In his foreword to the brilliant new short story collection Belfast Stories, Malachi O’Doherty notes that ‘it is through individuals telling their own stories that the simple model of a society preoccupied with its own division breaks down’.
Here is collection of work that is not looking back over our troubled past, nor is it imagining some kind of better future (although hope for the future features heavily in some of these stories). This feels like a collection for now, for ordinary people with their own voices and their own stories that exist beyond any political agenda.
Edited by Lisa Frank and Paul McVeigh, Belfast Stories is an immersive literary experience within a city in which there is much to explore. The strength of the collection comes from the writers whose work has been included.
Established writers such as Glenn Patterson, Lucy Caldwell, David Park and Ian Sansom are here, as you would expect, but Paul McVeigh also includes what he calls the ‘new tribes’ of young writers such as Shannon Yee, Dawn Watson and Winnie M Lee – who all bring a different perspective on what it means to live in Belfast. Strong short story writers such as Jan Carson, Bernie McGill and Rosemary Jenkinson also feature alongside exciting new voices Caoilinn Hughes and Jamie Guiney, whose debut novels have met with great critical acclaim and Wendy Erskine, whose debut collection Sweet Home is taking the short story world by storm.
The collection is structured around the different areas of the City – from North to South, East to West and featuring Belfast City Centre and The Cathedral Quarter. It opens, wittily, with a story by Peter Holywood The Welcome Centre set in Belfast City Centre’s tourist information hub. Lisa, a tour guide, fields queries from all sorts of visitors but the lone man demanding information on parades has now been drowned out by Game of Thrones tour buses. Progress, Lisa says, progress.
It is a subtle introduction to a changing city, no longer defined solely by the political turmoil and sectarian violence of the Troubles. The gentrification of East Belfast is explored in Wendy Erskine’s Last Supper a story set in ‘Jesters’ – a café that is battered around the edges and losing out to the new coffee shops appearing in the area.
Also set in East Belfast, Jan Carson’s bittersweet Filters, features a mother trying to cajole her children to visit the Narnia sculptures to take a family photograph for Christmas. Her attempt to create new traditions in this corner of the city is not going well.
This is a Belfast promoting new symbols – from Game of Thrones to CS Lewis – and Glenn Patterson’s A Small Problem subtly lampoons Northern Ireland’s ongoing obsession with the Titanic.
I explained that I was duty-bound as a Belfast person to applaud all references to the Titanic, no matter how half hearted. I told him my apartment overlooked the dock where it was built…My falt, to be strictly accurate, overlooked the clock, which overlooked the Custom House, which looked across the Lough to the dock around the corner from the dock where the Titanic was built.
This bending of facts to suit an agenda comes back to haunt his protagonist when his family history turns out to have been based on a lie.
Shannon Yee’s The Brightening Up Side provides a different perspective on the city, as a new mother of Asian heritage struggles with sleepless nights and casual racism in a City that doesn’t feel quite hers just yet.
Progress is evidenced by the artisan coffee served tepid and trendy on pressed ply in concrete-floored Cathedral Quartered coffee shops run by nouveau-Christians who tolerate gays. There’s change. Hope. It appears in the margins when no one is looking.
Love also appears when no one is looking in Lucy Caldwell’s affecting Here We Are where a woman looks back on a defining love affair in her teenage years with a girl from school.
The shadow of the Troubles falls over some of the stories here, of course, it would be strange if it did not. Linda Anderson’s Stone features Frieda, a carver of grave stones who is trying to come to terms with her estranged relationships with her brother, whose past involvement in paramilitary activity means that he can’t return to Belfast.
I could start to feel like a ghost myself, lost amid so many lates and dearly departed
The protagonist of Bernie McGill’s beautiful There Is More Than One Word has come home to the City in the hope of finally getting answers to her brother’s disappearance thirty years ago, when he was just seventeen. This emotive and heartrending story is testament to the pain that many in Northern Ireland are still living with, a pain that no amount of gentrification can erase.
Seventeen deserves a chance to wisen up, to fill out, to brother some more; seventeen should mean being a son for longer, should mean laying the bones of your weary parents in the ground when their time comes, and not to have them praying every night, wearing their rosary beads thin, that they will be able to do that for you.
In her Preface to Belfast Stories, Lisa Frank notes that the collection became ‘more than the sum of its parts; a celebration not only of Belfast and the people who live there, but of its writers, both seasoned and emerging.’
It is to her and Paul McVeigh’s credit that they have included such an interesting and varied collection of writers here, which adds a depth and breadth to the stories and viewpoints and paints a picture of a vibrant changing city where, as Malachi O’Doherty points out ‘we love a good yarn’. Belfast Stories also features photographs of the city by Malachi O’Doherty and background information on the different areas of the Belfast featured in the stories, making it a valuable literary exploration of the voices of this ever-changing city.
Belfast Stories is published by Doire Press and is available from www.doirepress.com
Doire Press was founded in the autumn of 2007 in Connemara by Lisa Frank, with skills and experience in editing and publishing, and by John Walsh, who had just received a publication award from the Galway County Council Arts Office to publish his second poetry collection, Love’s Enterprise Zone.
Since then Doire Press continued to blossom, finding its niche in publishing new and emerging writers who give voice to what it means to be Irish in a changing Ireland. These writers include fiction writer Madeleine D’Arcy, whose collection Waiting for the Bullet won the 2015 Edge Hill Readers’ prize; and poets Adam White, whose book, Accurate Measurements was the only Irish publication to be shortlisted for the prestigious Forward Prize in 2013; and Breda Wall Ryan, whose collection In a Hare’s Eye won the 2016 Shine/Strong Award.
Other publications include 30 under 30, chosen as a Top Ten Title of 2012 by Joseph O’Connor in The Irish Times; Galway Stories, a collection of short stories set in neighbourhoods throughout the city and county of Galway by many of Ireland’s top writers, including Kevin Barry, Mary Costello, Mike McCormack, Nuala Ní Chonchuír, Olaf Tyaransen and Julian Gough; Deirdre Unforgiven: A Journal of Sorrows, a play by Eamon Carr; and debut poetry collections, The Woman on the Other Side by Stephanie Conn and Jewtown by Simon Lewis, both shortlisted for the 2017 Shine/Strong Award, as well as Amanda Bell’s First the Feathers and Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s Bloodroot, both shortlisted for the 2018 Shine/Strong Award; and Rosemary Jenkinson’s Catholic Boy, shortlisted for the Irish Winner of the EU Prize for Literature.
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