In the spirit of partnership that pervades the university press community, Syracuse University Press and 36 other presses unite for the AAUP’s second annual blog tour during University Press Week. The tour highlights the value of university presses and the contributions they make to scholarship and our society.
Schedule your week’s reading with the complete blog tour schedule here http://bit.ly/HjQX7n.
Today’s theme is the importance of regional publishing, discussed by one of our favorite regional authors, Chuck D’Imperio.
Regional publishing is a wonderful source of information, data, traditional stories, reflections, memories and history. Although in many cases the parameters can be small, their importance cannot be denied. Not every author can write a serious piece on the nuances of global affairs or the ramifications of economic turmoil. And not every writer’s heart beats with the longing and sentimentality of a romance novelist. We can’t all be adventure writers or cookbook authors. We cannot all come up with clever mystery twists and turns.
But we can all become regional writers. Why? Because we all have stories to tell, no matter how provincial or how far-flung. And these stories, these observations stand the test of time serving an important purpose for the past, present and the future.
Centuries ago familial tales were handed down in oral testimonies from grandparents to grandchildren. Stories of hardships endured and triumphs enjoyed. Of bitter harvests and sharecropping, of transoceanic flight and new beginnings. Of shadowy injustices and illuminating liberations. Of slavery. Of migration. Of life on the dusty prairie as well on the teeming sidewalks of immigrant America.
These stories, eventually written down in small books and disseminated by small presses, have served as some of the most important tools in any writer’s arsenal. Read the legendary works of Herman Melville, Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, Pearl Buck or Mark Twain and it is apparent that at the heart of each of these writers’ opuses lies a work of regional scent. Though disguised as great literary epics and tomes it is still clear to any reader that these authors (and legions more) are simply writing about what they know, where they lived and what they did. Many of the settings of the famous American novels or short stories reflect the simple concept of a regional book masked in the patina of “great literature.”
Story placements as varied as family farms, the sea, a rural Main Street, unpronounceable places abroad, on the river, in the big shouldered cities and more all are the regional backdrop of some of the most familiar works of American writing, from Tara to Cannery Row to “Our Town.”
I am proud to be a regional writer. I have six books currently in stores exploring the width and breadth of my own backyard, Upstate New York. I have written of the great legends of the Hudson Valley, the history of the small towns in the high peaks of the Adirondacks, the whimsy of the tiny museums of the Finger Lakes and the verdigris- covered war memorials which dot the Leatherstocking Region. These books are small, yet timeless. My readers can identify with the stories and tales I have told whether they come from the busy streets of our capital city, Albany or from the bucolic bosom of the Schoharie Valley.
Anybody can be a regional writer to some degree. To paraphrase Grandma Moses, it’s easy. Just pick up a pencil and start writing.
Dave Dyer is an independent investor and freelance writer. He is also the author of Steel’s, “a fascinating and thoroughly engaging story of Buffalo-based Steel’s department store told by a master storyteller” as described by Field Horne. Dyer’s Spring 2013 title was published by the Syracuse University Press in March.
Could you provide the audience with a brief description of Steel’s?
“My grandmother’s brother, Clayton Pickard, vanished in 1923 and I set out to find what happened to him. Through a long string of lucky breaks and coincidences, I learned about him even though he had changed his name. I also learned that he worked for the L. R. Steel Company, and I was again lucky enough to acquire about 20 lbs. of original documents from that company. The box contained newsletters from the early 1920s with thousands of photographs and other documents. It was like finding an unopened time capsule.
The documents gave an inside view of a chain store business run by a very creative and visionary entrepreneur named Leonard Rambler Steel. The business consisted of 75 retail stores, but the real money maker was his scheme to sell stock in the business. He promoted stock sales by making a silent film about his business…probably one of the first infomercials. The film helped him sell stock to 60,000 people, and they all lost their money when the company went bankrupt in 1923. Steel had other big ideas, like developing Niagara Falls into a permanent World’s Fair that would be dedicated to the glory of electricity and international commerce, but he never got around to implementing that one.
There were fraud indictments for some of the executives in 1923, but Leonard Rambler Steel died suddenly, at only 44, while he was on a train to seek a loan from Henry Ford to resurrect his company. Clayton Pickard was not charged, but I expect his disappearance was related to the scandal. Eventually, all the indictments were dropped and the story was no longer as newsworthy since the charismatic founder was dead. There is no other account of this story in print and it might have been lost forever if I had not been lucky enough to find that box of documents.”
