Her prose debut, A Ghost in the Throat, was published last year by Tramp Press in Ireland, and was recently released in the US by Biblioasis. Winner of the James Tait Black Prize for Biography, it straddles autofiction, essay, and poetry, centering on Ní Ghríofa’s own life and her obsession with Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, an 18th-century noblewoman who penned one of Ireland’s legendary keens, “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire.”
I spoke to Ní Ghríofa via Zoom, she from her home near Cork, and me from the suburbs of Dublin.
JOANNA CHEN: Originally, we were going to discuss A Ghost in the Throat, but as soon as we set a date, you generously sent me your latest poetry collection, To Star the Dark. After reading it, I decided there was more to it than generosity; A Ghost in the Throat and To Star the Dark seem to weave through each other.
DOIREANN NÍ GHRÍOFA: A lot of the poems that are in To Star the Dark were being composed as I was writing A Ghost in the Throat, and a lot of the imagery and the biographical impulse and experiences from my own lived days, if I can put it that way, were making their way into the poems and A Ghost in the Throat at the same time. It was interesting for me to see the different ways in which they took form within the different genres.
Like this preoccupation I had and that I still have with starlings and how they seem so evocative of our own tendencies to draw on the past, draw on archival and ancestral impulses, I guess, and to hold those and to sing them, and to praise them and to create a new song of the past within our present. The preoccupation with the image of the starling made its way into Ghost in the Throat and various poems of To Star the Dark. It’s interesting when we have an artistic practice in several disciplines, the ways in which our imagination will work within each discipline is just endlessly interesting to me. It’s very mysterious anyway, I think, the human imagination, the images and the words and the ideas to which it clings, and the means whereby it tries to create literature is so interesting, isn’t it?
Which language is more evocative for you, Irish or English?
English is my mother tongue, English was our home language. I learned Irish when I started school, through a system of public education, so from the first day of elementary school, primary school, only Irish was spoken to me and, like all the other kids in my class, by Christmas of the first year, I was speaking Irish back to my teachers. I feel very fortunate that I was given my language almost as a gift because of the system of education I happened to be enrolled in.
It’s such a gentle way of learning the language, and it creates a deep fondness and an identification with the language that stays for life, in my experience, and that enriches and complicates our sense of identity. Like everyone in Ireland, our sense of identity is undeniably affected by postcolonial issues and trauma and historical injustice. The ways in which colonialism took shape in Ireland are very particular and inflicted very particular kinds of trauma and very particular kinds of shame, and they are as familiar to me as they are to anyone who’s grown up in Ireland. A lot of them manifest around issues of our language.
Leading on from this, you take care to preserve your personal and national heritage through the Irish aural tradition, the sense that past writing is always imprinted on the present, like voices in the dark. I’m reminded of one of the early chapters of A Ghost in the Throat, in which the public health nurse discovers you’re studying Irish literature for pleasure, and asks you: “So what’s all this for, then?”
What does it mean for a person to be drawn toward a poem that was composed hundreds of years ago by a woman in extreme grief, anguish, and rage, who spoke those feelings within a poem of the Irish literary tradition, who spoke those feelings within a specific meter, who spoke those things within a caoineadh, a keen, a literary art form that would have been thought of as specifically female, composed and practiced and recited by women over the dead? What does it mean for a contemporary woman to be drawn toward a poetry that is so much of itself, that is so embedded within the Irish language, and within the Irish literary tradition, and to consider it from the perspective of modern Ireland, in which English is the dominant language and culture in which we live? And what can be learned from that, from chasing that curiosity, what can someone from our times learn from the past, and what does the past want from us in return? And how can a person find themselves changed by that interaction?
To live in modern Ireland is to feel oneself surrounded by culture and history, and the dominance of the English language, the results of our history. We’re living the repercussions of it all the time, and to look back and question that, and to find ways to relate to the people who lived through other moments in our history is really powerful, and I still feel as though it’s changed me.
In what way?
I think it’s changed me in a really deep way, right down to bone level, that sense of attending to the past. And I always think of it as almost like pressing my ear to a wall and waiting to see what can be heard, echoing back, from the past that’s contained in the room next door … And the ways in which my research into the life of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill and into the act of how women composed these keens, and these extraordinary works of poetry, really changed the way in which I look at the world around me. The ways in which I think about erasure and self-erasure, the ways in which I think about history, and present and future, the ways in which we silence people, and the ways in which ordinary people like me are affected by greater forces of history that are at work all the time around us; and the ways in which we can resist such forces.
And so, I feel as though I’m a different person from who I was before I wrote A Ghost in the Throat. And that’s as should be, you know? I think as biographers we always have a lot to learn from our subjects, there’s a reason why we’re drawn to specific subjects and specific people, and part of it is our own curiosity and part of it is because they have something to teach us.
All this has come about without you ever formally studying creative writing.
Well, I did do a master’s in Modern Irish Literature in University College Cork, and I really enjoyed that, but it didn’t touch on the areas I was interested in. It was more like a starter in a restaurant rather than a main course and dessert, which is what I wanted.
Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s keen seems to have been an anchor for you at a very difficult time in your life. This adherence to literature reminded me of a poem by Adrienne Rich, “XIII (Dedications),” in which she imagines women in all kinds of situations, reading poetry.
Reading has always been a great source of pleasure and curiosity for me. All my life I’ve been drawn to libraries and books. I think, like all of us, I often wished for a mirror of sorts for the different elements of my own being, my own self, my own life, within the literature that I was choosing to read. There were elements of that I never really found, or very rarely found, and so what felt important to me in writing A Ghost in the Throat, and also in my poems, is to be open about the parts of my life that I see most rarely reflected in literature, because I know that I’m intensely ordinary as a person, and I think that just being an ordinary person is in its own way quite a glorious thing. You know, just being nothing special, and particularly as a writer, because we can see the things that bring us ordinary joys as ordinary people, and the choice to evoke those on the page I think is something that other readers respond to most strongly, almost in a startled kind of a way.
