There are moments in our lives when we learn about something new, moments that give us a glow of satisfaction and wonder, the tickle of surprise. This new thing could be what we perceive to be our personal discovery of a painting on a cave wall, as if it hadn’t been there all along, or finding the comrade of a thought we were trying to make clear to ourselves. It is the job of the academic to rake in things that match or contradict and to make a whole of them, so that we can have those moments. And that’s what Rebecca Pelan set out to do in her 2005 book Two Irelands: Literary Feminisms North and South (Syracuse University Press). And although she is careful to say that the literature in it does not constitute a movement, it feels seriously like one at the end of her analysis, as if she had indeed gathered in more than the individual strands that she intended to examine.
Pelan took the books published from 1970 through to the mid-1990s by Irish women who may not themselves have had radical intent, but whose work did. She then subjected them to a rigorous examination in order to find their common historical measurements. It was a task undertaken with great care and no doubt some trepidation. At a loud party in Australia the author answered that she was working on Irish women’s writing; the questioner said that he didn’t know they had any, having thought she had said Irish women’s rights. He then decided that the remark was still apt. This exchange, referred to in the introduction, reminded me of the Irish cultural guru who, when it was suggested to him that it might be a good idea to have even one woman on the English television programme that was set to discuss Mary Robinson’s election, replied that there was no one really suitable. And anyway we have such good men why bother – I probably dreamt that last sentence.
I was, and still am, reluctant to write about this book because my own work is examined within it. But apparently this shouldn’t stop me. Nor am I competent to discuss the literary theories which are the building bricks and cement of the book. In the way that writers often shy away from theory in case they miss the butterfly edging with its head down past the window, I daydreamed an entire Bachelor of Arts degree in English. But other people will give the deserved critical analysis; what I’m merely doing is waving the book about and alerting you to the fact that this is a terrific rescue mission on work that suffered an attempt at premature burial. Altogether the work of dozens of writers is examined, among them the fiction writers Linda Anderson, Leland Bardwell, Mary Beckett, Clare Boylan, Mary Leland, Ronit Lentin, Deirdre Madden, Frances Molloy and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne. Poets and non-fiction writers are also included. Many of the books discussed, you will have guessed, are unfortunately out of print.
The book can be viewed from several angles. Pelan has analysed “religion, region, class and national and ethnic identity as crucial contexts in shaping feminist consciousness and has compared the divergence of feminist perspectives to be found North and South”. We are conspicuously directed to one question: is there a difference between the work produced on either side of the Border? Were writers north of the Border more hampered, not just by the wider conflict, but by an isolation born of what that conflict had done to their own development within the work of the island? Because, although all these writers, both North and South, were the children of children born in Ireland, not a divided Ireland, they did grow up with the cut-off map. (I met a BBC reporter one time in Jerusalem, as I was trying to hitch a ride to Hebron, who thought that Northern Ireland was an island off the North of Ireland, a sort of enlarged Tory or Rathlin. Was I sure that it was part of the same land mass? The reporter was reporting on the Intifada, heaven help us all.)
Two Irelands throws up many illuminations. As we all know the 1970s and 1980s were the decades when the writers among us demanded to describe ourselves, to become our own mapmakers. We stood on the shoulders of others, the wildly enthusiastic and exciting feminists in North America and Europe and specifically African-Americans, and dared to shout above the parapet using our own, not surrogate, voices. One could ask, why this need? What had to be said that was so intrinsically different from what was already there? Why did we have to become the subject rather than the object, as Eavan Boland would describe it? Why did African-Americans get sick of the maid/janitor/shoeshine image? Why did Irish women get sick of the way we had been represented in literature, as if the men alone had made up the country? And yet the work discussed here is not just artistic self-portraiture, it is more a conscious placing of the self in the society that had brushed it aside.
These were not quiet voices. Pelan shows how they used the personal to crash into the public, rather than using it to do a discreet intersection. And what effect did this have? The establishment shivered briefly but gathered itself presently, allowed a few of the more malleable voices to be heard and consigned the others to the desert of unreasonableness. This was achieved in many ways, but here may not be the place to worry that particular elephant. Suffice to say that the Ethical Olympics show put on, the competition of insults engaged in, the posturing on the moral mountain, when women writers are excluded by one or the other side is more often than not a totally spurious other battle that has no concern whatsoever for the work in question.
