“I’m burning” – Liberation
In her mind, Majella makes lists: one for things she doesn’t like, like chatter, physical contact or noise; a shorter one for what he wants which includes “food”, dallas (except for the 1985-1986 season) or “the Gold pay channel”. What Majella didn’t like begins on a Monday in the small town of Aghybogey, on the Northern Irish border; the 27-year-old girl will “work”, like six nights a week in fish and chips by Madame Conasse. He wants the shop to be polished and he knows the customers, like Jimmy Neuf-Pintes who asks for his sausage menu every night when he leaves the chicken factory in Strabane. His mother is an alcoholic, his father disappeared and he just finished burying his grandmother who was murdered. The picture does not look very inviting, but the strength of this first novel is due to the emotional intensity of this funny girl, complicated and assumed. Interview with Michelle Gallen.
Why a novel that takes place over the course of a week?
I’m obsessed with time. I know very well the flow of hours and days. I want to be on time. When I was young, my father liked to go out and come home early, my mother was always late. So I became acutely time. It’s also because when I was 23, I suffered head trauma from autoimmune encephalitis, and my memory and perception of time were affected. I had to relearn how to read and feed myself as a child. Writing the book in one week helped me gain much needed confidence.
Do you write it like a diary, every day?
I have written 14 short stories, almost a collection. Some have been published in The Stinging Fly, an Irish newspaper known for discovering young authors. The latest short story, titled “Double Trouble,” is set in a chip shop. There’s Marty, an alcoholic woman, a missing father, and a male character called Connor, who is unhappy at his job. When I finished this text, I was on fire. I was on vacation for a whole month, alone, and this novel came out like a geyser.
Why is Majella obsessive and anxious?
Majella comes as a whole being. When I first tried to get the novel published, the publishers told me: “We love the story, the characters, the writing… But what’s wrong with Majella?” It was hard for them to understand that a woman could be like this. A relative of mine had a late diagnosis of autism, and I thought Majella had autism. And me too. I am very sensitive to light and noise. I find social relationships complicated. I have to try to think clearly like Majella, who follows a routine to be safe. Majella has to decode the world all the time, what people say, or want to say. His co-worker Marty, who is very funny and friendly, helps him seem more normal. Majella looks very feminist, but she doesn’t think she is. He just stands for what he likes or doesn’t like. She rejects fashion, makeup, traditional relationships.
The novel is set in a city that does not exist, Aghybogey, why?
‘Aghy’ is the Irish word for field. And “bogey” means the swamp. In other words, it is a marshy place, a place from which it is difficult to escape.
Does it resemble the city you grew up in?
Quite a bit, but in Majella’s eyes. I grew up during ‘The Troubles’ in a very poor border town in Northern Ireland, where there was one of the highest unemployment rates in the industrialized world. But I have happy memories, filled with interesting people, others angry, sad, or otherwise full of humor and joy. Before the Troubles, there were nineteen roads that crossed the border. The British army left only one road to enter, another to leave, and destroyed the rest. I live in a catholic and nationalist community that distrusts the police and the army. When I was 18, I left to study at Trinity College in Dublin. Then I lived in Scotland, in London. I grew up in Northern Ireland, but I left… I decided to come back and work in Belfast, at the BBC. But it is very difficult, life in a society emerging from conflict. In times of conflict, people come together, and you have a sense of community. In Northern Ireland, there are now more suicides, autism, cancer, depression; all indicators of happiness, health and well-being, are significantly better in the Republic of Ireland. The population remains psychologically damaged.
Is Majella a metaphor for a traumatic past?
howsoever. In the book, we experience a moment in history where borders begin to open, but psychology does not change so simply. People have been used for decades to live in conflict, in being defensive, not to trust. One cannot build a mental bridge simply.
The women survived, the men died or disappeared.
Dead, missing or dangerous. You have the Daly brothers who are supposed to be the defenders of the community, but instead of their interests. Majella’s uncle died while planting a bomb that exploded too soon. Is Majella’s father there? Not saying. He disappeared. It’s like a puzzle. Before I went to university, I went to a school in Strabane. It appears that a prominent IRA member is ultimately a mole and informs the police. If it inspired me, I’m not interested in giving details. I want to give people the feeling that where I grew up, you can’t ask questions. And you will hear five different versions of the same story. In a good novel, as in life, it’s okay if you don’t have all the answers. It just feels like it’s worth the time and energy. If Majella starts asking questions, she might become a target. I had a friend in Northern Ireland called Lyra McKee. He is a young journalist, full of life and light. He was shot dead in a riot in April 2019. Epigraph phrase taken from Milkman of Anna Burns confronted him. “And if we accept these bright points, their translucency, their brightness; and if we allow ourselves to enjoy it, to not be afraid of it, and if we get used to it; […] if we teach ourselves to do this, and all of a sudden, the light suddenly goes out or is stolen from us.” If you’re a woman, it’s up to you how bright you are without burning. This question fascinates me: who are you if you can let yourself be carried away by fire?