Friday 23 August 2019

'As a young writer, I didn't see my culture represented' - Jan Carson on the ongoing issues facing Protestant writers in Northern Ireland

The North's literary scene is thriving but seems to be dominated by narratives from one side of the community. Novelist Jan Carson addresses the ongoing issues facing Protestant writers and reflects on why it has taken her 15 years to write unapologetically about the community in which she grew up

Impact: Jan Carson grew up in a conservative church that supported a Calvinistic fear of the arts
Impact: Jan Carson grew up in a conservative church that supported a Calvinistic fear of the arts

The Catholic experience within the North of Ireland has been explored recently in a number of powerful novels, including Anna Burns' Booker Prize-winning Milkman, Paul McVeigh's The Good Son, and Michael Hughes' stunning border epic, Country.

With Derry Girls' irreverent take on life in a mid-1990s Catholic girls' school dominating the television listings, it seems like the Catholic voice has never been better represented or more widely acclaimed. As a Protestant writer whose work explores the culture, religion and politics most commonly associated with my community, it's unsurprising that I'm often asked why Catholic narratives seem to dominate the North's literary canon.

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Firstly, let me challenge the assumption of a Protestant creative void. Connal Parr, in his recent book Inventing the Myth; Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination, makes the case for a thriving, articulate Protestant voice within theatre in the North. Whilst there's a marked lack of diversity in the playwrights Parr features - they're predominately male, working-class and focused on urban-centric experiences of tribal politics and class -there is undoubtedly a rich seam of Protestant theatre running through the North of Ireland.

There are also an increasing number of poets actively engaging with the culture and history of the Protestant community. Scott McKendry's writing takes an unflinching look at the working class Unionist community in which he grew up, whilst much of Jean Bleakney's recent collection, No Remedy, is a poignant and powerful account of her Protestant childhood in Newry, where her father was a border customs officer.

Established Northern Irish novelists like David Park, whose 2012 novel The Light of Amsterdam sensitively explores the loss of Protestant faith, and Glenn Patterson, whose essay collection Lapsed Protestant tackles similar themes, have been enormously influential within our literary community for years. There's been a resurgence of strong prose writing emerging from within the Protestant tradition. Though it would be remiss not to mention Phil Harrison's stunning debut, The First Day with its gracious critique of Protestant evangelicalism, women are at the forefront of this movement. Writers such as Lucy Caldwell, Rosemary Jenkinson and Wendy Erskine are capturing the contemporary cultural landscape in their work and it's heartening to see pressing issues such as women's rights, gender equality, faith and class addressed alongside the usual politics which have traditionally dominated much of the North's literary output.

Despite these new Protestant voices, the predominant literary narrative of the North remains bent towards the Catholic experience. I can offer no simple reason for this; more experienced academics have spent years hypothesising on the subject. I can only point towards my personal experience. It's taken me 15 years to write confidently and unapologetically about the community in which I grew up. I have encountered a number of issues along the way.

Irish literature was celebrated in the Protestant Grammar I attended. We read Heaney, Seán Ó Faoláin and Michael McLaverty. However, Sadie in Joan Lingard's Across the Barricades remains the only Protestant character I recall studying. Her experience was so far removed from my own rural, middle-class, Presbyterianism as to be almost unrecognisable. Later, I'd discover and revel in largely forgotten Protestant writers such as Janet McNeill and Ian Cochrane, but for the most part these texts came too late for me. As a young writer, I didn't see my culture represented in the books I read. I therefore wrongly assumed my culture wasn't interesting or worthy of representation. For years I wrote stories set elsewhere because I didn't believe anyone would want to read about the places and people familiar to me. Lack of representation inspires lack of representation. It's a vicious cycle, which has undoubtedly had an impact on diversity within the North's literary canon.

To add to my creative reticence, I grew up in a conservative church. The prevailing theology supported a Calvinistic fear of the arts, and a belief that writing fiction was tantamount to lying. I wasn't encouraged to embrace my creativity and was often envious of the young Catholics I knew who seemed to be surrounded by music, story and art. My religious upbringing is familiar to many Protestant writers in the North. The DUP's ongoing reluctance to support the arts is evidence that this kind of poor theology is still impacting our artists negatively. Like me, many Protestant writers have had to wrestle through guilt, disapproval and condemnation just to write honestly about their experiences. Understandably enough, some have decided it's easier not to bother.

Even after I began writing about Protestant culture, I discovered that many people - particularly those outside Ireland - didn't have a nuanced idea of the diverse cultures which co-exist within the North.

Once, at a festival in America I was asked to talk about my Catholic childhood. When I explained that I was a Protestant, three people left immediately and others seemed perturbed that I didn't fit into their Catholic, Irish-speaking stereotype of an Ulsterwoman. It's a crass example, but an illustration of the ongoing issues many Protestant writers face as they try to interest readers and publishers in a narrative which is complex, occasionally divisive and often unfamiliar to those who primarily associate Irishness with the Catholic tradition.

Still, I remain hopeful. There's a growing community of Protestant writers in the North. They're writing in their own, unique voices about a range of contemporary issues.

Perhaps, the next generation of Protestant writers will be able to encounter something of their own lived experience in the books they come across. Maybe it will be easier for them.

The North of Ireland is evolving rapidly. New writers are arriving from all over the world, adding their diverse influences and interests to the creative mix.

Many local writers no longer claim allegiance to either of the two traditional sides. The literary landscape is now populated with eclectic voices. The notion of what it means to write from, and of, the North of Ireland has never been more complex or intriguing.

Jan Carson's novel 'The Fire Starters' is published by Doubleday

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