What went through your mind when you began to discover the stock market scandal?
“I started reading the documents to find out about my grandmother’s brother, but I soon found Leonard Rambler Steel to be more interesting. At first, I assumed that there must be a book or some historical article on this amazing story, but I could find none. I visited Buffalo a couple of times and found newspaper articles from the 1920s, but nothing recent.
The documents revealed an unusual company; women in management and some employees in their eighties. When I started reading about the movie, I was hooked. The movie was released in 1922 and it was 3 hours long. It was shown for free all over North America to generate leads for his stock selling scheme. He made 50 copies of the 10-reel film, and each one had a different ending; each ended with views of his store in the locality where it was shown. He anticipated the value of localization in advertising and this amazing insight was what convinced me that the story needed to be researched and documented.”
When did you decide to research your great uncle, Clayton Pickard?
“My grandmother had always wondered about her vanished brother and I thought it would be easy to resolve the mystery since so many old records are now digitized and searchable. I did not anticipate that he would change his name!
Also, my grandmother always told me that I was a lot like Clayton. When you grow up hearing something like that, you remember it. Finally, when I was digitizing some old family photos, my wife commented that I really do look a bit like him.”
“Yes, I would love to know what happened to all 50 copies of the film. When the company went bankrupt, they were scattered all over the country in small town movie houses. Some were probably not returned because there was no company to return them to. Is there a much deteriorated copy still in some attic?
The last showing was in the Erie County prosecutor’s office looking for evidence of fraud, but they have not been able to locate it now. I offered to spend a couple of days just opening boxes in their long-term storage area, but they were prudent enough not to take me up on that.”
As an independent investor, how did writing Steel’s influence you in relation to your work?
“I have been fascinated with the stock market for over 30 years and I specialize in analyzing small growth companies with unique technology for some niche market. I love to find a creative company with an idea that actually works. I was the ideal person to appreciate the documents that I found.”
What do you hope the audience takes from your story?
“Sometimes failure is more interesting than success, especially when the person who failed had the talent needed to succeed. And, to quote Leonard Rambler Steel,
“The line between success and failure is so finely drawn that often all that is required is one step forward to land on the winning side.” L. R. Steel, December 24, 1920′”
What can we expect next from you?
“First, I would love to see Steel’s made into a movie or TV show. The characters are so vivid and a film based in Buffalo when it was a boom town in the 1920s just might work. If anyone knows an agent who could make this happen, I’m available. Also, if the publication of the book happens to turn up a copy of the lost silent film (hey, I’ve been lucky on everything else) that would be a nice ending.
Although Steel’s is my first book, I have several hundred other shorter publications, mostly magazine articles, newspaper editorials, and lots of stock market newsletters and commentary. I am about half way through a second book called, I Knew a Guy Who Worked Once. It is a guide for people who want to reach escape velocity from corporate life by using aggressive investing techniques. It is based on some investment courses that I taught and I hope it will be one of the few humorous investment books.
I have two other projects in the planning stage. One is a history book about the influence of weather on history. There has been lots of recent discussion about mankind’s potential effect on the weather, but less about the effect of weather on human events. I am interested in things like the sudden hurricane that saved Washington, DC, from being burned by the British in August, 1814 or the tornado that helped General “Mad” Anthony Wayne win the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. Also, my wife and I are planning a book about how to turn underutilized urban land into public parks. We have done this once and created a 22-acre urban nature preserve. We are now in the process of repeating this with a smaller parcel that will be used as a dog park. We hope to document the lessons we have learned.”
For more information on Dave Dyer’s Steel’s, visit the Syracuse University Press website. It is available for sale now!
Book: Allegiance and Betrayal: Stories
Peter Makuck is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at East Carolina University. He is the author of Long Lens: New and Selected Poems and two collections of short stories, Breaking and Entering and Costly Habits. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Poetry, Sewanee Review, the Nation, and Gettysburg Review.
Tell us about Allegiance and Betrayal.
“Like writing itself, putting together a collection of stories is yet another process of discovery. You become aware of unifying themes in your work, as well as certain obsessions. I discovered that fiction not included in my two previous collections, plus more recent stories, have in common family matters and friendships, as well as themes of allegiance and betrayal. Some of these stories also have coastal settings in common.”
What made you choose to write your book in a post-World War II setting? Has this time period always interested you?
