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Anna Burns @ The Tabernacle

Small gloating moment, allow me it.

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I got to hear Anna Burns read extracts from her Booker Prize winning novel Milkman on Thursday evening. She was brilliant. The passages aloud came alive with her control of the cadence and tempo of the language. Although familiar to me in writing they took on a whole new dimension when performed in this way. The sections she chose to read held a humour far greater than I would have imagined possible in a novel which has become almost synonymous with something challenging and not a little depressing.

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Although under no definition am I a writer, I found the insights into her process inspiring and have a whole new respect for the novel. She revealed that not only is she a character driven writer but that the characters give her the story and dialogue in snippets and that she then must wait patiently for the rest to follow. She describes the process by which third brother-in-law and the issue women were squeezed from the novel against her will and how wee sisters simply never became autonomous, individual people.

When pressed on whether this was a feminist novel or a political novel she demurred. She resists categorisation and is clear with us that the novel was given to her by the characters as it was written. She claims no agenda but is happy for critics and analysts to run mad with it if they like.

“Is this part of a conscious cultural revival for Northern Ireland?” a question from the audience which I have also wondered. Anna, in keeping with her rejection of categories, said no. However, she recognised that the timing is of interest. She notes that, have come up in Belfast in the seventies, this is simply the temporal distance she needed from her upbringing before she was able to face it in writing. Perhaps, she suggests, other people are feeling the same. “Are you glad for it?”, yes, she replies, it’s time to talk about these things.

It is clear that this is a woman who deserves the success she has had. She appeared humble and wise, funny and insightful. At her heart, it is clear that Anna Burns is an artist: guided by the characters which appear to her, and free from the constraints of cultural anticipation. In a novel so loaded with potential meaning my English Lit heart is still struggling a little with the idea that none of it was put in deliberately. However, sometimes art is just that and this novel, pregnant with community and identity, is simply a beautiful novel. And, straight from the author’s mouth, we have permission to interpret it however we please.


This event was part of the Faber Members event series.

Featured Image: Photo by Steven Hylands from Pexels

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