By Sheri Fresonke Harper
Trinity College, Dublin founded in1592 and where noted satirist Jonathan Swift received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1868 and pursued a Master’s degree, is a suitably inspiring place for writers in the Carlow MFA Creative Writing program meet up for ten days of intense immersion in culture, literary readings, lectures and workshops on writing craft. For one thing, writers get to experience their own mini-Hogwarts complete with missing staircases in the suitably labyrinthine entrances to the Atrium; sometimes I found doors locked, sometimes they were open and other routes locked, sometimes I twist and turn down the one-person wide alley and enter, and sometimes I could enter past the kitchens. This is not a complaint, I found the experience rather enthralling especially with images of students running about in woolen robes circa medieval times entering my head (athough they were probably more stylish than that).
Lost at one time, I asked a man in a suit if he knew how to get to the Atrium conference room only to be told, “There is no such place, only offices. Do you work there?”
I replied, no.
He eventually sent me on the proverbial wild goose chase to accommodations and who didn’t know. Accommodations sent me off to information. Information could only point me back to the building from where I came originally. Luckily, the workers preparing the wood-lined ballroom decked with white curtains for a function and who’d closed off one entrance, unlocked the door, and I could make my way inside, magic wand fate having saved me from total disgrace at the first year student meeting.
No days were the same.
A late evening dinner at Trocadero’s introduced us to a well-known haunt of writers, an afternoon reading to the Irish Writer’s Centre. Other dinners, visits to the theatre, bus rides provide opportunity to sit with a mentor and discuss whether one should call oneself a poet or just claim to write poetry. Or to exchange tips about social media and favorite sources of reading and how one shouldn’t strangle their water bottle during a reading or the best place to vacation in Florida. I get my own turn to offer up J. Glenn Evans and Poetwest as a person and group of readings held in Seattle where visiting writings can easily get on the schedule as a Featured Reader.
Over time, it become easier to ask questions and set aside the desire to be “one of twenty-five Mona Lisas” seen by presenters that Ellie Wymard, our program director warns us against. Question can bring out the truth, that a poet sometimes just sits and thinks or that not doing feeds life.
A walk home at night from the tourist district had us stumbling over cobblestones past pubs lined with outdoor tables, music piping a mad jig or two, and afterwards finding the fountains outside the main gate alight and inside Trinity College’s plaza a tower blazed light. Passing on toward our rooms in Botany Bay, the thock, thock of a tennis ball sounded out a battle between late night athletes.
Early on Sunday mornings, Dublin is quiet until one by one, buskers set up on a corner and begin to play, some even finding an acoustically good alley in which to attract shoppers. Bloomsday, historically the day used in James Joyce’s book Ulysses or June 16th, was no different. Outside of Bewley’s Oriental Café, the haunt of James Joyce and a featured locale in Ulysses, diners who resist the temptation of cupcakes, may still find themselves pulled toward the door by a musician setting up his music and singing while accompanied on guitar.
What is the message of Bloomsday? It’s the message that a city will love an author that loves their city. It’s the message that comes out of Mary Costello’s story, China Factory, where the reader is immersed in concrete details, so much so, they can imagine themselves cleaning china, smelling body odor of a man who has moved sacks of clay all day. When I write my tale of China, I need to smell food cooking, have the clothing worn in China right, I need the wrinkles of faces, the odd phrasing of words, to let the voice be right.
Up Grafton street to St. Stephen’s Green, passing by the men’s clothing salesman dressed in top hat, gloves and formal suite, following part of the route of the story. In the park, statues of literary figures abound, including Yeats (who we missed) and Robert Emmet, Commander of the 1798 Rebellion who was tried and executed for treason, but whose words in the “Speech from the Dock” were to not have an epitaph carved until his country could take a place among the nations of the earth. Exiting the garden, one gate holds a statue of and Theobald Wolfe Tone, deemed the founder of Irish Republicanism and larger than life and the monument to the Great Famine of 1845-52, when 1 million died and 1 million emigrated, according to Dr. Ciaran O’Neill.
China’s famines are equally appalling to the Chinese, arousing resistance to the government. In China, no one famine was alike except the people forced the government to fail.
