Dear Senthuran, A Black Spirit Memoir by Akwaeke Emezi

This was an interesting follow up to the fiction/auto-fiction debut novel Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, which I thought was a stunning and original book, an unforgettable read.

A Black Spirit Memoir OgbanjeDear Senthuran is a collection of letters to what we might call Emezi’s inner circle, past and present.
Emezi was raised in Nigeria and is of Nigerian/Malaysian heritage; they are an ogbanje, a non-human Black spirit being, currently incarnated in human form.

If you read Freshwater, you understand the basis from which this comes from, the overlapping realities they inhabit.

I live there, inhabiting simultaneous realities that are usually considered mutually exclusive. What can we call the dysphoria experienced by spirits who find themselves embodied in human form?

The memoir is thus a record of the period in their life leading up to the publication of that debut novel, of a year spent in an MFA program and both the highs and lows of that experience. It is about world-bending, living in a way that is true to who they are, thus rather than being flexible to how the world works, it is like the opposite, bending the world to meet them.

Emezi lives in America but is not of that culture and it shows in this work, in how confident and fearless they come across, which is one of the reasons it was difficult to align with their student peers, many of whom held much self-doubt regarding their writing ability and expectations, common to their culture of origin.

I call this a culture because that’s what it was. I’ve seen it in several places: people bonding over insecurities and self-deprecation, constantly saying they didn’t think their work was good, looking to the faculty for validation, someone to tell them they were real writers, to give them direction and guidance and a map to where they wanted to go. Institutions love that, I think. It makes you need them. And all those feelings are valid, but the resentment and hostility when you don’t play along, when you don’t shit on your own work, when you don’t wear doubt like a blanket around your shoulders? That’s the part I have a problem with. It reminds me of that thing back home where people want you to “humble yourself” and sometimes their demand is quiet, sometimes it’s blatant, but either way, they make sure you feel it.

Akwaeke Emezi Black Spirit MemoirEmezi writes about the experience and feelings of being unsupported during some of the challenges they faced and about their determination not to compromise when it became clear the debut novel was going to sell.

There is much reflection on writing, the work, they are prolific, determined and have achieved success in a relatively short period of time, despite numerous challenges. They create and share a spell for storytellers, for those trying to create books. Clearly it worked!

With my spell, I drew a map of the future I wanted, then I took those defined lines and pulled them across time, dragging them into the present. Time bends very easily; you can fold it like this with little trouble.

Most of the letters are in appreciation and record events they do not wish to forget, that mark the rise.

f3toni morrison

Toni Morrison

One of the more memorable letters is to the late, great inspirational Toni Morrison. Emezi shares a quote, words she heard her speak in an interview after winning the Nobel Prize for literature. She remembers how Morrison’s work agitated many of the students, ‘because you wrote people who did horrific things, but you didn’t tell the reader how to feel about these people‘ and how delighted they were to discover you could ‘just show a terrible thing and let the showing be the strength of it’.

The words that changed everything for Emezi though were these:

“I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central, claimed it as central and let the rest of the world move over to where I was.”

It is another of the spells they are using to become free.

Throughout the letters, there are references to ‘the magician’, at a certain point the reader asks who or what this presence is: a lover, a boyfriend and if one of those, is it going to endure for the duration of the book? It is a little mystery that eventually becomes a more direct subject of one or two of the letters, another record of events that transpire, of growth that occurs, of pain and hurt, of revenge even. Nothing is exempt in pursuit of the dream, to be the successful writer they desire.

A couple of the letters are to friends who are also human, non-humans, those in their life who totally get it without needing explanation, who accept their reality, with whom they can speak openly, fearlessly.

These humans are so loud in how they press down, in how they enforce their realities…It’s actually impressive, how someone can work so hard to crush a thing they can’t see.

Friendship provides a balm, and many of the letters, while they show the pain and suffering of someone growing into their adult self, lack the mature self-awareness that comes with age and wisdom. They demonstrate the importance of friendship and acceptance along the way.

In a letter To Kathleen on the subject of Worldbending they write:

The last time we texted, you wrote, I need you and our time this break. I know what you mean. The world can be a grit that sands away at us, and love can be a shelter from that…We are safer with each other. We see the world’s we’re trying to make, and we lend our power to each other’s spells.

Shiny Akwaeke Emezi Godhouse

Photo by Thgusstavo Santana on Pexels.com

After the publication of Freshwater, Emezi buys a house in New Orleans and names it Shiny. It is part of the plan, part of the future they are dreaming into being. Not everything in their lives is how they want it, but fortunately there is now a therapist in their lives, some of the reflections come from the raised consciousness of being in that process.

The house felt too big for me; it felt wrong, like I should have bought it years into my career, not thirteen months after my first book. For weeks, I didn’t sleep well there, worried that God would punish me for being so bold, for bending the world like this. It was Ann who talked me down, who told me that the house was oversized precisely so I could grow into it, so I could have the space to learn to unfurl. I needed that much room, as vast as it felt.

Writing To Jahra, another human/non-human entity, in Home, Emezi describes a return to her birth country, on a pilgrimage to a shrine of their deity, Ala. At the site, they feel seen, the entity nourished.

In a letter To Ann, called Anointing they write of the power of naming themselves, a form of disempowerment of those who want to label, categorise, bully by naming.

People want to be the ones drawing the lines, building the boxes, making the names. Maybe because stories live inside all those structures, and if you’re the one controlling the stories, then you’re the one in power. So they get really angry when you name yourself, especially if you’re the type of thing they were expecting to name. You know how it works: they form a circle around you, point, and call you a name you’re supposed to flinch from, a name you’re supposed to deny and be afraid of. That way, their naming becomes a weapon and what you are becomes a shame, a sentence, a tire around your neck rich with fire. Witch. Demon. Ogbanje. When you name yourself, however, you take the power from the wet, foaming flesh of their mouths and mold it in your hand as if it’s nothing, swallow waiting to slide down your throat, slickened with the soup of your self-knowing.
I thought about this a lot with Freshwater – what it meant, first of all, to publicly name myself ogbanje.

Emezi writes for people like them, for people who might think themselves in the margins, as an example of how to live when that perspective is shifted, when the centre is moved. There are costs when you choose or move a centre, costs they are willing to bear. They have been taught how aggressive they need to be with their wellness in order to survive.

Let the world move over, you said, and I obeyed.

It is an astonishing memoir, written from a frank perspective that doesn’t care whether the reader understands or not, it is for those who understand or are curious, the open-minded. And while it may appear self-indulgent, at times arrogant, narcissistic even, their work is making a splash.

I gave a talk at Yale recently, and at the reception afterward, a woman told me about a paper she wrote on Freshwater, how she was taking it to a medical conference to argue for recognising indigenous realities in treating people. It made me so happy, because it felt like a ripple, you know? You make one thing, and someone makes something else from that, and from there the world is changed, one fraction at a time.

Further Reading

My review of Freshwater

My review of The Death of Vivek Oji

NPR: Letters Reveal Author’s Strength In A World Of Destructive Noise by Hope Wabuke, June 9, 2021

New York Times: Akwaeke Emezi: ‘Imagine Being Ogbanje, Like Me’ by Kim Tran, June 7, 2021

Top Reads of 2022

It feels a little fraudulent to write about my favourite reads of 2022, when I forbid myself to read or write about books for six months of the year, while I was working on a creative writing project. Writing about books is one of my greatest pleasures, however I realised that if I could harness that energy and apply it to something else I wished to complete, perhaps I could finish that other project.

I did finish it, so I’m giving myself a break and reopening the blog door, keeping the ‘thoughts on books’ muscle active.

