Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan

Savage Her Reply Deirdre SullivanI was drawn to read this having never heard of the Irish myth, fairytale The Children of Lir and I was intrigued by the Gaelic names and words. I’m planning to read Tangleweed and Brine, a collection of shorter retold stories by the same author as well.

I loved the structure of the book, the italicised pages preceding some chapters that narrate a classic version of the tale, followed by the author’s chapter which provides greater depth and is told from the point of view of Aife, the middle sister, married off to Lir after her sister died in childbirth, who casts a spell on these children that disgraces her forever, and is punished in turn.

In an interview the author speaks of having an affection for the story since first encountering an illustrated version, as a child in the Galway City Library.

I was pulled to her, so much of the narrative unfolds because of the force of her, her need for love, her anger and her strength, but she disappears once she has been shamed and punished, transformed into a demon of the air. I didn’t know what a demon of the air was, but I wanted to know.

Fostered, Remarried & Step-Mothered

I can imagine she is usually depicted as sinister, she is a stepmother after all and they seemed destined to not be capable of any act of kindness or heroism in storytelling across all cultures, so I suppose we ought to be grateful that at least she will encounter forgiveness. I did hold out hope that perhaps the author might have dug deeper or stretched the imagination to somehow redeem this woman’s callous actions even more. I wish there could have been room for more engagement with the source of her pain and regret.

It is a strange tale as her actions seem to be on account of her character – or perhaps due to a deep unacknowledged resentment at having been severed and separated, along with her two sisters, from their parents at a young age – rather than any apparent bad treatment by the husband or father as one might expect. Something in her motive remains a mystery despite the little soul searching she does.

“Perhaps I am a dark, unpleasant creature. But I am my own creature. I am mine, my feet on the earth and the water in my soul and fire in my heart. And when all is taken from me I will still have my anger and my pain and they will feed me.”

Calligrams, Poems and the Artful Language Of Ogham

The artwork and use of feathers is brilliant, I enjoyed that each chapter had a mysterious, almost cryptic illustration of calligrams and poems laid out in particular shapes, their titles words from a language I’d never heard of. The shapes mimic the characters (and many letters are said to be linked to trees), using letters of the earliest Irish medieval alphabet Ogham.

I couldn’t help but add my own little autumn tree representation to some of the pages below, the photos can be seen and read more clearly in this thread I created here. It is a day for rituals after all.

Reaffirming once again (having just read A Ghost in the Throat) the importance of poetry, storytelling and creativity to Irish myth and culture, in its many forms.

The Author, Deirdre Sullivan

is an award winning author from Galway, Ireland and this is her tenth book, which has been shortlisted for an Irish Book Award 2020. Her collection of dark and witchy fairytale retellings, Tangleweed and Brine won Book of the Year at the 2018 Children’s Books Ireland awards and Young Adult Book of the Year at the 2017 Irish Book Awards. Her play Wake was performed at No Ropes theatre company in February 2019.

Further Reading

Interview: A Deeply Felt Book: Savage Her Reply by Deirdre Sullivan

A Ghost In The Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

There once was a woman who fell in love with a poem.

So begins a mini essay written for the Irish Times by the author Doireann Ní Ghríofa describing her almost life-long obsession with the Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, (The Keen for Art O’Leary), an epic Gaelic lament, published in 1773 by Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, upon learning of the brutal murder of her much desired husband, whose unborn child she carried.

In A Ghost In My Throat, she puts aside the documents and transcripts and in compelling, often poetic, multi-layered prose, talks us through the journey this poem has taken her on and carried her through, as she imagines but rarely fabricates the life of Eibhlín Dubh (whose full name translates to Evelyn Dark O’Connell).

It is beautifully coherent and audacious, a feat normally given to scholars occupying dusty rooms in closed towers, firstly that the Caoineadh made it into print and endures, despite being the work of a woman; most who lived in the 1700’s, the 1800’s and even the early 1900’s have long since slipped into silence and out of print and secondly that Doireann Ní Ghríofa managed to pursue her research passion while pregnancy, motherhood and house-wifery claimed most of her hours.

Our Purpose Finds Us, Silencing the Naysayer(s)

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

More than a passion, the poem provided solace, company, offering mystery and a promise, one whose secrets would only be revealed if she trusted the process and closed her ears to the reverberating comment of the visiting public health nurse, who’d snooped through her folders while she was making tea.

