This is something I’ve been told (in so many words) quite a few times over the course of the past four years. It’s an observation that I‘m always surprised and saddened by. This is perhaps due to my very first encounter with a professional reviewer having been a celebration of the exact opposite. I’m referring to a conversation I had with that great champion of childrens’ literature, and respected book reviewer, Robert Dunbarr. We met at a childrens’ literary conference(?) in 2008. I was still very timid in such situations and lost in the sea of folks who all seemed to have known each other since birth. Robert was lovely – putting me at my ease and speaking with his usual enthusiasm about childrens’ literature. I couldn’t help but fall in love a little. He told me one of the things he had loved about The Poison Throne was its step away from the predominantly parochial flavour of Irish publications. He felt this was a strength. He was excited by it.
I was delighted, but to be honest, I never made a conscious effort to step away from the usual localised themes and settings of the Irish Children’s lit scene. HadIrelandoffered me fertile ground in which to explore the trilogy themes, then I might have set the books here. But the truth is, the story demanded otherwise. It was the themes of Moorehawke that dictated the setting, the themes that dictated the characters, and the themes that dictated the plot. And so we end up in a small, militarily vulnerable European country, populated with an ever shifting mix of different nationalities and creeds, surrounded by grudgingly allied hostile forces, connected toNorth Africavia diplomacy and location. We end up, in other words, in the Southlands. We have its ruling family The Kingsson’s. And we have their enemies and allies and dependants, all laid out like a chess board for me to play my intricate games with.
DidIrelandever once cross my mind as a location for this story. No.
Should it have? Hell no.
Why should any author, based on their nationality/religion/race/sexual orientation* be required to stay within certain boundaries of expression? As a reader, is it right to approach a novel with an idea in your head of what it should offer you based on the nationality/religion/race/sexual orientation of its author? Should you not, first and foremost, read from page one with an open mind, and so interpret the novel as a distinct unit, judging it on how well or how poorly it affects you as a piece of work?
On the other hand. Did I bring my national identity to this story? Did I bring that uniquely Irish voice and particularly Irish use of English? (thankfully not edited to death as sometimes can happen to writers who use a more dialectical form of prose) Did I bring the Irish understanding of grey areas and shifting moralities? Did I bring the sensibilities of a nation who knows what it is to eat itself alive over differing ideals. Boy yes, did I ever. In this way – more than any other – these books are more than Irish enough.
My next two novels are about death and loss and trying to find a place in a world that’s decided you’re not worth much. Big big themes. They are both also set in Ireland.
I’m already wondering how many times I’ll be told they’re too parochial 🙂
*I’m expanding this beyond nationality, partially to show how limiting what I’ve come to think of as the ‘perceived responsibility to depict’ is.