Postcard Stories by Jan Carson

Epistolary Treasures

Jan Carson Author Northern Ireland FictionI just love the concept of these works of flash fiction, postcard size stories, that have a geographic connection to a street or location in Northern Ireland, that originated as a story written on the back of a postcard – an alternative restriction to the usual one when writing flash fiction, of keeping it to 100 -150 words – and that the postcard was both sent and retained, a gift and an accumulated collection.

This not quite Ireland proper/ is not the Mainland/ is certainly not Europe in the Continental sense.

When I first picked it up, a little while ago now, I looked at the contents and went to read a few entries from the locations that were familiar to me, Belfast International Airport, Newtownards Road, Holywood Road, Linenhall Street, Holywood, Ormeau Road, but of course that was me thinking of my own story, so it didn’t make much sense. I was looking for something that wasn’t there.

Removing Expectations

So now I read it again, this time from the beginning and just allow it to tell me its own story, its bite sized exercise in writing, the awakening of imagination, the sharing of the craft, its way of thinking of others while being in the act of creation.

The book is thoughtfully illustrated by Benjamin Phillips. You can view the images from the book via the link provided through his name. They are truly evocative.

Postcard Stories Jan Carson Ireland

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

I read, am entertained and wonder what it must have been like to receive one of these. Is there a connection between the story and the recipient, is it random, did they reply, did they understand the motivation of the author, did it matter? How did you get to be one of the recipients? Does she really have that many friends whose addresses she knows, a database perhaps, or is the postcard sending a fiction in itself?

Here she is practicing using the second person narrative voice from Week 6, February 5th, 2015, Cathedral Quarter, Belfast from a postcard sent to Claire Buswell.

When you were seven years old you threw a dart at a black-haired girl, running away in the garden. The dart lodged and stuck just below her shoulder blade. She fell forward in the grass. The flight on the dart was red and black and white. These were also the colours of the duvet cover in your parents’ bedroom. This was the 80’s. Afterwards the dart came away clean as needles. No harm done. You did not tell and neither did she.

I’ve read Jan Carson’s novel The Fire Starters, I know she is a fan of absurdist fiction. I also know that she works in the community arts sector and has taught creative writing skills to people to help build empathy, using storytelling to show how we can imagine being in the shoes of another. I remember being reassured by this knowledge, because the protagonist in her novel completely lacks empathy, and that is a frightening thing.

Cafés and Markets, Happiness or Disappointment

Susan Picken receives Week 45’s November story from Victoria Square, Belfast:

‘If your drink doesn’t make you happy, we’ll make you another,’ I read aloud, pointing to the sign above the barista’s head. It’s been there, right behind him, with the toastie machine and the coffee syrups, for so long now that he’s forgotten all about it.

melancholy free coffee happy unhappyIt turns out there are only so many free coffees a person can drink before realising a hot beverage cannot cure loneliness, grief or melancholy.

The collection ends in Week 52  at St George’s Market on a sorrowful note, that makes me think I ought to take my own aromatherapy potions to the Christmas market, offering an antidote to the melancholy nature of some of this population.

Every year during the month leading up to Christmas, Eleanor takes a stall at St George’s Market and sells disappointment in small, hand-made bottles…She stocks any number of different disappointments: the disappointment of an unsupportive parent, the disappointment of a homely child, the disappointment of being alone or not nearly alone enough, the disappointment of cats, good wine, box sets and religion, the dry disappointment of Christmas Day evening which is easily the most popular product on her stall.

I have Postcard Stories 2, so I will be hoping that perhaps, as we wander more streets in the year that followed Postcard Stories, there might be reason for more optimism and perhaps we might learn how to get on the postcard list.

