Amy Herron introduced proceedings, telling us that the eight soap-boxers were given a brief to take: ‘All adventurous women do …” as a starting pont, and that each person would speak for four minutes, from a rather precarious and wobbly box in front of the microphone which almost became a performer in its own right as the night wore on.
Lisa O’Neill sang us in with ‘The Lass of Aughrim’, in her powerful, distinctive voice. How do singers do that, in a crowded room? It’s a mystery to me, but no trouble to Lisa, apparently.
First up to speak was Erin Fornoff, spoken word poet – Dublin based but originally from the Appalachian Mountains. She told a chilling, shocking and sickeningly familiar story – actually, it wasn’t the story that was shocking, it was the fact that she told it, so openly, to a room full of not-all-women. (Yes, there were intrepid men in the crowd, as there were last year, as there will be again next year – this event is shaping up to be a must-go-to in the Dublin calendar.) Erin Fornoff’s story is about a literary mentor, a trusted advisor, who one day over lunch suggested that he could get her a book deal, if she would sleep with him.
At the time, she was speechless. But, as she said, she’s lucky she’s a writer. Your voice may be robbed at the time, but you get it back. You get to write a poem (‘The Opposite of a Thank You Letter‘) and publish it. Then you get to put it on YouTube. She said that, next thing she knew, she found herself a receptacle for innumerable sleazy literary stories: women of all ages and stages in their literary lives coming up to her and saying – that happened to me too, I know who that was, it was this guy, wasn’t it? And Erin Fornoff would have to say – no, it wasn’t that guy, it was another guy.
And this keeps happening.
And all names are still witheld. Interesting, isn’t it, that last bit?
Mary O’Donnell brought us back to the dismal Irish seventies, when young women were automatically suspect and under scrutiny, where every ambition and ideal seemed to be specifically thwarted by the government, where she could be asked at a job interview, referring to her poems and stories, ‘and does your husband help you spell all them long words?’. That was a country no one else would want to come and live in, she pointed out, but now we do have people coming here to live from other places, and let’s welcome them.
Sally Rooney told us that we live in a culture that assumes that women’s lives are not interesting, although they’re perfectly interesting to us. She said she’s tired of the assumption that what men are interested in is interesting and that in order to get equality, all women need to do is change. She railed against the pretence that things will be different for you (as an individual). If only you’re smart enough to play by the right rules, do the right combination of things – you will be the exception (if you’re good enough). She resents the assumption that the work women do is worthless and uninteresting. It’s certainly thankless.
Women don’t need to change, she said. Men need to change. Powerful people need to change.
Evelyn Conlon said that all adventurous women mind their language. She cited a recent article entitled ‘How to Talk to Older Feminists’ which turned out, she said, to be a cover for taking a swipe at Germaine Greer – who is, it seems, in trouble. Again. Well, go Germaine, said Evelyn. As we would have said in the past. She reminded us what that older Ireland was like. In a world where you had to wait 7 years to get a phone, she said, a lot of people stayed in bad marriages just so they wouldn’t have to go out onto the street to make phone calls (in a coin box).
In those days feminists used language as a powerful tool. She never guessed that political correctness – calling things for what they are – would be distorted, would become the antithesis of itself, a restriction on expression.
Social media is the opposite of writing, she said. We used to be able to tolerate all that shouting but across a clothes line or on a night out, in the pub – not incessantly. And while we’re at it, could we give the exclamation mark a rest? – it is a mark for when you’ve done something unusual. Not when you’ve just had a cup of tea! With milk! She wants to be able to read an email without being startled to death by the end of it.
(Getting up to introduce the next speaker, Amy Herron remarked that when Evelyn Conlon said that social media is the opposite of writing, many writers in the audience looked furtive and guilty.)
Joanna Walsh interrogated the terms of the brief itself, taking us on an intriguing tour of how her mind works: did it mean, everything that adventurous women do? Or one thing that every adventurous woman does? And then we took a detour through the word ‘adventurous’ itself, its root and meanings – leading to a riff on an advent calendar she had as a child, an image of a red-brick house with many windows. She told us she used to get a priggish (her word) satisfaction from opening the right window on each right day and seeing another picture inside it. Behind that, the house looked inward to nothingness.
She pointed out that women still have less to lose than we stand to gain by stepping outside the norm. She said the most innocuous words are often the hardest to see inside. She listed familiar terms of abuse. She said that language is not a zero sum game and invited us to consider what new words and new meanings we might use to build apertures of meaning. She urged us to be daring and undertake trials, to seize our luck. We may, she said, we will, witness miracles.
Lisa McInerney asked what use an adventurous spirit would have been to a working-class Irish woman born in the 1930s? Adventure, she reminded us, requires resources, opportunity, good timing. It’s not compatible with a house full of children who need to be fed and minded. For many women their one adventure ended in a laundry. She spoke movingly about her grandmother and her mother. the times they lived in constrained opportunity. When women then were seen as ‘adventurous’, that often means they were disobedient. What’s more, those women were often well-to-do. So who do we thank for our opportunities to be adventurous, she asked. Do we thank privilege?
Sinéad Gleeson (NB the Book Show returns to RTE Radio One on 16th January) talked about masculine ideas and images of adventure, written and reinforced by men. A vast ocean, an empty desert … But adventure is not something you have to cross continents for. You can have it walking the streets of a strange city, or night-swimming, or kissing someone you shouldn’t kiss. She was very funny about a minor gambling habit she’d had as a child, a penchant for winning raffles, a lucky streak that lasted about two years. She spoke with affection about small coloured squares of paper with numbers on them, strange and unpredictable winnings. Then it wasn’t funny any more when she talked about the luck of the reproductive rights draw, the things that could go wrong, the situations women find themselves in. She said we need a new part of the story, a part where we have the remedy we need, and it needs to be free, safe and legal. (My informal assessment is that this got the biggest cheer of the night.)
Michelle Read brought the house down when she said she’d read the brief wrong, that she’d thought that this was meant to be a do for adventurous women. Who doesn’t want to be adventurous, she asked? Along the lines of: would you like a lemon-and-dill pickle scone? Oh why not, I’ll be adventurous. Other, more extreme kinds of adventure, leave her cold, she said. Why on earth would she want to move outside her comfort zone? It’s called a comfort zone because it’s comfortable there. She wants to be in the beanbag at the very heart of the comfort zone, thanks very much. She told a hilarious story about doing a stand-up comic routine in the tunnel club (near the Blackwall Tunnell) full of Millwall supporters.
Michelle Read talked about not being adventurous – as many of the other speakers had – even as she described walking to a microphone through the gauntlet of a room full of jeering, catcalling and insulting men. But this was a room full of appreciative and admiring people who knew the opposite was true of every single speaker. Every one who stood up to balance on that wonky, unstable soapbox had to use courage to do it, every bit as much as they needed courage to speak out. There was huge applause – cheers and whoops – for each contribution. It was a brilliant, unsettling and enjoyable night. Lisa O’Neill finished with a song inspired by Evelyn Conlon’s latest novel (Not the Same Sky) and then ‘The Divil’. Then we went back outside, into the violent rainstorm we’d completely forgotten about for those few warm hours in the Writers’ Centre.
It seems mean to say that it’s a pity there was no contribution in Irish, especially given that the event was billed with an Irish title, but I can’t not say it. In every other respect, this was a massively successful evening. Book early for next year’s – they sell out fast.
(Note: The name Irish Writers Centre has no apostrophe)