An Irish Obsession and A Foreign Language Desire

Reading Ireland Month 2022 TBRThough I read less than half the number of books of 2021, I did manage to read 30 books from 13 countries, a third Irish authors, thanks to Cathy’s annual Reading Ireland month in February. I’m looking forward to more Irish reads this year; there were many promising reads published in 2022 that I wasn’t able to get to.

Sadly I missed Women in Translation month in August, though I managed to read six books in translation, two making my top reads of the years.

2023 will definitely be better for translations, since I’ve taken out a Charco Press subscription, giving me the opportunity to read a few Latin American contemporary authors from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Mexico.

Books Read By Country

Non-Fiction, A Rival to the Imagination

As far as genre went, there was a much greater balance between fiction and non-fiction than in previous years, due to having been in the mood to read a lot more non-fiction this year.

Books Read by Genre

And so to the books that left the most significant impression, where I have reviewed them I’ll create a link in the title.

One Outstanding Read

Was there one book that could claim the spot of Outstanding Read of 2022? This wasn’t easy to decide given most of my reading occurred in the beginning of the year, but as I look over the titles, there was one book that I remember being pleasantly surprised by and having that feeling of it not wanting to end, and being laugh out loud funny in places.

It is one of those novels, or perhaps I ought to say she is one of those writer’s whose works I wouldn’t mind being stuck on a desert island with, more than just a story, they open your mind to other works, stimulate curiosity and have a particular sensibility that reassures this reader that the novel will endure.

“I absolutely loved it and was surprised at how accessible a read it was, given this is an author who recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her power to provoke by telling a story is only heightened by the suggestion on the back cover that her ideas presented here caused a genuine political uproar in Poland.” – extract from my review

So here it is, my One Outstanding Read of 2022 was :

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

In no particular order, here are my top 5 fiction and non-fiction reads for 2022.

Top 5 Fiction

Peirene Press German Literature Women in TranslationMarzhan, mon amour, Katja Oskamp (Germany) translated by Jo Heinrich

– What a joy this Peirene novella was, one of those rare gems of what I perceived as uplifting fiction, until I lent it to a friend who is a nurse, who DNF’d it, making me realise that what can be delightful for one reader can be quite the opposite for another, in this case, someone who had heard too many sad stories from patients, requiring an empathetic barrier, to endure the overwhelm it creates.

Marzhan is a much maligned multi-storied, communist-era, working class quarter in East Berlin, where our protagonist, a writer, leaves her career behind to retrain as a chiropodist, due to the sudden illness of her husband. In each chapter, we meet one of her clients, members of the local community, many who have lived there since its construction 40 years earlier. A chronicler of their personal histories, we witness the humanity behind the monolith structures of the housing estates, the connections created between the three women working in the salon and the warmth and familiarity they provide to those who cross their threshold. A semi-autobiographical gem.

Northern Irish Literature novellaThe Last Resort, Jan Carson (Northern Ireland)

– Another novella, this was another delightful, often hilarious story, with well constructed characterisation. Set in a fictional Seacliff caravan park in Ballycastle on the North Coast of Ireland, a group gather to place a memorial bench on the cliff top for a departed friend.

Each chapter is narrated by one of 10 characters, revealing their state of mind and concerns, while exploring complex family dynamics, ageing, immigration, gender politics, the decline of the Church and the legacy of the Troubles.  A sense of mystery and suspense, pursued by teenage sleuth Alma, lead to the final scene, the cliff-hanger.  A delightful afternoon romp.

Ukraine historical fictionI Will Die in a Foreign Land, Kalani Pickhart (US) (Set in Ukraine 2013/14) (Historical Fiction)

– Set in Ukraine in 2014, during the Euromaiden protests, four characters with different backgrounds (two outsiders, two protestors) cross paths, share histories, traverse geography and represent different perspectives in this Revolution of Dignity, the origin of a conflict that endures today.

The narrative is gripping, informative, well researched and had me veering off to look up numerous historical references. Moved by the documentary, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Democracy, Pickhart was struck by the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian people against their government and the echo of the past, when the bells of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery rang for the first time since the Mongols invaded Kyiv in 1240AD.

“Though it is novel told in fragments, through multiple narratives and voices, there is a fluidity and yet the plot moves quickly, as the connection(s) between characters are revealed, their motivations and behaviours come to be understood and revelations acknowledge the pressures and complexities of life in this country, some things universal, others unique to their history and geography.”

Dublin One City One Read Irish LiteratureNora, A Love Story of Nora Barnacle & James Joyce, Nuala O’Connor (Ireland) (Historical Fiction)

– Absolutely loved it. I was instantly transported into Nora’s world, seeing their life and travels, the many challenges they faced and the unique connection that kept them together throughout. I knew nothing of their lives before picking this up during the One Dublin, One Book initiative in April 2022. Knowing now all the many places they lived and how Europe allowed them to live free of convention, I’m curious to encounter the stories Joyce created while Nora was keeping everything else together for him.

It is incredible that Nuala O’Connor managed to put together such a cohesive story given the actions of Joyce’s formidable grandson/gatekeeper Stephen, who did all he could to prevent access or usage of the family archive, including the destruction of hundreds of letters, until his death in 2020.

In 2023 the One Dublin, One Book read will be The Coroner’s Daughter by Andrew Hughes.

London Homesickness New Zealand writers abroadTowards Another Summer, Janet Frame (NZ) (Literary Fiction)

–  What a treat this was, one of Janet Frame’s early novels written in the 1960’s when she was living in London, one she was too self conscious to allow to be published, so it came out posthumously in 2007. Written long before any of her autobiographical work, it clearly was inspired by much of her own experience as a writer more confident and astute with her words on the page than social graces.

In the novel, a young NZ author living in a studio in London, is invited to spend a weekend with a journalist and his family, something she looks forward to until beset by anxiety and awkwardness. Her visit is interspersed with reminiscences of her homeland, of a realisation of her homesickness and desire to return. She imagines herself a migratory bird, a kind of shape-shifting ability that helps her to be present, absent, to cope with the situation and informs her writing.

“A certain pleasure was added to Grace’s relief at establishing herself as a migratory bird. She found that she understood the characters in her novel. Her words flowed, she was excited, she could see everyone and everything.”

Top 5 Non-Fiction

nonfiction essays love effect of domination patriarchy black woman perspectiveAll About Love: New Visions, bell hooks (US)

– What a joy it was to discover the voice and beautifully evolved mind of bell hooks in these pages.

Her perspective is heart lead, her definition of love leaves behind conditioned perceptions of romance and desire and the traditional roles of carer, nurturer, provider – and suggests that it might be ‘the will to do for oneself or another that which enables us to grow and evolve spiritually’ love becomes a verb not a noun.

It is a way of looking at this least discussed human emotion and activity that fosters hope and encouragement, in an era where we have been long suffering the effects of lovelessness under a societal system of domination.

essays Sara Baume Colum McCann Europa EditionsThe Passenger – Ireland (Essays, Art, Investigative Journalism)

– This collection of essays, art and information about contemporary Ireland is an underrated gem! Europa Editions noticed my prolific reading around Ireland after I read Sara Baume’s wonderful A Line Made By Walking and mentioned that she was one of the contributors to this stunning collection.

I planned to read a couple of essays each day, but it was so interesting, I kept reading until I finished it. Brilliant!

Across 11 essays, the collection explores the life and times of modern Ireland, with contributions from Catherine Dunne and Caelinn Hogan – discussing the decline of the Church’s influence, the dismantling of a system designed to oppress women and a culture of silence in The Mass is Ended; William Atkins writes a fascinating essay on the Boglands; Manchan Magnan shares how the contraction of a small local fishing industry heralded the decline and disappearance of much of the Irish language in An Ocean of Wisdom; Sara Baume writes of Talismans and Colum McCann of nostalgia in Everything That Falls Must Also Rise.

