I introduce the target readership of my first published book, Turas Ailse (A Trip through Cancer), this way:
I hold my hands out wide apart in front of me, as if measuring distance
‘It’s a poetry collection,’
I narrow the distance between my hands.
‘In Irish. . . ‘
I continue to narrow the distance between my hands.
‘.. . about my journey through cancer treatment.’
I narrow the distance to a few finger-widths.
People laugh, because it is funny – while true – but it also breaks the awkward silence that tends to happen when people find out that my first book describes being a cancer patient.
‘Turas Ailse’ has layered meanings. The word ‘turas’ means a journey or a trip can also describe a recurring event, or a completed cycle. Cycles have a Future Tense. All life is a ‘turas’, cyclical events that form the basis of hope. And after all, trips also involve coming home.
The poetry collection remains a record of a life-changing experience. As a result, it’s also not surprising that I started started my blog of the same name http://turasailse.blogspot.com/ around that time, and I’ve kept it going since. The early years of writing posts nearly every day helped my formation as a writer enormously. All the craft articles and books that I read had mentioned writing often and regularly – no matter however little – and in my case this was true.
Then I decided to do ‘the writing thing’ properly. I joined writing groups, I enrolled on writing courses. I attended formal and informal workshops. I kept notebooks and jotted things down on the bus, in cafes, on park benches. I read, anything and everything. I wrote. I rewrote. I redrafted and redrafted yet again.
The result was a collection of short stories, Dílis, published by Cló Iar-Chonnacht. https://www.cic.ie/en/books/published-books/dilis
The stories are rooted in the memories of my teenage years, growing up in Belfast during the Troubles and, in particular, the seventies. ”Dílis’ is a much used word there, to describe not only love but also loyalty and steadfastness – to your lover, your family, your people, your language, your tribe. And while this staunchness can provide security and a sense of identity but it can sometimes be troublesome. To describe someone as ‘staunch’ in Belfast can host a myriad of nuance.
And now the publication of my first novel, Cití na gCártaí (Kitty of the Cards) with the Cois Life publishing house. ‘Cití’ (Kitty) is also developed from family memories. One of my grandfathers joined the British Army in 1914 to go off to fight in The Great War, believing that this would secure Home Rule for Ireland. He was stationed in hospitals on the island of Malta for most of the four years of that First World War, a fact that probably saved his life. It also provided him with a wife. He arranged a marriage to a young island woman there, my grandmother, and she came over to Ireland from Malta after the war ended. They didn’t know each other at all before they got married. In a gesture of courage and hope she left her island home – the sun, the lemon trees and bleached limestone – and joined him in Belfast. She may have anticipated the cold, the wet and the grey skies, but other aspects of Belfast in the troublesome years following 1918 didn’t turn out as expected . . .
Like Dílis, women and women’s experiences are the focus for ‘Cití’. While I used memories of my grandmother, Cití is her own woman, developed as a stand-alone and very different character. I received an Arts Council bursary to research the novel, and used it to visit Malta, to try to piece together how women there lived at that time. The Maltese National Archives were very helpful to me. I examined photographs, read books and studied newspaper articles of the time on their premises in Rabat. Rita Saliba – a poet who writes in Malti – was very generous with her time and knowledge (Malti is the Maltese language. Both Malti and English are official languages on the islands, but not everyone would speak English fluently, as I found out on my travels).
The folklore of the island especially and what it said about women was very illuminating – I ended up using proverbs in Malti at the beginning of every chapter. For example – Debba bla lġiem tisferra u tiġġarraf – ‘The unfettered mare will slip her bridle and fall off the edge of the cliff’. Mares here refer to girls or women. This happens in quite a lot of proverbs! A woman was to be kept in check and controlled. If she didn’t behave as expected (sexually) she might escape (become pregnant outside marriage) and fall off the edge of a cliff (be banished from her community). Where have we heard that before, I wonder?
Rita Saliba advised on and checked my use of Malti throughout the novel – the Arts Council bursary stretched to that as well. Now, I need to go back and learn a little Malti for myself – ‘Cití’ stops in 1921, and needs a sequel!
Oh, and the cards in the title? Well, when you read the book they will all fall into place.
(c) Réaltán Ní Leannáin
Réaltán Ní Leannáin is 2019 Irish Language Writer-in-Residence in Dublin City University. In print, she has a poetry collection TURAS AILSE, a short story collection DÍLIS and CITÍ NA GCÁRTAÍ. Details of where to buy them and other online work are on her blog http://turasailse.blogspot.com/
She is also on Twitter https://twitter.com/RealtanNiL
and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/Realtan2/
About Cití na gCártaí:
At the outbreak of the First World War, a young Maltese woman – Katarina – has her world turned upside down. She enters into an arranged marriage with Tomás, an Irish solider in the British army. Tomás is a native of Belfast stationed in Malta, dreaming of a united Ireland as Redmond promised.
We follow Kati’s story from 1917, when the hordes of injured flocked to Malta in the aftermath of the Gallipoli slaughter, to 1921 when she lands in Belfast, a city still in the grip of empire. An insightful depiction of women’s lives.
Order your copy online here.