Writers Chat 33: Doireann Ní Ghríofa on “A Ghost in the Throat” (Tramp Press: Dublin, 2020)

Cover of A Ghost in The Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Doireann, You are most welcome to my Writers Chat Series and sincere thanks for participating. Many congratulations on A Ghost in the Throat (Tramp Press: Dublin, 2020) which you introduced most beautifully on YouTube. Not only has it won The Irish Book Awards Non-Fiction Book of the Year but it has also been selected by The Guardian as one of the best books of 2020. And deservedly so.

I found the experience of reading this singular text quite profound, and one which still sits with me. You’ve poured your passion for and dedication to Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s life and lament into your text and onto its many readers. Not only have you, as you say, “left something” of yourself in the translation of the lament, I feel you have also given something beautiful of yourself to this work.

SG: You open A Ghost in the Throat by naming it as “a female text” “composed while folding someone else’s clothes” and inviting the reader to “join in” this “chant” and “keen”, “lament” and “echo”. In doing so it seems you are readying the reader to be immersed in your experience of reading and researching Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s lament and story, so that we, as readers, “ricochet” between your story and hers. We chase you through the book – as you chase Eibhlín Dubh – and what remained when I turned over that stunning dust jacket and cover, was a sense that through the act of reading – joining in – I was also creating my version of “a female text”.

Mid way, you tell your readers how to make a marionette, and you say, “Remember this lesson: in every page there are undrawn women, each waiting in her own particular silence.” Had you hoped that readers would be moved to consider the undrawn women that surround them or consider their own “female text”?

DNíG: I, for one, am fascinated by learning of women’s lives, and I think that curiosity is shared by many others too. To look towards history, as it has traditionally been composed, is often to overlook women’s lives. The manner whereby the larger story is recounted selects which lives are worthy of mention, and which are ignored. That leaves us in a strange position, as readers – if we wish to understand such lives, there is work to be done in uncovering their stories. In recent decades, many writers have set upon this important work. I hope, as time goes on, that more and more such histories will be written, and that the Undrawn will find themselves among the Drawn.

SG: And of course A Ghost in The Throat plays an important part in this work of uncovering. I very much enjoyed the structure of the book – the quotations from Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, the section titles and the jewel at the end – your translation of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s stunning poem. Did this structure and order come to you when you had finished the book or when you’d found that “echo with which that first page” began?

DNíG: It felt important to weave Eibhlín Dubh’s own words, in her own voice – as fossilised within her extraordinary poem Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire – throughout the text of this book. I wanted readers to find her voice alongside mine, to have the sense of both voices occurring simultaneously, like a duet. I hoped that such an approach would decresase the reader’s sense of the distance between our lives, despite the fact that one voice speaks from the 18th century and the other from the 21st.

SG: Yes, it is like a beautiful duet! Many readers will identify with your experiences and explorations of mothering, nurturing and domesticity. Being a list maker myself (and calendar buyer in November!)  I found it quite wonderful that you celebrate lists and the work and running of a household. You don’t shy away from how difficult it can be – though never impossible – to fit work in around other people’s needs. I loved the line: “As everyone else dreamed my eyes were open in the dark” and it put me in mind of Eavan Boland and Sylvia Plath, always giving of themselves to their craft and children, always open to words. Can you talk a little more about how the needs of our different selves – as girls, women, lovers and mothers – co-exist?

DNíG: I suppose that in order to thrive, we each have to nurture our various selves, don’t we? I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, this is a bit of a struggle – too often, I let myself become subsumed in domestic drudgery, letting my own needs drop to the very bottom of my lists (that’s if they feature at all!). It’s terrible, really, to neglect those needs despite knowing that there’s a heavy price to be paid. When I encounter the efforts of others in this regard, those who draw a better balance than I do, I observe them in admiration. I’m attempting to change though, slowly but surely. As for housework, well, the unending labours of domesticity often feels like a Sisyphean battle against the forces of entropy. It felt important, within this book, to honour the (often unseen) tasks that those of us who work in the home perform every day. Hence the inclusion of my To-Do Lists.

SG: Those never-ending tasks, unseen, much like the Drawn and Undrawn we spoke about before. Like the language in your poetry, the prose here is quite stunning and I re-read many passages, wanting to drink them in. Your work had echoes of Hélène Cixous in how the narrative is embodied by self and text yet very much grounded in place. You use bodies to explore a journey of lived lives and identity formation for both you and Eibhlín. Do you experience that intertwining of body and language – reading, translating, writing – as a sacred act? And how important was the sense of place and rootedness for you in this book?

