Stories waiting and aching to be told

Looking back on last year’s Galle Literary Festival, Stephen Prins recounts his meeting with the distinguished Irish novelist, Edna O’Brien

Edna O’Brien, the distinguished Irish novelist, is feeling the heat. It is a scorching Monday afternoon inside the Dutch Fort in Galle. We are seated in the lobby of the Amangalla hotel. The Fort feels quiet and deserted after the bustle and excitements of the Galle Literary Festival 2009, which came to a close the previous day.

A ceiling fan is blowing not far from us, but Ms. O’Brien feels the need for her own fan, which she waves in front of her face as she talks. The weather must be overwhelming for someone who has flown out of a freezing Irish winter straight into the open oven of a Sri Lankan afternoon. Weather apart, the writer has been making generous compliments about her host country. She is visiting Sri Lanka for the first time, as one of the VIP guests of the six-day festival.

When Irish eyes are smiling: Edna O’Brien autographing her books at the Galle Literary Festival 2009. Photo by Dominic Sansoni/Three Blind Men

It was Ms. O’Brien who chose the day, February 2 (a serendipitously significant date, as it turned out), for our meeting. We had spoken to her briefly the day before, at The Lighthouse hotel, where the festival had climaxed in a blaze of brilliance, first with a coruscating speech about the male of the species given by the formidable feminist Germaine Greer, and then with a grand buffet lunch given by the organisers for the festival guests and participants.

Ms. O’Brien had cut an impressive and dramatic figure all through the festival, and we were keen to meet her. We were ushered to her table where she was seated between local short story writer Ashok Ferrey and Germaine Greer. They were in the middle of a post-lunch conversation when we excused ourselves, leaned over and asked Ms. O’Brien if she would be good enough to give us a bit of her time. She graciously said she would be happy to meet us the next day,.

Waving her fan, Ms. O’Brien talks about Ireland and Sri Lanka, territories that may be worlds apart but do have a few things in common: both are islands, both are of comparable dimensions (Ireland is 70,280 square kilometres in size, Sri Lanka, 65,610 sq km) and both have an ancient and recent history of civil, inter-communal conflict.

Sri Lanka is heaving, exploding and bleeding up in the North even as we chat here, under a fan, in peaceful, silent Galle. The war is in its final stage. The Army is closing in on the rebels, who have made their last stand on a shrinking patch of land and lagoon on the East coast. The casualty rate on both sides is frightening and profoundly distressing. Meanwhile, thousands of starving and wounded civilians are streaming out of the conflict zone and into “safe” areas. The war is a constant crackle and hum in the background for all of us, X number of miles from the scene of the fighting. No amount of Smart Lit Talk or small talk can muffle the disturbing distant sounds.

We are talking about the hundreds, nay thousands, of stories the war experience could potentially give birth to, stories of heartbreak, separation, division, loss, and unspeakable suffering.

“What is important for writers,” Ms. O’Brien says, “is not to ignore the history, past or present, of your country. Not to sweep it, as the cliché goes, under the carpet. You have to be conscious of it. When the writer sets out to write about this country, he or she should give the story an actual locale, a reality, as well as a mythic reality. To lift a story from a newspaper article and raise it to the level of a work of fiction is to make it last for all time.

“Most writers who aspire to write about their countries at war take a story of suffering. Take what is happening in the North of your country. As we read in the newspapers, both sides, the LTTE and the government troops, are fiercely fighting each other, while there are these God’s lost people trapped in between. I know about the war from my brief reading while I have been here and from what I have been reading before, and it is a terrible, hateful thing to behold. The war itself is a tragedy. And within that overall tragedy there are all the other little constituents.

“There are writers, like Tolstoy with “War and Peace”, who have the most amazing grasp of things military, of everything. What Tolstoy caught was the emotional and historical truth, and the drama of it. I am sure that there are many writers in this country who know the land and its ins and outs, the rights and the wrongs, and the ambiguities (there are always the ambiguities in what the newspapers report). I am sure all this will be written of.”

As a novelist and as a personality, Ms. O’Brien has gone down extremely well with the Galle festival audiences. In a solo stage appearance on Saturday at the Hall de Galle, she offers spontaneous thoughts on the writing life. The softly inflected, dramatically hushed, Irish voice is the voice of a born storyteller. She talked about her own genesis as a writer, and how the Christmas dinner scene in fellow Irish writer James Joyce’s novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” came to her like a revelation. An epiphany.

Ms. O’ Brien is happy to talk about things she has often spoken about before, about her umbilical attachment to Ireland (“one’s roots are one’s roots”), about how her books were banned and burnt in Ireland, and about the importance of raising fictional prose to the level of poetry.