Between 1876-1879, one of the most lethal drought-famine struck Shanxi, Henan, Shandong, Zhili, and Shaanxi provinces with no rain in 1877. An estimated 9-13 million out of 108 million died. The starving lay in roads, ate the dead, turned to killing the living for food, all bark and leaves gone, they sold children, and commited suicide .
Severe droughts and lack of government assistance in 1919-1921 brought famine again to Hebei, Shandong, Shanxi, Henan, Shaanxi provinces, most with a population density 1230 per square mile. This famine killed 500,000+, out of 48.8 million, 19.8 million were destitute, children sold, girls became prostitutes or second wives, 60 out of 100 had no food and were forced to eat straw and leaves. Typhus and other diseases killed more[1,309].
In Chongqing and Yan’an, 1936 droughts caused loss of most winter food crops. Women and children ate the bark of downtown Chongqing ornamental trees. In 1937 4000 people were buried, then a special crematoria built to speed the process. Riots occurred in many Sichuan cities due to the spread of hungry people immigrating to the cities. Opium dens suppressed under Nationalists, 1300 opium dens in Chongqing alone. Kunming, a town of 147,000 received 60,000 refugees in 1937-8 [1,457].
In Hunan 1944, with famine stricken victims starving, many attacked and disarmed the Guomindang forces fleeing the Japanese. They were angry already for conscripting forces and who reinstituting taxation in the midst of famine, were many were starving, and stricken with beri-beri. Of 1.67 million conscripts, 44% deserted or died on way to units [1,477-8].
The result of Guomingdang actions led Communists to dig in and when they freed the people from Japanese rule, they led the people to force the existing government to flee to Taiwan.
After the Great Leap Forward of 1958, 20 to 45 million died between 1959-1962, with the median age of dying down from 17.6 years old to 9.7 after the forecast of 375 million tons harvested actually came in at 210 million tons. The cause was partly due to having workers pulled off on irrigation, terracing and construction projects. The average grain available per person at 205 kilos in 1957, fell to 201 in 1958, 183 in 1959, 156 in 1960 and 154 in 1961 with exports of grain to Soviet Union increased to pay for heavy machinery [1, 580-83].
Who waved the magic wand to get me from Ireland backward in time to China? Me. I’m in search of how to shape my novel. I know my basic story. Compared to two students in my workshop, I’m already well ahead with 20,000 words written while they’re still wondering which piece of writing to turn into their final project, but unlike them, I’m on route to a 150,000 word manuscript possibly split into three volumes with the first as my final project while they will settle for 50,000 words. My workshop mentor says, set your time to write, do it every day. Writer Mary O’Donnell told us she wrote scraps of pieces in her spare time, then later pulled them together. Enough scraps, a writer can complete a novel.
How exactly does history fit within my tale? I’m getting images, facts, and imagining the horror and noise. It’s helping me organize my thoughts about the national character of the Chinese people emerging out of the past 100 years, a time when three separate governments failed, more if you count changes in Communist governance. Behind the mass sterilizations, abortions, and stern family planning maxims lies the fear of the collapse of civilization, and fear of starving and having enough food. Fear of too many people cramped together, with police cameras watching so they know when to react. Even now, when China is emerging as a great power, the reduction of farmland requires the Chinese to import food.
Water quality, availability and management is also of top concern to China. Use of water for generation of electricity meant widespread building of dams, often without infrastructure to support irrigation or other agriculture use, and often without support for river species. The large projects to divert water north toward industrial use from the Yangtze river will deplete water for those areas downstream that are traditionally subject to drought. Additional water retention capabilities have not been addressed well. What will happen when famine arises again?
Another piece of the puzzle relates to foreign advisors. In 1898, the government embraced the practice of ti-yong—continue with Chinese education system, find foreign practical knowledge useful. This practice became embrace science under Chairman Deng.
Most of China’s advisors came from Russia after Communism due to shared ideology. China distrusts Russian advice many times in history. China embraced German technology, but under Hitler, they found their needs went unmet. The English lost Chinese respect during World War II when they allowed the Japanese to close the Burma Trail for three months, greatly diminishing their supplies and adding to their burdens. The Japanese, now an ally of the US, attacked China in 1937 and property of islands is still under dispute. Activities by the English and India along the Tibet border led the Chinese to invade. During World War II, with Americans providing aid within China to help them combat Japan, arms went to the Guomindang but not to the Communist forces.
