Chatting With Ireland’s Greatest Living Writer, Colm Toibin
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this guy is on our Books 101 syllabus.
By Sanjena Sathian
Colm Toibin is one of those rare novelists who have made it off the bookshelves and into the everyday cultural vocabulary of at least some segment of America. For that, you can thank, in part, this year’s Oscars. The film version of his 2009 novel, Brooklyn, caught the Academy’s eye, and three nominations, including Best Picture. (It didn’t win.) There’s also the Booker Prize — the Irish writer who tells us his name goes like Collum toe-BEAN has been shortlisted for the prestigious award three times and longlisted once.
Toibin, a former journalist, comes from a small nation with a rich literary tradition, but his work journeys well beyond Ireland. The Master imagines the American writer Henry James in London; Brooklyn, of course, largely unfolds in America. He’s moved, too, into imaginary spaces, as with The Testament of Mary, which plays with the idea that the mother of Christ doubts his divinity.
We spoke to Toibin at the ZEE Jaipur Literary Festival, chatting about why he didn’t grow up on his country’s books, why he’s not gay enough and how reading the Bible can teach you about storytelling. Oh, and he says his best work lies in his short-story collections — which haven’t sold as well and remain the “secret.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
There’s an age-old relationship between Irish and Indian writers. How are you thinking about that here?
Well, we have a great deal in common. We were really run by the British and mismanaged by them in many ways, and yet some extraordinary sense of identity remained and persisted. And that manifests itself in many ways — in manners, in one way, but in another way in politics, in another way in culture.
There’s a sense also that India and Ireland are countries that are emerging in one way or another. The argument about freedom and restriction still matters in both countries. Personal freedom, women’s rights, gay rights, children’s rights — and the right of people to be themselves. There are forces in India and in Ireland that wish to govern this, and it’s taken a lot of work in both countries to deal with this. I think Ireland’s got further in a way because of its proximity to England and America. Nonetheless … the struggle goes on in both places.
Who from the Irish tradition first captured your imagination?
When I began to buy books for myself — around 15 or 16 — I would not have bought an Irish book. The books we were interested in were European books or books by Americans. I was particularly interested in Hemingway, in Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, D.H. Lawrence. We really would not have dreamt of reading a dreary book about rain, Catholicism, guilt and bad politics. And that included Joyce. I wouldn’t have read an Irish novel if you paid me!
Is that why many of your books take place abroad?
Well, they come and go. But the most recent novel, Nora Webster, is set in Ireland. But yeah, I suppose I come from a generation in Ireland where we were allowed to roam imaginatively wherever we wanted. There wasn’t a sense that you had a duty to Ireland to write about it or dramatize it as a permanent thing. I have really been free in my life to describe whatever I wanted — I could go anywhere I like.
Today, is that possible for global writers? Are we expecting writers to tell the story of their nation?
Yes, it’s certainly something I know about — the feeling that if you’re Irish or you’re Indian, your job is to tell London or New York or people in more cosmopolitan places than you’re from what the repression felt like … and when you don’t do that, people feel somehow or other that you’re letting them down, that your job as a novelist is to represent your nation. And in a way that pressure is not on English novelists or American novelists in the same way. It’s on South American novelists.
But in a lot of ways, India and Ireland are acts of imagination. They’re not fully formed places. In Ireland, it’s always an important question: Which part of Ireland are you from? And I think in India the difference between, say, Bengal and South India is absolutely enormous. While you can talk about the idea of India politically, well, the novelist doesn’t really think like that. It may be easier, indeed, to roam further and describe something elsewhere.
Do you feel that way about sexuality too? That people expect certain things out of gay writers?
Yes, yes, I do. I think if you’re gay, you really have to work this out yourself very carefully. There is a huge hunger for images about gay people because there’s a scarcity of them, and we need them … but there are other things I’m interested in. I’m interested in nationalism, in politics, in religion.
I remember someone telling me, “The problem with you is that you’re not gay first. You’re gay eventually, like, down the line of things. There are other people who are gay-gay-gay, but you don’t come to gay for a while.”
But I think James Baldwin is a great example — African-American gay writer. First novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, everybody wanted more. And then he wrote Giovanni’s Room, in Paris, white people, with a basic gay theme but it’s about love. There was something wonderfully evasive about it and I mean evasive in the best possible way, that Baldwin was not going to be tied down into any particular category or identity as an artist, that he was going to sparkle.
So you mustn’t complain, thinking, “Everybody thinks I should write this type of book” — don’t write it, and see what happens.
Can you talk a bit about Catholicism, which comes up in your work — as with any good Irish writer?
I suppose the advantage with Catholicism is that you begin with a worldview that is complete. A family, a son, a mother, an absent father … and you realize it was written down by four different narrators, so you see various ways the story of the New Testament was told — and that’s just looking at the New Testament.
The ideas remain of a story, of ways of telling a story … all of that is reasonably helpful. But maybe it would be better to fill children with folktales. I don’t know.
What did you do in your teens and twenties that particularly helped you develop as a writer?
I read with great intention and listened to music with great intention. I had about five years — from about 17 to 23 — where I really, really got to know everything that I’ve since been living with, from classical music to novels to poetry, all while I was doing a huge amount of drinking and moving about and working. At that age, it’s very special. You can’t do that as much later. Things don’t hit you the same way later as they do then.