“More than once I have said that great prose is poetry. In fact, a lot of great writing is poetry, and we are all striving. I think a novel’s language should be disciplined, constrained and yet able to soar. Give the word wings. Fiction, by which I mean prose or novels, should also be poetry. And by poetry we mean not just a rhythm and a metre but also an excellence and an obsession with words themselves. Each word should justify its existence in the sequence of words. Underneath the words must burn a light of excellence. The rhythm of the work is like the music of poetry. But also the words should not be tired, clichéd, as you get in a lot of contemporary fiction. These writers are saying, if you will forgive my saying so, that they are not in love with language. But it is the language is what makes a work different.” Our hour with Ms. O’Brien is drawing to a close. Though frayed by the heat, Ms. O’Brien has clearly enjoyed her time in Sri Lanka.

“I have been to literary festivals, as I have been out here, and I think they are a good thing,” she says. “In fact, I think a literary festival is a great thing. It encourages readers, it brings together writers from different latitudes and longitudes, different countries and different sensibilities, and it opens our eyes, culturally and politically. And to everything. People talk about literary festivals and say, oh, it’s a lot of people going to parties – I’ve been to a few parties, and why not? But what it does is that it brings people together, and therefore, out of it, something good must come.”

Ms. O’Brien has been talking steadily all of the past hour. Her voice flows musically, rather like that of the female narrator, we like to imagine, in Ms. O’Brien’s 1972 novel “Night”, the book we have brought along to be autographed by the author. “Night” is a monologue, an outpouring of words from an Irish woman, Mary Hooligan, who spends the night talking to herself. When the book came out as a paperback, it had a striking cover showing a woman’s sleeping head in profile, filaments of blonde hair blowing about her face, against a midnight black backdrop. There was also a quote on the cover from the writer John Updike, who described the novel as “brilliant and beautiful”.

As Ms O’Brien writes an inscription in the book, we point to the Updike blurb and tell her it was the American novelist and critic who had originally alerted us that Edna O’Brien was a writer to look out for. She had not heard the news about Updike, who had died just six days earlier, the day before the Galle festival opened.

“By the way, today is a special day,” Ms. O’Brien says, handing “Night” back to us. On the title page of the book she has written, “February 2, James Joyce’s Birthday. To –, who also loves James Joyce.”
“Today is also Candlemas Day, also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin,” the writer says with a smile.

We say goodbye and leave the Galle Fort, satisfied that the hour, filled with literary insights and wisdom, was well spent.

Ms. O’Brien has given a large number of festival visitors something precious to take back with them, leaving with us a memory that will glint with bright, lasting elements, both brilliant and beautiful.

Second thoughts (Very short stories by ASH Smyth (et al.))

In the spirit of the Galle Literary Festival’s Opening Lines Project, ASH Smyth rises (briefly) to the challenge of completing stories begun by twelve Festival authors.

Antony Beevor
In history, as in politics, intellectual honesty is the first casualty of moral outrage. In both disciplines, the first casualty of intellectual honesty is one’s wallet.

David Blacker
‘He hit the morning, running, Benzedrine and ginger beer -- more wakeup per millilitre than the most hardcore coffee -- getting his tired a--e out of the sack and into the trees.’ As the sun rose, the exhausted editor, eyes jacked open with several pints of the most hard-core coffee, restored the ‘e’ and ‘r’ to their rightful positions, and silently removed the superfluous comma.

Gillian Slovo
Although he had forgotten his own name, he knew a table when he saw one. Alas, he had also misplaced the word for ‘table’ – so his smugness was short-lived.

Ian Rankin
As Joe unlocked his car, he saw that there was something lying on the driver's seat, something he definitely hadn't left there. “I do not appreciate this,” snapped his fictional alter ego, the knife protruding from the small of his back.

Lal Medawattegedara
‘Even the clock, I sincerely suspected, was a conspirator: there was a deliberate withholding of every “tick” that denoted a second, and the resulting tension reminded me of my brother on his death bed minutes before his life ebbed away.’ I put down my pen and glanced across to check that he was still breathing.

Louise Doughty
My father's funeral took place in great secrecy – he was buried under the cover of darkness and the only attendees, apart from myself, were the cleaner who had looked after him in his last days and a man from the Ministry who identified himself only as “a very old friend”. “Best not tell anyone about this,” he said.

Michelle de Kretser
She said they had a choice. She lied.

Rana Dasgupta
When you broke it down, he thought, life was mainly about moving things from one place to another. (The removals business was slow this time of year, and Barry had plenty of time to think.)

Shehan Karunatilaka
He woke up in a pile of vomit. A preliminary taste-test confirmed that it was not, alas, his own.

The writers of the winning Opening Lines entries will read their stories at the Maritime Museum on January 30 at 10 a.m. Event moderated by poet Hasini Haputhanthri. Entrance free.

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