Even something as basic as a to-do list. You do find them in books, but you don’t find them as often as you find them in real life, right? I mean, my days are still constructed around various lists, so it felt really important to me to have some sense of texture, the ordinary texture of my days within the book.
Who is your reader? Do you have a face in your imagination as you write?
The reader to me just feels like a constant presence, almost like when you’re sitting on a bus and a stranger sits down next to you, and there’s that strong sense of a presence sitting close to you, shoulder to shoulder, that’s how close I feel the reader when I’m writing. The reader feels very much right there beside me. It’s a very strong sense of presence, and that’s a gift. Because when I’m writing I never feel alone, I feel the reader there, and I trust that the reader will respond to what I’m writing.
Do you write on buses? If something occurs to you, will you scribble it down? Do you even go on buses now?
I don’t during COVID, it’s been a long time since I traveled on a bus. But I used to travel on trains quite a lot before COVID for work and things like that. There’s something about motion, I think, and about momentum that almost lulls you into something, that evokes that sense of flow when writing is going well. That flow, like the experience of momentum, on a train or bus or car, there’s something about that sense of momentum and speed that evokes the sense of flow when writing is going well. And very often a lot of my ideas will come to me when I’m on a train or in a plane. I remember really clearly getting a commission to write a short essay on visual art just before I got on a plane, and when I sat down, the ideas started to flow, and by the time the plane landed I had a first draft. Almost like there is something magic in that sense of lift, that sense of momentum that carries you along through a piece of work. But more often than not I’m stationary when writing, particularly these days.
You have the reader with you all the time and you also have these silenced female voices. I can almost hear Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill through you. In To Star the Dark, you address her directly: “I’m reading your words and I’m wondering where they buried you.” Do you go to bed with your characters and wake up in the middle of the night with them?
[Laughs.] I think I do have a really strong sense of my artistic self as a conduit, I’m keenly aware that that’s often my role. I’m very comfortable in attending to the stories and the voices of the past and allowing myself to be the conduit through which those stories and voices find form in the moment. As I say in A Ghost in the Throat, I’m a good servant. You know, I attend to the needs of those voices, and I attempt to the best of my ability to communicate on the page.
The act of translation also demands an attention to voices. When you translate someone else’s writing, do you approach the translation differently than when you’re translating your own?
I do. I’m keenly aware of fidelity when translating other people’s work. It feels very important to me to be as loyal as possible to their intentions to the best of my abilities. I tend to veer very close to the original work, whereas in translation of my own work, I tend to be a little mischievous on the page and sometimes almost wink at the reader, you know? Oftentimes my poem in Irish will be on the left-hand page and the English translation will be on the right, and in order to signal to the reader the inevitable slippage that occurs between one language and the next, when the liquid of a poem is poured through the vessel of a translation and then poured into a new language, a new poem, something is changed, something shifts and shimmers in between those two vessels … So, in poems in which I’m particularly aware of that strange new embodiment and the process of the poem finding new embodiment through the act of translation, I will often signal that to the reader.
In Lies, there’s a poem that occurs in the middle of the night, and the time is signaled digitally in one poem as 01:37 and in the other 01:38. The reader’s eye, even if they don’t speak Irish, will notice that the digits are slightly different. I guess that was my way of signaling to the reader that I can’t necessarily be depended upon for articulating the poem in exactly the same way in English. Because things change, things shift, and because English is such a different language from Irish.
That is not something I would do with someone else’s poem. Ever. Because I feel when I’m translating other people’s work that it’s not my place. There are literary translators who do that all the time with other people’s poems. Paul Muldoon’s translations of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s poems spring to mind immediately. A lot of translations take great leaps and liberties, change even the spirit of the poem at every level: at the level of the line, at the level of the syllable, at the level of the ideas, at the level of the tone, and that’s something for me as a reader that I do sometimes feel shocked at and frustrated with because in that case I think the reader can be left with a certain idea of what they’ve just read that bears little relation to the original Irish poem, and that seems strange to me.
One of the inventive things you do in your writing is to use compound modifiers, the joining together of words. Like “salt-sorrow,” I loved that one.
I think it’s quite old-fashioned, the way I tend toward experimenting with language like that. And it’s something as well I think that is quite influenced by my reading of Seán Ó Ríordáin, the Irish-language poet. In his poetry book Brosna, he wrote: “Cé cheangail ceangal eadrainn, / A theanga seo leath-liom?” — lines that I might roughly translate as “Who tied the twine that binds us, oh half-tongue of mine?” That sense of a tongue being half mine is something I can really relate to. He also has a wonderfully fluid, very lyrical way of combining words like that, and I think that sometimes, when we really attend to the voice of another poet and allow them to influence us through our reading, it’s inevitable that, when we come to our own writing, we find they’re someplace at the back of our imagination. So I wonder whether that tendency was influenced by studying the poems of Seán Ó Ríordáin over a very long period of time.
The way a writer comes to approach their craft is probably informed by lots of other things, and I think literary translation, as a practice, always forms who we are as writers and readers. Because, like you, whenever I find a dual-language book, even though I often can’t read the original language, my eye will go back and forth. It’s very hard to resist those impulses, but I think they enrich us, you know, as writers, as well as readers.
Joanna Chen is a writer and literary translator whose work has been published in Guernica, Asymptote, and Narratively, among others. Her latest full-length translation, but first I call your name (Shearsman Books), is forthcoming in 2021.