‘Art O’Leary! Probably as close as we got to boy-bands, in my day.’ I try to mask my grimace.

‘Taking a night course, are we?’ I shake my head.

‘So what’s all this for then?’ My shoulders answer on my behalf, my whole body prickling crimson. She soon turns to scolding me about the baby instead: no feeding schedule, no set sleep routine, one would imagine with a fourth child a mother would be a little more, well…she lifts her brows and palms.

Though her words provoke tears, self-pity, anger and rage, they result in a resolute clarification of her purpose.

In my anger, I begin to sense some project that might answer the nurse’s query. Perhaps I’d always known what it was all for. Perhaps I’d stumbled upon my true work. Perhaps the years I’d spent sifting the scattered pieces of this jigsaw were not in vain; perhaps they were a preparation. Perhaps I could honour Eibhlín Dubh’s life by building a truer image of her days, gathering every fact we hold to create a kaleidoscope, a spill of distinct moments, fractured but vivid. Once this thought comes to me, my heart grows quick. I could donate my days to finding hers, I tell myself, I could do that, and I will.

A Female Text

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This is something Doireann Ní Ghríofa has thought long about, years in fact. This poem and the absence of women in texts. The absence of women’s words. The difficulty in accessing the voice, the thoughts, the words, the life of women. Valuing their contribution, raising the importance of their passions and intellectual pursuits, that might valiantly sit alongside the domestic pursuits of raising children and keeping a home.

She is all those things, sharing them, giving them equal value and space on the page. A breastfeeding mother, a lover, a housewife, a poet, a reader, a writer, a medical student, a seer.

This is a female text, composed by folding someone else’s clothes. My mind holds it close, and it grows, tender and slow, while my hands perform innumerable chores.

This is a female text, born of guilt and desire, stitched to a soundtrack of nursery rhymes.

Commemoration in a Poem

Her research tells us that in the old Gaelic order poems were traditionally commissioned by taoisigh – who employed a (male) bard to commemorate an occasion or person in verse, whereas that attributed to women resides in their bodies, in song, in an oral or embroidered tradition. Some say this poem can not be considered a work of single authorship, referring to it as a collage, or folky reworking of older keens. This has our author looking up the Latin for text, to find it rooted in the word ‘texere‘ : to weave, to fuse, to braid.

the Caoineadh form belongs to a literary genre worked and woven by women, entwining strands of female voices that were carried in female bodies, a phenomenon that seems to me cause for wonder and admiration, rather than suspicion of authorship.

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Reading all she can find in libraries and online, in academic sources or otherwise, relating to her ghostly poet, Doireann Ní Ghríofa sees between and around the lines of texts, scanning for clues. An 1892 publication: The Last Colonel of the Irish Brigade: Count O’Connell and Old Irish Life at Home and Abroad, 1745-1833 details a stash of family letters belonging to Eibhlín Dubh’s brother Maurice, from which she is able to:

commit a wilful act of erasure, whittling each document and letter until only the lives of women remain. In performing this oblique reading, I’ll devote myself to luring female lives back from male texts. Such an experiment in reversal will reveal, I hope, the concealed lives of women, present, always, but coded in invisible ink.

There is so much in this book that I admire, that I connect to and could mention, but as I see the word count pass 1,000 words, I know I must stop and let you discover it for yourself. Within the first 50 pages I was hooked, highlighting lines, noting synchronicity’s, reliving heartbreaking experiences, recognising an obsessive desire to follow threads, reading, learning, writing while nurturing, mothering & creating. What a find this was!

Having finished it, I can say I absolutely loved it, it is one of my most scribbled in books, reading it over a weekend, I had to force myself to pause to make it last, a hot contender for my ‘Outstanding Read of 2020’ and a brilliant example of a poet with narrative storytelling ability turning to prose. Sad to be finished but happy with the promise the author makes in the last lines.

Highly Recommended

Further Reading

Irish Times : Doireann Ní Ghríofa: The woman who fell in love with a poem

thejournal.ie : ‘It’s so astounding that a woman can disappear to that extent’: Rediscovering the author of Ireland’s greatest love poem

A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio

translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein.

Europa Editions Italian Literature Donatella Di PietrantonioA Girl Returned came to my attention because I like to see what Europa Editions are going to be publishing, they are known for bringing Italian literature to readers of the English language and their big title in 2020 will be Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. One I will be reading soon.