The BBC’s former political editor in Northern Ireland Mark Devenport, writes about a region hanging in the balance, the UK and the EU, torn between fear and opportunity and the distinct feeling of having been abandoned in At The Edge of Two Unions: Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast; while Lyra McKee’s gut-wrenching essay Suicides of the Ceasefire Babies investigates the troubling fact that since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, more people in Northern Ireland have committed suicide than were killed during the 30 year conflict.

“Intergenerational transmission of trauma is not just a sociological or psychological problem, but also a biological one.”

And more, a brilliant essay on citizen assemblies, another on Irish music, rugby and a less enchanting one that explores locations in The Game of Thrones.

What My Bones Know Stefanie FooWhat My Bones Know, A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma, Stefanie Foo (US) (Memoir)

– This was a gripping memoir I couldn’t put down. I read it for reference purposes, interested in the solutions she finds for healing complex PTSD. It is well researched, while each section contributes to the arc of a comprehensive and compelling narrative.

Stefanie Foo had a dream job as an award-winning radio producer at This American Life and was in a loving relationship. But behind her office door, she was having panic attacks and sobbing at her desk every morning.  After years of questioning what was wrong with herself, she was diagnosed with complex PTSD – a condition that occurs when trauma happens continuously, over the course of years.

She becomes the subject of her own research, her journalist skills aiding her to interview those responsible for various discoveries and healing modalities, gaining insights into the effect and management of her condition, eventually reclaiming agency over it.

“Every cell in my body is filled with the code of generations of trauma, of death, of birth, of migration, of history that I cannot understand. . . . I want to have words for what my bones know.”

Ancestor Trouble Maud NewtonAncestor Trouble, A Reckoning & A Reconciliation, Maud Newton (US) (Memoir/Genealogy)

– This was a fascinating read and exploration, at the intersection between family history and genetics; the author sets out to explore the nurture versus nature question with the aid of DNA genetic reports and stories both documented about and passed down through her family. Some of those stories and people she was estranged from create a concern/fear about what she might inherit.

Maud Newton explores society’s experiments with eugenics pondering her father’s marriage, a choice he made based on trying to create “smart kids”. She delves into persecuted women, including a female relative accused of being a witch, and discovers a clear line of personality inclinations that have born down the female line of her family. A captivating and highly informative read.

My Fathers Daughter Hannah Azieb PoolMy Father’s Daughter, Hanna Azieb Pool (UK/Eritrea) (Adoptee Memoir)

– A memoir of the Eritrean-British journalist, Hannah Azieb-Pool, who returns to Eritrea at the age of 30 to meet her family for the first time. In her twenties, Azieb-Pool is given a letter that unravels everything she knows about her life. Adopted from an orphanage in Eritrea, brought to the UK, it was believed she had no surviving relatives. When she discovers the truth in a letter from her brother – that her birth father is alive and her Eritrean family are desperate to meet her, she is confronted with a decision and an opportunity, to experience her culture origins and meet her family for the first time.

It’s a story of uncovering the truth, of making connections, a kind of healing or reconciliation. Ultimately what has been lost can never be found. It’s like she was able to view an image of who she might have been and the life she may have had, and while viewing it was cathartic, it is indeed an illusion, a life imagined, one never possible to live.

 *  *  *  *  *  *

Have you read any of these books? Anything here tempt you for reading in 2023?
Happy Reading All!

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

This long time classic, came up in conversation last week; a friend and I were talking about the inclination for one to want to ask, know or understand the ‘why’ when something bad happens.

For me, looking back at something challenging, I have a sense that when we cease to ask or need to know the ‘why’, that is a sign we have moved past or overcome it. How we get there is another subject altogether.

classic tribute to hope from Holocaust LogotherapyMy friend then mentioned Viktor Frankl and interestingly, I learned he held a similar premise, but in the opposite direction. In terms of looking forward in life, we are likely to be more at peace and less prone to suffering if we have a ‘why’ in terms of our life’s meaning. So having our own ‘why’ is what we can focus on, looking forward, not back, at ourselves and not ‘the other’.

I decided it was time to dust off the book and retrieve it from my shelf.

In the first 100 pages Frankl shares some of his experiences and observations from being in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, with a focus on answering for himself the question of why some of them, like him, survived.

He identifies different turning points, observing the moment when some lost meaning and how those that did survive often had found a way to create it, despite the horrific circumstances.

His experience in Auschwitz, terrible as it was, reinforced what was already one of his key ideas. Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Sigmund Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.

Frankl’s most enduring insight, one that resonates deeply:

forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.

meaning of life goal why purpose

Photo by Nina Uhlikova @ Pexels.com

The prisoner who lost faith in the future was doomed. Any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength had first to succeed in showing him some future goal.

Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why – an aim – for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence.

Following this account of survival, in a short essay Frankl describes and discusses the therapy he was renowned for, one still practiced today:

Logotherapy in a Nutshell

Logotherapy focuses on the future, on the meanings to be fulfilled by a patient, a reorientation of sorts towards the meaning of a life.

Logotherapy tries to make the patient fully aware of his own responsibleness; therefore, it must leave to him the option for what, to what or to whom, he understands himself to be responsible. That is why a logotherapist is the least tempted of all psychotherapists to impose value judgments on his patients, for he will never permit the patient to pass to the doctor the responsibility of judging.

He writes of some of the methods used, citing examples as well as discussing the meaning of love and suffering.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

It is a poignant read from a man who would embody his philosophy literally, leaving us with this enduring work and a therapy that is indeed a legacy and leaves us in no doubt as to the meaning and puspose of Viktor Frankl’s life.

Viktor Frankl

Man's Search for Meaning Psychology logotherapyViktor Emil Frankl, psychiatrist, was born March 26, 1905 and died September 2, 1997, in Vienna, Austria. He was influenced during his early life by Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, and earned a medical degree from the University of Vienna Medical School in 1930.

He founded the school of existential analysis, or logotherapy, which Wolfgang Soucek of the University of Innsbruck named “the third Viennese school of psychotherapy,” the other two being Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and Alfred Adler’s individual psychology. Logotherapy was designed to help people find meaning in life.

By the time of his death, his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, had been published in 24 languages.

Further Reading

Logotherapy: How to Find More Meaning in Your Life by  Emily Waters, PsychCentral

What is Logotherapy and Existential Analysis? by Alexander Batthyány, Viktor Frankl Institute

 

Why Woo Woo Works by David R. Hamilton PhD

The Surprising Science Behind Meditation, Reiki, Crystals and Other Alternative Practices

Why Woo Woo Works David Hamilton“The Oxford University Press’s definition of woo-woo is ‘Unconventional beliefs regarded as having little or no scientific basis, especially those related to spirituality, mysticism, or alternative medicine. The term is believed to have been coined in the 1980’s, possibly in imitation of the wailing sound associated with ghosts and the supernatural.”

I first came across the author David Hamilton (a former R&D scientist who developed drugs for cardiovascular disease and cancer) in conversation with Colette Baron Reid on her podcast Inside the Wooniverse in the episode entitled “Why Woo Woo Works”

Inspired by the placebo effect and how some people’s conditions would improve because they believed a placebo was a real drug, he left the pharmaceutical industry to pursue the subject of how the mind and emotions can can improve mental and physical health. 

“Meditation is an example of how a mystical practice becomes mainstream once the science is known and enough people are doing it.”

In addition to reducing stress, meditation can result in higher levels of the telomerase enzyme, which can slow the rate of ageing at a genetic level.

