Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, August 30, 2013

Seamus Heaney

"The Banks of the Vistula" by Rebecca Lee (1997).

The Guardian this week named Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee as their pick for a top short story book of 2013.   I was very glad to find a link to one of the stories in the collection on the public web page of The Atlantic.  

author bio (from web page of Penguin)

Rebecca Lee is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The City Is a Rising Tide and the short story collection Bobcat and Other Stories. She has been published in The Atlantic and Zoetrope, and in 2001 she received a National Magazine Award for her short fiction. Originally from Saskatchewan, Lee is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is now a professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
My main purpose in this post is to let my readers know that one of Rebecca Lee's short stories can be read online.  "The Banks of Vistula" is set in a university.   A young female college student is taking a challenging class in psycholinguistics.  The professor is from Poland.  His background is a bit mysterious or even malevolent as he served as an officer in the Soviet Army when the occupied Poland.  The student finds and obscure book in the library, one know one has checked out in decades.  She copies a chapter nearly word for word and turns it in as her work.   The professor is convinced it is plagiarism and he calls her into the office.  She tells him it is her work but she did talk it over with her roommate.  The professor then wants to meet the roommate.  There are lots of great twists and turns in this story.  It gives us a great feel for academic life and its conflicts.   

I really liked this story and hope to read more of her work.

Mel u

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Nora Hurston ( 1891 to 1960, Alabama, USA) is an American classic and historically an important book.    Many value it for the great insight it shows into the lives of African Americans in Florida in the 1930s.  I would say it is near must reading.  

Hurston graduated from a very elite women's college, Bernard, the first person of color to do so.  She majored in anthropology, studying under Francis Boas and with Margaret Mead.   Her anthropological field studies were among poor African Americans in rural central Florida and the Everglades.   She was criticized by some for making the people she wrote about, especially the men, seem like unintelligent, poorly educated people driven by their sex drive to self destructive life styles.  The men have nick names like "Tea Cake" and the women fall for any fast talking man who comes along.  As is accurate, society was very divided along racial lines.  Much of the lasting power of the book is in seeing how the savage legacy of racism has impacted the people in the story.

The conversations are meant to be in a dialect that mirrors the speech patterns of the people who lived in the world Hurston wrote about.  Some are going to be turned off by some or much of this and I can see why some found it patronizing.  I don't normally like dialect in fiction and I did get tired of it here sometimes.  Hurston can write exquisite prose and there is much to relish in this book.  

The heart of the book is in the character of Janie.  In her quest for love, she made some very bad decisions.  The story is told as if it were Janie relaying her story to a friend.  I thought one of the highlights of the book was in a description of a major hurricane in the Florida Everglades.    

Anyone into African American literature must read this, most probably already have.  If you want to learn some fascinating real Florida history, read this. If you are into post colonial literature read this.  Hurston died in obscurity and poverty in Fort Pierce, Florida.  One can only wish she would have benefitted from the movie made of her book, with Haley Barry in the starring role. 

Mel u

"The Grave" by Katherine Anne Porter

Katherine Anne Porter (Texas, USA 1890 to 1980) won just about every American literary award worth winning, including the Pulitzer Prize and The National Book Award.  Her most famous work is her novel, Ship of Fools.  I was very glad to see that an excellent web page I follow, Recommended Reading had placed one of her short stories online.  Her full collection of short stories comes to nearly 1000 pages and many say they are her best work.  Her stories work the same ground as Eudora Welty, William Faulkner,  Flannery O'Connor and Nora Hurston, the rural American south in the days between the world wars.  Like these stories, teachers should note that "The Grave Yard" contains politically incorrect racial terms.  

My main purpose in posting on this story, besides trying to seal it in my porous memory, is to give my readers the opportunity to read one of her stories online for free.  The story is set in rural Texas.  The grandmother of the family moved there some years ago as her husband wanted to buried there. In tie they start a family graveyard and lots of people join the grandfather.  A brother and sister, 9 and 12 are out hunting rabbit.  In an amazingly powerful scene, they begin to skin a rabbit they shot only to find she was about ready to give birth.  This deeply impacts the girl.   There is a lot in this story about life in rural Texas. I loved the closing lines of the story:

"Miranda never told, she did not even wish to tell anybody. She thought about the whole worrisome affair with confused unhappiness for a few days. Then it sank quietly into her mind and was heaped over by accumulated thousands of impressions, for nearly twenty years. One day she was picking her path among the puddles and crushed refuse of a market street in a strange city of a strange country, when, without warning, in totality, plain and clear in its true colors as if she looked through a frame upon a scene that had not stirred nor changed since the moment it happened, the episode of the far-off day leaped from its burial place before her mind’s eye. She was so reasonlessly horrified she halted suddenly staring, the scene before her eyes dimmed by the vision back of them. An Indian vendor had held up before her a tray of dyed-sugar sweets, shaped like all kinds of small creatures: birds, baby chicks, baby rabbits, lambs, baby pigs. They were in gay colors and smelled of vanilla, maybe… It was a very hot day and the smell in the market, with its piles of raw flesh and wilting flowers, was like the mingled sweetness and corruption she had smelled that other day in the empty cemetery at home: the day she had remembered vaguely always until now as the time she and her brother had found treasure in the opened graves. Instantly upon this thought the dreadful vision faded, and she saw clearly her brother, whose childhood face she had forgotten, standing again in the blazing sunshine, again twelve years old, a pleased sober smile in his eyes, turning the silver dove over and over in his hands."

