Caroline Magennis: Unsettled Intimacy in NI short fiction after the Agreement #JHISS

Dr Caroline Magennis delivered a pacey – and at times racy – talk on Unsettled Intimacy within local literature this morning at the John Hewitt International Summer School.

While joking that the packed audience should lift their minds from the gutter, the University of Salford lecturer in 20th and 21st century literature reminded delegates that ‘intimacy’ covers “that which is hidden” and there are many modes of intimacy: emotional, physical, intellectual.

There’s been a recent boom in the publication and popularity of short stories across the island, with many authors writing about Northern Irish characters. We can learn about Northern Ireland society by listening to the words and thoughts of authors and the not-always-so-fictional lives they dream up. [Example anthologies include The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore, both edited by Sinead Gleeson; Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell; and Aphrodite’s Kiss by Rosemary Jenkinson.]

Magennis explained that short format suits the exploration of intense moments and fleeting encounters, with the impact of the story as much about what is left unsaid about ‘the moment’ in focus. Homes and domestic situations are private and intimate, but can also be contested and political spaces.

The second half of Magennis’ talk looked at five stories which place relationships with others at their core, rather than letting the Troubles take over, offering glimpses of the interplay between private and public. She noted that whereas Northern Ireland politicians typically tend to be very assured and certain, short story authors hold ambiguity with much more confidence.

  • Bernie McGill: The Cure for Too Much Feeling
  • Tara West: The Speaking and the Dead … with its Belfast medium who demonstrates shortcuts to fake intimacy while on the other side of the table the customer seeks connection and intimacy with their late son.
  • Jan Carson: Settling with its sense of what is internal and what is external.
  • Lucy Caldwell: Mayday … about a student who takes medicine to end their pregnancy and is distressed about the legal and medical consequences, while also being distressed about memories from the past.
  • Roisin O’Donnell: The Seventh Man … finding intimacy after a series of utilitarian relationships, and expressing how modern technology (and apps like Tinder) are changing the nature of Northern Irish relationships.

Magennis is currently organising an international conference on the cultural legacy of the Good Friday Agreement, to be held in Manchester in April 2018. Watch out for details of Agreement 20 closer to the date.

Friday’s early morning talk at the John Hewitt International Summer School will look at the Gibraltar/Spain border and the implications of Brexit with Dominique Jan Searle, the Gibraltar Representative to the UK.

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