Leaving behind “sad potato fiction”: Sinéad Gleeson on prose and politics

Leaving behind “sad potato fiction”: Sinéad Gleeson on prose and politics
by Eimer McAULEY
24 March 2021

Sinead Gleeson and Jan Carson discussed how anthologies are radically reshaping the Irish canon and why Irish writers are leaving “sad potato fiction” behind. 

Jan Carson and Sinead Gleeson would ideally be discussing “Prose and Politics” in a crammed Belfast bookshop whilst drinking cheap white wine. Be that as it may, this virtual discussion for the Imagine! Festival on how the canon of Irish writing is being radically reshaped was thoroughly entertaining and asked provocative questions about the future of Irish writing.

Jan Carson, East Belfast writer and community arts facilitator, kicked things off by asking Sinead Gleeson, who recently selected 100 Irish short stories for the anthology, The Art of the Glimpse, how she chose which stories made the cut.

Gleeson, who is also a writer and freelance broadcaster, explained that putting together an anthology is an act of “literary archaeology”, and that when selecting material old and new she was determined to present a new view of Irish writing.

Gleeson’s previous anthologies, The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore, achieve this feat by focusing exclusively on the work of Irish and Northern Irish women writers, respectively.

“In The Art of the Glimpse, I wanted to bring back writers who deserve greater acclaim and whose work should be more revered and widely read, who maybe because of personal circumstances in their lifetime or a lack of financial support have become forgotten about,” Gleeson said.

Norah Hoult’s story about sex work, “Nine years is a long time”, written in the 19th century and banned from publication at the time, is the perfect example of Gleeson’s approach.

“Norah only died in 1984 and she has a huge volume of work — 26 books —  yet no one has been talking about her for a long time. I found her and included her work in The Long Gaze Back,” Gleeson explained. She has since written a foreword to a republication of Norah’s work, proving that, as she put it, “anthologies have the power to resurrect authors from the dead”.

Gleeson told Carson how elsewhere she took quietly subversive editorial decisions, such as including a version of Brendan Behan’s “After the Wake” with an alternative ending:

“Brendan Behan at the time was not openly bisexual, and this version is a queer love story. He panicked when he thought it was going to be published in Ireland; previously it had been published in France… it’s the more beautiful version”.

Carson argues that the short story is a particularly celebrated form in Ireland, she said that in her experience, “in Ireland if you tell people you’re a novelist they will say, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why haven’t you mastered the short story?’”

Gleeson pointed out that the traditional Irish seanchaí would tell a 20-minute story, which is roughly the length of a short story,  so the form is embedded in how Irish people communicate.

“Being able to write a good short story is the mark of a great writer. They are so much harder to write than novels because of their brevity and rules. We are good at them here and we like to show off that we are,” she elaborated.

Gleeson thinks that just as the reception that the short story gets in Ireland has changed, with the form enjoying a boom here,  so too has the definition of what counts as ‘Irish’:

“So much new work is hard to place as Irish unless some place name or turn of language gives it away. The lines between nation and identity have changed, and we are seeing the emergence of Polish-Irish writers and Nigerian-Irish writers, which really interests me.

“It’s not the case that Irish stories need to feature a priest or alcoholic anymore,” Gleeson determined. “We are moving away from sad potato fiction,” Carson added laughingly.

Carson asked Gleeson why she thinks her award-winning essay collection Constellations has struck such a deep chord with readers — it is now being translated into several languages.

Gleeson, who writes about her experience of living with monoarticular arthritis in the book, says it’s in part because she writes about grief, illness and disability and grappling with mortality: “They aren’t necessarily the sexy, cool things to write about, but they are things many people go through and so they can see themselves in it. A lot of people felt represented who hadn’t been represented before.”

You can find Jan Carson and Sinead Gleeson’s full Prose and Politics and discussion on the Imagine! Belfast YouTube page, where they discuss all this and much more. And with any luck, in the near future you can hear them speaking in a crammed bookshop, drinking cheap white wine.

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