A Brighter Mirror, an interview with Colm Tóibín, author and Chairman of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature
Colm Tóibín is an Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist, critic and poet whose work—as well as twice being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize—has received the IMPAC Literary Award, the Costa Novel Award, the Los Angeles Times Novel of the Year Award, and the Irish PEN Award for contribution to Irish literature. His elegantly written, humane novels, which include The Blackwater Lightship, The Master, Brooklyn, and 2014’s Nora Webster, deal with Irish society, homosexual identity, the yearning for home, and the painful silences that can descend like an obscuring fog over families. Over the course of a career spanning a quarter of a century, Tóibín has been a staunch advocate for free expression and gay rights and has this year taken over the role of Chairman of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. (The festival runs in New York from May 4-10.) From his office in Columbia University, where he is currently serving as the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities, Tóibín spoke to me by phone about his hopes for the upcoming festival, Ireland’s referendum on gay marriage, the perils of taking a play to Broadway, and his fascination with Elizabeth Bishop.
Dan Sheehan: What does PEN, as an organization, mean to you as a writer? What made you decide to take on this public facing, ambassadorial role as Chairman of the World Voices Festival?
Colm Tóibín: PEN is an essential element in our culture. Anyone who has ever been brought up under censorship understands that it’s almost a barometer of the level of freedom in a society – what happens to books, what happens to writers, what happens to the written word. And what’s strange is that it isn’t merely books which are political, or that are directly political, that dictators and others who would want to control our lives worry about. They also worry about literature. It’s bad enough that a writer who would wish to express unpopular opinions or voice combative responses to government policy would be repressed, but that writers who would simply dream—who would write poetry or novels which ostensibly have nothing to do with politics… There are countries where that kind of work is simply unavailable. It’s a serious matter. It’s not a life and death matter in and of itself, but oddly enough in the places where it occurs you often find that other freedoms are restricted as well. PEN’s mission is not only to draw attention to this but to change it, to attempt to change the entire culture of restriction evident in so many places around the world. So for anyone who is a writer, for any one who is a reader, these are pressing and serious issues.
DS: One thing which struck me, in my brief time working with PEN, was that a great majority of the imprisoned recipients of the Freedom to Write Award [given annually to a writer who has fought courageously, in the face of adversity, for the right to freedom of expression], 36 out of 39 in fact, have been subsequently released. These figures must be quite heartening.
CT: They are, and while we are involved to an extent in defending free expression, the main focus of the World Voices Festival is to celebrate and honor the written word, so it’s a different mission, to some extent, to the daily business of putting pressure on governments and drawing attention to victims. Our work in the festival is a mirror of that, but it’s a brighter mirror. It seeks to introduce readers to work that might not automatically seem to be the most popular. It’s not a festival that tries to bring all the best selling writers in America together for one event. That would be fine, but it’s not our mission.
DS: For your first year as Festival Chairman, you’re presiding over a new curatorial approach, focusing specifically on the contemporary literary cultures across the African continent and its diaspora. Could you tell us a little bit more this?
CT: Well Jakab Orsós is the director, so the day-to-day programming is his business, and he has come up with this absolutely marvelous program. What I always say is that if you come to this festival, it might keep you reading for a year. In other words there will be enough new books and new writers whom you haven’t heard of to nourish you for a long time. The priority for us this year is to focus it. If you just say “well, we’re bringing in all these writers from different places, and we hope you enjoy it,” that’s one thing, but it’s harder to put something like that together than it is to zero in on one particular region, in this case Africa. In a way it’s easier to capture someone’s imagination by putting this kind of focused program together. But it doesn’t mean of course that the festival is only about Africa. For example I think one of the biggest events is going to be Richard Flanagan in conversation with Claire Messud. Richard is not African, he’s from Tasmania, but I think that event, because he’s not somebody who has done a lot of readings in New York, and because he recently won the Booker Prize, is likely to draw a big audience.
DS: I wanted to ask you a bit about one event in particular: ‘Queer Features’ [a conversation with prominent African writers which will survey the landscape of African Gay Rights movements]. As somebody who has written beautifully about gay relationships and identities in your fiction, what does an event like this, at a high profile festival like this, mean to you?
CT: It means a great deal to me. I think anyone who has been brought up gay in a country which doesn’t recognise gay rights, as I was, understands that it is something, much like the treatment of the written word we spoke about earlier, which almost becomes a barometer for other freedoms. If you want to repress gay people, you usually want to do quite a number of other things too. But of course, out of that can come all sorts of strangeness. And if you look at the novels written by gay people over the last twenty or thirty years, you realize that literature comes from strange places. You can set up a writing school and bring in a host of talented people, but you won’t automatically get the best books from that. Often literature grows in very barren places. It often comes from the ways in which the dreaming life or the imaginative life is suppressed, or the essential elements in our being are suppressed. Out of that pressure, a certain tone in literature can come. We have some very interesting and intense writing by gay people which has arisen from repression, from their efforts to imagine a world outside of the one in which they’re living.
DS: Did you find that to be the case for yourself in your own early writing?