“I came of age in post-World War II America. I was about five when the war ended. I can remember my grandfather spreading the news, yelling, neighbors cheering, singing, drinking, and dancing in the street in front of our house when victory was declared.”
Do you think your theme of family is strengthened by the World War II setting?
“Well, it’s almost a cliché but nonetheless true that post-war America in the 1950s is a setting dominated by two-parent families, stay-at-home mothers, and safe neighborhoods where kids played ball in the streets, rode bikes, and climbed trees together. For me, it was also a time of parochial education reinforced by the family’s traditional Roman Catholicism.”
Do you have a personal connection to any of the stories in Allegiance and Betrayal?
“Most my stories are triggered by what I’ve experienced, witnessed, or know. Pedro Almodovar, the Spanish film director, says that everything not autobiography is plagiarism. But I doubt he means literal autobiography. An incident in your life might just be a starting point. You develop, add characters, expand, and lie (Picasso said that art is the lie that make you see the truth). If you have promising raw material in front of you, why bother to invent? The odds are that you will have a more compelling connection with what you have actually seen or experienced, an enthusiasm that might well be contagious to a reader. A friend once told me he knew where one of my stories came from and proceeded to describe the event. I told him he was right, but wasn’t my version a lot more interesting than what actually happened? On the other hand, my mother was hurt by my first published story where I hadn’t invented enough to disguise real events and people. In graduate school, hungry to get into print, I expanded on an incident in the extended family. I had already published a poem about my grandfather’s death that my parents and the rest of the family were quite happy about. But I had no intention of showing them the story. An old high school friend, however, noticed my name on the cover of a journal just shelved in the Yale bookstore, bought two copies, and dropped one at my father’s gas station. Big mistake. A learning experience, as they say. The story made a splash and got me letters of interest from a few agents, but I never reprinted it and I promised myself never to let something like that happen again.”
“Very recently I did some research about tarot cards and fortune telling—something I needed for a scene in a story still not quite finished. But normally, I write about what I know. In this new collection, there are several stories about deep-sea fishing and scuba diving. I’ve done that a lot. No research necessary. At an AWP conference some years ago, I was talking to two poets about scuba diving. A few weeks later I got a phone call from one of them who wanted to write a poem about the subject and asked me a lot of questions, especially about what you heard while underwater. The residual prankster in me was tempted to lie, say something about the plucking of harp strings and that once I heard Paul McCartney and the Wings singing “Band on the Run,” likely coming from a boat anchored nearby. But I didn’t. All to say, you risk losing an authoritative voice if you flub the details. The old workshop wisdom: Write about what you know.”
You have written significantly more poetry than stories. Do you ever wish you wrote more stories, or do you prefer poetry?
“That’s a good question. I’m really addicted to both even though I’ve written more poetry, perhaps because I edited a poetry journal for thirty years or so. I also write essays and a lot of reviews. The plus is that if you are working in a number of genres, you don’t get blocked. If you get stuck on a poem or a story, say, put it on the back burner, and turn to a review. When working on something else, I find the problem with the poem or story will often solve itself. I also like to write stories because it gives my sense of humor a chance to exercise. I like to laugh, but I don’t have the talent to write funny poems. The short story allows me to have characters interact in humorous ways.”
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
“I came to reading and writing late. I was an action junkie in high school, an average student at best, and faked my way through. I thought nothing could be more boring than quietly hunkering down to read a book. And I didn’t. In college freshman English, one of our first assignments was to read a short story by William Faulkner, “Barn Burning,” then write an essay. I loved Faulkner’s vocabulary and use of language. I said to myself, “Man, what have I been missing!” A week later, our teacher told the class he was going to read two of the best essays, examples of quality writing he expected from everyone. To my great surprise, one of the essays was mine. I’d never been praised for anything in high school, nor did I deserve to be. Now I had a new identity. My teacher urged me to join the staff of the literary magazine, and I did. I suppose you could draw a fairly straight line from that short story in freshman comp to my doctoral dissertation on Faulkner. All along the way I was writing poetry, reviews, and fiction as well.”
Has your writing career affected your style of teaching English at East Carolina University in any way? If so, how?
