At this year’s Hay’s Literary festival, the subject of Northern Ireland has come up – when doesn’t it..? A NI native, writer & academic Linda Harrison, now based in England lamented the “unremitting bleakness” of much of the fiction out of the province and she challenged authors to abandon their cherished cliches of thuggish gunmen and harridans banging binlids, and instead get to grips with the new political situation in the province.
Maev Kennedy, arts and heritage correspondent
Thursday June 2, 2005
Books browsers in Hay can look for more than 800 novels set against the background of Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland was described yesterday as “one of the most over-narrativised areas of the world”, with novelists making a bad situation worse by reinforcing cliches and stereotypes about the causes of violence.
Linda Anderson, living and working in England but brought up with a Protestant background just outside Belfast, admits her own contribution of two admired books to the “Troubles novels” mountain. Yesterday, at the Hay festival – where her voice was drowned out at one point by the violence of the rain on the tent roof, and the lights failed briefly as she described the “unremitting bleakness” of much of the fiction out of the province – she challenged authors to abandon their cherished cliches of thuggish gunmen and harridans banging binlids, and instead get to grips with the new political situation in the province.
“The most commonly asked question now is what are you all going to write about now the Troubles are over? Writers are assumed to have lost their subject, but I suggest this is a time of political change that will produce new subjects and fresh energy.”
On one estimate more than 800 novels have been set in the political turmoil of the past quarter century in the north, not counting movies, plays and television dramas. Northern Ireland has been described as a hunting ground for international thriller writers in search of a plot.
“Some people ask what does it matter, isn’t fiction legitimately a pack of lies? But it does matter, factual inaccuracy in a novel using real events has consequences in the real world, reinforcing media bias and distortion instead of giving a fresh vision and understanding.
“Instead the impression is given that violence in Northern Ireland is inherited, bred in the bone, that the situation is hopeless, that anyone involved in the political process is pathologically damaged.”
Dr Anderson was disconcerted when several critics, including fellow novelists, greeted her own first novel, To Stay Alive, set in the bleak months before the 1979 Republican hunger strike in Long Kesh prison, as “news”.
The background that shaped the events and politics of recent Northern Irish history was far more complex than most of the novels suggested.
Dr Anderson came from a peaceful village, and nobody from her immediate family had been directly affected by the Troubles. Yet at her Protestant girls’ grammar school she recalled being repeatedly set to draw the map of Northern Ireland in geography as if it were an island, the border a coastline. In a scriptures class they were told to write down the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”: the teacher then dictated “killing is wrong except in the following circumstances” – and gave a list of exceptions to this simple edict.
“These things have their effect,” she said.
She recounted visiting a relative in hospital, where in a lavatory she found a piece of graffiti that has haunted her ever since. “It was so striking, laid out as a piece of poetry, very carefully written – I was so struck by the image of this woman crouching down in the cubicle to write this. It said, ‘What I’d like to do to Gerry Adams – beat him, castrate him, kill him very slowly’.”
Dr Anderson, who is setting up a creative writing course for the Open University, insisted that she was not advocating boring books – and she is working on her own post-Troubles novel.
“It’s still a fascinating and dangerous situation. Just look at the election results, the tribes have retreated to their stockades. That means there must be room for artists to comment and interpret.”