your perception of irish lit and life)

It’s funny, isn’t it, how we often don’t notice something in our own stories until someone else points it out? When I look back over ‘Midnight at Ali’s King Kebab Takeaway’, I see that the story does, I think, involve the theme of missing father. We have this rudderless young au pair, far from home, who gets involved with first one older man, then another, and then, as you say, there is Ali separated from his kids. Thinking of some of my other stories, there are a number of instances of missing fathers and there are missing mothers too. Perhaps it is the case that characters who have become untethered have the potential to be more interesting characters. As writers are we drawn more to characters who have been cast loose?  Or maybe it is simply that I wrote the story shortly after I myself had played ‘Mrs Host Mother’ to no fewer than seven young au pairs over the course of two years and they left me with plenty of material. (the story, I hasten to add, is entirely fictional…) In the wider context, is the missing father the dominant theme of modern Irish literature? I don’t know but it’s certainly one of the themes.

4. when did you start writing?

In 2009. That was also the year I became very ill very suddenly with what turned out to be a long term illness and had to stop work, so I guess that had something to do with it. I had attempted to write previously, but it didn’t come to anything. I used to write stories as a child and I remember ‘finishing’ some stories years ago and even sending some out, but I had no understanding of the need to do re-writes, for example, or of the time required to get a story right, so in hindsight, they would have been nowhere near ‘finished’.  I didn’t realise that there was craft to be learned. I used to think that if someone was really a writer, then the writing would more or less happen by itself. In 2009, it was non-fiction I started with, and my first published piece was an article in the Irish Times about going through the seven au pairs in two years. I switched to writing fiction quite quickly, although I still write the occasional feature article. 

5. Please tell us a bit about your none literary work experience
These days I’m a stay-at-home Mammy (I have three kids, aged 10, 8 and 6), although ‘stay-at-home’ is a bit of a misnomer, because most days I’m ferrying them about, and even when they’re at school, I find I often need to get out of the house to write, especially if I’m in the early stages of something. Other jobs over the years have included admin jobs, working in a pub, in a shop, as a lawyer and as a lecturer.

6.   Does living in the city where the world's most prestigious short story festival is held somehow inspire Cork based writers?

I first attended the Cork International Short Story Festival in 2010 and it was magnificent. Short story heaven!  That autumn, I signed up for some writing workshops run by the festival organisers, the Munster Literature Centre, and it was a turning point in my attempts to write. I’ve attended the Festival every year since. Yes, it’s inspiring and the buzz is incredible - I’m on a high for weeks afterwards. I’m already looking forward to this year’s festival  - 18 to22 September 2013.

8.    Please tell us something of your academic background?

I studied law and practiced as a lawyer for many years until I had to stop in 2009 for health reasons. I find writing and law quite similar in many ways: both revolve around words and stories and drama, and both require high levels of creativity. I also studied English and Irish as a night student at UCC.

9. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers?

I don’t know how our numbers compare to other countries but we’ve certainly produced lots. Historically, going back to Brehon law times, the position of writer/poet would have been highly regarded. And, being a small island, we were not engaged in the sort of empire-building that other countries were involved in, so perhaps our energies were directed elsewhere.

10. (This may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway-do you believe in Fairies?-this quote from Declain Kiberd sort of explains why I am asking this:

" One 1916 veteran recalled, in old age, his youthful conviction that the rebellion would “put an end to the rule of the fairies in Ireland”. In this it was notably unsuccessful: during the 1920s, a young student named Samuel Beckett reported seeing a fairy-man in the New Square of Trinity College Dublin; and two decades later a Galway woman, when asked by an American anthropologist whether she really believed in the “little people”, replied with terse sophistication: “I do not, sir – but they’re there."

Where I live there are lots of fairy forts and as I child I understood that one mustn’t mess with them. Yes, I believe in fairies in that I believe other ‘realities’ may exist that are beyond our knowing or our understanding. And who is to say what spirits or beings may exist in those other places?  I doubt, though, that fairies are sweet, doll-like creatures in pretty dresses  - I like to think they’re a lot more interesting. 
11. Do you think the very large amount of remains from neolithic periods (the highest in the world) in Ireland has shaped in the literature and psyche of the country?

The area where I live has lots of standing stones and there is a souterrain quite close to our house. I tend to take them for granted because I grew up with them and they are part of the landscape. But their existence is bound to impact in some way - there is that sense of something left over from lives gone before, of something that lingers.

12. When you write, do you picture somehow a potential audience or do you just write? As a playwright, do you caste the play at least by types as or before you write it?

Mostly I just write whatever story presents itself, although if something has been commissioned for a particular publication then I will keep readership in mind, eg is it something that needs to be suitable for children? 
I haven’t written any plays.
13. Do you have any rituals or superstitions about your writing, do you have fixed, "writing times"?

The closest I get to a routine is in the mornings when, after I take the children to school, I drive to a café taking a notebook with me and work on a story for a couple of hours. I always have to do the first draft of anything longhand, never straight onto a computer. When I get home, if what I am writing has reached a particular stage, I might transfer it to the computer then.  In the afternoons, the children are home from school but I might get to work on edits of stories that are further along and I try to do a couple of hours in the evenings after the children are in bed.

