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

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Orfhlaith Foyle A Question and Answer Session

March 1 to March 31
A Reading Life Special Event

I am very honored that Órfhlaith Foyle, author of Somewhere in Minnesota (a collection of short stories), Belios (a novel) and Red Riding Hood's Dilemma, a collection of poems has honored my blog with her wonderful responses to my questions.  She is also the author of Revenge, an anthology of poetry and short fiction.

ÓRFHLAITH FOYLE was born in Nigeria to Irish parents and is currently based in Galway. Her first novel, Belios, and a collection of her short fiction and poetry, Revenge, were both published in 2005. Her first full collection, Red Riding Hood’s Dilemma, was published in 2010. She is working on her second novel.  She is also the author of a short story collection, Somewhere in Minnesota. 

My first contact with the work of Órfhlaith Foyle was through reading her wonderful collection of short stories, Somewhere in Minnesota. (You can read my post on this powerful collection of short stories here.)
Here is how I summarized my reaction to her stories.

Frank O'Connor in his landmark work The Lonely Voice:   A Study in the Short Story  says that the most powerful short stories are often about people in what he called "submarginal groups".    By "submarginalized"  he means people that have no one to speak for them by virtue of their status in society.   He felt that the short story  at its best is deeply focused on loneliness.   

In Orfhlaith Foyle's brand new collection of short stories, Somewhere in Minnesota,  the submarzinalized have found a powerful hauntingly beautiful voice.    She understands  Pynchon's "walkers along the roads at night" and knows what it means to be "in exile from somewhere else invisible yet congruent with the land she lived in"
During Irish Short Story Month Year II in 2012 she very kindly did a guest post in which she talks about meeting Mary Lavin and how it influenced her writing career.

Shauna Gilligan (author of Happiness Comes From 
Nowhere) contributed a guest post on Somewhere in Minnesota last year (you can read it here).

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 admire Nuala Ni Chonchuir, Mike McCormack, Jon McGregor, Mary Gaitskill

The three best ever short story writers? Everyone says Chekov, and he is brilliant. But I love Gogol. Katherine Mansfield is a personal favourite also. So is Kate Chopin. And I know I am adding a fourth, a fifth and a sixth but I consider Flannery O’ Connor, Patrick White and Ursula Le Guin to be among the best.

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.
I grew up outside Irish culture. It was always over the ocean and in another country. That’s not to say I didn’t see drinking in Africa or Australia, I just didn’t see it contaminating people as much as it contaminates Irish culture.
I suppose the lack of sun, the lack of an outside life for some people, the grind of history, the in-bred niceness and docility all have a part to play. The demons have to come out sometime.
Irish stories hone in on that because Irish writers are like any other writers in any other culture, they write what they see and what they are afraid of.

3.  Declan Kiberd has said the dominant theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father?   Do you think he is right and how does this, if it does, reveal itself in your work.  It seems present in several of your stories.

Oh God, I hate when people say that because it’s true. Although weak is not a description I would use. Fearful, perhaps. Men fearful of women and fearful of love. I read my stories and I see variations of that fear in both my male and female characters. It’s a human thing. I’ll never get rid of it.

4.  When did you start writing?

A little while after I started reading. I liked making up stories in my head first of all, using characters from stories that I read and I daydreamed them into my own. I began to write them down when I was in primary school, and the teachers asked for stories. I was lucky with my teachers in school in Africa. They didn’t mind imagination. When a teacher walks into the class with a dead black mamba snake wrapped around his neck and announces that if the snake had bit us, we would only have three hours before we die – now write a story - well your imagination gets going.

5.  How do you view Aosdana?  Is it a great aid to the arts in Ireland or does it perpetuate closed elitism?

I don’t really know much about Aosdana, so I can’t comment or judge it.

