BOOKS: Don’t mention the war: why should writers not tackle the Troubles?

Sharon Dempsey takes issue with Rosemary Jenkinson’s criticism of fellow authors 

Whatever you say, say nothing – the old refrain we lived by and were silenced by is still being brandished, except this time, it’s by a writer. During the Troubles we were afraid of giving too much away. The silence laced with paranoia lingered. Old habits are hard to shake but gradually with the passing of time and distance writers have been reclaiming the past and finding new insights.

Writing in Fortnight, Rosemary Jenkinson asks, “Why is Northern Irish literature feasting on the dead corpse of the Troubles more than ever?” Writers, she argues, find it as hard to move on from the past as our politicians.

During the late eighties and early nineties, I spent many an afternoon working in Fortnight, while I was a student at Queen’s University. One of my tasks was to compile the diary pages, which so often felt like a roll call of the dead. Entry after entry, detailing in the starkest of language, those who had been killed, or maimed by political violence.

The magazine was renowned, especially under Robin Wilson’s editorship, for placing its journalism at the intersection between politics, culture and the arts in Northern Ireland. For Jenkinson to call into question the role of the artist in harking back to the Troubles, within the pages of a publication that did much to allow the realms of politics and art to sit together, is particularly galling.

Jenkinson cites the Decade of Centenaries commemorative programme as one of the reasons for our retrogression and says writers feel pressure to fulfil expectations from a press that expects such Troubles-imbued copy. The irony of this is that for so long the mainstream media wanted nothing from Northern Irish writers beyond the abject horror of political violence.

The lived experience, the nuances of being a teenage girl being scoped out down the sight of a soldier’s gun, had no place in the pages of newspapers detailing the masculine mechanics of political conflict. No, the teenage girl had to wait until 2018 for Anna Burns to perfectly capture that surveillance and threat in her Booker Prize winning work, Milkman.

Journalist Lyra McKee’s death is proof that The Troubles haven’t gone away in Ireland.

Jenkinson reproaches Northern Irish writers as cannibalising each other’s work, as if we are always looking inward. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Check out any one of our many arts festivals to find well-attended events for writers of all nationalities, races and creeds. Northern Irish writers will be there in the audience, willing participants, engaging with ideas and ideologies beyond our own shores.

The writer also takes exception to Northern Irish memoirists who, she claims, “are now exporting their trauma worldwide, converting PTSD into GBP”. This feels like a cynical dig, when it is clear that the impact of the conflict remains and affects communities and the generation who have only lived through the uneasy peace.

To pretend otherwise is to deny the complex nature of how trauma works and affects the psyche. Northern Irish people experience 20-25 per cent higher levels of mental health illness when compared to the rest of the UK, with around one in five adults reporting a diagnosable mental health condition at any given time. Research suggests these figures relate directly to Northern Ireland being a post-conflict society. For some, the Troubles have never gone away. Poor mental health affects entire families and communities with a cyclical nature of transmission.

For decades now, crime writers from this region have been fighting against a cultural genocide that denies our expression of how we have been affected by the Troubles. London-centric publishers felt that there was no appetite for Northern Irish-set fiction. Early exponents of Northern Irish crime fiction such as Colin Bateman, Eoin McNamee and Adrian McKinty proved them wrong.

Sure, readership may have been limited initially but that’s the point. It is only now that we are ready to fully tell these tales and experience them as readers. Jenkinson takes a swipe at those, including playwright Jez Butterworth, who she says perpetuate the idea that the Northern Irish story is a Troubles-based narrative. Whatever you do, don’t mention the war.

I suspect Rosemary Jenkinson is acting as the provocateur, but still, it has to be said, if we in Northern Ireland don’t write about our recent history, then who will?

Democrat editor Bill Heaney covering The Troubles in Belfast interviewing local soldier Tom Healy.

  • Who Took Eden Mulligan? is Sharon Dempsey’s latest novel available on line and at good bookshops.

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