An advocate for kindness, Hamilton suggests that the opposite of stress is not calm (one of the effects of the absence of stress), but kindness. You can read some of his favourite kindness quotes here:

This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.” HH the Dalai Lama

The Power of Imagination

“To a large extent, the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary, and this underpins some aspects of the placebo effect. When you imagine that something is happening, it really is happening as far as your brain is concerned, and it releases the chemical substances necessary to confirm that what you’re imagining is indeed real.”

plants in vases

Photo Elle Hughes @Pexels.com

In his book, Hamilton discusses the many aspects of different spiritual practices and a few alternative therapies. He shares the most recent science behind why they work.

Some of the subjects covered are Mind Over Matter, Meditation, Trapped and Released Emotions, Nature, Reiki, Crystals, How Perception Changes Your Reality, Consciousness, Telepathy, Distant Healing and Prayer,The Right Conditions and The Law of Attraction.

A few things I knew intuitively that I hadn’t seen proven by science was the power of intention (of the healer), the effect of empathy by a medical practitioner and the difference it makes to pain thresholds having plants in a (waiting) room, or in any room.

“As airy-fairy as it sounds,we might find that on occasion, we could swap a couple of ibuprofen for a peace lily or a rubber plant.”

I really enjoyed the book which I ordered immediately after listening to him in the podcast, it’s an excellent summary of a few topics that are making significant improvements in the health and well-being of people,  it’s very accessible to read or listen to.

Further Reading

A Prescription of Kindness by David Hamilton, Dec 4, 2022

Interview with David Hamilton at The Mind Solution Podcast

Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation by Maud Newton

This book was such an enticing premise and clearly a passionate endeavour on the part of the author, who spent years researching her family and understanding the modern tools available through AncestryDNA and 23andMe that I couldn’t wait to read it and started it immediately it arrived in my letterbox.

A Hobby Becomes an Obsession

To a large extent, it was the Mormons who made the larger-scale practice of genealogy among Americans possible. Over time, to achieve its mandate of baptizing all forbears of Mormons, the LDS has collected records from a vast and ever-increasing number of populations, converted them into millions of reels of microfilm and microfiche, and stored them in a massive climate-controlled vault carved out of the Granite Mountains of Utah.

The internet and the rise in popularity of DNA testing transformed genealogy into the mainstream hobby – come obsession, it has become today, with sophisticated tools and avenues of research that can make it a compelling pursuit.

With all the tools at their disposal, contemporary genealogists can test rumours passed down like pocketknives. They can also rebut lies, expose secrets, and heal fractures.

DNA and Family Trees, the secrets they reveal

Ancestor Trouble Maud NewtonThis work of nonfiction is both the author’s personal project and an exploration of the meaning of genetic genealogy, of observations of ancestor behaviour and achievements, their inclinations and attitudes, their better moments and worst traits. Her desire to know what is inherited versus what is learned and the implications that has on her own character, drives her forward.

Maud Newton explores society’s experiments with eugenics and ponders her own father’s marriage, a choice he made based on trying to create “smart kids”. She delves into persecuted women, including a female relative accused of being a witch, and discovers a clear line of personality inclinations that have born down the female line of her family.

Maud Newton (the name a pseudonym inspired by one of her relatives) is both curious and wary. Curious to know who these people were and whether there was any connection to the way her own personality had manifested in this world and wary of the darker aspects she was aware of and had uncovered. Those present in her father, (from whom she was estranged), and that of the plantation and slave owning ancestors she was descended from.

To understand ourselves, Carl Jung argued, we need to understand our ancestors. “Our souls as well as our bodies are composed of individual elements which were all already present in the ranks of our ancestors,” he wrote in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections. “The ‘newness’ in the individual psyche is an endlessly varied re-combination of age-old components…The less we understand of what our fathers and forefathers sought, the less we understand ourselves.

Nature versus Nurture

Exploring the concept of nature versus nurture, Newton studied their faces and read of their ailments, looking for physical resemblance and a possible forecast of health parameters that might need to have been monitored. This is something that DNA companies have dabbled with in the past, a subject that has created controversy as people make decisions about their health based on speculative, not always reliable genetic information; creating databases that insurance companies would pay handsomely for.

The genes we inherit from our ancestors have a lot to do with the odors we give off. It’s even possible that newborns recognize their own biological mothers by scent and that mothers can identify their biological newborns the same way.

One of the most incredible aspects of the DNA results, was how many times her profile has changed over the years and how extreme the changes were, making one wonder what is real and what is a fiction, as the databases are added to over time, causing everyone’s results to constantly adjust significantly.

An Open-Minded Approach

In the end, having explored all the archives, the registry’s, the DNA results and her own observations and those of her living relatives, she takes a more open minded, imaginative route.  Attending an “ancestral lineage healing intensive” workshop/retreat in North Carolina, she meets others interested in connecting with their ancestors and learns of age old ceremonies that had been long forgotten in some cultures, traditions that are beginning to be revived. She is open enough to it, to have had an interesting experience, which was likely to have been healing in some way.

At times there was a lot of family detail, but it’s written in a way that kept me captivated while reading. I appreciated the depth which with she explained how to get the most of DNA information, the risks of obsessing about it and the number of extended family one is likely to encounter. I particularly enjoyed the more spiritual journey she took at the end and the dedication with which the project was realized.

An excellent and informative read. Highly Recommended and a great festive read or gift.

Further Reading/Listening

In ‘Ancestor Trouble,’ Maud Newton wrestles with her family history  – review by Kristen Martin, NPR

From Family Trees to 23andMe, and Back Again – review by Kerri Arsenault, New York Times

What Happened To You? by Bruce D. Perry, Oprah Winfrey

Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing

Conversations on trauma, resilience and healingThis was a compelling read in an interesting, dynamic format, a book length conversation between child psychiatrist and neuroscientist Bruce Perry and the well known broadcaster, philanthropist and show host, Oprah Winfrey.

He brings his knowledge and experience of working with children and she brings not just her own childhood experiences but the learning from thousands of interviews with people who’ve been through trauma and come through it to heal.

The experiences of the first two months of life have a disproportionately important impact on your long-term health and development.

I read it as part of background research into pre-verbal trauma. There wasn’t much on that subject specifically, but the general discussion itself was informative, as were the many case studies and ongoing insights into healing.

There are parts of our brain that are very, very sensitive to nonverbal relational cues. And in our society, this is an underappreciated aspect of the way human beings work. We tend to be a very verbal society – written and spoken words are important – but the majority of communication is actually nonverbal.

It seemed to be more about understanding the effect of what has happened, making that connection between childhood events and a person’s future behaviour and ways of perceiving the world, than about how people heal, although the clues are there. Given how common these experiences are, it’s good that such an accessible book is available to the general reading public.

Regulation, relationship, and reward

The brain is a meaning-making machine, always trying to make sense of the world.

community healing trauma resilience

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A person’s capacity to connect, to be regulating and regulated, to reward and be rewarded, is the glue that keeps families and communities together. Regulation is about being in balance, and rhythm is one of the key ways to regulate. Disassociation is one the self-regulating mechanisms, one that can be developed into a strength.

All life is rhythmic. The rhythms of the natural world are embedded in our biological systems.

The beginning chapters are a little scientific as Perry introduces the parts of the brain that regulate us and then how these events cause disregulation.

Sequential processing means that the most primitive, reactive part of our brain is the first part to interpret and act on the information coming from our senses. Bottom line: Our brain is organised to act and feel before we think. The developing infant acts and feels, and these actions and feelings help organise how they will begin to think.