“I never had the benefit of a creative writing course. Few colleges and universities offered them when I was a student. So my writing career certainly had an influence on the way I taught fiction and poetry writing courses. I would talk about what I had slowly learned the hard way, through trial and error, talk about clichés, revision, narrative structure, round and flat characters, sound, rhythm, imagery, scene, dialogue etc. On the other hand, when teaching a course on Shakespeare, Faulkner, Hemingway, Welty, O’Connor, or a course on Modern or Contemporary poetry, I’d revert to my academic training as a literary critic but still try to make the lectures lively as possible in order to interest students in these great writers.”
Peter Makuck’s Allegiance and Betrayal was published this April. For more information or to purchase a copy (at our 30% SPRING SALE discount), visit the Syracuse University Press website.
Roger Allen is the winner of the 2012 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for his translation of A Muslim Suicide by Bensalem Himmich, published by SU Press. Allen retired from his position as the Sascha Jane Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania in 2011. He is the author and translator of numerous books and articles on modern Arabic fiction, novels, and stories. Roger Allen is also a contributing editor of Banipal and a trustee of the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature.
Congratulations on winning the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. Can you tell us about your general translation philosophy and how you prepare for the work of translation?
“In the case of the novels of Salim Himmich, I am not only well acquainted with the author and his works, but have previous translated two of his other novels. In fact, the author told me that he was already writing this new novel while I was in the process of finishing the translation of his previous one (published as THE POLYMATH). In the case of each novel, the preparatory phase has involved firstly reading the novel in its entirety, and, in the case of these historical novels, conducting research on the period in question (in this case, the history of Spain in the 13th century and the many dynasties scattered across the northern part of the African continent). What is most important in assessing “translation strategy” is the level of language used by the author and the most appropriate level of English style to use in the translation process–that being something that involves a number of phases before the eventual product is ready. I might suggest, in fact, that nothing has ever been translated that could not be adjusted or revised in some way after its publication.”
What did you find was the most challenging when translating A Muslim Suicide into English?
“In this case, the most difficult part of the process was the transfer of the hero’s mystical visions and thought into English, not to mention his extensive “classes” for his students in which he responds to questions about philosophy and the bases of faith. This became yet more complicated when, in Bougie, a city in North Africa, the hero comes into contact with one of Sufism’s greatest poets, Al-Shushtari, who is to become a devotee of the hero and composes and performs many odes in the hero’s honor. Sufi discourse is maximally allegorical and multi-layered, and the translation of the poetry in particular was extremely difficult.”
Do you think you successfully met those challenges? If so, what is one of your favorite moments in the translation?
“I think my favorite part comes in Book Three, where he meets al-Shushtari, the Sufi poet; chapter 4 is particularly difficult–with its quotations of the poet’s mystical verses, but I think I captured the essence of it.”
Were there phrases or concepts that simply could not be translated, either because of the language, the cultural nuance, or the style? How did you deal with that kind of material?
“In translation there will always be segments of the original text that resist translation. That is where the interpretive skills of the translator are maximally employed, and a good knowledge of both literary traditions–the source and the target–are essential if the translation process is to succeed. This is particularly so in the case of this novel. My solution to such issues in most cases was to resort to the preparation of a lengthy and elaborate glossary, so that, if they so wished, readers could enjoy (?) the experience of being mystified, or else find some kind of response to their curiosity by consulting the back of the book.”
I’ve heard people often speak of Arabic as an exceptionally poetic language. Did you find yourself thinking about the poetry of Himmich’s prose as you translated?
“I think that every language can be “poetic” if the codes of the language used raise such feelings in the mind of the reader; I don’t think that Arabic is particularly so. What I will say is that the morphological structures of Arabic are certainly conducive to rhyming, which is a part of the process of becoming :poetic.” Himmich is a master of style and of the imitation of other writers’ and eras’ styles, and I have certainly made an effort to replicate that feature of his writing genius.”
This is third time translating one of Himmich’s novels. To what extent do you think there is a consistent voice (for English-language readers) between the works? How do you stay faithful to both your own writing style and Himmich’s?
“And…as I’ll note below, there’s a fourth novel of his in translation still seeking a publisher. The novels that I have translated thus far have all been “historical” in the sense that they are about particularly prominent Muslim figures from the pre-modern era (although the latest one breaks with that pattern). Since I know him personally so well and he leaves the translation process entirely in my hands, I don’t feel that there are any residual problems of style.”