The Adoptee Experience

I chose to read A Girl Returned because I am interested in reading as much as possible, fiction or nonfiction, stories that portray the adoptee experience. And the premise of this book is shocking as the title suggests, when a thirteen year old girl is returned to the family she is born into without being told why or there appearing to be any clear motive.

Though as anyone with a connection with adoption will know, it is rare for the process to exist without the presence of secrets, lies, clandestine activities, resentments, heartbreak and denial.

Book Review

I was thirteen, yet I didn’t know my other mother.

The story opens as a 13-year-old girl struggles up the stairs of an apartment with an unwieldy suitcase and a bag of jumbled shoes. The door is opened by her sister Adriana, whom she has never met.

We looked like each then, more than we do as adults.

Through the months of adjustment that follow, thrown back into the reluctant family she was born into, events are narrated with hindsight, as her memory of that vision of her sister attests. She is determined to unravel the cause of this separation and abandonment by both sets of parents, at birth by her biological family and at 13 by her adoptive family, the latter, whose love she never questioned.

Photo by Ian Panelo on Pexels.com

Aware her mother had been suffering, she continues to worry and wonder about her, we the reader do too, trying to imagine and fearful of what might have ailed her that she was unable to share with her only daughter.

Who knew how my mother was. Whether she’d started eating again, whether she was getting out of bed more often. Or if instead she’d been taken to hospital. She hadn’t wanted to tell me anything about her illness, certainly she didn’t want to frighten me, but I had seen her suffering in the past months, she hadn’t even gone to the beach, she who was usually there in the first warm days of May. With her permission I went to our umbrella by myself, since I was grown up now, she said. I had gone the day before my departure and had even had fun with my friends: I didn’t believe that my parents would really find the courage to give me back.

As time passes, small clues diminish her resolve and trust in those around her, who seem to believe in or at least practice, silence and deception. The only way will be to take matters into her own hands.

The idea came to me at night, I reported it to Patrizia in the morning under the umbrella.

The one unexpected joy in her changed circumstances, though she accepts it reluctantly and is wary of it, is the fierce love, and admiration tinged with jealousy, she receives from her younger sister. Like candle light in a dark room, she is luminous yet capable of harm. There are wild differences, given their different upbringings, but there exists the thread of undeniable connection.

I wasn’t acquainted with hunger and I lived like a foreigner among the hungry. The privilege I bore from my earlier life distinguished me, isolated me in the family. I was the arminuta, the one who’d returned. I spoke another language and I no longer knew who I belonged to. I envied my classmates in the town, and even Adriana, for the certainty of their mothers.

Identity, Exile and The Mother

In a brilliant essay-style review, translator Stiliana Milkova suggests that the main concern of the novel is how essential the role of the mother is to our sense of identity.

Looking at mothers as the figures that determine and define who we are allows us to think about A Girl Returned as a novel about exile and dislocation, rather than simply motherhood. The Arminuta (a word that in the language of the Abruzzo region of Italy means “the returned”) is unexpectedly forced to leave her maternal home, or what she considers her maternal home, and exiled to a place whose customs, and even the language, are almost foreign to her.

The longer she stays in this forced exile, the more detached she becomes from both her present and her past, to who she was, is. So much had been tied to a mother’s love or bond. Though she remembers the feeling of being loved, she now questions it, faced with such devastating evidence.

In certain melancholy moods, I felt forgotten. I’d fallen out of her thoughts. There was no longer any reason to exist in the world. I softly repeated the word mamma a hundred times, until it lost all meaning and was only an exercise of the lips. I was an orphan with two living mothers. One had given me up with her milk still on my tongue, the other had given me back at the age of thirteen. I was a child of separations, false or unspoken kinships, distances. I no longer knew who I came from. In my heart I don’t know even now.

Photo by Bahaa A. Shawqi on Pexels.com

A short novel, A Girl Returned packs a powerful, moving punch and generously provides that glimmer of hope, in an unexpected alliance. Rereading these passages I highlighted makes me wish to repeat the entire reading experience, the shock, the solace, the resistance and resilience.

We look less like each other now, but we find the same meaning in this being thrown into the world.

Highly Recommended.

Reviews

Bella Mia by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, review by HeavenAli (Published in 2014, translated to English in 2016)

My Mother is a River by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, review by HeavenAli (Published in 2011, translated into English 2015)

Further Reading

Reviews by Translators: The Mother Of All Questions: Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s “A Girl Returned,” tr. Ann Goldstein by Stiliano Milkova

Article New York Times: ‘The Ferrante Effect’: In Italy, Women Writers Are Ascendant by Anna Momigliano

N.B. Thank you kindly to Europa Editions for sending me a copy of the book.