There is a deep wisdom in this story.   

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"Everything is Nice" by Jane Bowles

As far as I can find, up until yesterday you could not read any of the work of Jane Bowles online.  My main purpose in this post is to let people know they can now read, for free, one of her magnificent short stories online. 

As the story opens, in a "Blue Muslim town" a Muslim woman starts a conversation with a Nazarene woman she does not know.  It is a small town with a mixed population of Muslims and Christians.  The Muslim woman asks the other where she is going.  She shows the Muslim woman a porcupine she is taking to her aunt, country people eat them we learn.   There is no big plot action in the story, nothing really happens but two women of different cultures see more of their similarities than they once did.  

I really recommend this story.   

Mel u

This Side of Brightness by Colum McCann (2003). The Reading Life Recommended Reading Order for His Novels

I am now a bit sad to have read all six of Colum McCann's novels.   I know it will be a few years until I have the pleasure of reading another one.  This Side of Brightness is my least favorite of his novels but I still enjoyed reading it.  McCann's descriptive powers make anything he writers worth reading.  

This Side of Brightness is about the men who dug the first tunnel into New York City.  The work begun as W W I was firing up.  The men, a very diverse group, who dug the tunnel were called "sand hogs".  The work was very dangerous and very hard.  The sand hogs bonded across national and racial boundaries.  You were a sand hog before you were Irish, Italian, Black, or German.  A lot of the book is taken up with the ramifications of racial prejudice.  We follow several sand hogs as they live on after the tunnel is completed, through three generations.    

Here are my suggestions as to reading order for his six novels.

1.  Let the Great World Keep on Spinning.  His most awarded book to date.

2.  Transatlantic is actually my favorite but it is not yet as famous as the above work.  It is nominated for The Booker Prize and has to be a strong contender for the 2014 Irish novel of the year prize.

Proceed on in McCann if you really like these novels, I certainly did.

3.  Zoli - revolves about a Roma woman (gypsy) who became a well known poet.  I am very interested in this culture so that helped me like the book.

4.  Dancer - about Rudolph Nureyev, fascinating in parts.  
5.   Everything in this Country Must. -   An internationally roaming but rooted in Ireland search by a man for his father.  Parts are brilliant

6.  This Side of Brightness 6th place McCann still worth reading.

What are your favorite McCann novels and stories?

Mel u 

Monday, August 26, 2013

"The Bed of Arrows" by Gopinath Mohanty

an award winning novelist.

"Gopinath Mohanty (Oriya: ଗୋପୀନାଥ ମହାନ୍ତି) (1914–1991), winner of the prestigious jnanpith award, eminent Oriya novelist of the mid-twentieth century is arguably the greatest Oriya writer after Fakir Mohan Senapati."


"The Bed of Arrows" is an interesting story about a marriage.  The couple in the story have been married a long time.   It was customary for girls to be married, via brokered arrangents, shortly after reaching puberty.   By age forty, women were off very physically taxed, worn out, by numerous yearly child births and household work.   In the marriage in this story the 45 year old wife see herself as an old woman while her husband is in his prime.   We see them slowly drift apart.  It is obvious the husband is  having affairs but the wife cannot or does not want to see it.

Mel u

Sunday, August 25, 2013

"The Flood" by Thakazhi Sivasankaran Pillai - തകഴി ശിവശങ്കര പിള്ള. Translated by Samuel Mathai

Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai (1912 to 1999) was a novelist and short story writer of Malayalam language. He is popularly known as Thakazhi, after his place of birth. Born in the village of Thakazhy, in Kuttanad, Alappuzha district of Kerala, he started to write stories when he was a schoolboy.  His literary taste was nurtured by his high school headmaster Kainikkara Kumara Pillai who exposed him to Indian literature.  He met Kesari A Balakrishna Pillai while pursuing his law studies in Tiruvanantapuram.  He introduced Thakazhi to modern European literature and thought  He focused on the oppressed classes as the subject of his works, which are known for their attention to historic detail.  He has written several novels and over 600 short stories. His most famous works are Kayar (1978) and Chemmeen (1956; film adaptation, 1965). He was awarded India's highest literary award, the Jnanpith in 1984.

This week eighty percent of metro Manila was flooded by the co-arrival of a typhoon and a monsoon.  I have experienced hurricanes and the rains of monsoons put them to shame.  Any way I was looking over a collection of Indian short stories I have on my IPAD and I saw there was one called "The Flood" by a new to me writer, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, so I decided to read it.  After another monsoon flood years ago I read and posted on a story by Emile Zola, also called "The Flood".  

The flood in the story has to be partially tidal flooding.   As the story opens we are on the third floor of a temple where hundreds of people have taken shelter.   Everyone who has a boat has left,lots of people are on the roof of their house hoping to be rescued as the waters continue to rise.  The story is focused on a family dog left behind by his family.  We feel the bewilderment and terror of the poor dog as the waters rise.   It is a very poignant story.    Dog lovers will be very moved.  

If you have a favorite Subcontinent short story, please tell us about it.

