March 24, 2020
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Note: The acclaimed Irish writer Colm Tóibín is the winner of the 2017 Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement. Tóibín spoke with Collegian reporters Dan Nolan '20 and Kevin Crawford '20 when he visited Gambier to deliver the keynote lecture at the Review’s annual Literary Festival on Nov 11. The following is an abridged version of their interview.
In “Brooklyn,” your main character is a young woman coming to a new country as an immigrant. Right now, in the U.S. and around the globe, immigration is a hot topic. What informed the theme of immigration in “Brooklyn”? Was it based your own experiences?
It was partly my own experience in going for a semester away from home, arriving with a bag in a foreign country and going to sleep in a room that I was not familiar with … and eventually looking forward to going home. That was one thing. The other thing was that at the time I wrote that book, people were emigrating into Ireland. Ireland was taking people in for the first time in history. Normally, we emigrate. We arrive in your country or Australia or England, but in the town I was writing about, loads of Polish people had arrived, and loads of Chinese, and loads of Nigerians, and the country was very uneasy about this.
I thought it was astonishing that Ireland, after all its history, would be less than welcoming to people who were coming as either economic migrants or as asylum seekers, and people were really talking about “Oh, asylum seeking is one thing if you grow up in a war zone, but economic migrants, well, they’re not really…” I said, what are you talking about? They’re looking for work and they’re looking for a new life. They’re doing exactly what we did all over the world. But I’ve found that society, almost by virtue of the fact that it has sent out so many people, has become cautious and inward looking. “Brooklyn” wasn’t a direct intervention in that debate, but I was aware of that as writing it.
In the address you delivered at Trinity College prior to the  referendum on same-sex marriage [in Ireland], you noted that “other communities who have been oppressed — Jewish people, say, or Catholics in Northern Ireland — have every opportunity to work out the implications of their oppression in their early lives. They hear the stories; they have the books around them. As gay people, on the other hand, we grow up alone; there is no history.” Are authors of contemporary queer literature creating a shared history akin to that of the Jewish people? Can they ever truly catch up? Do you see your own work as contributing to a queer canon?
I don’t think it can catch up. Oddly enough, when something gets quoted back to you, you normally squirm and deny you said it, and you’ve got to give it context and all that, but oddly enough with what you just read back: Yeah, I meant that, and I’m glad I said it and I couldn’t put it better. If you’re a 13-year-old Palestinian, you’re from this family, but it’s not as though you can be a 13-year-old from an entirely gay, fully gay, family. It would be very unusual. If you’re gay, your brothers and sisters are gay, your parents are gay, your grandparents are gay, your aunts and uncles are gay, there must be such case, but it would be unusual. Gay people are, in the early years, as they attempt to deal with this and figure out what it means for them, alone.
This is part of the reason why film and books become really vital, because it allows them to look in the mirror. The idea of looking into the mirror and seeing nothing is terrifying, it’s like you’re a vampire, a monster — there’s not you there. For this reason, many gay people will talk — as much as they are willing to talk about their first sexual experiences — about the first time that they came across a book or a film or a TV show — some image of themselves, something that startled them because it was so true and meant so much. It’s much like the novels of feminism and the feminine identity, like the books of Margaret Atwood. These are books that make a difference to those who read them and identify. This movie “Call Me By Your Name” that’s coming out — someone is going to go to that and think, “That might be how I felt that time.” Whatever you say, that is liberation.
We were struck by the unique writing conditions you impose upon yourself, which you described in an article in the Guardian. For example, we have never heard of a writer purposefully sitting in an uncomfortable chair while he writes, and we’re interested in why you handwrite your works before typing them. How did you come to find that these exacting conditions were important to your writing process?
I sort of drifted into writing. Years ago, I was traveling in Spain and the beginning of a book just occurred to me, but it was the time of typewriters — long before you were born — and I didn’t have one with me, I didn’t have access to one. So I went to a shop and I bought a big notebook and a pen and I went back to longhand and I wrote that whole book by hand. That book was “The Blackwater Lightship.” I almost enjoyed it — I mean, it was still work — but there was something about being able to actually touch my work. Another thing: When you’re writing, you should be bent over, and you need to be in pain and your shoulders should be bent — you need to be pulling things up from within yourself. You can’t be too comfortable; it just isn’t good for your soul.