Because of these failures, China distrusts foreign governments, especially when they invade another people’s country. Their stance on no separatist activity comes from the Civil War fought after all the famine, all the forced commerce, after the political intervention, after the war with Japan. This was a very painful time for China, they want to remain a United China.
How does this apply to me? Here in Ireland, during my Carlow University MFA Program Residency, I am finding lots of mentorship and advice; every day two to four new speakers. Advisors offer examples during their readings; Mark Roper, for instance, shows that writing about something as common as a pet dog, can be unusual and touch the heart even when he says goodbye to an old but trusted friend in his book A Gather of Shadows.
Do we trust advisors that enter into our stories or like true Nationalists, prefer they visit, get a glimpse then depart? Reviewers insights can offer the view that writers don’t want to hear like “this is boring” or “you aren’t being specific enough”. I think that when I go too deeply to try to understand, I find I’m talking about something that doesn’t apply at all and also the reverse from other writers, but the exercise of doing so builds understanding of characters and stories and techniques. The mixed up interpretation may not be helpful but in the background, I often take note when someone says “this is a problem” even if the diagnosis is off the mark. For me, any comments at all is a real help.
Other writers working on the same topic, I learn, need not threaten writers. Evelyn Conlon has written a novel about prisoners on Death Row who are innocent, called “Skin of Dreams has impressed me because of her methods of research. Other writer’s echo that topic of prison life including Sinead Morrissey in her poem “State of the Prisons”, and Carlo Gebler in one of his short stories told by a man who works in a prison.
With the political novel, I learn, writers can’t fear telling the truth.
Advisors offer applications of techniques in exercises; David Butler provides a dozen story openings without identifying the book and we apply some of his questions about what’s in the opening to decide what makes the story opening more powerful. And presenter Chris Arthur reads from an essay “Chestnuts” found in his book, “On the Shoreline of Knowledge”, sharing how he loves poetry, but also loves the chance to explore unusual and unconscious connections in his essays. I learn there are more types of essays than just literary criticism and I’m interesting in trying my hand at them. I get permission from my mentor Evelyn Conlon to write essays rather than book reviews, opening a world of richer writing experience.
Memoirists offer up many different ways to take a slice out of their life and offer it up for all of us. Edna O’Brien forgets her notes, but is able to speak about what we do when we write, telling us we have a compelling drive to find the inner self, to find what she calls analogues for ourselves.
While she speaks so quietly the room is pin-drop silent, my mind races, falling in and out of poetry and listening. I write a brief sketch:
When the spider weaves their web
It always begins and ends
with a single strand
all else between
is crossing one’s direction
rising and falling
Why is memoir so important? Beginning writer’s often don’t know enough about writing to understand how story mechanics work, so get stopped by them. With writing memoir, author Ross Skelton tells us he just sat down and began writing and the words gushed out. He reads from his memoir about his childhood, “Eden Halt”. Soon into reading, we are back at politics. His father is a veteran of World War II, suffering a variety of complaints that are now days called post-traumatic syndrome. His father wishes to heal himself and buys two huge volumes from Carl Jung, “Psychogenesis of Disease”.
Brian Leydon lets us see a film clip from his upcoming movie “Black Ice” set to premier in Dublin. He’s moved from writing a memoir about his mother and her twin sister who gets cancer. He gives us some hints about the complexity of writing screenplay and the making of movies for download. He tells us that 60% of most downloads are science fiction, fantasy, and crime, with eastern users primarily using downloads on tablets they take with them everywhere.
I finished my first novel at the onset of the electronic media up swell; many well-known writers did well with the move, beginners not so well. With a more stable market in which more of the known publishers playing a role, and more content, I feel I can step out into it. Brian Leydon, too, uses structure to his novel, telling of a history when birth control is smuggled into the country by family members carrying gifts.
Edna O’Brien calls our attention to the suffering of an Indian woman who entered the hospital miscarrying her baby, but the doctors keep finding a heartbeat for the baby. She gets septicemia and begs them to terminate, they cannot and she dies. A huge outcry from women demand changes to the laws that protect mother’s lives, too; laws that say doctor’s whose conscience won’t allow them to abort the baby can step aside for doctors who accept the need.