Mel u 

Red Ribbons by Louise Phillips (2012, 405 pages)

Normally I read several books at one time.   Yesterday I took Louise Phillips' novel Red Ribbons with me to our community pool, thinking I will start it after my swim.   I sat down briefly in a pool side cabana and a monsoon rain began.  I could not get back in the club house without being drenched so I started reading. Three hours of rain went but I was so drawn into the incredibly well done powerfully absorbing crime story, set in Dublin, that I barely noticed the time and rain.   It is compulsive reading. 

The plot action begins when a young girl is found murdered. The killer put red ribbons in her hair. We also meet a woman, Ellie, who was placed in a mental hospital 15 years ago for burning down her trailer with her 12 year old daughter inside. This begins as a seemingly separate subplot and a lot of the fun of the novel is in wondering how this is connected to the murders.  Soon another girl is killed and a massive hunt for the killer begins. It was fascinating to be an insider on this and to get to know a profiler and some detectives.   We know early who the killer is and we see the events also through his eyes. 

There are lots of exciting plot twists and I never could have predicted the very satisfying close of this marvelous novel.   The level of the prose is very high.  I completely endorse Red Ribbons to anyone one who likes well written suspense and crime novels.   I am really looking forward to reading her second novel, drawing rave reviews, The Doll's House.

Author Bio (from her webpage)

Louise Phillips returned to writing after a 20 year gap spent raising her family, managing a successful family business, and working in banking. Quickly selected by Dermot Bolger as an emerging talent, Louise went on to win the 2009 Jonathan Swift Award and in 2011 she was a winner in the Irish Writers’ Centre Lonely Voice Platform, as well as being short-listed for Bridport UK Prize, the Molly Keane Memorial Award, and the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Short Story Competition. In 2012 Louise was awarded an Arts bursary for literature from South County Dublin Arts. Louise's psychological crime novel, Red Ribbons, is published by Hachette Books Ireland, and has been shortlisted for the Best Irish Crime Novel of the Year 2012. Her second novel, The Doll's House, will be published in 2013. Other publishing credits include many literary journals and anthologies, including New Island's County Lines. 
A Q and A with Louise Philips

Mel u

Saturday, August 24, 2013

"St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" by Karen Russell (2006)

It is easy to see Flannery O'Connor, Gabriel Marquez or Haruki Murakami in the stories of Karen Russell.   To me, she has built on these influences to create her own unique vision.  Many of her stories focus on adolescents, on monsters, on fringe people.   Some of the work is set in the backwoods of the Florida Everglades.       Russell grew up in south Florida, a test lab for all sorts of dsyfunctionality. 

The title story of the collection "St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised by Wolves" (love the title) is a delightful story.  It is a school whose purpose is to teach adolescent female were wolves to relate to human society.  It is a five stage program run by nuns.  Maybe it sounds silly but it is a great story full of all kind of meaning which also shows a lot of insight into the developing years of teenage girls.  This is a very funny story.  

Mel u

"Ava Wrestles the Alligator" by Karen Russell (2006)

I am now a fervent member of the Karen Russell fan club.   Born in Miami, the stories in her first collection St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves are set mostly in the Florida Everglades,  a vast swamp inhabited by people on the margins of society,swamp dwellers, half human monsters.   I see future academic conferences on the grotesque in Russell, I see unreadable academic papers on her work coming.  To me her stories are a pure joy to read.   There is a fierce intelligence, a love for those not at home in nightclubs and yacht basins in Miami in her stories.  There is a fascination with the monstrous, a desire to descend with Orpheus.  

I think "Ava Wrestled with Alligators" might be later incorporated into her novel Swamplandia but I am not sure.   If you have ever driven on a notoriously dangerous two lane road in south Florida called "Alligator Alley" you have seen tourist attractions that advertise alligator farms and air  boat rides through the Everglades.  This story is about a family that runs one of these tourist attractions. (swamp boat air rides are worth doing once).

The family consists of a man identified as an Indian chief (part of the tourist stuff), and two sisters, one 16 and one 20.   For them Miami might as well be the Moon. The chief has gone off for a few days, leaving the younger sister in charge.  The older sister is described as "special".   I really don't want to tell much of the plot.  There are all sorts of profound meanings one could read into this wonderful story.    I found reading it a marvelous experience on many levels.   

Mel u

"Reeling For the Empire" by Karen Russell (2013)

"Reeling For the Empire" is the second story in Karen Russell's collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove".   In my 75 Q and A sessions with Irish writers I asked everyone who some of their favorite contemporary short story writers were.  Many named Karen Russell, some said she was among the very best.   Based on the three stories I have read so far, I fully agree.  

I loved and was really amazed by how creative "Reeling For the Empire" was.   It is set in late 19th century Japan.  It is about human silk worms.  It seems there
 is a special tea that turns women into silk producers.  Families lease  their daughters to the factory.  
I don't want to tell more of the plot of this story.  It is, strange as this may sound, a perfect Frank O'Connor story about human loneliness among people with no one to speak for them.  

Both this story and "Vampires in the Lemon Grove" are about people transformed into monsters.  There are six more stories in the collection.  I am looking forward very much to reading them.  