DNíG: Thanks Shauna, I’m glad you enjoyed the prose elements of this book. I am only beginning to dabble in prose really, and I feel that I have a lot to learn – I’m still wearing my L plates! Contemplations on the Body have been extraordinarily important to me, ever since I first began to write poetry. It’s a subject that has fascinated me since school, a fascination that was deepened by my experience of dissecting a human body at the age of 17. I suppose every book reflects the author’s natural scope of interests, and for me, both Place and the Body are significant passions of mine. To inhabit such a storied landscape is to find oneself attuned to the many layers of life and literature embedded in our ideas of Place, and the many events – both ordinary and extraordinary – that have occurred over previous centuries.

The Irish tradition abounds with folklore and history, two subjects I am always eager to learn more of. Such is our inheritance: our many pasts, all the countless layers of antiquity, legend, and language, and the many ways in which these layers of both nourish and oppose each other. The act of cartography holds power in my practice, whether in terms of mapping the Body, mapping Place, mapping Kinship, or other layers of identity. To engage in mapping of any sort is to engage in the act of looking, of documenting, and of considering one’s own position. On tourist maps, one will always find a bright arrow labelled ‘You Are Here’ – perhaps it shouldn’t come as any great surprise to us if literary mapping reveals a similar revelation – through mapping, one finds oneself revealed.

SG: I just love how you express the experience and practice of literary mapping, Doireann.

Throughout A Ghost in the Throat, there are many stories. I found “the dissection room” both visceral and comforting – tracking the shift from youth to adulthood, an opening to and reckoning with desire and self-knowledge. I was very moved by your choice to donate your body to science and the image of the white ink tattoo – “a message for the strangers who would be the last to touch me” – that serves to unite the experiences mined here, as well as the lived desire and grief that Eibhlín Dubh explores in her lament. Can you talk a little about the healing power of narrative and how the honesty in your writing might bring the reader to those same boundaries of remembering and reflection?

DNíG: What a spectacular question, Shauna, and so beautifully phrased too! The words people choose for tattoos always fascinate me, as do the words that are chosen for gravestones. Both kinds of texts carry a particular resonance that really moves me. It was important for me, in attempting to uncover and write the life of Eibhlín Dubh with a kind of brazen openness, that I account for myself with a similar openness. Weaving that narrative required a lot of thought in how best to express the truths of my life, as I understand them, and to attempt to honour Eibhlín Dubh’s life with a similar honesty.

SG: And of course, it is not only those thoughts about how to best express the truths of your life, but which truths. You said in an interview with Tomás Kenny that you become the writer you are with the material you have and it really struck me how determined you were to follow the trail – and dead ends – with belief and trust in the process and in the unknown which then became this work.

Looking back now, how do you view the creation of A Ghost in the Throat? Did you find and pull on an emotional thread woven by Eibhlín Dubh? Was it the writing or the writer that drove you? And can we – or should we – separate the two?

DNíG: I felt I was most compelled to research Eibhlín Dubh’s story by something very simple – the sound of her voice. It occurred so clearly through the text of her poem, it felt so true to me, and so alive, that I was driven to listen more and more closely. That act of listening was what eventually drew me towards her, and towards the act of writing this book.

SG: How wonderful, the act of listening lead you to the act of writing which came, in part, through the act of mapping, as you’ve already said. Thank you for such honesty and openness in this Chat, Doireann. We’ll finish with a few quick, light questions:

  • Mountains or sea? Mountains
  • Theatre or cinema? Cinema
  • If you could go anywhere now where would you go? Home to Clare! I’ve found myself so homesick during this latest lockdown…
  • (I hear you! But it too will pass). Silence or music when writing? Music
  • What reading material is on your bedside locker or near to you? ‘In the Dream House’ by Carmen Maria Machado
  • What’s next on the cards for A Ghost in the Throat? I’m as curious to discover the answer to this question as you are – I suppose we’ll both just have to wait and see!

SG: I am sure many exciting things, Doireann. Thanks for being so giving of your energy and time to this Writers Chat. I wish you and A Ghost in the Throat much more success in the knowledge that it will reach the readers it needs to reach – this is a voice that travels far!

Buy A Ghost in The Throat direct from Tramp Press or from your local bookshop, or borrow it from you local library.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa – winner of Odgers Berndtson Nonfiction Book of the Year in association with The Business Post for ‘A Ghost in the Throat’ : Photography by Clare Keogh [Photo provided by Doireann Ní Ghríofa]

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