6.  I sometimes wonder why such a disproportionate amount of the regarded as great literature of the world is written in the colder temperate zones rather than in the tropics.   How big a factor do you think the Irish Weather is in shaping the literary output of its writers.   I cannot imagine The Brothers Karamazov being written on a tropical island, for example.
Plenty of great literature is written in/or about the tropics. A House for Mr Biswas, Voss are two that I have read in the past year. It is a shame that the regard is disproportionate. And I think you can write anyway as long as you have the desire inside you. Not so much the weather makes you but the love for words and wanting to listen or to read. In Ireland rain makes people hide inside and cold temperatures means fire is needed, then what else can you do but talk or write?
But also in the tropics, sitting on the veranda and listening to the rain, you can write there just as well.

7. A character in an Ali Smith short story, asks in a conversation on the merits of short stories versus novels -"Is the short story a goddess and nymph and is the novel an old whore?"    Does this make a bit of sense to you?

It makes me angry actually.  I love novels. I love short stories.

8.   Who do you regard as the first modern Irish short story writer?   

The one story that affected me the most was ‘His First Flight,’ by Liam O Flaherty. I read it when I was in school. Mary Lavin was also someone whose stories made me wish I could write. I suppose James Joyce and Frank O’Connor but the others got to me first.

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

I don’t know. I think others can answer that question better.

10.   (Ok 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."  

I like the Galway woman’s answer, so mine follows hers. ‘I do not, Mel U - but I read about them all the time.’ 

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?

Those ruins tell us that we aren't that different to our past. No matter how adept we are at living in an internet age, the stones that people put down thousands of years ago are still here, still haunting and far more visible than the specks of electricity that create an email.

12.  Do you like the Stories of an Irish R. M.?  either the stories or the TV show?   are the stories of Edith Somerville and Martin Ross mocking or celebrating Irish heritage?

God no, I hate them. Mrs Cadogan in her kitchen and every cliche of cap-touching Irish character plus the ‘simple’ boy living in the scullery and scampering along the judge’s horse and carriage. I hate them so much that I can still see them all.

13.  How important are the famines to the modern Irish psyche?  
I only ever really learned about Irish history when we returned from Africa.  I never knew much about the famine. My parents didn’t mention it. I knew about recent history but when I read about it in school and saw the etchings of various newspaper artists, I was surprised that white people had famines too. I was disturbed that people ate grass to survive and died because of it. The paucity of compassion made me sick in my stomach.
…the closest I have ever got to that feeling again, was the Rwandan genocide, and the tip-toeing uselessness of the UN.

I suppose such an erasure of a people during the Irish famine leaves a gap in the people’s psyche. A sort of open-mouthed incomprehension that an entire people’s life meant so little to the watching bystanders.

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?

All the time, and it’s not a nice character but he exists, so what else can you do but write him and try to find some part of him that you can make human?

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?

I think in defeated people and in defeated events, you find a truer human experience. A victory is true also but it can be a partisan truth. Victory blinds you to what the defeated is feeling, and it makes you thirst to punish, and it is easier then to see the defeated as something that you can kick.
This makes for great archetypes in literature. The defeated will crawl back and build a hero and the victors will eat themselves and produce a tyrant.

16.  Who was the first great Irish writer who was not at all Anglo/Irish?

James Joyce – for his short stories. But Patrick Kavanagh is superb. 

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?

Poets write what they feel when they look at the world and at themselves. Some are confessional, some are playing with prose/reportage and performance. I write poetry now and again, and it is a constant question of ‘Is this just me talking or is there also someone/something else there?’

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).

Classic colonialism. The victor hates the defeated for being different yet loves the poetic magical lilt, the sinewy and slippery language and dearly wishes to be like the defeated but with all the trappings and safety of the victor. And then they end up in limbo. Read ‘The Last September’ by Elizabeth Bowen and ‘The Troubles’ by J G Farrell.

19.     Do you think Irish Travelers should be granted the status of a distinct ethnic group and be given special rights to make up for past mistreatment?  Are the Travelers 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.

The Travellers are Irish. They have different customs but so do loads of other Irish people, recent and indigenous. They have suffered abuse and they have given it also. They are no different to any other societal group in Ireland. Equality within a population does not mean some differences are more special than others, it just means they are different and ought to be respected, included and held to account.