14. Does the character of the "stage Irishman" live on still in the heavy drinking, violent, on the dole characters one finds in many contemporary Irish novels?  

I don’t recall having encountered the ‘stage Irishman’ much lately. 
15. William Butler Yeats said in "The Literary Movement"-- "“The popular poetry of England celebrates her victories, but the popular poetry of Ireland remembers only defeats and defeated persons”. I see a similarity of this to the heroes of the Philippines. American heroes were all victors, they won wars and achieved independence. The national heroes of the Philippines were almost all ultimately failures, most executed by the Spanish or American rulers. How do you think the fact Yeats is alluding too, assuming you agree, has shaped Irish literature

Maybe it’s an example of ‘write what you know’? I suppose over the course of history the Irish experienced more defeats than victories, so perhaps the literature simply reflects this. I don’t know enough about the particular poetry Yeats was referring to, to comment on whether he was right or not.

16.   What is the best thing about the Cork International Short Story festival?

There are so many things that combine to make the Festival great  - the readings, the workshops, the panel discussions -  it’s difficult to pick just one. Having said that, at the Festival there’s always a very strong sense that everybody –  whether participating writer or audience member – is there because of a shared love of the short story, and the level of interaction between the writers and those who have come along to hear them is something I haven’t experienced anywhere else. I’ve been very fortunate in previous years to get chatting to a number of internationally acclaimed writers.

17. Do you think poets have a social role to play in contemporary Ireland or are they pure artists writing for themselves and a few peers?

I think everyone has a social role to play, poets (or other writers) no more or no less than anyone else. 
18. "To creative artists may have fallen the task of explaining what no historian has fully illuminated – the reason why the English came to regard the Irish as inferior and barbarous, on the one hand, and, on the other, poetic and magical."-is this right? Kiberd, Declan (2009-05-04). Inventing Ireland (p. 646).

I’m afraid I just don’t know, so I’m going to skip this one!

19. Do you think Irish Travellers should be granted the status of a distinct ethnic group and be given special rights to make up for past mistreatment? Are the Travellers to the Irish what the Irish were once to the English? I became interested in this question partially through reading the short stories of Desmond Hogan.

Travellers are an ethnic group and their ethnicity should be recognised. I don’t know about the Irish/English analogy.

20.  Best city for a neophyte writer in Ireland? Dublin, Cork, Galway?

Cork (but then I would say that, wouldn’t I…)

21.   If you have attended literary workshops, tell us a bit about them please-

I’m a big believer in workshops and I go to as many as possible. Many of my stories started out as workshop exercises. The workshops I did in 2010/2011 at the Munster Literature Centre in Cork made a huge difference to my writing and it was out of those workshops that my writing group formed. Five of us continue to meet once a fortnight to critique each other’s work. Some workshops I attended last year were with Éilis Ni Dhuíbhne  at the Cork International Short Story Festival, Tessa Hadley at the West Cork Literary Festival and Nuala Ni Chonchúir at the Waterford Writers Weekend. All really great!

22. Do  you prefer ereading or traditional books?

Traditional books, I don’t have an ereader. 
23. If you were to be given the option of living anywhere besides Ireland where would you live?

New York – I’ve never been, but I imagine it as an extraordinary place and I’d like to try living in a really big city.

24. If you could time travel for 30 days (and be rich and safe) where would you go and why?

I might go forward a couple of hundred years - see how things work out.

26. Flash Fiction-how driven is the popularity of this form by social media like Twitter and its word limits? Do you see twitter as somehow leading to playwrights keeping conversations shorter than in years past?

I’m not on Twitter, but I do like to read and write flash fiction. I can’t imagine Twitter impacting on playwrights in that way, but then again, I’m not on Twitter so I don’t really know.

27. How important in shaping the literature of Ireland is its proximity to the sea?

As a small island, we are in the grip of the sea and it is something that remains uncontrollable, regardless of scientific advances. It also contributes in large part to our isolation. No-one in Ireland is ever very far from the sea so in that sense it is ever-present and this finds its way into our writing. My husband’s family mostly work in the fishing industry in one way or another, so in our house we would be very much  aware of the sea as a force to be reckoned with. There’s a wonderful debut collection called ‘Saltwater’ by Lane Ashfeldt, all of the stories inspired by the sea. It’s a gorgeous collection and I highly recommend it.

28.  When you are outside of Ireland, besides friends and family, what do you miss the most?  What are you glad to be away from?

I’ve never been away long enough to start missing anything. It’s good to get away from the rain for a while.

29. Quick Pick Questions
a. John Synge or Beckett-?  Beckett
b. dogs or cats? Dogs
c.  tablet or lap top? Lap top
d.  favorite meal to eat out-breakfast, lunch or dinner? Dinner


I give my total thanks to Danielle McLaughlin for taking the time to provide us with such interesting and well considered responses to my questions.

Mel u