The latest issue of the Stinging Fly includes “Flight”, a story I wrote for a reading in aid of OneInFour several months ago. OneInFour is an Irish charity that gives support to people who have experienced sexual abuse and/or sexual violence (statistically, one in four people in Ireland, hence the name).
“Flight” revisits, revises and plays with some of our best known legends, but it’s mainly based on the Tóraíocht Dhiarmuid agus Gráinne or the Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne. It’s a well known and popular story, where Grainne, the daughter of Cormac Mac Art, is promised as a wife to the legendary hero, Finn Mac Cool. At this stage of his life Finn is old and cranky, and he’s already buried a wife or two. At the wedding, Grainne persuades Diarmuid, one of Finn’s young champions, to run away with her. Finn’s furious pursuit and the adventures that follow are part of our mythology. The Fianna are our heroes, but they carry on a lot like gangsters; they roam the countryside committing murder and mayhem at will; they take what they want, lay waste all around them, and boast about it afterwards. It’s worth mentioning also that the ancient kings and chieftains had a practice of lending their daughters to overnight guests as a mark of their esteem. They’re a law unto themselves – and yet, the premise of the Tóraíocht (as in other stories) is that the woman is entirely to blame. Grainne puts Diarmuid under a magical compulsion to do what she wants – in other words, he can’t help himself.
I wanted to tell this story from the young woman’s point of view, to let her choose and initiate what happens, beginning with that simple shift in the title, from ‘Pursuit’ to ‘Flight’. I wanted her to tell her own story, to make it fresh and relevant. As I wrote it, the story gathered momentum and veered off on its own track, as they do, to become as much about the construction of stories as it is about the young lovers. It was fun to lift a line from here and an image from there; to mix familiar elements in new combinations and quote a few iconic lines while I was at it.
When people ask about this story there seem to be two main issues. One has to do with the problem, both technical and ethical, of taking an existing story and having your way with it. The best I can say about this is that I’m not the first person to rewrite a myth or a fairy tale, and I won’t be the last. At readings I can explain what I did. Other than that, I have to trust the reader’s wit to see that I’m playing, making free with the tradition. Isn’t that what it’s for? There are enough clues in the story to make its source obvious to anyone who’s at all familiar with the original – and yet, I think it stands on its own, as all stories must. Knowing the original should add to the story, not detract from it. That was the intention, anyway.
The other issue that raises the odd frown among readers (who can be very stern when it comes to the morality of the thing) is about writing and politics, or the politics of writing. Samuel Goldwyn’s famous ‘if you have a message, send a telegram’ comes to mind. I’ve often quoted it myself. So, if I say that I wanted to honour the work that OneInFour does in writing this story, does that make the story political? And if it’s political, does that make it less of a story?
The decision to give the story to the young woman and let her tell it in her own way can be seen as political and yes, it probably was. Of course it was. But motives are never pure and rarely simple, and it was a technical/artistic choice as well. I’ve always wanted to play around with this story, to find a way to get under its skin and shine a light on the faultlines of the original, see what new shapes might emerge. For me, the original has a strong undercurrent of unease with – or do I mean indignation at ? – sexual agency in women, so it seemed perfect for the occasion. But how to do it without being heavy-handed?
I went for a long walk to think this one out. The answer presented itself in three words, as if the character slid directly into my frontal lobe and spoke to me: Call me Aisling**. There she was, the exact tone of her voice as familiar to me as if I’d always known her, and the story took off (sorry) under her bold direction. And yes, I do know about Herman Melville. What writer (or reader) doesn’t? But see above, about ‘obvious’ and ‘sources’. “Call me Ishmael” has to be one of the most iconic opening sentences in the English language, and my hope is that, in a story that gets cheeky about icons and tradition and the nature of storytelling, the appropriation of the line is self-evident and justified. And hey, I’ve acknowledged it here, now.
Is there anything we do that isn’t, at some level, political? Should writers resist or engage with politics? On or off the page?
**The Aisling figure is a feature of Irish culture, with so many meanings it would take a whole other entry to explain her. At her simplest, she is a dream-woman, a muse who inspires poets and heroes to do their thing, whatever that may be; she is often conflated with the country. What, you didn’t know? Ireland is a woman.