Writer Mary O’Donnell tells us she never wanted to be a feminist writer because it seemed so circumscribing, like it nailed her into a box, a view I always shared. But after publishing several collections of poems and finding that the collections of poems mostly feature male poets, she recognizes that women writer’s don’t get a fair shake, that there should be more female only collections.
Program director Ellie Wymard takes us on a walk down American memory lane, starting with Anne Bradstreet. One selection tells how Anne Bradstreet had to justify her writing by claiming getting up before everyone else hurt no one. Another passage tells of a woman who became crazy and ended up in an asylum because she spent all her days reading and writing. Over and over, writers in America have to do like Huckleberry Finn and say “I’ll right then, I’ll go to hell”.
As I leave Dublin on my last day, sharing hugs with other writers about to depart on long flights, I take with me some major building blocks along my pathway to reaching my goals. I’ve met close to forty new people, many that like me care about reading, writing and the state of literature and many that fostered my admiration for Irish community writing. I’ve tried to build large sweeping stories, but in the foreward to the Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, I’ve learned that the Irish have deliberately sought to embrace provincialism and let it deepen their writing about place. I motivated to deepen my settings.
Some of those I met will disappear and I’ll never hear from them again. Others will grow into friends. Meanwhile, I have the memory of Bloomsday events to urge me into tighter connection with my story hometowns. I’ve found three calendars that aid writers on their way to spreading their writing to a larger community—the weekend of the Dalkey Book Fair, the Bloomsday events, and events at the Irish Writer’s Center. Someday it may be me up there talking or reading.
Since my primary goal is to improve my writing, I’ve got examples and recommendations galore. I have no less than three lists of recommended books. Many of the lecturers provide me with favorite authors to read from around the world. My mentor Evelyn Conlon, also supplies a list of books. Jointly we’ve selected four books I’ll use in writing my next semester’s assignments, one of which has me read more from women writer’s about how their writing has affected their lives. A final list, I compile from the readers, lecturers, presenters and mentors.
Attached to my primary goal is one where I complete a fiction manuscript. I complete two scenes, and get feedback on a third. Afterwards, as I write this essay, I realize Irish history has provided a framework for understanding China and for providing alternate ways of organizing the story and for creating my futuristic world, one rich in a Bloomsday style city. Soon, I’ll be free to set my new visions based on Chinese history into story.
A final goal is one where I improve my overall qualifications as a writer—here, several readings helped me find potential exercises, namely a series of essays and /or articles with a larger amount of research and style. I’ve learned that selecting and timing a piece for a reading requires crisp language that catches the attention of a reader and pacing that allows, as Evelyn says, me to slow down.
I realize as I set aside over fifty pages of notes that the Ireland that I visited was much the same the second time around, but that I found hidden alleys and burial cairns where my unconscious found hidden connections. I may have felt like I was delving down labyrinthine corridors, but I was actually making sense of over hundred pounds of writing about China. Where I used to urge writing friends to portray a correctly ethnically mixed set of characters in their stories and scripts, now I want to say, hey, the eastern world is stepping up to be friends, allies, competitors and they share the other part of the world—shouldn’t we say hello.
 Jonathan D. Spence, “The Search for Modern China”.
 Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley, James Legge translation, “Pictures to Tears from Iron The North China Famine of 1876-1879”, MIT.Edu
I've made many of the suggested revision but I didn't bring my notes on it with me so I don't know if I got them all. I received feedback from Ellie Wymard that it was insufficient work for the program. I have to admit that it was pretty impossible for me to write a different essay given the short time I had with the suggested materials and the wide variety of information encountered during the residency. I wanted to try the style used by Chris Archer in his book of essays, so it doesn't have the usual essay structure of I learned this, here's how, and a summary of what I learned again.
What I wanted to do with this essay was show the experience of being there. I wanted to show how you could arrive clueless about what to expect and what you would learn. One of the messages that came from many of the writer's was one of "you will make hidden connections in unexpected places". I wanted to illustrate how what I was thinking about with regard to my writing was bumped into place by discussions of politics and Irish history by mentors and how it clicked in on Bloomsday that Irish and Chinese history bear a connection. So I thought my finding that I had people who I could connect with via their writing and mentorship and that I had a tool set of techniques I could investigate and improve during my program was suitable progress.
Notes from the lectures and books recommended by the program will follow in my next postings.