“Well, I’m glad you asked !!! I have so many projects at different stages with Syracuse UP–this Himmich that has now come out, the al-Koni aphorisms, the Zifzaf short-story collection, and the translation of Kilito’s essays (as second translator)– that I don’t think I have sent you my translation of his highly controversial novel, which I have translated as MY TORTURESS. It is about the awful process of “extraordinary rendition.” A Moroccan Muslim is arrested on suspicion of being related to a terrorist and spends six years in an unidentified prison-camp (obviously run under the aegis of the Americans). Frankly, I don’t know if people are scared of such an emotive topic, but I have been having a great deal of difficulty placing this translation. If you want to see it (in spite of the number of things I already have with you), I’ll be glad to send it up. In addition to all that, I already have from Himmich his very latest novel–not yet published. It’s going to be called A BUSINESSWOMAN. I have decided not to start translating it until I have placed MY TORTURESS somewhere…”
What are some great English translations of Arabic literature that we might pick up in the meantime?
“If you’re really interested in translations of modern Arabic literature, I’d warmly suggest subscribing to the London-based journal, BANIPAL (they have an excellent website)–the one through which the Ghobash Prize is offered. They are continually publishing extracts from longer works that might be of interest to your series. The problem that I have in identifying particular authors and works is a happy one: there’s so much being written and translated now that I have a very difficult time keeping up with it all, not least because I have officially retired!
As part of truth in advertising about BANIPAL, I have been on the prize’s jury and am a member of the boards of both the trust that runs it and of the journal itself. You might be interested in the fact that they (mostly in the person of Margaret O’Bank) now run an Arab Cultural Center in London where I gave a “master-class” on translation at the time of the Prize ceremony in February; the Center is the home to an increasingly large library of Arabic literature in translation. [www.arabbritishcentre.org.uk/.”
Given your expertise in Arabic literature, do you have any advice for first-time readers of Arabic?
“I think the best advice I can give incipient readers of works of literature translated from Arabic is to approach the process with an open mind–a mind open to difference(s), and to relish the opportunity of engaging with those differences. As I have written in more than one of my essays on translation (such as my Presidential Address to the Middle East Studies Association –now published as “A Translator’s Tale,’ Presidential Address, MESA Conference [San Diego] 2010, Review of Middle East Studies Vol. 45 no. 1 (Summer 2011): 3-18), you do not read translated works of literature in order to encounter the familiar.
Obviously, any kind of familiarity with the Arabic literary tradition will be helpful as an introduction to the literary tradition in Arabic. My INTRODUCTION TO ARABIC LITERATURE [Cambridge UP, 2000] is intended to offer such access (and it’s in paperback!).”
Kim Jensen is an associate professor of English at the Community College of Baltimore County. She puts her profession to practice as the author of The Woman I Left Behind, and the collection of poems, Bread Alone. Her writing and poetry have been featured in a spread of anthologies and journals, including The Baltimore Review, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Rain Taxi Review, Al Jadid, and Imagine Peace. Jensen’s newest book The Only Thing That Matters, to be published next month, is another powerful collection of poems derived from the ideas and vocabulary of radical poet and novelist Fanny Howe and transformed into astonishing new formulations.
What is on your nightstand now?
“That’s a loaded question, considering that my iPad/Kindle is sitting on my nightstand, full of all kinds of books! In any case, the nightstand is piled high with paper texts too. Right now: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; The Gift by the great Persian Mystic poet, Hafiz; The Glance by Rumi, another of the most wonderful Sufi poets; a powerful novel about the Colombian civil war called The Armies by Evelio Rosero; Blood Dazzler by spoken word poet Patricia Smith. Also various books by: Mahmoud Darwish, Louise Erdrich, Anton Chekhov, Alice Munro, Wolfgang Iser, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Two more: The Gun and the Olive Branch by David Hirst and The Palestinians by Rosemary Sayigh—a must read for anyone interested in the Palestinian struggle.”
What was your favorite book as a child?
“This question digs at a mystery that has plagued me for years. Once upon a time, my family had a collection of fairytales with the most wonderful illustrations that I can still picture to this day. I used to stare at those colorful illustrations for hours. The book has since disappeared and I have often wondered what it was and who published it. I long to revisit that book with adult eyes to understand what was so mesmerizing. This is the meaning of childhood—a place full of nameless shadows that you can never quite retrieve.”
Who are your top five authors?