Mel u

Friday, August 23, 2013

""Vampires in the Lemon Grove" by Karen Russell (2023)

Karen Russell graduated from Columbia University's MFA program in 2006. Her stories have been featured inThe Best American Short Stories, Conjunctions, Granta, The New Yorker, Oxford American, and Zoetrope. Her first book of short stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was published in September 2006. In November 2009, she was named a National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" honoree. In June 2010, she was named a New Yorker "20 Under 40" honoree. Her first novel, Swamplandia!, was published in February 2011.

She lives in Washington Heights, New York.

Everybody loves Karen Russell.  The future of the American short story is very secure.  She is the author of the novel Swamplandia and a prior collection of short stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. (She certainly has a knack for picking book titles.).  

"Vampires in the Lemon Grove", the lead and title story takes the vampire story, throws out a lot of the things we have been conditioned to believe.  These vampires can walk in the sun and don't have to sleep in coffins.  The vampires are a couple, they feel like long married people.  They have trying to get away from blood, they don't really like to kill.  They have lived all over the world and have found lemons   To be the best blood substitute.   The fun in the story is in the relationship of the two vampires.  The woman decides thirty years in an Italian grove is long enough.  The man really doesn't want to leave the grove.  Lurking under the story is an urge to go back to the roots of vampires, killing humans.  

This is just a perfect story, funny, and insightful.  Who would ever think of a pair of vampires as an old married couple.  

Mel u

Thursday, August 22, 2013

"A Bride's Pajamas" by Akhtar Mohiuddin (1992) A Kashmir Short Story


The writer who addressed the history of the crisis in 1990s Kashmir most directly in his work is Akhtar Mohiuddin. His collections of short stories published posthumously reveals a mind constantly grappling with violent transformations in Kashmiri society. Mohiuddin had himself lost a son and son-in-law in the violence of the 1990s. In early 1990s, he joined the Hurriyat Conference, a separatist political formation in Kashmir. For a man who had been a socialist and was awarded with the Padma Shree, this was a difficult intellectual journey. 

Akhtar Mohiuddin was born on 17 April, 1928 in Srinagar. He lived in Lal Bazar, Srinagar until his death in 2001. We get a glimpse into the imaginative world of Akhtar Mohiuddin in his books of short stories, Seven One Nine Seven Nine, an incredible collection. Akhtar Mohiudeen had written more than forty radio plays and six collections of short stories. He had also published a novel, Daud Dag (Disease and Pain) and Zuv ti Zulan (Precarious Life). Akhtar Mohiuddin had translated extensively into Kashmiri and also edited many collections of Kashmiri short stories.

There are two collections of short stories which appeared just after his death in 2001, both of which he prepared before he died.  

"A Bride's Pajamas" was written Kasmire but it could just have easily been written in Manila, Paris in the 18 th century, or Dublin in 1959.  It is not a political story even though it was written in a place of great turmoil, with Nuclear powers contending for control.  It is a wonderful very poignant story about a couple married many decades who still have a passion for each other.   They have had ten children, two daughters were the only ones to live to adulthood.  The wife thinks "even my son-in-law is an old man now".  The man repairs clothes.   One day the wife is cleaning out some old clothes and she funds the red pajamas she wore in her wedding night. Her husband persuades her to put them on only she tells him, "don't be silly, old man".  Just as she puts them on and her husband embraces her with the passion of decades ago, their son in law walks into the house.  

Mel u

"A Hunger Artist" by Franz Kafka (1922)


On a very rainy  day in Manila, up to a meter in three days in parts of the metro area, I decided I would reread a Kafka short story I still partially recalled from decades ago, when I saw it was the story of the day on a web page I follow.   I wondered what kind of story Kafka would have written in reaction to Prague being simultaneously hit by a typhoon and monsoon that flooded eighty percent of the city.  Kafka is one of the great Icons of European literature.  His name has become an adjective used by people who have never read his work in description of literature far inferior to that produced by Kafka.

I have posted on a two of Kafka's short stories, "The Prison Colony" and "Metamorphoses".  "The Hunger Artist" is shorter, maybe six pages, than either of these stories.  There are so many things one could say about this story.  One can read it as a eulogy to the decline of European culture, a commentary on the nature of art, the absurdity of vanity, and I am sure others have discerned readings I have not fathomed.  The ending is terribly sad about a life swept out like garbage.  Is the hunger artist a fool or a saint, decide for your self.  This story would be a decent first Kafka.

You can easily find this story online. 

Mel u

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

"The Vulture" by Manoj Kumar Goswami 1992

Goswami was born in 1962 to Kamal Ch Goswami, a college teacher and Satradhikar, and Lakhimi Goswami in a small town in Goshwami  graduated from Nowgong College  and later did his post graduate studies in Physics in Gauhati University. Goswami taught physics for three years before he took up writing as a profession in 1986, in response to increasing terrorist activities associated with the Assam conflict.

Goswami published a series of short story collections, including IswarhinataSwadhinata,Samiran Barua Ahi Ase and Aluminumor Anguli as well as a single novel: Anadi Aru Annyana.He too has two sons called Anwit and Prannit.

Goswami's literary career was recognized with the Katha Award for Creative Fiction in 1994,and the Sanskriti Award for Literature in 1996. His works have been translated to other Indian languages and also to English by publications like Penguin.

To start his journalistic career Goswami joined Assamese daily newspaper Natun Dainik in 1986 under the editorship of Chandra Prasad Saikia and later became editor and executive editor of other newspapers in Assam. Goswami is currently the director of  a satellite television channel in North East India. Goswami was trained in USA on Media's Role in Conflict Resolution.