Healing isn’t focused so much on therapy as it is on the dozens of potential therapeutic moments available each day, that counterbalance the effect.

When you have friends, family and other healthy people in your life, you have a natural healing environment. We heal best in community.

indigenous maori community healing

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I really enjoyed the references to indigenous thinking on the subject, particularly because Bruce Perry referenced his visit to Nez Zealand where he spent time with Maori elders and healers.

Their way of healing started with a refusal to categorise and to see the “whole”, so instead of focusing on specific problems like addiction, violence etc they talk about connection and community. Its the collective response that is important not the isolated, individual approach western civilisation tends to foster.

Our ancestors recognised the importance of connectedness and the toxicity of exclusion. The history of the ‘civilized’ world, on the other hand, is filled with policies and practices that favoured disconnection and marginalisation – that destroyed family, community and culture.

The concept is to move from asking ‘What is wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?’ in order to understand the effect of trauma, whether it is something known or remembered or not. The brain adapts and is shaped by those experiences, wiring us for certain responses whether they seem logical or not.

We’re just saying this is the way you’re organised and it’s absolutely predictable based upon what happened to you. Then we help them understand that the brain is malleable.

Ultimately, it can create strength. Adversity, challenges, disappointment, loss, trauma – all can contribute to the capacity to develop empathy, and wisdom. They can be perceived as gifts, what we do with them will differ from one person to the other.

Everything that has happened to you was also happening for you. And all that time, in all of those moments, you were building strength.
Strength times strength times strength equals power.
What happened to you can be your power.

Heart shape Green Plant Trauma resilience

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The Passenger – Ireland

For Explorers of the World

essays Sara Baume Colum McCann Europa EditionsHuginn and Muninn are two ravens from Norse mythology. Sent out by Odin at dawn each day, they return at night to perch on the god’s shoulders, whispering to him whatever knowledge and wisdom they have gathered from every corner of the world. Like Huginn and Muninn The Passenger travels far and wide to bring back the best writing from the countries it visits.

I’ve been reading this over the past week and only meant to read a couple more essays today, but they were so interesting, I kept going and finished it.

Featuring long form essays, investigative journalism, literary reportage and visual narratives, it takes readers beyond the familiar stereotypes to portray a country’s shifting culture and identity, its public debates, the sensibilities of its people, its burning issues, its pleasures and its pain. It was published in the UK by Europa Editions on March 17.

Some Numbers About Ireland

Essays About Ireland and the IrishPopulation (the island of Ireland) : 6.9 million (the highest since 1851)

Population (the Republic of Ireland) : 5.01 million

People Who Speak Irish at Home : 83,000

People Who Speak Polish at Home : 120,000

Castles or castle ruins : 30,000

Eurovision Song contest wins : 7 (more than any other country)

Nobel Prizes in Literature : 4

W.B. Yeats (1923),

George Bernard Shaw (1925)

Samuel Beckett (1969)

Seamus Heaney (1995)

11 Essays

The Mass is Ended by Catherine Dunne and Caelainn Hogan

A dual narrative essay written by two women writers from different generations, talking about growing up in Ireland as a woman, how it has begun to transform from an insular, conservative society under the repressive influence of the Catholic Church and how it continued to negatively impact women’s lives long after other countries began addressing such issues. The women discuss the decline of the Church’s influence, the dismantling of a system designed to oppress women and the culture of silence.

Bogland by William Atkins

A fascinating and insightful article about the natural phenomena of the midland area of Ireland, covered in peatlands, referred to locally as bogs. Initially seen as undesirable and an embarrassment, they then became a source of revenue, economic growth and jobs, not to mention local fuel. Environmentally controversial like many fuel extraction processes, the industry is now in decline and being phased out. The bogs have been found to contain human remains from the Iron Age dating back to between 470 BC.

An Ocean of Wisdom by Manchan Magnan

An Ocean of Wisdom

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Fascinated by the Irish language and its connection to fishing and the sea, we learn how the decline of a small local fishing industry heralded the decline and disappearance of much of the language. Magnan travelled to the three areas of Gaeltachtai (Irish speaking) to discover locals words and phrases that expressed aspects of the sea, weather and coastal life, linguistic nuances that described a way of life that is disappearing (due to the impact of foreign fishing trawlers) and with it, a form of expression and being.

Like other old tongues, the Irish language has unique ways of expressing things – one example of which is that Irish regards the unseen world as being just as real as the seen, and this is evident in many ofthe phrases, metaphors and colloquial expressions that make up daily speech. So the word ceantar, for instance, means place, region or locality, while alltar is its opposite, the other realm, the netherworld. They exist simultaneously in all places at all times.

Our physical bodies occupy the ceantar, but our minds can easily slip into the alltar. Only a thin veil separates the two realms, and there were always those who could pass from one to the other, as is demonstrated by the word púicín, which refers to a supernatural covering that allows otherworldly beings to appear unseen in this reality.

The efforts to revive and reconnect to the language and the growing awareness of the importance language is to maintaining connection to a culture is encouraging. Losing language is to lose meaning and connection, reclaiming it might well contribute to the country’s healing process.

Talismans by Sara Baume

Sara Baume is know for her two fiction novels, a third Seven Steeples due out in Apr ’22, however if you’ve read her excellent work of nonfiction Handiwork, you’ll know she is a visual artist and loves crafting things, using her hands, sculpting or making things from different materials and they always have a theme.

creative nonfiction bird migration songbirdsIn Handiwork, she was sculpting birds, but here she writes about the Irish cottage, its evolution and the rise of the Irish villas that were much despised for a period of time. As she spends months creating objects that represent small scale versions of these houses, she reflects on the way Ireland’s built environment has changed.

The idea was to draw a contrast between the grandiosity of the monster mansions and my choice of coarse, everyday materials – the intention being to invent an updated and deeply cynical souvenir.

She visits a reconstructed Irish cottage with Marion McGarry, author of The Irish Cottage: History, Culture and Design (2017), who recounts :

‘the fire was both physically and socially situated in the centre of the house’. Whereas European families routinely gathered around the kitchen table, the Irish would push all of their furniture back against the walls to surround the light and heat of the hearth.

Everything that Falls Must Also Rise – by Colum McCann

The New York based Irish writer reflects on the choice he and many others made to emigrate, what it’s like to return, to become an outsider and be rooted elsewhere, yet still refer to it as home. Full of nostalgia, this one almost feels out of place in the collection, and the enlarged font size stands out almost as a clue to the demographic its likely to appeal to.

At The Edge of Two Unions: Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast by Mark Devenport

The BBC’s former political editor in Northern Ireland writes about a region hanging in the balance between two Unions, the UK and the EU, torn between fear and opportunity and the distinct feeling of having been abandoned. A century of Northern Ireland, how attitudes and loyalties are evolving and changing with the generations and neighbouring affiliations.

Suicides of the Ceasefire Babies (originally published in 2016) by Lyra McKee

Ceasefire suicides Northern Ireland

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An essay written by the journalist Lyra McKee, who investigated the troubling fact that since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, more people in Northern Ireland have committed suicide than were killed during the 30 year conflict.

This was a fascinating read, because it ties in with Kerri Ní Dochartaigh’s Thin Places and when I began to read Lyra’s essay and her questions, I could tell what was coming, because if you’ve read Thin Places and imagined how many other young people have been exposed to what she had been (including being told “you lot had it much easier than our generation” by their parents) and the subsequent suppression of their feelings/emotions, it’s not surprising that there is a significant proportion of the population, particularly in the towns of Belfast and Derry that have suffered the delayed effects of PTSD, without even knowing it.