Further Reading

Irish Times Interview: Jan Carson – girl from the north country by Ruth McKee

Jan Carson, Author

Northern Ireland Author Fiction

Jan Carson by ©Jonathan Ryder

Jan Carson is a writer and community arts facilitator based in Belfast. Her debut novel Malcom Orange Disappears (2014) was published to critical acclaim, followed by a short-story collection, Children’s Children (2016), and two flash fiction anthologies Postcard Stories (2017) and Postcard Stories 2 (2020).

Her second novel The Fire Starters (2019) translated into French by Dominique Goy-Blanquet as Les Lanceurs de Feu, won the EU Prize for Literature, was shortlisted for two prestigious French literary awards the Prix Femina and Prix Médicis in 2021 and was also shortlisted for the Dalkey Novel of the Year Award.

The most recent book The Last Resort, a collection of ten linked short stories set in a fictional caravan park, was published in April 2021.

Her work has appeared in numerous journals and on BBC Radio 3 & 4. She runs arts projects and events with older people especially those living with dementia.

The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

Having recently read another novel without realising it was of the gothic genre, I think I’ve gone and done it again, this time, a contemporary Belfast gothic novel, because right from the first chapter, there is the overwhelming sense of something sinister going to happen, and it’s not the series of summer fires that are plaguing the city though they are equally troubling. I discovered having finished the book that Jan Carson is also a fan of absurdist fiction. Another clue.

Contemporary Irish Fiction Empathy EU Prize for LiteratureIn that first chapter we meet a father, Jonathan, who has a strange perception of his baby daughter, who he is caring for alone. He desperately wants to care for her, but he feels that part of his role in doing that is to remove the aspect of her that she has inherited from her mother, who he believes is a siren.

His own childhood was one of being provided for, but unloved, his parents (who never wanted children or grandchildren) abandoning him at the age of 16 to a boarding school, leaving the country. He becomes a Doctor, and of no surprise, lacks any form of empathy.

We meet Sammy, also a father, an ex loyalist paramilitary, who is becoming increasingly anxious, having reason to suspect that his son Mark, who lives in their attic and rarely comes out, may be involved in sinister activities, fearing he has inherited his own thirst for violence, a tendency he had no control over in youth and even today, has to quell the feeling inside.

I found the depictions of both these men terrifying, both are planning some kind of intervention and up until the last pages, we can’t quite believe that they may follow through, and they too wrestle with their instinct and question, whether they ought to proceed.

Then there is the background of a hot summer and the approach of the Orange parades of the Eleventh Night on every 12th of July, an Ulster Protestant tradition where large, towering bonfires are lit, accompanied by street parties and loyalist marching bands.

The bonfires are lit to celebrate (1688) the victory of Protestant King William (Billy) of Orange over Catholic king James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690), which began the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. – Wikipedia

When the rain finally arrives, people begin to smile, there are fewer angry people on the streets, they no longer have the numbers for a decent riot, the air of festivity is extinguished. Protesting soon makes way for the football season.

This is how it has been in Belfast every summer since the Agreement. The same hot anger rises at the end of June and and goes stamping up and down the little streets. Stamping and shouting and raising Cain all the way through July until, by August’s end, the energy’s gone right out of it.

My Truth is Not Your Truth

And the various versions and perceptions of truth and history that exist, depending on who is doing the telling, where they live, what day it is, demonstrated in this opening chapter This is Belfast.

This is Belfast. This is not Belfast.
Better to avoid calling anything a spade in this city. Better to avoid names and places, dates and second names. In this city names are like points on a map or words worked in ink. They are trying too hard to pass for truth. In this city truth is a circle from one side and a square from the other. It is possible to go blind staring at the shape of it. Even now, sixteen years after the Troubles, it is much safer to stand back and say with conviction, ‘It all looks the same to me.’

And following this are two paragraphs, one that begins with ‘The Troubles are over now’ and the other begins with ‘The Troubles have only just begun.’

Deidre Sullivan Tangleweed and Brine Jan Carson The Fire Starters

Sirens from Deidre Sullivan’s Tangleweed and Brine

Jonathan (Dr Murray) is obsessed with silencing his daughter, and even employs a deaf nanny to look after her. She is a loving, nurturing soul, providing one of the few notes of relief in an otherwise tense narrative, as these men ponder their responsibility as fathers and fear of what their children may become.