In order to understand this very well done short story, related to the terrible religious sectarian and ethic conflict that occurred in the Indian Subcontinent after the 1947  independence from England you have to see that in a way India has own internal colonies, one of them is the state of Assam which has long sought nation status.   India has a very problematic history in its treatment of tribal peoples.   This is made a lot worse when the tribal, some would use the word "aboriginal" societies, like the Assam, live on valuable lands.     To many Indians, tribal people are little more than backwards savage, just as the British viewed them.    (If you don't believe that India has waged wars on tribal peoples, I defer to Arundhati Roy on this.). "The Vulture" is about what happened to one small village when they got in the way of progress. 

As the story opens a village boy is telling his family that 

he has seen a car on the road on the other side of the river.  At first no one believes him.    They soon make a terrible discovery, the people in the vehicle are there to film the after effects of a terrible attack on the village, which the people think is the work of the "people from across the river".   The family is terribly distraught to see the dead bodies of people they have known all their lives. The question will come to the reader's mind of how did the film crew know this massacre was to occur, who tipped them? They have come a very long way to document this attack.  The people have been killed with spears, not guns.   As the crew wanders the village they talk about how Godard would have filmed the scenes.  The contrast of the world of the film people and the villagers is completely realized in just this brilliant touch.  The film director decides there are not enough bodies on the ground so he has an assistant who speaks the language of the residents, offer village boys token money to lay down among the bodies as if they were also dead.   As the story closes the assistant contemptuously throws the boys the lowest of coins.  The director says as they leave the area that the villagers should be thankful for what happens as now they have gone from total obscurity to a headline in all the newspapers.  

The  "The Vulture" is a very moving story about a world few know about.    


Please share some of your favorite Indian short stories with us.

It was translated by Jyotirmoy Chakravarte from Assamese. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Dylan Thomas- A Short Story and A Poem

It has been a very long time since I read anything by Dylan Thomas (1914 to 1953, Wales,UK).  I read the same single poem most everyone who has read him will have read.  Here it is:

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light"

(The work of Dylan Thomas is within the public domain.)

"The Burning Baby" (1953, first published in Adventures in the Skin Trade) is included in one of the short story anthologies I am working my way through, The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories.   "The Burning Baby" is a challenging, to me at least,  story.   I am sure there are folk lore motifs I am missing in this story but it draws in the killing of hares to the killing of a baby.  The killer is her father who may also have sexually molested her.  This is presented almost like it were a sacred event in a Central American   religion six hundred years ago.  The imagery is worthy of a great poet.   I am very glad to have added Dylan Thomas to the authors featured on The Reading Life. 

Mel u

Grace Wells Q and Answer Session with the author of When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things and other works

Today I am honored to be able to share with my readers a Q and A Session with Grace Wells.

Formerly an independent video and television producer in her native London, Grace Wells moved to Ireland in 1991. For some years she taught creative writing and facilitated biography workshops for people with special needs. In 2001 she became Literature Officer with the South Tipperary Arts Centre, and for the next three years co-ordinated ‘Impressions, the South Tipperary Literature Festival’.

Her first book, Gyrfalcon, a novel for children was published by the O’Brien Press in 2002. It won the Eilís Dillon Best Newcomer Bisto Book Award 2003 and was selected for the International White Ravens Catalogue 2003.

A second children’s novel Ice Dreams was published by the O’Brien Press in 2008, and One World, Our World, a Development Education, information and story book, was commissioned & published in 2009 by Irish Aid on behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Since 2007 she has regularly reviewed Irish poetry for Contrary, the University of Chicago’s online literary journal, The Stinging Fly and for Poetry Ireland Review.

In 2009 she became Writer in Residence for Kilkenny County Council, and has since then continued to work for Kilkenny Arts Office and Library Service, and for County Waterford Arts Office facilitating creative writing classes and providing mentoring for upcoming writers.

Wells has read at numerous Literature Festivals and been broadcast on RTE. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in a wide number of journals. Prior to publication of her debut poetry collection, her work was short-listed for a number of awards and took third place in the Patrick Kavanagh award 2007. She facilitates creative writing classes for adults and children and is a member of the Poetry Ireland, Writers in Schools Scheme.

Her debut collection of poetry, ‘When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things’ was published by Dedalus Press in May 2010. It won the Rupert and Eithne Strong Best Debut Collection Award and was short-listed for the London Fringe Festival New Poetry Award.

1.   As this is irish Short Story Month year III, please tell us who some short story writers you find yourself often returning to are?  Who are some lesser known short story writers you would suggest to us? As a teacher of creative writing, if a student asks you to name three of the best ever short stories, what would you tell them?



I really enjoy Kevin Barry, he is a hugely powerful and entertaining force and it’s wonderful to see where his mind goes with each new story. I’m also very drawn to the writer, Nuala Ni Chonchuir who has a bright, youthful energy and a real sense of verve. And you simply have to read Claire Keegan because she has such a wonderful way with language.