Her investigation looks at the cause, uncovers existing research and also learns about how trauma survivors pass their behaviours and certain genes (when parental trauma has been experienced prior to conception) to children.

Intergenerational transmission of trauma is not just a sociological or psychological problem, but also a biological one.

Sadly, Lyra McKee was murdered in 2019.

What I Learned On My Trip to Westeros by Mark O’Connell

I guess there had to be the one that references The Game of Thrones, little more than a guided tour of the locations, an attempt to make a connection between the fantasy of the land imagined by George R.R. Martin (inspired by 15th century civil wars) and the more recent history and reality of a divided land.

Unfortunately, the lens through which he views things around him obscures the actual landscape and barely disguises his disdain for the local guides, while going off on a tangent about a novel relating to the philosophical and aesthetic preoccupations of the Argentinian author Borges.

Citizens’ Assemblies: Experiments in Democracy by Ursula Barry

An excellent and insightful look into the establishment of Citizens’ Assemblies, an invention and intervention by common people to facilitate decision making on important issues that have gone unresolved by politicians for far too long.

This was brilliant, I wasn’t aware that it was these assemblies that had been behind some of the most significant changes and reforms in Ireland’s constitution, and a model that has and is being used elsewhere in Europe, when the population begins to protest and govt wants to listen but is unable to act, here is another way that is even more democratic perhaps, than elected officials, who get tied up with multiple agendas and lose sight of the common citizen, especially those adversely affected by outdated policies and inhumane practices.

The final two essays were about one man’s interest in Irish music (from a perspective of a lifetime living in England) and rugby, neither of which particularly interested me enough to write about here!

Overall, an excellent exploration of the life and times of modern Ireland. Beautifully illustrated and highly recommended.

Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh

Northern Irish Literature nonfiction memoir troublThin Places is something of an enigma, when I bought it, I thought it was in the nature writing genre, the inside cover calls it a mix of memoir, history and nature writing – such a simplistic description of the reading experience, which for me was something else.

Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. They are places that make us feel something larger than ourselves, as though we are held in a place between worlds, beyond experience.

This book is a kind of cathartic experience of being inside the experience of someone who has experienced trauma, who has yet to awaken from its implications, or be conscious of its effect – but who by the end will by necessity awaken to it, because it can no longer be contained inside the mind, the body and for the good of the soul, it must be expressed, broken down, if there is to be any change of coming out the other side.

Even as a child, I could see no way of staying in my hometown. The edges of the broken and breaking city never quite held themselves in place, and my own family life mirrored those fractures.

So the first part of the book I can only describe as “being in the fog”. We know Kerri ní Dochartaigh was born in Derry on the border of the North and South of Ireland, at the height of the troubles, that her parents were of mixed heritage, a Protestant father and Catholic mother;  the family existed in the oftentime dangerous in-between, safe in neither space or only temporarily, always moving, never truly belonging.

We have a somewhat difficult relationship with the word ‘tradition’ in Ireland, particularly in the North. The way that religion has latched itself onto the politics of this land has left many people with no desire to look at the imagery of their ancestors; the story of their past. We have lost, broken, murdered, burned, stolen, hidden and undone – all in the false name of tradition. Lives, places and stories have been ripped out by their roots because ‘that’s how it has always been’. I wonder, I wonder so very much these days, what wealth of imagery and meaning was lost when we became so focused on our differences here, that we buried the things that had once tied us together, the things that might still know a way through, for us all.

Though we are told this, the uninitiated reader doesn’t really understand what that means, how it actually manifests on the human level, on a day to day basis – until she arrives at the point where she realises, she needs to confront the reality of the things that happened – because she is losing it – and finding it harder and harder to function in the bubble of denial that allows her to go about her day, to work, to live.

The past, present and future all seemed to blend into one, and every single part of the story held sorrow that I couldn’t get rid of, no matter how deeply I try to bury it. So many different things – situations, times of year, people – made the bad things rise up from inside to bite me again. Triggers, I know that now. It left me feeling scared, hollowed out and with no control over any of it, not really knowing how to make it – any of it – stop.

Derry River Foyle Ireland

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Only after finishing Part 1 Blood and Bone did I comprehend what I was reading, a woman’s life from childhood up to the age of 28 striving to not give in to the effects of trauma, in the opening chapters, she alludes to those things, though is unable to write directly about them, until realising the nightmares will never stop if she doesn’t, the numbing eventually worse than the pain.

And so she begins to share the events. And it’s tough to read, to absorb as we imagine the magnitude of the effect these events must have had on a child, on an adolescent, a young adult. But what courage, to make that decision, to visit that dark place, to express those thoughts, recount those events, relive the disappointments, feel again the sense of abandonment, to trust that writing about it might bring one towards healing.

While there are those moments of how nature and the many metaphors and symbolism of it kept her sane, this is more about the nature of mind and the necessity of finding and/or making meaning in navigating the troubles of life, in order to overcome past hurts, reconcile traumatic events and find a way to live again, to believe in hope, to elevate one’s self-worth and be able to function in a relationship.

thin places between worlds trauma spiritual healing

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It is a tough and unrelenting read, that at times I needed to take a break from, but it is one that we as readers are privileged to gain insight from, because Kerri ni Dochartaigh could very easily not be here, and yet she is – and I like to believe that in part that is because the sharing of her experience and path to healing are an important part of her soul’s purpose in this life.

This extraordinary book is part of her life’s work, she has found a way to articulate to the many, the terrible destructive effect of divisiveness , prejudice and intolerance on young people, the effect of not feeling safe during childhood and adolescence and the difficulty of becoming something other than what you knew growing up – of learning to trust, to love, of connecting to the natural environment, learning a near lost language that connects the Irish to their environment and dwelling in just being.

Naming things, in the language that should always have been offered to you, is a way to sculpt loss. A way to protect that which we still have.

Hard going at times, but extraordinary, a beating, bleeding heart, ripped open to heal.

Kerri ní Dochartaigh, Author

Born in 1983, in Derry-Londonderry at the border between the North and South of Ireland. She read English Literature and Classical Civilisation at Trinity College Dublin and trained as a Waldorf teacher in Edinburgh. She taught in Edinburgh and Bristol, before returning to Ireland in her early thirties.

She writes about nature, literature and place for the Irish Times, Dublin Review of Books, Caught by the River and others. She has also written for the Guardian, BBC, Winter Papers. Thin Places was highly commended by the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing 2021.

Saltwater in the Blood by Easkey Britton

International Women’s Day

Journée internationale des droits des femmes 2022 UN

Journée internationale des droits des femmes 2022

My calendar tells me that today is the journée internationale des droits des femme (I like that in French it focuses on the rights on women, somewhat lost in translation in English) so  I’ve been thinking about what to share.

As often is the case when I ask myself an open question, my mind responds by connecting various other things I’ve noted recently together, creating a common thread.

An article about women surfing in Sri Lanka prompted me to choose Easkey Britton’s book Saltwater in the Blood to read for Reading Ireland Month and it’s the perfect choice for International Women’s Day.

Women Surfing in Sri Lanka

A couple of days ago there was a wonderful article in the Guardian, ‘When I surf I feel so strong’: Sri Lankan women’s quiet surfing revolution by Hannah Ellis-Peterson about the desire of Shamali Sanjaya who grew up in a fishing village, to experience riding the waves like her brother and father whom she would sit and watch enviously.

Easkey Britton Saltwater in the Blood Surfing Sri Lanka

Photo by K. Gonzalez-Keola Pexels.com

When a friend knocked on her door one day inviting her to go surfing, she could hold it back no more, that longing – like the title of Irish pro surfer Easkey Britton’s book alludes to – was indicative of saltwater in the blood. She was a natural surfer.