There is a third brief narrative, an omniscient voice that shares the story of a few of the Unfortunate Children of Belfast, children of parents who belong to a support group, that Jonathan attends once, they are children born with deformities and powers and it is here, that I realise there is an element of magic realism in this tale, that perhaps his perception of his daughter as a siren isn’t an aspect of his own mental health problem.

The novel is a blend of politically charged social and magic realism, though it feels realistic in its reading; dealing with the trauma of legacy’s, a parent’s legacy to a child and the community’s complicated legacy of the political troubles of Northern Ireland. It is set in East Belfast, where the author lives and from listening to the interview, I learn that she is an accomplished eavesdropper, that many of the words in these pages have been inspired by overheard conversations.

On Developing Empathy for Those Living Segregated Lives

Interested to understand the motivation behind the novel, I listened to an excellent interview with Nicky Bull in which she shares something of her role as a community arts facilitator and the role this can play in healing rifts, bringing people together, using the creative process to help develop empathy, she talks about the ability of storytelling to help develop this.

The community arts sector in Northern Ireland has played a huge role in the peace and reconciliation process. Primarily it brings people from both communities together into a shared space but I also think it has also taught people soft skills that have been missing from Northern Irish culture.

It’s very, very hard for people here to practice empathy because quite often we grow up segregated, so how are you supposed to understand what life is like if you don’t have any friends who aren’t from the same background as you, the skill system is still largely segregated,and government housing and things.

So these conversations around learning how to empathise, which I think the creative act, particularly writing fiction, you’re putting yourself in the shoes of another character, even when you read, it’s an act of empathy, those skills can be taught and then transferred into the social realms that we’re working in Northern Ireland at the moment, that people can imagine a life that isn’t theirs, it’s much more difficult to hate and to segregate when you have the ability to empathise with other people.

It’s an incredible and deeply disturbing novel, yet despite the discomfort I learned a lot from reading it and especially from taking the opportunity to listen to the author speak, that helped me understand the motivation behind it and that incredible candour around the very real problem of how the creation of segregated community’s causes a lack empathy and how the creative arts can help provide a practical humanist solution.

It’s Saint Patrick’s Day and #ReadingIrelandMonth21, have you read a good Irish book this month?

Summer Reads

I’m not one for compiling lists of what I am going to read ahead of time, because I value too much the freedom and spontaneity of a vast sea of choices each time I finish a book, and often the reading experience will lead me on to the next thing.

Like reading Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Prodigal Summer’ straight after ‘The Namesake’. How could I know that after listening to the group discussing the book I would have a conversation with a local poet about the beauty of sentences and Jhumpa Lahiri’s essay and that she would tell me I must read Kingsolver’s book.  It was sitting on the shelf unread and thus I abandoned all other reading ideas and jumped straight into it.

100 years on, Titanic Belfast Museum

But I do love looking at the lists, always feeding into the mental TBR list, noting books I might wish to read or to keep an eye out for.

I could say I have intentions for summer, like the two Titanic inspired books I bought on a recent visit to Titanic Belfast, the excellent museum opened in March this year.

‘A Night to Remember’ and ‘And the Band Played On’ also seem appropriate companions to Charlotte Rogan’s ‘The Lifeboat’ which I have on kindle.

To help you decide, I wanted to share this excellent flowchart designed by Teach.com to encourage students to find a book of their choice, there are 101 books shown, inviting readers to consider fiction versus non-fiction, classic or contemporary and many other options.  I keep coming across it and there’s something appealing about viewing images of covers rather than just a list of titles, so enjoy and I hope you find something for your own summer read!

 

So do you plan your reads or are you open to the spontaneous?
Summer Reading Flowchart

Via Teach.com and USC Rossier Online