International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner’s speech 2011

Go raibh míle maith agaibh. There’s a Dublin
phrase “you’re in your granny’s”. It means you’re home. I feel like I’m home now. Thank
you all so very, very much. Lord Mayor Gerry Breen, City Manager John
Tierney, City Librarian Margaret Hayes, cultural Ambassador Gabriel Byrne, a dhaoine uaisle
go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir as uacht an duas seo a bhronnadh orm i measc mó mhuintir
féin, agus mó chlann féin, agus mó chairde. Tá mé iontach, iontach bhróduíl as. Tá
mó chuid gaeilge…tá an cuid is mó do mó chuid gaeilge cailte agam. Tá brón orm
ach anois tá an cuid is mó do mó Béarla cailte agam freisin. I basically just said that I am completely
floored by this – I am stunned and exhilarated and proud, and most of all humbled –I mean
truly humbled – and very nervous…humbled not just by the experience of being here,
but by the whole history, local and international, that this award encompasses: all the writers,
all the readers, and all the libraries, all the guests here tonight, and, all the writers
down through the years who have written about, or dreamed about, this very fine city, this
country of literature. So I’d like – in deepest thanks – to
talk a little bit about Dublin, the city itself, and all the Dublins that are found around
the world: the imagined, the dreamt, the forgotten. I’d like also to talk about libraries and
fathers and mothers and children and those we love, and how they guide us into the future
by giving us access to the past: that we who are here because we were given our voice by
many, many, many others. But before I do that I want to mention that
I was on a spectacular list of writers whom I love and admire… over 100 that came down
to ten, including two Irishmen … William Trevor and Colm Toibín … and then there
was Michael Crummey, Barbara Kingsolver, Yiyun Li, David Malouf, Joyce Carol Oates, Craig
Silvey and Evie Wyld. So my sincere thanks to the nominating libraries who put my name
forward along with all the other names. And my thanks to the outstanding jury in terms
of their work that they do outside of this and also the work they then did with this
award. I promise there were no brown envelopes involved. But no, it’s an enormous amount
of work and I am deeply, deeply grateful. Two years ago, after I’d finished writing
my novel, Let the Great World Spin, I fell ill for a little while and I ended up in hospital
in New York City for a couple of weeks and I had a chance to bring a book with me, and
I took James Joyce’s Ulysses. I had read it before, of course, but only in spurts,
bits and pieces, never the full journey. And so I sat there, in the hospital bed, and I
read. I descended the stairhead. I ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.
I wandered along Eccles Street. I glimpsed what Leopold couldn’t experience anymore.
I inherited the book and inhabited the book. In fact I was even here in the Oak Room, in
this very place, the Mansion House and I moved through what I would call probably the greatest
compendium of human experience ever written. And then at one stage, early one afternoon,
an anonymous little moment, my late grandfather climbed out of the book into the hospital
room and sat himself on the side of my bed. I mean this in a very real sense. It felt
like a physical presence. I knew it was him even though I had only met him once, thirty
years beforehand. Now sure enough, there was a little bit of morphine involved, a little
bit of Percocet…. but the thing was, there he was my grandfather, my father’s father
Jack McCann, with his hat on his knee, his suit jacket crumpled, flakes of tobacco in
his pocket, and he just sat there alongside me, and watched me read. And I was, in fact,
I think reading him. The deeper I got in the novel, the more alive my dead grandfather
became. What I mean is that the book transported me
to Dublin on June 16, 1904, a year my own great-grandfather and my grandfather – a
boy then – would have walked these very streets. I was there with them. They were
the spectators of that book and somehow they were carrying me along … riverrun, riverrun. For me, Ulysses is the greatest of all books,
and it creates the most viable of worlds … but then again all books do this, or all books
should want to do this. This is the value of literature: plays, poems, journalism, biography,
that curious word fiction. Literature can carry us to the far side of our bodies – we
can become alive in another way. Perhaps literature doesn’t cure anything,
but it is on its deepest level, an inner need that is designed to refuse despair. Is that
enough? Well yeah, I think it is enough. I believe in the power of the story. I believe
part of our peace process came through poetry. I believe we value our lives more profoundly
because we have the likes of the theatre companies that we have the Abbey, the Druid, the Gate,
Fighting Words, Roddy Doyle’s Fighting Words. I think we keep the wounds of emigration closed
by having ours centres in London, New York, Melbourne. I don’t think we could shoulder
our current difficulties unless we thought there was a word waiting around the corner,
a Heaney word, or a Marina Carr play, or a Bolger sentence. It’s an incredible thing for me to think about:
what we can experience through literature. We can experience violence, but not carry
the scars. We can go on an extensive journey of joy. We can inhabit a landscape that others
before us have even ruined. We can learn how to live in a place even if we aren’t there.