20.   Where is the best place in Galway to get a real Irish breakfast?  Fish and Chips and Irish Stew? 

 McDonagh’s is good for fish and chips and so is Salt and Pepper in Salthill. Most Irish pubs have good Irish Stew. Galway is full of restaurants, café’s and places to sit and talk. Irish breakfasts are endemic.

21.  The literary productivity of Galway is incredible-what is there about Galway's social climate that produces this?

Must be the sea and the rain. I don’t know, I think it is a self-generating belief. We live by the sea and we write.

22.  Do you prefer ereading or traditional books?

Traditional books. I like the actual feel of turning pages. E-readers are fine but there’s no adventure to them.

23.   If you were to be given the option of living anywhere besides Ireland, where would you live?

I would live in the Blue Mountains in Australia, in a green painted house, and I’d spend my evenings wandering across the wooden veranda in my bare feet while listening to the cicadas call to each other.

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

I have always loved the idea of journeying into the Takla Makan desert. Ancient Celtic mummies were found there by Chinese archeologists, and to this day in nearby regions, you find people with blue, blue eyes.
The Twenties in Paris, New York and Sydney, for the music, boldness, dance and literature and Florence, to look at paintings, and I’d visit Vincent van Gogh for a good many days then I would join Emily Bronte for a walk on the moors.

25.  John Synge-is he the second most important 20th century Irish writer?

I love his plays. He’s important to me. Who’s the first? Joyce? My first is Patrick Kavanagh.

26.  The Aran Islands-must see authentic experience or just for the tourists?
Oh see them. Just for their beauty. You can lose the tourists and just walk among the stones and you really do feel as if you have discovered the edge of the world.

27.   Best Literary Festival you have so far attended?

The Cork International Short Story Festival for the welcome, the readers, the writers, the atmosphere and the food.

28.   Flash Fiction-how driven is the popularity of this form by social media like Twitter and its word limits?

Oh I think Flash Fiction was been around before Twitter etc. It’s just got a platform now.
I read some but I can’t actually write them. There is an art to using a few words as possible to show the whole of something and Ethel Rohan does it brilliantly.

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

I feel it is as important as any other part of Ireland. You can write about a Galway Hooker on the sea, or watch a man butcher a pig in a yard in a village and it all says something.
The sea also means it was a way of escaping Ireland and looking for other ways to write about the country - Joyce, Beckett, McGahern, Maeve Brennan – they all managed to escape the insular traps of Irish romantic mentality and write real, surreal and experimental fiction.

30.  Best place to hear traditional music in Galway?   Best book store, best literary tourist experience, best "real people's" restaurant. 

I don’t know much about Irish traditional music. Best book store is Charlie Byrne’s.  It’s bigger now. It’s full of books and it has armchairs.

End of Q and A

My great thanks once again to ÓRFHLAITH FOYLE for taking the time to give such interesting and informative responses.

You can learn more about her work on her very well done webpage.

Mel u


Caroline said...

What an absolutely great interview.

mel u said...

Caroline-thanks very much-

Parrish Lantern said...

Great interview with a great writer/poet. As to flash fiction check out Aesops tales great early examples.

valerie sirr said...

I love Orfhlaith's facility for language in the stories. I came across Belios in a second-hand bookshop a couple of days ago and am looking forward to reading it


Great stuff, Miss Foyle :)

Ethel Rohan said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this fine interview. This is great: "... and he's not a nice character, so what else can you do but write him and try to find some part of him that you can make human?"

As is this: "I think in defeated people and in defeated events, you find a truer human experience. A victory is true also but it can be a partisan truth. Victory blinds you to what the defeated is feeling, and it makes you thirst to punish, and it is easier then to see the defeated as something that you can kick.
This makes for great archetypes in literature. The defeated will crawl back and build a hero and the victors will eat themselves and produce a tyrant."

Thanks, Orfhlaith, for the kind mention.

And I would love to join you and Emily for that walk on the moors ...

Órfhlaith Foyle said...

Thank you Mel for interviewing me. I enjoyed the questions. Thank you Caroline, Parrish and Valerie for your lovely compliments.
Thank you Nuala, and your interview was great reading. Ethel, you would be welcome anytime to walk on the moors with me and Emily!