Friday 23 August 2019

Luminous Kate Holmquist: a dazzling writer and great listener

TRIBUTES: Kate Holmquist
TRIBUTES: Kate Holmquist

Gerard Smyth

In her powerfully honest self-portrait, written for the Irish Times in 2006 at the time of publication of her novel, The Glass Room, Kate Holmquist wrote that in the move from journalism to a work of the imagination she discovered that the blank page forced her to confront the reality that she had lost her "true voice". This surprised me and struck me as, perhaps, overstatement: an exaggerated pose. Loyalty to her true voice had, in my estimation, always been a quality of her writing and remained so from beginning to end.

After the news last week of her tragic death I searched for that single word that might describe Kate.

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Luminous is the word that sprung to mind, the one that seemed entirely apposite in her case and as I see her in the mind's eye. The dazzle of that luminosity was obvious - and no doubt entrancing - to all of us who were her colleagues.

When her talent spilled on to the features pages in the sour and stale Ireland of the mid-1980s it marked the arrival of a journalist who brought a freshness of voice as well as a degree of edginess, a refreshing candour.

That same candour could enter into conversations with Kate, even through her gentle demeanour.

What her editors immediately noted was the clear thinking and good sense of her ideas and contributions to editorial discussions. Among the tributes last week, former Irish Times features editor Sheila Wayman recalled how Kate's writing on "women's issues" could make "older male colleagues' toes curl". By the time, years later, she came to write an article on sex toys for women, those male toes had just about ceased to curl.

Kate's presence in the features pages soon became a dynamic one - and yet for all that dynamism her words were calm, measured, thoughtful and full of the insights that came out of a life lived in the many remarkable ways that she documents with fierce honesty in that biographical sketch written as background to the novel. Her readers were the beneficiaries of that life because out of it came the sensibilities and intuitions she brought to her writing; and I sense that Kate's readers could not help but feel that the voice in the writing was speaking directly to them and doing so without any hint of reticence.

In much of her writing she had the ability to make her readers stop and think - she did not simply have opinions about the world, she knew and understood things about its complexities and contradictions and this informed writing that was often underscored by its sympathetic tone. In her attention to the local she could explore the much larger dimensions of our mangled humanity.

In a time before social media she knew the importance of transmitting the stories of those who had no outlet, those upon whom chance had inflicted more of the anguish and less of the bliss that life has to offer. Her empathetic nature has been much commented on. A piece she wrote on the untimely death of Jonathan Philbin Bowman and its wider impact on his family exhibits that empathy, as does what turned out to be one of her final Irish Times articles when, on the Dart, she and fellow passengers encountered a delay in the journey due to the presence of a naked man on the line. The way in which in the midst of mostly bemusement at this conduct, she engaged with the young obstructer and reached into an understanding of his hidden story, giving it life through her words - and his - is another example of that capacity to be not only a good listener but a sympathetic one.

Her work covered a diverse range of topics - family life, sexuality, gender, porn and parenting, masturbation and the menopause, and the social changes she witnessed in the Ireland of the 1980s and 1990s, but ultimately I think Kate's true subject was human nature, in all its profundity and absurdity, about which she had a deep understanding.

While she had written a highly regarded memoir, The Good Daughter, she wisely sat out the time it took that was necessary for her book of fiction to emerge - and of course the facts of her life revealed to us in the background article make clear that it is not entirely a work of fiction: its characters may shed some of their real identity but as ever in Kate's writing real life was/is present on the page.

The tragedy of her loss to Irish journalism is great, but greater still is the loss to her beloved family, Ferdia, Sienna, Bessa and Finn.

Gerard Smyth is a former 'Irish Times' managing editor and the author of nine books of poetry. He is a member of Aosdana

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