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New Shores, New Horizons: Sinéad Gleeson

Photo credit: Ger Holland

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TRYING to label Sinéad Gleeson is an almost impossible task. Indeed, she is at once a journalist, broadcaster, writer, critic and editor. All of these labels, though, are only professional titles and, from speaking to Gleeson on the phone, one instantly realises that she is far more personable than that. She is at once warm, friendly, intensely passionate and startlingly intelligent. Despite only a handful of encounters with her in the past, talking with her feels like a good catch-up between friends. There is, as it happens, a tremendous amount to catch up on.

I last met Gleeson just over a month ago, upstairs in Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street, at the launch of The Glass Shore. Collected and edited by Gleeson, The Glass Shore is an anthology of short stories by women writers from the North of Ireland. The night was a great success, with impassioned speeches delivered by literary giants Anne Enright, Evelyn Conlon, and Martina Devlin.

Since then, Gleeson has been up and down the country, as well as overseas, promoting the book and taking part in panel discussions. She continues to present The Book Show on RTÉ Radio 1 and, just last week, managed to pick up a nomination for Best Irish-published Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards 2016.

The nomination comes as somewhat of a surprise to Gleeson. To others, however, it seems almost inevitable. Indeed, Elizabeth Day, writing for The Irish Times said that “it is one of the most thought-provoking collections of stories I’ve read in a long while.” Likewise, Stellar magazine listed it as their Book of the Month for October. Gleeson, however, remains humble. “I didn’t expect it,” she admits, “Obviously The Long Gaze Back won last year so I just thought. ‘Oh, it’ll be someone else’s turn.’ I wouldn’t expect to win again; I’d be very surprised. It’s lovely to be on there. It’s a really nice nod to get.”

The Long Gaze Back, which Gleeson has just mentioned, is her previous anthology. Published just over twelve months ago, the collection, this time featuring short stories by women writers from around the country, scooped the same award at last year’s ceremony.

“If someone had told me this time last year, ‘Oh, you’ll have another anthology out!’, I would’ve jumped down a lift-shaft or something to get away from them.”

In many ways, beginning work on The Glass Shore after this original success seemed like the only logical step forward. Gleeson, however, now jokes that, “If someone had told me this time last year, ‘Oh, you’ll have another anthology out!’, I would’ve jumped down a lift-shaft or something to get away from them.”

While attending events last year in the North, in support of The Long Gaze Back, Gleeson continued to encounter the same, problematic consensus. She explains how that at one event in the Linen Hall Library, “a couple of people came up to me and said, ‘It’s a wonderful book. It’s great to see but we really feel that we’ve been left out of the conversation, about anthologies, about women, about the short story.’ It kind of played on my mind a bit.”

This general feeling was only reinforced after a similar event in the Lyric Theatre where, Gleeson explains, “at the end, the Q&A was literally just people saying, ‘Great book. We don’t have a book like this.’, ‘I don’t think there’s money.’, and, ‘It just feels like nobody wants to hear our voices.” She continues, admitting that, “It was the same conversation the whole time, and people were quite emotional about the North and feeling that a lot of things have happened there in the last forty-odd years, and sometimes they’re not listened to.”

Jan Carson, one of the writers included in The Glass Shore, has addressed this identity-crisis before. Noted in the Irish Times, she compares the ‘Northern Irish writer’ — in all her manifestations — and their connection to both the Republic and UK, to the child of divorcing parents, where both parents assume that the other is looking after the child’s well-being. This anecdote particularly stuck with Gleeson, as she admits that, “I just remembered all those voices and faces of people who were quite upset about the fact that there wasn’t a book. I just thought that that’s actually ridiculous, and kind of depressing.”

“It was almost a literary anthology bingo. You could say, ‘Right, before I turn this page, if there any women in this book, I know who they’re going to be.”

Achieving recognition for the female writer has always been a difficult struggle across the world. It is, however, almost possible to understand the under-appreciation of the female Northern writer when her male counterparts include Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel and Derek Mahon. These writers are canonical, not just in Ireland, but internationally too.

The Female Line, published in 1985, perhaps marks the initial movement towards recognition for Northern Irish female writers. Edited by Ruth Hooley, the book is a collection of poetry, memoir and essays. In her introduction, Hooley highlights the problem of a male-focused canon. She claims that The Blackstaff Press, a leading Belfast-based publisher, at the time had a ratio in the region of just two female writers to fifteen male writers published in their single-author poetry books. “This silence is ambiguous,” Hooley writes, “Does it mean an absence — there are hardly any women writing? Is it due to suppression — women lack confidence and opportunities to develop their writing? Is it a result of oppression — women are discriminated against in terms of what is taken seriously and which material matters?”

These are troubling questions, and questions that Gleeson no doubt asked herself when beginning to compile her anthology. She has, however, been asking these questions for a considerably longer period. An alumni of UCD, she remarks on her time as a student: “I took a short story course in my very first year of my undergrad. It was with Gus Martin … Soundings was the poetry book when I was in school, but he edited that anthology of poetry and in that book there is only one woman, and she’s not Irish — it’s Emily Dickinson. Gus was a wonderful lecturer, but you see the way in which people are in charge of putting together the canonical texts, and people in charge of putting together university syllabi, and some of the problem often starts there.”

Returning to UCD as part of her research for The Glass Shore, she was somewhat disheartened to see that not a lot had changed. “I started taking down the anthologies,” she recalls, “some of which I recognised from when I was there, and seeing that it hasn’t gotten much better — that imbalance of mostly men or the same women if they were included. Always Edna O’Brien, always Somerville & Ross, always Mary Lavin, always Elizabeth Bowen. It was almost a literary anthology bingo. You could say, ‘Right, before I turn this page, if there any women in this book, I know who they’re going to be.’ And that, for me, perpetuates the idea that only a handful of Irish women are good writers or are worthy of inclusion.”