Fortunately I’ve never had a student ask me to name the three best ever short stories—how could anybody answer a question like that? But I’ve worked with Faulkner’s ‘Barn burning’, and Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’ because I think they’re both really strong and memorable pieces. My favourite short story ever is Carver’s ‘Intimacy’. I don’t say that for any reason of literary merit or short story excellence, I’m just blown away by it as a human being. At one point the narrator’s ex-wife says “We were so intimate I could puke” and every time I read it, I’m just stunned; the line contains so much, and the story holds so much of Carver’s life that I find the piece endlessly fascinating and endlessly moving. I’ve been in those kind of dysfunctional relationships myself and I am always deeply impressed by Carver’s honesty.


2.  I recently read Strumpet City by James Plunkett (the 2013 Dublin One City One Book Selection).  It presents a culture whose very life blood seems to be whiskey.   Drinking seems much more a factor in Irish literature than Indian, Japanese or even American.  There are rude sayings like “God Created Whiskey to keep the Irish from ruling the world” and “Without Guinness the birth rate in Ireland would be near zero”.  What do you think are some of the causes of this or is it just a myth?.   It seems to me from my reading of Irish short stories that few important conversations or events happen without drinking.  In your time outside of Ireland, do you see drinking to have less of a role in daily life than in Ireland?  Do you see any differences broadly speaking between drinking habits in London versus Dublin?


In many ways I lead quite a reclusive lifestyle so I’m not witnessing the alcohol culture first-hand. I have two teenage children—factually my son just turned 20—and through them I have a sense of the kind of abandon that exists around drink. I grew up in 1980’s London and those were not tame days by any means, but drink just wasn’t the same kind of issue as it is here. It’s an endemic problem in Ireland, there’s no denying that, and I feel any young Irish person has to go through some kind of baptism by fire, where they work out for themselves their own relationship to alcohol.


People here drink to extremes, but the psyche of Ireland is dense with extremes, the landscape is extremely beautiful, the weather can be extreme, the music is extremely potent, the collective history is extremely painful, not just the hundreds of years of colonialism, but the consequences of the catholic church, of partition, of the domination of women up until very recently. I feel the Irish psyche is carrying a lot; it’s very sad but not surprising that people have to immerse themselves in something extreme as a coping mechanism.



3.  In one of his most remember radio addresses to the nation, Irish President Eamon de Valera said “The Irish genius has always stressed spiritual values.  That is the characteristic that fits the Irish in a special manner for the task of of helping to save western civilization”.  I somehow have come to strongly feel this through my readings of Irish literature.  Do you think there is still truth in what de Valera said?  In her Trespassers:  A Memoir (my source for this quote, Julia O’Faolain suggest this may have been part of a Fascists agenda so I guess we are to take this as a two edged sword of some kind.   There is no specific answer for this question-I am just seeking your reaction.   


One of the wonderful things about Ireland is the fact that Spirituality is very present. People are really alive to the matter of spirit—however they want to understand that. Spirit is still on the tongue here, people say things like ‘See you next week, God willing’, or else they practice Reiki or attend angel workshops or talk about the pre-Christian goddesses. There’s an on-going engagement with the spirit of the land. And the Irish are full of spirit and emotion, all that side of people’s personalities is not closed off and shut-down in the way that it is in much of the rest of Europe. I flinch when I read de Valera’s comment because I think O’Faolain is right and there was a very successful agenda at work that kept people enslaved to church-thinking for most of the last century. That enslavement is largely-speaking gone now and Ireland is in a kind of spiritual crisis because it doesn’t have an honest church on which it can rest its head. But nobody is closing down their spirituality, they’re just finding other ways to express it than through organized religion. I don’t feel there’s any chance of Ireland’s spiritual impulse saving Western civilization, but I know that if people are interested in experiencing a spiritual landscape, there is no better place to do so than Ireland.


4  The Fall of Celtic Tiger, the Irish Economy,has caused a lot of pain and misery.  Is there a positive side to this?  what lessons for the future can writers take to their work?  has it in any sense brought people closer to values other than consumerism?  Is it just another day in the life of the Irish?


Ireland isn’t just experiencing a recession, or an end to a tiger economy, the country has entered a very long prison-term brought on by the banking crisis. It’s hard to see a positive side to this and year by year we are going to experience deepening difficulties associated with cut-backs, a decline in services and increased unemployment. If you factor in climate change, world over-population and peak oil, then the future looks very challenging. I have a theory that we all have to be like the musicians on the Titanic, and play on with as much grace as we can while things get more and more difficult on the ship.


Again Ireland is a good place to be in a difficult situation, the landscape is still very rich, the traditional culture remains strong and the Irish know how to endure, it’s what they’ve done for centuries. When I first came to Ireland I took the Slattery’s bus from Victoria station in London. And standing there in the bus queue at 6 am, I was aware of already being in Ireland. Total strangers had turned to one another and begun talking, checking in with each other, wanting to know how everyone else was. That kind of spirit will see Ireland through a lot.


How all these things effects writers is anybody’s guess, there is such a variety of work being written here at the moment and for now the literary scene and the writing community are still vibrant, there are a lot of writing festivals and events going on. I think there are so many forces at work on writers at the moment, things like Facebook and marketing—writers are no longer individuals who withdraw from the world in order to explain it, they are being forced to become readily-available celebrities. Commodities. I think that’s a much more worrying force at work than the demise of the Celtic Tiger. Writers have always written even in the worst of times. But to write and to be simultaneously engaged in maintaining a full-on social-media presence? That’s asking a lot of our sanity.



