Whatever you say, don’t say anything – the old chorus we’ve been living by that silenced us is still brandished, except this time it’s by a writer. During the Troubles, we were afraid of revealing too much. The silence of paranoia persisted. Old habits are hard to shake, but little by little, over time and distance, writers reclaim the past and discover new ideas.
Writing in Fortnight, Rosemary Jenkinson asks: “Why does Northern Irish literature feast more than ever on the corpse of the Troubles?” Writers, she argues, have as much difficulty breaking out of the past as our politicians.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I spent many afternoons working at Fortnight while studying at Queen’s University. One of my jobs was to compile the pages of the diary, which so often looked like a roll call of the dead. Entry after entry, detailing in the crudest parlance, those who had been killed or maimed by political violence.
The magazine was renowned, especially under the direction of Robin Wilson, for placing its journalism at the intersection of politics, culture and the arts in Northern Ireland. For Jenkinson, questioning the artist’s role in Returning the Troubles, in the pages of a publication that has done so much to allow the fields of politics and art to sit together, is particularly infuriating. .
Jenkinson cites the Centennial Decade commemorative program as one of the reasons for our regression and says writers feel compelled to live up to the expectations of a press that expects such a unrest-steeped copy. The irony of this is that for so long the mainstream media wanted nothing of Northern Irish writers beyond the abject horror of political violence. The lived experience, the nuances of being a teenager appearing at the sight of a soldier’s rifle, had no place in the pages of newspapers detailing the male mechanisms of political conflict. No, the teenager had to wait until 2018 for Anna Burns to fully capture this surveillance and threat in her Booker Prize-winning work, Milkman.
Jenkinson blames Northern Irish writers for cannibalizing each other, as if we are always looking inside. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Check out one of our many art festivals to find busy events for writers of all nationalities, races and creeds. Northern Irish writers will be present in the audience, volunteer participants, engaging with ideas and ideologies beyond our own shores.
The writer also opposes the Northern Irish memoir which she says is “now exporting their trauma around the world, converting PTSD into GBP”. It sounds like a cynical dig, as it is clear that the impact of the conflict persists and affects communities and the generation that have only experienced precarious peace.
To claim otherwise is to deny the complex nature of how trauma works and affects the psyche. The Northern Irish have 20-25% higher levels of mental illness than the rest of the UK, with around one in five adults reporting a diagnosable mental health problem at some point. Research suggests that these numbers are directly linked to the fact that Northern Ireland is a post-conflict society. For some, the Troubles never went away. Poor mental health affects entire families and communities with a cyclical nature of transmission.
For decades now, perpetrators in this region have been battling a cultural genocide that denies our expression of how we have been affected by the unrest. London-centric editors felt there was no appetite for North Irish fiction. The first representatives of Northern Irish detective fiction such as Colin Bateman, Eoin McNamee and Adrian McKinty proved them wrong.
Sure, the readership may have been limited initially, but that’s the point. Only now are we ready to fully tell these stories and live them as readers. Jenkinson lashes out at those, including playwright Jez Butterworth, who she says perpetuates the idea that the history of Northern Ireland is a narrative based on unrest. Whatever you do, don’t mention the war.
In the absence of a process of truth and reconciliation, fiction offers space to determine how we navigate the past in order to move forward. The authors of detective novels in Northern Ireland have long been accustomed to prejudices against our genre. Ignorance of what gender does and has the potential to do is commonly cited by those who don’t read our work. Yes, we can look to the Black Troubles tropes, but we are actively and effectively subverting them, finding new meaning and possibilities, elevating our stories from Belfast’s dark and rainy entrances to new heights and attracting international attention as we are doing it. so.
I suspect Rosemary Jenkinson is acting like the provocatrice, but it has to be said anyway, if we in Northern Ireland don’t write about our recent history, then who will?
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