“I am against creating such a limited pantheon, even for fun. These kinds of short lists leave out too many names of poets, playwrights, novelists, fiction writers, philosophers, and theorists who have had a massive impact at various places and times. It’s not fair or even a healthy way of understanding the way literature and poetry move in and out of our lives, arriving, staying, receding, sometimes returning, sometimes not. Great as they are, why should Balzac or Tolstoy or Flaubert be on the list (for me), but not Richard Wright or Mahmoud Darwish? Why should Darwish be on the list, but not Simone Weil? Why should Shakespeare be on the list, but not Achebe, Rumi, Marx, Sophocles, Nietzsche, or Oscar Wilde? And where would Toni Morrison’s Beloved go? Or The Great Gatsby? Or Hemingway? Alice Munro and Louise Erdrich? Or Marquez? And that’s just to name the famous ones, not to mention the unsung poets of the trenches, bars, and streets. Or authors who have written single-hit masterpieces, but who never get to make it into these kinds of “best-of” compilations. Impossible. Is there a place for Emily Dickinson? August Wilson? Raymond Carver? June Jordan? This could go on and on.
So as not to disappoint, I will say this: if I had to put one author at the very tippy top of my own teetering pyramid, it would be Chekhov. His short stories are perfection. Untouchable. The sublime meeting of insight, technique, and compassion make Chekhov unmatched—for me.”
What book have you faked reading?
“I don’t claim to have read books that I haven’t read; however, I may nod with a kind of mock confidence when their names come up in conversation. I’ve never finished Orientalism by Edward Said, but I refer to its ideas without having read more than a few chapters.”
What book are you an evangelist for?
“Before Jennifer Egan won her big Pulitzer Prize last year for A Visit From the Good Squad and rendered all of my evangelizing obsolete, I used to get on the Egan pulpit. I am personally responsible for any number of converts. Four years ago, a friend of mine bought Look at Me for my daughter. I borrowed it and gobbled it up, astonished at Egan’s huge talent.”
Have you ever bought a book for its cover? Which one?
“I have not. For someone who loves reading as much as I do, I find bookstores overwhelming and even depressing at times, especially the big, corporate stores. There is a wonderful radical bookstore in Baltimore called Red Emma’s in which I have the opposite experience—very enlivening. Yet, I still don’t buy a book for its cover, even there. When I step into a book store, it’s usually to buy something I already have on my mind. If it is an impulse purchase, it will be something that I have read a review of, or a classic text that I should finally read, so I can stop just nodding knowingly and get into the conversation!”
What book changed your life?
“The five experimental novels by Fanny Howe that are now compiled one book now called Radical Love (Night Boat Books, 2005) had a huge impact on my life. These are experimental and poetic novels for adventurous readers who are also spiritual seekers. My new collection of poetry (The Only Thing that Matters) is based on my study of her poetry. Readers can read a recent interview that I conducted with Fanny Howe for Bomb Magazine.”
What is your favorite line from a book?
“A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism.”
What book do you most want to read again for the first time?
“That anonymous book of fairytales with the exquisite drawings that was lost to time and entered the realm of personal myth. I wish I could start all over with that one!”
Kim Jensen’s The Only Thing That Matters makes a great addition to your National Poetry Month reading list. To learn more about this title or pre-order now visit the Syracuse University Press website.
Questions from the popular Shelf Awareness Book Brahmin series.
Book: “Other People’s Diasporas”: Negotiating Race in Contemporary Irish and Irish-American Culture
Sinéad Moynihan is a lecturer in twentieth-century literature at the University of Exeter. In addition to several book chapters and articles, she is the author of Passing into the Present: Contemporary American Fiction of Racial and Gender Passing. After awarded an Early Career Fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust in 2007, Moynihan started writing her newest Syracuse University Press title, to be published this April, “Other People’s Diasporas”: Negotiating Race in Contemporary Irish and Irish-American Culture.
Tell us about “Other People’s Diasporas.”
“Other People’s Diasporas” is concerned with Irish and Irish-American cultural production in the context of unprecedented in-migration to Ireland during the Celtic Tiger. How did Irish writers, filmmakers, dramatists and stand-up comics confront Ireland’s changed demographics in their work? I argue that they did so by mediating these contemporary concerns about Ireland through narratives that (re)imagined Irish diasporic experience in the United States. For example, Joseph O’Connor wrote a novel about emigration to New York during the Great Famine at precisely the moment when immigration into Ireland was at its peak. How are we to interpret this gesture? The book is divided into five chapters, two on contemporary Irish writers (Joseph O’Connor and Roddy Doyle), one on Irish and Irish-American drama (Donal O’Kelly and Ronan Noone), one on stand-up comedy (Des Bishop) and one on Irish and Irish-American cinema (The Nephew and In America).”