5.   A while ago i read and posted on a long biography of Hart

Crane, author of the Bridge-few read it but many known of his life style as one of the first Gay poets living out a life of rough trade and wealthy older benefactors-he lived a very chaotic life and died young from suicide by jumping off a cruise ship. His father invented Life Saver Candy and wanted Hart to go in the Candy business with him-so if he Hart had done this and died at 75 rich living in ohio fat bald and married would he still be even much thought about let alone read?  One of the most references poets is Arthur Rimbaud who likewise had a short and chaotic life.   Does a poet need or naturally tend to a chaotic life?  why so much seeming admiration for writers like Jack Kerouac and others who died way to young from alcohol abuse.    (I know this is long, please just respond to it as you will.)


Any poet, writer or artist, needs order and discipline. I would say that the greatest impediment to being a fully-functioning artist, is a chaotic life. An amount of personal chaos may offer up some good material, but if you want to get that material onto the page, then you need to know the desk will be there, the silence will be there and that you have the regular time to attend to your work. My advice: avoid chaos, it is not your friend.


7.  Tell us about the Poetry Ireland program for schools,please.  What are some of the biggest challenges the program faces and what are the most rewarding aspects of the experience.


The Writers in Schools scheme enables schools to bring in visiting writers to give workshops, lectures and tutorials to students in both primary and secondary schools. The writer will get a set fee which the school pays half of, and the rest comes from Poetry Ireland. It’s a great scheme and over and again you can see direct benefits to emerging writers. Sometimes writers just go into the schools for a short visit, other times they’ll do a residency over a number of weeks. Recently I did an 8 week residency with some girls who had been hand-picked by their teachers because of their interest in English and in reading and writing. The residency was hugely successful, at the end we finished with a reading, and it was enormously moving to see how the girls had become poets.




8.    You review poetry for several high end journals.  I know you have many works you can post on, how do you go about selecting what to review?   What qualities in a book of poetry by a new writer motivates you to review it.  A positive review in a major journal can have a huge impact on a new writer so this is a big responsibility.  I pretty much only post on works I like as I do not want to recreate in my mind the experience of reading a bad book.  Even on my blog I try to avoid negative reviews of works by living writers, if you hated a book but you were assigned to review it, would you refuse the assignment, trash the book or hedge on your review so as not to hurt the author?


For a long time I focused on reviewing Debut Collections only; I felt that they never got enough attention and reviewers were always saying disrespectful things as if there was something inherently dirty about having a first collection. There is nothing more exciting than finding a bright, new voice and being able to tell other people about it. Sadly that doesn’t happen very often. All too often a journal will just tell you what to review, there’s no choice involved, but if I really don’t like a book I won’t review it and I’ll send it back. I like work that is fundamentally honest, authentic, a lot of Irish poetry is quite withheld, there’s very little ‘Confessional’ poetry being written here so it can be easy to come away from a poetry collection without learning much about the writer; that chills me. C.S. Lewis said: we read to know we are not alone. I think that’s the main thing I look for, writers who are open to exploring their humanity, vulnerability and inherent knack of mistake-making.




9. (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 think the term ‘fairies’ is unhelpful, I don’t believe in little winged-beings with magic-wands, no. But I feel the word ‘fairy’ is another term for spirit of place. When human beings gather in large numbers we have a habit of eradicating that spirit, fortunately Ireland is sparsely populated so the elements of air, water and earth are very strong here, you can still read their resonances, still feel what the Irish call ‘Otherworld’ presences. The landscape here abounds with what Rudolph Steiner called ‘elemental beings’. I think those are just the living qualities of water, of air, of earth and fire. We’ve become dismissive of those things because they’re not rational science, but everyone knows you feel better in front of a fire, fresh air is cleansing, being by water is calming, digging into the earth is deeply satisfying. I think the problem here is one of the terminology. If you’re looking for fairies, you won’t find them in Ireland, if you’re open to being moved by spirit of place, you’ll be blown away.



10.  “Countries are either mothers or fathers, and engender the emotional bristle secretly reserved for either sire.  Ireland has always been a woman, a womb, a cave, a cow, a Rosaleen, a sow, a bride, a harlot, and of course, the gaunt Hag of Beare.”   As I read this in Mother Ireland by Edna O’Brien I at once thought for sure the Philippines is a mother, even the country’s religion revolves around Mary almost as much as Jesus.  Is O’Brien right, or maybe I should say is this still accurate?   If it is true what are the positives to this?



I think that’s a very interesting question, it’s an interesting idea. Ireland was always traditionally female. Those female roots go back to pre-christian goddess-worshipping cultures. There are slight traces of that today if you go looking, but generally-speaking urban Ireland is as masculine as any other Western culture. Urban Ireland is patriarchal in the same way America and Europe are. So socially I don’t think that O’Brien’s statement is accurate. When you get out into rural Ireland, the landscape has a deeply female presence, but it has no coin in the culture.


11.  It seems more and more writers have MAs in creative writing, some with PhDs.  Education is a great thing but is there a negative side to this, will it produce  in few years a literary culture where lacking this degree will make it hard to get published.   Will the day of the amateur writer who comes from nowhere and changes everything be over because of this?


