The 10th Annual Conference of AEDEI, the Spanish Association for Irish Studies, was hosted by the University of Oviedo this year. When did academic conferences become so friendly? I don’t think I’ve ever been with a group of people so willing to strike up a conversation with the person who happens to be standing next to them, or so inclusive.
The range of papers was impressive, spanning literature (18th century to the present), politics, film and television, theatre. We’re all indebted to these scholars for their attention to the work of contemporary Irish writers, and for their refusal to be corraled into the safe, familiar shapes of the ‘canon’. There were papers about Teresa Deevy and Shevawn Lynam as well as Joseph O’Neill, Martin McDonagh, Emer Martin, Éilís Ni Dhuibhne, Anne Enright … and many others.
Someone once asked me, what’s the point of literary criticism? At this conference I was reminded of its unique value: like reading itself, it reminds us to slow down, to pay attention to detail, to focus on the world we’re in. It’s a strong antidote to the tendency to scatter, profliferate and get lost in spontaneous digression that life and technology induce in us. The conference featured readings and debates and animated late-night conversations; gorgeous food, and always a small crowd to eat it with; a fantastic lunch hosted by the Irish Embassy; there was music and dancing and guided walking tours: first around Oviedo, then Avilés.
In Avilés, across the Penas river from the wonderful old town with its rich stone, strong colours and glass balconies, the future looms in the shape of a smooth white dome, a vast open terrace, a spiral ramp leading to a circular disc of glassy space – this is the Óscar Neimeyer Centre, a perfect expression of the belief that the arts can regenerate a region, attracting visitors, opening our minds. Inside, Carlos Saura’s exhibition “Luz” held us in thrall: http://video.latam.msn.com/watch/video/carlos-saura-llena-de-luz-el-centro-niemeyer/1gjj32zzc
When the Centre closed for the evening, we were reluctant to leave, but came out to a different kind of spectacle: the industrial chimneys of the iron and steel works behind the Centre were transformed into giant instruments. They played visual music for us, throwing surreal steamcloud shapes into a heavy sky, adding their own drama and beauty to the scene.
The conference was a triumph for the Association and for its organiser, Luz Mar González-Arias. Next year it will be held in Rioja.
During the conference, Luz Mar asked me if there’s pressure on writers in Ireland to write fiction that reflects boom-and-bust? I slipped off on a ‘which writers do they mean?’ tangent and forgot to answer the actual question (sorry, Luz Mar). Here’s a belated answer, of sorts:
It’s true that there are people (including writers) who complain that contemporary Irish writers aren’t writing whatever it is those people want to read. There are always hurlers in the ditch. But this is a little like when your mother advises you to take up with that nice whatshisname, who’s always so polite and has a decent job, with prospects of promotion and a guaranteed pension. Never mind the body odour, or the pleasure he used take in pulling the wings off flies when you were smaller. No matter if the advice she offers is reasonable in its own way and on its own terms, it takes more than commonsense or logic – or even market forces – to ignite a novel. Sorry, Ma, but without a spark, what chance of fire? What’ll keep us warm in the long, lonely nights ahead? Writing a book is an intimate adventure. It will hold you in thrall. It will challenge, frustrate, torment and bore you stupid before it’s over. You’ll expose yourself in it, in ways you never intended. You have to care enough to want to stay with it to the end, whatever that end might be; you have to let yourself fall in deep, from the beginning. If you’re lucky, the memory of earlier passions will keep you going when doubts surface, as they’re bound to do.
There’ll be times when you’ll want to run away, times when you’d rather have all your teeth extracted, one by one, by a drunk wielding a crowbar and a wrench, than go back to the work-in-progress and immerse yourself in all that rawness, yet again. But when you’re in it, it’s all there is. Your mother’s advice might come back to taunt you at moments of doubt when you’re doing something else – (standing in a bookshop with someone else’s shiny new bestseller in your hands, for example). But when you’re with it, when you’re immersed in your very own emerging world, it’s all that matters. It, and the shadowy reader you sense, waiting at the borders for the right time to enter. No pressure.