“When I surf, it is such a happy feeling for me,” she said. “I am filled with this energy, I feel so strong. Life is full of all these headaches and problems, but as soon as I get into the water, I forget about it all.”

Not content to keep her passion to herself, she persevered through disapproval and in 2018 set up the Arugam Bay Girls Surf Club, members, ranging from ages 13 to 43. Despite having broken through many local taboos amid accusations of trying to change the culture, many women still face a backlash from their families and communities; however their perseverance has also brought a new lease of life and healing to others.

Book Review and An Obsession With the Sea

I bought this book because I am a sea creature, a lover of the sea, its secrets and legends. I grew up on the wild west coast of New Zealand, near the volcanic rock and black sand beaches of Port Waikato and loved nothing more than going out past the breakers into the big swell of the huge waves there, being lifted up and down and eventually body surfing the wave back in. I loved it.

The coastline is notoriously wild and unfriendly, waves break against rugged cliffs, and the sea in some parts is slowly reclaiming the black sand dunes and dwellings that humans built.

There is something mesmerising about the sea and Easkey Britton’s story shares her physical and intellectual pursuit of it, her mindful practice in relation to it, eventually learning how to awaken to the more feminine element of her psyche in her relation to it with others.

The Irish Coast and Big Wave Surfing

Surfing Natural Cycles Sea Power to Heal Irish Literature

Saltwater in the Blood is an account of her lifelong relationship with the sea, surfing and the rugged coastline of Ireland’s western coast. Complimented by her beautiful illustrations, as on the cover, it is perhaps the nearest thing to experiencing surfing without getting in the water!

She writes about surfing, her connection with the sea and the Irish coast, natural cycles, the ebb and flow of life and learning to let go. 

Right from her early school days, if the tide was out far enough the seafront provided a shortcut to school. Her father surfed and painted and she joined the boys in the water, learning to surf at a young age and becoming a pro champion surfer who toured the world catching waves. 

In the first part of the book she shares how she focused on surfing, following a well trodden path, overcoming fear, learning to read the signs, pushing her physical and mental limits as each level of difficulty was conquered, trying to stay grounded and safe, while riding and being tossed by the waves.

Connect Not Conquer

However, over time, she learned to regard the sea in a different way and began the process of letting go of the need to compete and the heightened awareness that being one of the only girls in the water carried with it. She began the process of moving away from competition towards collaboration (a process that Riane Eisler writes about in Nurturing Our Humanity).

Though she recalls the excitement of learning to tow-surf (pulled behind a jet ski in order to access big waves a paddle surfer can’t get to) and the thrill of surfing the giant waves nearby at Mullaghmore (see Conor Maguire riding a 60-foot Monster Wave), an invitation to travel to far flung places to write about surfing in countries and cultures where it is little known, provides her an opportunity to learn more from what the sea offers, and the unique experience of being in the company of women and their shared relationship to the sea.

Surfing in Iran

One of the most interesting chapters in book for me, was the time she spent in Sistan-Baluchistan in Iran, .

It was a land not known for its surf-exposed coastline. A short stretch of coast, about 60 to 80 kilometres, lies in a narrow swell window between Pakistan and the coast of Oman, exposed for a few months of the year during Indian monsoon season. This was a part of Iran that didn’t feature in any travel guides, let alone surf magazines…At first, it was primarily about the waves, like all surf trips -the discovery of waves that maybe no one else had surfed before. But it soon became something much more.

The first trip was captured in a short film by her travelling companion, French filmmaker Marion Poizeau, an effort that she eventually published on YouTube having failed to find a production or TV company to share it. It went viral – MISSION “SURF EN IRAN”! and was the beginning of their adventure, the second time, the story became about connecting with and teaching a local group of Baluch women to surf.

I wanted to understand the challenges and opportunities of being able to do it and how this compared to our notion of surfing as a pursuit that offers a sense of freedom, flow and escapism and how that was translated in the context of somewhere like Iran.

Surfing in Iran Easkey Britton Irish SurferBefore climbing on the surfboards, they would do what in effect were warm up exercises, but not of the traditional sportsman type, they would play in the waves and get a feel for the swell and the breakers, preparing themselves by sensing the sea’s mood, harmonising with each other.

This change of direction, firstly away from the competitive purpose of surfing and even away from the act of discovery and exploration, towards a meaningful exchange, capable of contributing something meaningful to each others lives, is what I was most impressed by, particularly thinking about that in the context of what today is about, empowering women through sharing knowledge.

It was a breakthrough moment for me personally in terms of how my relationship with surfing and my body truly altered and I realized how much more drawn I was to the connective rather than competitive aspects of surfing and the sea.

Joined by Mona Seraji, a snowboarder and Shahla Yasini, a swimmer and diver, this experience would result in the award winning documentary Into The Sea. Through the eyes of these three women, the viewer experiences the journey from a unique and unusual perspective, full of heart and emotion.

Protect the Ocean

The book ends with a message about looking after the ocean and the responsibility we all have to protect our local water sources.

I also enjoyed that there were so many familiar references to other books I’ve read about the sea or the environment, like Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, botanist Robin Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Anne Morrow Lindbherg’s classic Gift From the Sea and many more.

If you like reading books about the sea and particularly from a woman’s perspective, add this one to your list!

Further Reading

Magic Seaweed’s Hannah Bevan Interviews Easkey Britton On the Power of Saltwater Immersion

Oceanographic Magazine: Living By The Tide  by Easkey Britton on Wild Swimming

SilverKris Article, May 2021: The Rise of Sri Lanka’s First Female Surfers by Zinara Rathnayake (with great photos by Tommy Schultz)

Easkey Britton, Author

Saltwater in the Blood Surfing Lighthouse Cottages

Easkey Britton Working On Her Book at Fanad Lighthouse, one of the ‘Great Lighthouses of Ireland’

Easkey Britton is a world renowned surfer, marine social scientist, activist, writer and artist passionate about the sea. She contributes  her expertise in blue spaces , health and social well-being to national and international research projects.

A life-longer surfer, she channels her passion for surfing and the sea into social change.  Her work is deeply influenced by the ocean and the lessons learned pioneering  women’s big wave surfing in Ireland.

She is the author of 50 Things To Do Beside the Sea, has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and is a regular columnist at Oceanographic Magazine. She lives on the West Coast of Ireland with her partner and their dog Wolfie – however a picture she shared two days ago in a rock pool indicates there are twins on the way!

Reading Ireland logo 2022

My Top 5 Irish Fiction & Nonfiction Books

It’s Reading Ireland Month and in addition to posting reviews as and when I read books from my Irish Literature pile, I’ll be following Cathy at 746book’s weekly prompts to explore some past favourites.

This week it’s a Top 5 prompt and I was going to do novels, but many of my all time favourite Irish reads are nonfiction, so I’m sharing both.

week 1 Top 5

Top 5 Irish Fiction

There are more than 5 Irish novels that I have rated 5 star reads, so I’m listing the first five that come to mind, that have stayed with me, below. Click on the title to read my review. So honorable mentions to : the incredible Booker Prize winning Milkman by Anna Burns and Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know, my favourite of the four novels of his I’ve read.

Best Non Fiction Read of 20201. A Ghost In the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa – this was my One Outstanding Read of 2020.  Poet and essayist Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s work of autofiction/essay reflects on history, motherhood, female passions and the elusiveness of time, place and identity. All this, while reading, rereading, thinking about and translating a 200 year old Irish poem she is obsessed with: “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire” by the 18th century noblewoman Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. Somehow she combines this into a fluid, mesmerising text that grabs the reader. Insists. Provokes. Opens Up. Reclaims space. Awakens. Utterly compelling.