Intimations: Six Essays by Zadie Smith

2020 Perspective Zadie SmithShort vignettes as Zadie Smith observes this particular moment in history passing, as she prepares to become one of those who returns, fleeing, always listening and observing others, sometimes in accordance with their uttered thoughts, at other times thinking she was, only to encounter her own subconscious bias.

Meditations by a Stoic

They open with the foreword in which she reveals she has been reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for practical assistance and admits that she is no more a Stoic for having read it. Rather, she leaves that experience with two valuable intimations:

Talking to yourself can be useful.
And writing means being overheard.

I was intrigued to see what Smith had been talking to herself about and what she wished others to overhear, she is a mistress of eavesdropping and she is a Londoner and rider of the No.98, living/now leaving a country that turns many towards needing the benefits of meditation, though I can’t help but wonder if she would have gained more by listening to 21st century meditators such as Deepak Chopra, David Ji and Sharon Salzburg than Aurelius.

Writer’s and Their Reality

In Peonies, she dismisses writing as being creative, alleging that planting tulips is creative; inferring writing is control.

Peonies by Zadie Smith Tulips Intimations

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Experience – mystifying, overwhelming, conscious, subconscious – rolls over everybody. We try to adapt, to learn, to accommodate, sometimes resisting, other times submitting to, whatever confronts us. But writers go further: they take this largely shapeless bewilderment and pour it into a mould of their own devising. Writing is all resistance. Which can be a handsome and even a useful, activity – on the page. But, in my experience, turns out to be a pretty hopeless practice for real life. In real life, submission and resistance have no real shape.

It was observing tulips that brought about this reflection, a few days before the global humbling began, providing a preview into the now common feeling of everyday, one she describes as a ‘complex and ambivalent nature of submission‘.

She saw tulips and imposed peonies, like the fiction writer she is.

Thoughts On Flowers and Self Care

As ever, Zadie Smith creates a space for the reader to think and affirm their own views, even if she does fill it with her own words and worries.

I was a little concerned by her reading habit in A Man With Strong Hands, though an avid reader myself, there are some times and places when it might be better to put the book down and allow the mind to rest, for this self-care activity she indulges, is one the few that allows one’s existential angst to cease, if only momentarily, for that weekly half hour she regularly gifts herself.

I am reminded that we have as much to learn, if not more in the act of mindful contemplation of flowers as we do in observing that less well understood creature of Nature, humanity.

Further Reading

New York Times: Zadie Smith Applies Her Even Temper to Tumultuous Times

The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

I was eager to read The Shadow King (shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020) to learn more about the history of the country, although perhaps if I am honest, I am more interested in the people and the culture, without reference to another culture that is trying to invade or colonise it. Ethiopia became one of only two African nations to have never been colonised, despite attempts following the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 when 14 European countries divided Africa among themselves.

Ethiopia Flag the Shadow King

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For the culture, the people and their history are so much more than the slim chapters that get all the attention, when power hungry regions and men look for prestige and/or revenge and the media (with its inevitable bias) makes everyone look. And if those nations that invade come out looking bad, or worse humiliated (especially by women), then you can be sure the stories will be buried and/or rewritten so as not to offend the innocent of their own country.

Italy Invades Ethiopia 1935

Ethiopia defeated Italian forces at the Battle of Adwa in the nineteenth century (1896), saving them from Italian colonisation, so their subsequent aggressive incursion in 1935, one that provides a framework for this novel, might be seen as revenge or an attempt to boost Italian national prestige by exercising this second attempt to assert control and join their European brothers in having a colony of their own.

The Shadow King Maaza MengisteBut the novel isn’t about politics, it concerns a few players and characters, who we are given glimpses of, in a style that is like a series of snapshots, a narrative that therefore has gaps and not the fluidity of a traditional story, nor enables us to really get to know too well the characters, limited as we are by this kaleidoscopic technique.

