News · 02/26/2011

Writer In Residence, March 2011

A few months back Ethel Rohan attended a reading by Roddy Doyle in San Francisco and afterward wrote on her blog,

I left reminded that in many ways my MFA chipped away at my Irish voice. So many workshops where I heard again and again “readers outside Ireland aren’t going to get that…” Whatever happened to all those stories and characters? I’m going to go back and find out. I have the courage now, the faith in readers, to write about the regional and trust that it will be universal. That it will be got.

It caught my attention because one of the first things I recall reading by Ethel was a story she posted at Fictionaut (I think that’s where it was) about a woman attending her going away party before leaving Ireland for the United States. At the time, I told Ethel the story — eventually published at Guernica as “Flight” — felt like the seed of a novel to me, because there was so much potential and tension packed into such a short piece, and the impetus of a woman about to trade one life for another it seemed like a natural place to start a long story. An Irish story. So I was surprised when Ethel said she’d lost her “Irish voice.” And so I asked her to spend a month as NF’s Writer In Residence exploring that voice however she liked. Because, as she told,

My Irish-ness, my Dublin-ness is my essence. I wouldn’t be me without it. That Irish essence is present in every word I write, every story I tell, albeit for the most part subvert.

A voice being lost and essential at once might seem contradictory, but as Ethel said in an interview with JMWW, separation and loss are at the heart of her fiction. So why not the loss of a voice defining her voice? And hasn’t so much of Irish history and art been defined by separation from the culture that gives it definition? Not to mention how that duality of the real and the imagined has defined (and distorted) Irish American images of the “Auld Sod” — something Rohan explores so potently in one of my personal favorites, her story “The Trip,” which Mel Bosworth calls “particularly heartbreaking because it invites us to laugh at times, even if uncomfortably.” And maybe that, too, laughing in the face of discomfort, is something crucially Irish… or perhaps just crucial to my stereotypes of Irishness… or…

But I’d probably stop before I get out of my depth on all that and plain embarass myself.

Suffice it to say I’m a big fan of Ethel’s, having published more than one of her stories at NF in the past. And I’m clearly not her only fan, because her terrific collection Cut Through The Bone (Dark Sky Books) was longlisted for the 2010 Story Prize. Richard Thomas wrote in his review at The Nervous Breakdown,

Ethel Rohan has a gift for boiling down her prose to only the essential details, compressing her settings, emotions, and stories into a narrative that while only pages long, hints at so much more, the tip of the literary iceberg buried under the surface, threatening to cause more damage — unseen but still there, lurking, expanding while it ripples the surface, threatening to pull you under.

She has a gift, then, for making her stories simultaneously about what is hidden and what is seen, what has been lost and what is “lurking” and about to be found if not quite in the way we’d rather find it. But I know for certain that whatever she’s found to share with us this month, I can’t wait to see what it is.