It is starting to become clear just how many limitations Gleeson herself had to overcome just to compile this collection — the problem of location, the problem of gender and the problem of genre. Genre is a somewhat unexpected limitation, and one that is not immediately thought of. She admits, though: “When I started out, I thought, ‘this is a little bit more difficult than The Long Gaze Back, not just by virtue of geography, but my experience has been that in the North, there is a very big tradition of poetry and drama, and it isn’t of fiction, and it isn’t of the short story. If you had asked me to name twenty-five people off the top of my head, I could have gotten close, but I don’t know if I could have got twenty-five without doing research.”

So just how does one overcome this type of problem? Put simply: one asks for help, which is just what Gleeson did. The acknowledgements list in the back of the anthology boasts an impressive list of writers, editors and academics — Carlo Gebler, Glenn Patterson, Thomas Morris and UCD’s own Professor Margaret Kelleher, to name a few.

Explaining the process, she says: “It was a question of throwing out the net and seeing what names kept coming up. The public library system here is brilliant. I had envisaged that I’d have to go to Belfast a lot, but a lot of what I was looking for I found here.” It certainly doesn’t sound like a job for the work-shy. “It’s a lot of leg-work,” she admits, “It’s a lot of digging, but I like that side of it, because you really don’t know what you’re going to find and you hope you’ll unearth a gem. And if you’re a reader, the idea that you get to spend lots of time working by going into the National Library and digging around, pulling out stories, there’s not many better ways I could think of to spend your time.” A pang of jealousy can be felt at this thought alone…

“Where are all the new women going to come from?’, and then, very quickly, it started to happen.”

In an age where literature, and indeed all writing, faces crisis as the world continues to become increasingly digitalised, instant and online, threatening normative forms of literature to the point of extinction, these is, at least, some hope on the horizon. Seen, by some, as a reaction to this, there has been a growing trend in the slow-magazine and literary journal, where the book or journal-as-object is appreciated both aesthetically and for its content. Ireland, too, has benefitted greatly from this trend, with groundbreaking literary journals such as Banshee, Gorse and The Stinging Fly all rising to prominence.

Gleeson agrees with this idea, crediting “the reinvigoration of the platform” as part of the reason for the short-story’s growth in popularity. She strongly maintains, however, that, “I don’t subscribe to the view that the short story is having a comeback or any of that idea. I don’t think it ever went away.”

She offers another reason, an almost romantic view on reading, suggesting that with anthologies: “you read outside your comfort zone. It’s literally like a raffle; you don’t know what’s coming up. I’ve read anthologies and discovered writers from just one short story and wanted to read other work that they’ve done, and that’s why I love them. It’s the randomness of it. They’re very accessible in terms of their brevity and definitely not in terms of the subject matter.”

At the launch for The Glass Shore, Man Booker Prize-winner Anne Enright commented on the tremendous increase in female writers, finally gaining some of the recognition they deserve. A movement, Enright notes, that has only just come to the fore in the last three to five years. It is almost stirring to watch both Enright and fellow-writer, Evelyn Conlon — a founder of the Rape Crisis Centre in 1979 — on stage together, themselves having both fought most of their lives not only for recognition, but more basically, for equality and for their voices to be heard.

It is interesting to think of The Glass Shore as both a product of the efforts that have helped pave its way, while simultaneously continuing to challenge and change normative notions in today’s society. Gleeson celebrates this new-wave of female writers, recounting that, “five or six years ago, when the new-wave started to come through, I thought, ‘Finally, here are the new voices, the young voices.’ The post-Celtic Tiger voices, and it was Paul Murray, and Donal Ryan, and Gavin Corbett, but I did notice that were weren’t many women and I did think, ‘Where are all the new women going to come from?’, and then, very quickly, it started to happen. So quickly that The Long Gaze Back was in progress and then some of them appeared who I would’ve loved to have had in the book, like Sara Baume, Louise O’Neill, and Danielle McLaughlin. It’s changed, it has massively changed.”

Indeed, one only has to look at the shortlists for this year’s Irish Book Awards, where women have received at least half, if not more, of the nominations in most of the categories. Certainly women writers have, this year, dominated the short story category. It only makes sense, though, that in a scene and industry so supported by women, that they receive equal recognition and thanks. Gleeson recalls the famous Ian McEwan quote, where he concluded that, “when women stop reading, the novel will be dead.” Having introduced fifty-five stories, across two anthologies, to new audiences, it can be said with relative ease that Gleeson has done more than her fair share for keeping reading alive.

While Gleeson would do well to savour her moment of success, she still manages to find the time to look ahead and is keen for the next project. The biography note on her website states somewhat teasingly that she is working on a novel of her own. She laughs, though, when quizzed about it: “It’s funny, I do have a bit of one on the go. I said in an interview that the idea of a novel is very daunting and the idea that you would stay interested in something for that long, when lots of the work that I read, that I love, is the short story and the essay. So maybe it’s that the novel is not for me. At the same time, there’s no one way to write one and there’s no one way to write.”

“I would like to focus on my own stuff for a while because I have a few things on the go and I find myself thinking about them a lot but not actually doing them, and the words don’t write themselves. Generally, for the next few months, juggling is what’s going on!”

All of a sudden, my inability to label Gleeson at the beginning of this interview seems only to lend itself perfectly to the type of work that she does, and the type of person she is. Here is someone deeply passionate, looking only to right the balance and allow the under-appreciated and forgotten voices the opportunity to have a light, of which they are entirely deserving, shone on them. Her work only proves that very often the status quo, the normative constructs that unconsciously govern so many aspects of our daily lives need to be, and should be, constantly questioned and challenged, if only to discover what lies beyond the horizon, on new shores