A Photo or A Thousand Words

I heard/saw Maaza Mengiste during the (online) Edinburgh BookFest this year and learned that she was indeed aided in her research and imagination by a set of photographs, something that reminded me of On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming, an author who also used photographs to aid her storytelling ( a memoir of her mother), however Cumming shares the photographs with the reader and Mengiste  shares two, requiring the words to work even harder for the reader. I found this device here a distraction, not expecting a literary device, I had expected more of a character lead historical narrative, a warning not to create expectations before reading. In the talk she gave, she showed some of the photographs that had inspired some of the narrative, she had surrounded herself with them as she wrote.

A Woman’s Lot & What She is Capable Of

We meet orphaned Hirute, who works as a maid for a husband and wife of nobility, Aster and Kidane, brought into their family due to a promise made to her parents. A fractious relationship exists between the three of them, there is dependence, resentment, attraction, jealousy and comradeship. A heady mix. With the nation at war, and tired of waiting for Kidane to return, the women decide to participate in the fight, an inclination also connected to the gun Hirute was left by her father, one that Kidane took from her, that she is determined to retrieve and use.

Ethiopian Woman The Shadow King Maaza MengisteOne evening they listen to the radio and hear the (now) famous words of Empress Menen of Ethiopia disclosing the aggression to the World Women’s League,  appealing to all world nations:

“We all know that war destroys mankind, and in spite of differences in race, creed, and religion, women all across the world despise war because its fruit is nothing but destruction.

War kills our husbands, our brothers, and our children. It destroys our homes, and scatters our families. At this hour and in such a tragic and sad period, when aggressors are planning to bring a heavy war into our lives, we would like to bring this to the attention of all women through the world, that it is their duty to voice and express solidarity against such acts.”

Women participated in this war, not just an historical fact, but one that Mengiste discovered lay in her own family, (her great-grandmother enlisted to fight). It was a subject few talked about, and one that history books seem to have omitted, to the point where few female veterans remain, whose stories can be told. One can see how easily their experiences are relegated to myth and the author is to be commended for the 10 years of perseverance it took to bring this story to light.

Though she uses her imagination, it is historical fiction after all, this is not a fantasy or adventure, and the role these women took on and the sacrifices and risks they took in doing so, meant they were heroines not in the traditional masculine sense, but that they showed solidarity towards keeping these invaders away and presented an image of provocation and strength, one that no European army, likely had ever seen.

“I realised that the closer I looked at women, the more I began to understand the many different battles that they were fighting; the conflicts were on the battlefields, but they also happened in the military camps. Women had to contend with multi-layered violence; there is fighting as soldiers, but there is fighting as women whose bodies are imagined to be the territories for their compatriots.”

Space is also given to a conflicted soldier in the Italian army, who, while fighting under orders from his own country, learns that his own survival is under threat, when all soldiers are asked to complete a census. Though he states his religion as none, his  name makes him a target of another European aggression going on at that time. He provides a counterpoint to the aggression and his occupation as photographer, a man who sits for hours in contemplation of his subject, often under orders, is a source of both horror and soulful reflection.

Never Admit Defeat, What About Forgiveness?

In an interview, Mengiste tells of a visit to Calabria in the south of Italy for her first book (set in 1974), when a man stood and asked if he could talk to her about 1935; it was a tense and emotional moment from a man asking for forgiveness for what his father had been involved in.

Italy has not talked about this history; it’s still difficult for Italians to comprehend what they did in east Africa. A few people grumbled for him to sit down. But he was visibly shaken and emotional. He told me that his father was a pilot during the war. He said: “My father dropped poison on your people. How do I ask for your forgiveness?” And he started crying.

It was at that moment that I said to myself: “My God, this history is not done, this war that feels distant but is not distant. There’s still the question, How do we bridge this gap between us?”

The Shadow King goes some way towards bridging that gap and opens the way for more to seek answers and ask more questions and to remember that women are not a mere footnote in history, there are thousands of untold stories from the past of their endeavours.

This was a slow moving, challenging read, many may not have the patience required to read it, but I’m glad I persevered.

Maaza Mengiste, Author

was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1974. Her family fled the Ethiopian revolution when she was a child a history she explores in her first novel, one I’m looking forward to reading.  A Fulbright Scholar and professor in the MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation programme at Queens College, she is the author of The Shadow King and Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, named one of the Guardian’s Ten Best Contemporary African Books. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, and the New York Times.

Further Reading

New York Times Interview : The ‘Detective Work’ Behind a War Novel by Wadzanai Mhute Nov 12, 2020

Guardian Interview: The Language of War is Always Masculine

10 Surprising Facts About Ethiopia