CT: I think the best description of this comes from the American poet Adrienne Rich, who talked about the idea of looking in the mirror as a gay person and finding no one there. Of there being no images available of other gay people. You were almost alone. In other words, Jewish people or Irish people or Palestinian people or Native American people can actually understand their own oppression because it’s a history that’s passed on from generation to generation. But gay people, they’re alone. So the effort to find images that match your experience is often very difficult. Yet out of that exploration can come something very interesting. It is, if you’re a writer, almost nourishing, although I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. But it’s not necessarily all damaging. Though it is a particularly pressing issue in some African countries at the moment.
DS: Along the same lines, it’s been quite heartening to see the immensely positive response, especially among younger demographics, to the upcoming gay marriage referendum in Ireland. You’ve talked about the historical lack of positive images of gay identity for young people to turn to in Ireland. Is there a sea change happening at the moment?
CT: Well, It’s really quite difficult to interpret these opinion polls. The suggestion is that the referendum will be passed, but we have had opinion poles leading up to referenda in previous years which have turned out to be misleading. So we just don’t know. What’s interesting of course is that it’s quite difficult to oppose this referendum openly. Some people are doing that, but they’re not many, and that’s good in the sense that there is an overwhelming public support at the moment for the referendum. What people will do in the privacy of the ballot box is a different matter. It may end up being fine, but it’s worrying still. I think everyone is concerned about it.
DS: Absolutely. We’ve seen before the kind of disproportionate influence organizations like The Iona Institute [a socially conservative Catholic advocacy group based in Ireland] can have.
CT: Yes, but that’s democracy in the sense that you have to have an argument, you can’t just have everyone singing from the same hymn sheet. They turned out to be the opposition because the Catholic Church is in hiding. They [the clergy] have their heads firmly planted in the sand, so you have to have some group that’s willing to make the argument against gay marriage in order for there to be some sort of debate.
DS: A persistent, and oft-discussed, theme in your work is the longing for home. Can you talk a little bit about that?
CT: Well, it’s one of those things that is a feature of the history of Ireland. Over the last one hundred and fifty years a great number of people have emigrated from the country and that’s an experience that comes in all sorts of shapes. One of them is that people miss home and then make a new home and then aren’t sure what home is anymore. It becomes quite a complicated thing that maybe only a novelist can handle. I feel it every time I arrive at JFK to go to Dublin and I start seeing Irish people wandering around the airport. “How do you know they’re Irish?” I don’t know, I just know that they are (laughs). Then there’s that sense of being home on the plane. It’s a very funny feeling. I’m not sure how long exactly it lasts but for me it’s palpable, it’s worth dramatizing.
DS: I’ve often wondered that myself, is it the kind of thing that ever really goes away? You’ve travelled extensively and you’ve taught all over the US, is that feeling something you take with you or is it a fixed idea of home that waits for you at the airport?
CT: It’s not fixed, so you can never tell what you’re going to feel like. Sometimes it’s amazing being away, and then other times you think, “I’d love to be in Dublin on a Saturday morning.” That feeling of getting up and buying the papers, finding somewhere to have your breakfast and meeting somebody. That lovely relaxed Dublin. No subways.
DS: Can I ask you now about your most recent book, On Elizabeth Bishop? What influence has her writing had on your own?
CT: She writes a lot about home, which is a difficult and gnarled sort of problem for her. She was from Nova Scotia—which of course is Northern and maritime, like the landscape of Wexford [ed. – where Tóibín grew up]—but she travelled a lot and lived in Florida and Brazil, so she was always caught between two or three things. She wrote very slowly, it took her ages to do anything, and she was a perfectionist. She also had a sort of a melancholy austerity in her tone. So all of that began to interest me, and it has interested me for a long time. Then when Princeton asked me what author I might like to write a book about I think they thought I might want to write about Joyce or Yeats, someone Irish you know, but I said I’d like to write about Elizabeth Bishop and they said that was cool, that they would commission that. Oddly enough it was quite a pleasure to write. I enjoyed those days, when I got to work on my Bishop Book. It’s not like it was ever going to be made into a movie or become a best seller, so it turned out to be a lovely sort of private work.
DS: You could take the commercial concerns out of the equation and just enjoy it for what it was.
DS: Although, having said that, Bishop was a pretty interesting character. I think I would watch a movie about her life.
CT: You would watch a movie about her life, but trying to get anyone to invest in that movie would be something else entirely.
DS: And you’ve had some experience recently with work that has been artistically very well received but which also proved to be a difficult commercial sell. Could you tell us a bit about the experience of bringing The Testament of Mary [Tóibín’s monologue play which later became a novella] to Broadway.
CT: Well it didn’t really work there, but it is doing very well in Spain at the moment. It’s been running for a long time, since last July actually, and it’s going to go on running and move down into South America. The play has opened in all sorts of funny places since it closed on Broadway. The Broadway episode was strange, you know, it was up and then it was down, but that particular production went on to London where it was very successful.
DS: Going back to Elizabeth Bishop and her perfectionist streak, the time she took to get things just right, you started your most recent novel, Nora Webster, in 2000, is that right?
CT: (laughs) I did. I mean, I didn’t work on it every day but I thought about it every day. I would write some of it every year and then in the last few years I decided I had better finish it.
DS: Was it a case of the book coming together big by bit until you hit a sweet spot?
CT: It was a case of not being able to work out how to structure it. I put in the bits I knew, and then I had all of those and I realized that I had better concentrate on the bits I still had to work out. I thought that if I couldn’t figure out a structure for it at that point I would just do a chronological structure, scenes occurring in ordered time, to see if that might work, so that’s what I did.