And the ways to suppress uncomfortable voices are legion, the most recent being to discuss potboilers written by women – that will have them covered. (I refuse to use the term chick lit – these emery boards for the brain, these airport novels for the travelling deranged are not literature, and hens don’t read.) Rebecca Pelan’s book is a confident and serious attempt to get the discussion on the right track. It may point to the bleak history of the thinking Irish woman, but it also begins the query about what sort of imagination she brought to the writing of literature, and if indeed it can be sorted into the normal boxes, the post- or pre-existential, the postcolonial and whose. The examination of the place of religion is astonishing, and fascinating too if you compare it to the Muslim women of the present moment. They want the right to pray in the mosque; we couldn’t wait to get as far away as possible from the overwhelming and stifling pew.
In the course of her thoroughly engaging and compelling work Rebecca Pelan points to the perhaps unique problem associated with the fiction wrought by Irish women. Because the men are not seen as peripheral in the entirety of English language work, the women are doubly neglected. I don’t want to concentrate only on the negatives associated with that specific work – all art is hard on the feet – but Pelan’s book reminds us that the study of Irish literature needs to extend its landscape and imagination.
What is astonishing is that the adventurousness of the work it examined has not already been an excited part of that landscape, but of course it is no lie to say that some of our best and most successful critics have never read any of it and their success has suffered not a whit as a result of this omission. And it is not only the writers who suffer from this active exclusion; students too are failed, denied the full picture. That is not to say that if it was merely the writers who suffered that that would be acceptable. Nor am I suggesting that we should look at one or two of them as a sort of vaccination exercise.
Isabel Allende wrote in a foreword to Other Fires, a brave fiesta of short stories by women from Latin America brought together in one book by Alberto Manguel, that she felt interpreted by the collection. That may indeed be the most original result also of Pelan’s book. The writers whose work it examined will feel interpreted, many for the first time. It is a book that does its best to guarantee a readership which cannot exist without the backup of serious academic examination.
There are times, after moving the eyes avidly down the last page, then closing a book, that the reader knows that they have just read something more than what they have just read. The side roads, the crescendo of echoes, become a vital part of the reading experience. When I finished reading Two Irelands I felt that the results of a dig, a restating, a new view had been spread out before us. I may have concentrated more on the overall picture and the naming, rather than the specifics, and this may not have been what the author intended, but I do believe that this work offers many essential views and readers will take their pick of what astonishes them most.
This brings me to the dilemma of those who have to become artists, who feel compelled to add their voices because they know that secrecy is a lie. After all, to speak, as Fanon would have it, is to assume a culture and to bear responsibility for a civilisation. Presumably then to maintain the silence forced upon us is to absent oneself from culture.
When artists decide to be just that, they should know that they are a kind of civil servant, charged with the task of adding to the imaginative whole. They are there to paint the pictures, write the poems, compose the music and tell the stories that need to be told, some of these thoroughly aggravating to what has been decided is our agreeable state of play. But to whom do the writers write? The act itself presupposes an audience, both immediate and future. Writers don’t just finish a story and then climb out of it, as if it had no relevance to its cultural surrounds. They discard fake facile emotions and introduce characters to each other and to the reader, and expect that there will be at least a modicum of interest in knowing those characters.
CLR James had his Letters from London published in his home country of Trinidad, but he wanted them to return to London, and it is one of the great pleasures of a visit to Dalston that they did indeed manage that circle. The Iranian filmmaker Shirin Neshat has a deft approach to making the desert get busy. She also captures covertly the effect of deaf ears. In her short film titled Turbulence, a woman sings in an empty auditorium because she is not allowed to do so in public. She is already defying the rules by singing at all in this mosque, a love song too, but it is the empty sound of the room that haunts us. Neshat juxtaposes this empty echo with a man singing, and we marvel at the pleasure of his voice as it grows in strength and timbre, encouraged by the presence of his audience.
Rebecca Pelan’s book, a most welcome guest in the house, is itself an attentive audience. Someone sang in the back room and Rebecca created a microphone by writing this book.
Evelyn Conlon was born in Monaghan in 1952. Her collections of short stories are My Head is Opening (Attic Press 1987), Taking Scarlet as a Real Colour (Attic Press 1989) and Telling, New and Selected Stories (Blackstaff Press 2000). Her novels are Stars in the Daytime (Blackstaff Press 1993), A Glassful of Letters (Blackstaff Press 1998) and Skin of Dreams (Brandon 2003). She is a regular commentator on the arts and a member of Aosdana.