International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner’s speech 2009


[Alastair Smeaton] Ladies and gentlemen, our
winner Mr Michael Thomas [Michael Thomas] Dia daoibh. Sorry. [clapping,
cheering] I’m sorry I have a tendency to be somewhat
cavalier but I’m a bit frozen right now. I smugly said well I teach in front of students,
and you know I can handle that so forgive me if I fumble a bit up here, or just kind
of go into a stupor. Also please don’t be insulted by my Gaelic it’s not my native
or second or even third language. Perhaps the reason I try to speak it has to do with
my family’s history, or our origins, mythic and real, but I’ve always felt Ireland’s
influence and been drawn to its history and culture. In looking back I understand. Joyce
and Yeats were two of my first literary heroes, and Van Morrison was almost as good as Otis
Redding and Marvin Gaye. [clapping]. In my memory, although separated by more than half
a century and thousands of miles, the streets of my Boston where like those of Joyce’s
Dublin in Araby. I never smelled those ash pits and I never heard the music shake from
the horses’ harness but there are lanterns and careers of play in the sharp darkening
air, and there was an older sister like Mangan’s who standing atop the porch seemed to glow. My best friend is here tonight. I can’t look
over there because I might start weeping uncontrollably. He’s down from Cavan with his father. I’ve
always wondered what it would be like, you know although perhaps he’s probably more
of a direct descendant than I – you know – two sons returning home. I’d like to thank the people who people
brought me here: the Lord Mayor, thank-you, the Honourable Eugene Sullivan, Christopher
Houghton, Eileen Hendrick, Sinead Matthews, Gay Mitchell, Deirdre King, Mr Robert Jacobson,
and Mary Murphy, I’m not sure who she is but she’s guided me through all of this
and kept me reasonably calm somehow with some kind of spell. I’d like to thank the nominating
library of Barbados – I can’t explain! And all the judges, thank you, and everybody who’s
responsible for this night who have walked me through this and kept me from stumbling
so much. My mother used to call me a strange boy, not
in a derogatory manner though Mom. She’d ask me where are you? I must have been somewhere.
Her stance and her expressions, leaning forward, and her head tilted to one side, a raised
eyebrow. I used to think that maybe she’d asked me more than once because I’d be somewhere
and then when I’d come back to this place and I’d be unable to answer. And for years
I couldn’t but I knew I was somewhere, someplace. And Bob Dylan sang about it and Doctor Seuss
wrote about it in One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish and all those images and places
and characters and some were very, very bad. If you haven’t read it, go read it tomorrow;
it’s a quick read. I didn’t have the language to articulate to anyone, where I’d been
and what I’d seen, especially my mother who must have been very worried looking down
at her vacant boy. And later much, later – there is going to
be a lot of quotes so I’ll just go like this. Of course this is Faulkner. Later, much
later in the larger world that blankness would serve me well and also hindered me. People
could mistake it for poise, or people could mistake it for deep concentration, when I
really just spacing out, or shyness or arrogance but I couldn’t explain to her or anyone
else about being here, and there and everywhere, or elsewhere. But I was frightened and I was
lonely transitioning between those two worlds was like passing through some local event
horizon into some black hole. So most of the time I found myself balancing on the borderline.
But then I started reading and the authors and their characters were there, but perhaps
not the same world as mine but certainly in the their own. Keats was with his nightingale;
Melville was out at sea, Yeats in his radical innocence, Daedalus walking along the strand.
And that place Tír na nÓg, the land of eternal youth, the invisible world under the rolling
hills, inside the trees of the dark wood, the grains of sand on the windy beach, among
the grey-green light white silver swells, or in the cities in the fraction of sky between
the towers, above the clatter of the horns. In discovering eternal youth, strangely is
a coming of age, or was a coming of age and I began to meet people who had their own places
and learnt to speak together. We tried to take care of each other, keeping each other
young and free, and part of this care was writing. I don’t mean to hyperbolise but
sharing something you make with others is like standing naked. It’s your choice though
how you offer yourself to them, defiantly as before the bar, or meekly as for the first
time in love, or in supplication even but whatever the case for me I was no longer lonely
or embarrassed or ashamed of the places I went in my mind, those amorphous thoughts
and the foreign tongue longings I used to have. I thought I found my place and writing
was a way of being in this world, having a place and having a people. But the world kept encroaching, and it’s
black, and poor and in the United States of America, like those who came before me I was
bound to a struggle and my waking world was the American racial nightmare. But then I
found Baldwin and Ellison and I thought I could negotiate the two. But something happened
as I got older, I seemed to lose track of that world, or I spent more time in this world;
became a bit cynical perhaps a little too early and lost that radical innocence. And
I started to become more attuned to the crippling effect of a life spent in art, or pursuing
art. Even though at a young age I said I wanted to be that. But when I get older I became
aware of the cost and I started to sense that like Eliot I was living among the breakage
and of what this life had cost me. Or worse what it cost the people I love and even up
to recently I began asking is it worth it on any scale or any level. And so over the years I’d gone in and out,
mostly out, except for certain moments I’d sing to my daughter Mr Tambourine Man or listening
to my middle child Miles talk about the secret life and history of whales, or driving my
oldest on the Long Island expressway at dusk listening to Van Morrison Into the Mystic
and hearing that foghorn whistle and longing to go with it. But it was more than race, it was more than
class even if I was out without a nation or race or religion or class or couldn’t claim
any identity other than an artist I’d feel in some way I failed or I rejected the awe,
the wonder, the joy, the honour, the connection to this world, the one I share with you now,
so my people, so now I’m here, and there and everywhere or elsewhere. So I’m sorry
to anyone for being cynical ever, although this might be a cynical apology considering
you know the amount of the award! [laughter] Please! an awful marriage of art and money
– too high-minded for that. I want to thank the people who reminded me and keep reminding
me that art is an antidote to cynicism. It keeps us not in body, but in thought, in spirit
and in mind, young. So it’s the people, Patrick, my friend Eilís, Elizabeth my friend,
an cara, my wife Michael mo chuisle, thank-you.

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