Could you briefly describe the economic growth under the “Celtic Tiger?”
“From about the mid-1990s on, Ireland entered a period of unprecedented economic growth. The Irish economy expanded at a rate of about 9.4% between 1995 and 2000 and this growth continued, though not at the same rate, until 2008. The first recorded use of the expression “Celtic Tiger” was by Kevin Gardiner of Morgan Stanley in London, who drew a comparison between Ireland’s growth and the Asian “tiger” economies. This expansion had enormous consequences for Ireland: for the first time, it effectively boasted full employment, many emigrants of the 1980s and early 1990s returned to Ireland to live, property prices soared and, the issue in which I’m interested, suddenly immigration began to exceed emigration by a wide margin. The years of the “boom” or the “economic miracle” lasted until about 2008, when Ireland, like many other countries worldwide, was hit by a severe recession.”
What kind of obstacles did the new immigrants in Ireland face?
“It’s very difficult to generalise about this, since there were so many “categories” of immigrant to Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years and, of course, each individual person has a wide range of experiences. There were many immigrants from EU countries. For example, the Polish – who tended to be white, Catholic and had good English, or were very willing to learn it – perhaps found Ireland more welcoming than other immigrants did, simply because, to Irish natives, they seemed less “different” or “other.” On the other hand, asylum-seekers had a very difficult time because they weren’t permitted to work while their application for asylum was being considered and they were often housed in small towns in the midlands or the west of Ireland (because this was cheaper than housing them in urban areas) . Those communities had often had few or no encounters with ethnic minorities prior to their arrival.”
“It was beneficial in any number of ways. Most practically, and in purely economic terms, many immigrants took jobs that Irish natives, more affluent than previously, were now unwilling to take. They were therefore responsible for the provision of many services, without which the economy would not have run as smoothly or as successfully. This is in line with what has happened in other economically successful countries around the world which began to attract migrants because of the availability of work. The downside to this, of course, is that as soon as there is a downturn in the economy, as has happened in Ireland, Irish natives are more likely to see immigrants as “taking” jobs that would otherwise be available for them. I try to grapple with some of these issues in the epilogue to my book.”
What did writing this book entail?
“The groundwork of this project was laid as early as 2005, when I presented a paper on Jim Sheridan’s In America at a Transatlantic Studies conference in Nottingham, where I was undertaking my Ph.D. on an unrelated subject. I read the film in the context of the referendum on Irish Citizenship of June 2004. When that referendum took place, I had only been living in England for nine months. I was so incensed by the implications of it that I went back to Ireland to vote against it, not that this did any good, since 79% of the population voted in favour of it. By the time I finished my Ph.D. and applied for postdoctoral funding, which I was awarded, I was absolutely sure that I wanted my next project to about the implications of this referendum and how questions of race and immigration were being negotiated in contemporary Irish culture. I had two years in which to complete the project, which I did. It was a straightforward book to write, partly because I was so impassioned by the subject matter and partly because I had very good access to Irish media and popular culture, through frequent visits back to Ireland and through friends and relatives who did a lot of information-gathering on my behalf.”
Can you explain the title “Other People’s Diasporas”? How did you come up with it?
“The term “Other People’s Diasporas” is taken from a quotation by sociologist Steve Garner. In the early days of researching this book, I read his book, Racism in the Irish Experience (2004), where he poses the question: “Yet what happens when other people’s diasporas converge on the homeland of a diasporic people?” What I really liked was that embedded in the term “other people’s diasporas” was the implication of a connection between both historical emigration and contemporary immigration to Ireland. I was interested in precisely this connection. In other words, how have Irish writing, cinema, stand-up comedy and so on responded to the influx of immigrants to Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years? They have done so by mediating their concerns through narratives of emigration to the U.S.”
For more information on Moynihan’s engaging exploration “Other People’s Diasporas,” visit the Syracuse University Press website. It’s available for pre-order now!
Nadje al Ali, co-editor of We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War, will be speaking at the Reel Iraq Festival this weekend. The two-day event will explore the consequential responses of artists and institutions to the invasion of Iraq through collaborative discussion.
The first talk, Friday, March 22, will be held from 10:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. in the Mosaic Rooms and the following discussions, on Saturday, March 23, will be from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. at SOAS. The event is free and open to the public with proper registration!