Feb 10, 2011

Imagine Ireland: Colm Tóibín at NYPL

I was lucky enough to sit in on a lively and inspiring conversation with Colm Tóibín and Paul Holdengraber at the New York Public Library last week, as part of Imagine Ireland—Culture Ireland’s Year of Irish Arts in America.

Tóibín discussed his new collection of short stories, The Empty Family, and its themes of awayness,  exile, missing, longing, and regret. With Holdengraber's  precise nudges, Tóibín talked about his methods (living with phrases after writing a novel, writing in longhand and then typing, never taking notes, writing in rented spaces); the bud of some of his stories (a letter from Lady Gregory to John Quinn, a mention years ago of a woman who came back from the States to Ireland and by chance met the widow of her ex-lover); and his thoughts on finishing things, not winning a Booker Prize, and wanting to make a reader shiver at the pressure point of a story.

When asked by Holdegraber if—like Colum McCann—Tóibín sees himself as an "international mongrel" or a "citizen of his own imagined elsewhere," he was almost annoyed, replying "No! I'm from Enniscorthy Co. Wexford." Three of his grandparents were born in his town, and "all of us are buried there ... I have a little space for myself when the time comes." He described the tension between being from there and not living there as being nourishing in one way but in another way sort of damaging, but said that in the end "there isn't anything else ... that's where I'm from."

In the opening story “Silence,” based on an incident Henry James recorded in his journal,  Lady Gregory tells Henry James a confessional story of a long-ago love affair. In “One Minus One,” a monologue addressed to a former lover, the narrator recalls a time when he was plucked from his promising new life in Manhattan to return to his old life in Ireland, where his mother was dying. In "The New Spain" a woman returns home after a decade in exile and  shatters the peace her family have forged in the post-Franco world.

Anyone who has ever lived away from home will associate with the gap, or space, between here and there—where you live and where you're from/now and then—as explored in The Empty Family. I read the short story "Two Women" on the train last night, and felt myself shiver at the protagonist's excitement before boarding a plane to return to Ireland and her almost immediate disappointment upon landing. I  was suddenly acutely aware of how going "home" in a few weeks has me both steeling and softening myself in anticipation. I love to go home, but it is never the same. I am an outsider and an insider, a tourist and a local. No matter how hard I try to show people that I haven't changed, they love to point out how I have. As an emigrant, I am now relegated to that gap between here and there—the Atlantic Ocean.

Culture Ireland and Imagine Ireland has an amazing schedule of events happening across the United States this year to promote the best of what's happening in Irish arts now, and to celebrate the cultural connection—and ocean between—Ireland and the US.
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Buy Colm Tóibín's The Empty Family



Great post, J.
Isn't Colm Tóibín the most brilliant raconteur? You could ask him anything and he would wax for hours. Love him.

Jacinta said...

Yes, love him too! At one point, when asked about his family he said that he never talks about himself—you'd have to take him to a pub after the event and ply him with drink and then about 4am he'd start talking. Wouldn't you love to be there at 4am? Anyway, speaking of brilliance—when is Imagine Ireland getting you on tour here? LOVE LOVE your book!

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