“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.”

Sara Baume Ireland Dogs in Literature Literary Fiction2. Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume – I read Baume’s work of nonfiction Handiwork before any of her novels; I remember looking forward to reading this, wondering what her fiction was going to be like. Having now read three of her books it is clear she has become my current favourite Irish author. Using her unique, rhythmic, contemplative style and way of creating character that is so measured and thoughtful, this novel is about a man getting himself into a state after taking on a stray dog and as it complicates his life, escaping with him on a road trip. It is exquisite, playful and surprising.

“I expected it would be exciting;  I expected that the freedom from routine  was somehow greater than the freedom to determine your own routine. I wanted to get up in the morning and not know exactly what I was going to do that day. But now that I don’t, it’s terrifying.”

Irish literary fiction Visual Artist3. A Line Made By Walking by Sara Baume – No surprise then that her second novel is also in my Top 5, a stunning work about a young woman leaving Dublin city to return to her roots. She moves into her grandmother’s empty, neglected ‘for sale’ house, a place of temporary refuge as she deals with an aberration in her mental health.

Visual art is part of her recovery and the novel includes references to over seventy art installations that she tests herself on. Taking quiet charge of her own healing, creating daily purpose, the novel is itself the work of an artist. Brilliant.

“Why must I test myself? Because no one else will, not any more. Now that I am no longer a student of any kind, I must take responsibility for the furniture inside my head. I must slide new drawers into chests and attach new rollers to armchairs. I must maintain the old highboys and sideboards and whatnots. Polish, patch, dust, buff. And, from scratch, I must build new frames and appendages; I must fill the drawers and roll along.”

Michelle Gallen Big Girl Small Town CWIP Prize 20204. Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen – this was a novel I saw being talked about on twitter and bought on a whim, in part because the setting in a fish & chip shop in Northern Ireland reminded me so much of our own funny story (linguistic challenge) in a chip shop in the seaside town of Newcastle in 2019.

Written in a phonetic vernacular that creates a harmonious rhythm, it follows a week in the life of socially awkward but inwardly clear-eyed, 27-year-old Majella who has a list of stuff in her head she doesn’t like and has just learned her 85 year old grandmother may have been murdered. It’s entertaining, kind of sad, funny and  confrontational. Not my usuaI literary fare, but I totally loved it.

“Sometimes Majella thought that she should condense her whole list of things she wasn’t keen on into a single item:  – Other People.”

Hearts Furies5. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne – this novel was on so many reader’s best books list the year it came out, along with an intriguing premise, I was curious.

A heart and soul epic, with a little inspiration from his own life, it is about a boy coming to terms with his identity, exposing aspects of Ireland’s history, juxtaposed with that of the Netherland’s and the US, as Cyril’s life takes him to both those places.

The novel focuses on Cyril’s attempts to survive in a world hostile to his natural inclinations, his experiences highlighting struggles many encountered during those years, unable to live their lives openly and honestly without the fear of rejection or violence.

It is a courageous attempt to show how the way we conform to society and culture’s expectations against our own nature, can be harmful to so many, making us wonder how life might be, if we lived in a more utopian world, where tolerance reigned supreme. Thought provoking and profound.

“A line came into my mind, something that Hannah Arendt once said about the poet Auden: that life had manifested the heart’s invisible furies on his face.”

Top 5 Irish Nonfiction

creative nonfiction bird migration songbirds1. Handiwork by Sara Baume – the book that sparked my interest in the work of visual artist, sculptor and writer Sara Baume, it’s like a notebook, not too many words on each page or chapter, sharing something of her year of sculpting birds. A place for reflections on her experience, observations and insights, connections, including memories of her father and grandfather who also worked with their hands.

Quotes from influential texts she’s known for years offer up additional wisdom as daily she repeats the same rhythm; crafting, sculpting, writing, reading.  Like a songbird, this mini book tweets its tribute to those who craft and create, following an intuitive inclination to fashion one thing out of another using their hands.

“From my Dad I inherited a propensity for handiwork, but also the terrible responsibility, the killing insistence.”

nature writing Wainwright prize2. Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty – Incredibly this book was written by a 15 year old boy with an ability beyond his years, it is a diary of observations of the natural world around him, a place that provides him with a breathing space, a remedy to the way he is in the world.

The book follows the seasons through the senses of this autistic boy, who has a passion for nature and the environment and a family in tune with he and his siblings needs. Deservedly won The Wainwright Prize for UK Nature Writing.

“Many people accuse me of ‘not looking autistic’. I have no idea what that means. I know lots of ‘autistics’ and we all look different. We’re not some recognisable breed. We are human beings. If we’re not out of the ordinary, it’s because we’re fighting to mask our real selves. We’re holding back and holding in. It’s a lot of effort.”

Maggie O'Farrell Memoir Near Death Experiences3. I Am, I Am, I Am – Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell – known for her award winning novel Hamnet, this is O’Farrell’s memoir told through multiple intriguing encounters with death. The opening story is heart-stopping and frightening, deliberately placed to capture attention.

An interesting insight is the awareness of her fearlessness, something that a brush with death seems to bolster, that fortunately motherhood will quell.

“It was not so much that I didn’t value my existence but more that I had an insatiable desire to push myself to embrace all that it could offer. Nearly losing my life at the age of eight made me sanguine – perhaps to a fault – about death. I knew it would happen, at some point, and the idea didn’t scare me; its proximity felt instead almost familiar. The knowledge that I was lucky to be alive, that it so easily could have been otherwise, skewed my thinking.”

constellations-sinead-gleeson4. Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson – In her Reflections on Life, Gleeson writes essays, using parts of the body to structure the narrative, a body containing metal like constellations of stars that front each chapter.

Her essays share the struggles, shame, hopes and disappointments, of bones, of blood, of hair, of children, of grief.  They bear witness to a deteriorating mind,  experiences that seem like weakness, that have contributed to moulding a psyche of great strength and perseverance. An activist. A voice. A woman standing in the light, seen, heard, inspiring others.

Kahlo, Grealy and Spence were lights in the dark for me, a form of guidance. A triangular constellation. To me, they showed that it was possible to live a parallel creative life, one that overshadows the patient life, nudging it off centre stage…That in taking all the pieces of the self, fractured by surgery, there is a rearrangement: making wounds the source of inspiration, not the end of it.”

affair with mother5. An Affair With My Mother by Caitriona Palmer – an incredible adoption memoir written by an Irish journalist now living in the US, who has an experience in her mid twenties common to many adoptees, often referred to as “coming out of the fog”, when they realise that despite a happy childhood and apparent lack of effect of the trauma of relinquishment – something isn’t quite right. It’s a crisis that often results in them seeking to understand their identity, to know who they are, not who they were raised to be.

Palmer finds and meets her birth mother in Ireland, initially it is a positive experience, but the continued shame and fear of the mother, and her insistence on their connection remaining secret, compromises the connection.

In addition to sharing her story Palmer digs deep into the history of adoption in Ireland, researching archives and interviewing those affected. It’s an affecting, intimate account of real lives that continue to be impacted today, a cruel legacy of church and state judging and shaming young women, punishing innocent children.

“What I didn’t understand was that that primary loss impacted me, it did change me, I’m still grieving her. Despite my wonderful happy life, amazing husband and children… I’m internally grieving, this woman, this ghost, that’s a love that I’ll never regain in a way, memoir is an attempt to grasp at that.

I wanted people to know you can grow up happily adopted and still have this hole, I always feel like there is a hole deep down inside of me that I can’t quite fill, in spite of the abundance of love that surrounds me, this primary loss is profound.”

Next Week: My Year In Irish Lit!