I believe there will always be writers who come from nowhere. All publishers really want to do is print really good books. It’s hard for them to do that because the number of really, really top class writers is quite small, and great books don’t just turn up every day. I don’t see writing programs as negative things. It takes us years to learn our craft and I feel a writing program gives a kind of shelter, and offers a safe space for us to be for a few of those years. A pianist has to play their scales, a writer has to cut their teeth by producing a lot of not very good material. I’m delighted to see all those programs. Will they produce more good writers—I don’t know, the writing life requires talent, determination and sheer luck. And luck is still one of those things that is out of our hands.


12.  All I have read about Ireland and all the images I have seen on the net present a country of amazing beauty.  How much does this saturation in natural beauty impact the writing of the residents?   What is your reaction to these lines from Susan Cahill about the beauty of Ireland-”There is a hopelessness that a glut of natural beauty can create when there is a cultural and intellectual morass”.  Is the beauty of Ireland is two edged sword?   Does it inspire and defeat at the same time?


Personally I don’t experience a sense of defeat from the natural beauty, but rather I experience something deeply inspiring. Actually I think it’s the cultural and intellectual morass that provides the sense of hopelessness, and not the landscape. I feel that human beings are becoming less and less communicative with their natural landscape—most Irish writing these days doesn’t connect to the land; it’s urban writing. That’s especially true of prose. Poetry is probably the last place where the landscape is being given any huge presence.

I once saw a very interesting artwork, a video, where the artist was standing out in a beautiful landscape shouting at it. He was saying things like, “I know you’re very beautiful but I just don’t know what to do with you, I feel disconnected.” I think he had captured something very crucial that is going on today. Most urbanites are disconnected from the natural world, and because of that the planet is being challenged. Irish poet Dave Lordan writes that there are ‘two last remaining parts of the world, the practically endless city and the practically endless desert.’ He’s right, and faced with a truth like that, I don’t believe we can have the luxury of hopelessness when looking at the natural world. We’ve got to think of its preservation over our own.


13. 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.   It is interesting to me that the American short story writers most admired by Irish writers, like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter all came from the American south, the only part of American to be crushed in a war.   Does defeat bring wisdom more than victory?


Defeat brings humility and the need to examine one’s pain. Those are helpful things for a writer. Victory and success tend to bring out the worst aspects of ourselves. I think it’s as simple as two energies, defeat means withdrawing and turning in, victory begets outwardness and a certain bravado. You need some kind of balance, to the victor go the spoils, by which I mean the victor is more likely to have won the desk space, the ink and the fountain pen. The defeated usually end up in some kind of slavery, and are then not free to express their art. But yes, I tend to think defeat, either on a national basis, or on a personal one, affords us wisdom and allows us to grow, however painful that defeat may be.


14.  In teaching creative writing, what are the biggest challenges students have in expressing themselves.   


The one thing I meet over and over again is people’s own ability to subvert themselves and stop themselves from writing. We are all ghosted by parents, siblings, teachers or friends who told us we couldn’t do this. I see a kind of inertia in people, a force that drags them down and forbids them their power. If I could invent a pill to heal that, I’d be happy. As a facilitator of creative writing I see my role as being like an onion, I’m there to draw the writing out of them. If I achieve that I go home in good spirits.


15. 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.    


There is a huge imbalance here in Ireland. Sometimes you go to a book launch for a new book of poems and you see the only people there are other poets. Often a poetry reading will have a very small audience. Yet there are thousands of people writing poetry and trying to get published. At the other end of the scale, the president, Michael D Higgins is a poet. And Seamus Heaney who won the Nobel Prize for Literature is a wonderful ambassador for poetry; his presence maintains poetry’s gravitas in the culture. Does it have a social role? No, perhaps not, but it has a strong cultural role. I think the two are different. In a normal social day on TV, the radio, the newspapers etc, poetry is invisible. And yet, if you go deeper into the culture and you know where to look, you see that poetry is thriving, it is hugely political and fundamentally important for the mind and the spirit of the country. But poets walk a tightrope, they have to keep themselves vital and relevant, and that isn’t always easy.



16. "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).   It is interesting to me in that not to long ago many white Americans viewed African Americans as very skilled at music and dancing but otherwise inferior and barbaric.  Have you ever felt that as you are English by birth, that people were projecting an attitude like that on you without really knowing you first?


I was recently reading at a poetry festival in Newfoundland which is a place that many English and Irish emigrated to. Every single person I met asked me how the Irish responded to my Englishness. I was very struck by that because in Newfoundland people really wanted to talk about it—I’d say about fifteen different people asked me. Here it’s more taboo, no Irish person has ever asked me about those projections. But they are very present and sometimes they are hard to carry. I see it as part of a long story of healing old wounds that are still raw and in need of balm. My own children are half English, half Irish, and I think there’s something about the bringing together of two nations within the one human being that needs to happen; those individuals embody something of the two stories, the two cultures; their destiny is to carry two opposite natures, opposite histories and somehow bring them toward some kind of resolution. I think you see this kind of thing all over the world, wherever there is the need for healing between clashed cultures. We are all as Scott Fitzgerald said ‘boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’, we’re going forwards and backwards at the same time. We’re healing things we aren’t even aware of from the past, and we’re causing new problems for those who come after us!


End of Guest Post

My greatest thanks to Grace Wells for taking the time to provide us with such interesting and well considered responses.

Mel i