Literature gives us access to a very real history. We are allowed to become the other
that we never dreamed that we could be. It’s the best democracy that we have. The things
that we tell one another, the things that we want to tell one another they survive.
Not even sickness, not war, not even death can take our stories and our words away … What is your nation? Leopold Bloom is asked
this in Barney Kiernan’s pub on the long-gone Little Britain Street …. 107 years ago …. and
A nation says Bloom is the same people living in the same place. Be God then, says one of
the characters in the pub, I’m a nation for I’ve been living in the same place the
past five years. And then Bloom amends it to: “Or also living in different places.” So what is our nation? All of us living in
different places. So what is our nation? All of us living in different places. I never
left this country. I have always been here, even when I was away. I am like countless
millions of others who have made our country into a global elsewhere. I’m so very proud
of it. I’m not unaware of its faults, its follies, but we’ve had enough talk of that
in recent times. If I had to talk of my own faults and follies we’d be here all night
too. But we are the accumulation of our voices: the ones we heard and the ones we have yet
to hear. They real beauty of literature is that in its mystery it has been able to join
us all together. To be Irish and to get this award, well, I’m doubly, triply, quadruply
proud … an international award in my hometown, in the year that we become the UNESCO City
of literature. It makes me, it makes me a little bit teary-eyed, well it doesn’t make
me teary-eyed at all. (laughter) Well it does, it does a little bit. I mean I could not have
dreamed this. I honestly could not have dreamed this. And that’s why it seems that it belongs
to so many others. So that financial analyst from Cork in Paris, and that bricklayer from
Limavady living in Cairo, and that young dancer from Castlebar plying his trade in Barcelona,
and that radical Jesuit in Mexico, and that violinist in Milwaukee, all those Irish voices
that have scattered all over the place, those we hear and those we don’t, I would like
to say thank them for giving us a whole new accent. So, I say I’m not sure that this award belongs
to me. I am indebted to an extended diasporic nation, so many people, a myriad of voices.
Sure I get some of my voice from Joyce, I steal a line or two, though in truth everything
I write sits in his shade. But I get it from Ben Kiely. I get it from Jennifer Johnston,
and Paul Muldoon, Edna O’Brien, from a list of other writers I shouldn’t mention because
I’m sure if I went on and on I’d leave someone off the list and I don’t want to do that.
But I also get my voice from this city. I get it from New York. I get it from the libraries
and the librarians who so generously allow the most spectacular collisions of voices
every day, in different parts of the world. I get it from my friends. I get it from my
teachers – in fact I have two teachers who taught me here tonight: Brother Kelly from
Clonkeen College and Pat O’Connell, from Saint Brigid’s National Thank-you. Stand
up. (applause) So the thing is our teachers, our librarians, our public servants and people
who do that sort of anonymous work, they are the ones who voice us. They give us access
to that what I call that grounded democracy, not something flighty or ridiculous, but something
on the level, on the boards, something true, in the shoes, the people who do the real work
that isn’t always sung. I’m lucky to be sung but I hope to be able to sing about them. So too for people in the literary world. And
particularly tonight my publishers – Alexandra Pringle, from Bloomsbury and Jennifer Hershey
from Random House in New York – and everyone here on the ground who sells the books, and
especially the people in Repforce, and Cormac Kinsella, thank you all so much, deepest thanks,
honest thanks. And then there are the readers. The truth
is that I’m nothing without my readers. and readers are always wiser than writers
… I try to create a landscape however flawed and they inhabit it. But I want to say that
I wrote this story in response to 911 and what happens to us with that strange involuntary
muscle that we call the heart. I believe in optimism as an antidote to cynicism. I don’t
think optimism is easy. Far from it. In fact I think the best optimists are cynics first,
but they’re grown up cynics if you will. There’s no point flailing about talking
only about only the dark … And the fact is that the light belongs to the small anonymous
moments and we can’t always see it. But its there. We have to acknowledge the dark
and get through it….. A few weeks ago here Obama said “Is feidir linn” …. you know
“Yes we can” … and I think that all of us would add, fair enough, yes “Is feidir linn”
yes we can. But it’s not only yes we can, but yes we must … nach cinnte go gcaithfaidh
muid … There is a moral force in being allowed to tell your story. The late great John McGahern used to say that
the universal is the local with the walls removed. It has long been so for literature.
It hasn’t always been so for politics or business but I don’t know much about politics
or business and I don’t really care to know much about politics or business right now.
Yet I do know that the purpose of literature is to try to knock down the walls and keep
what is treasured within.I treasure that I have been taught and allowed to deal with
words here in this country and in my family … Our education system and our library system
and our arts councils, who gave me a grant really, really early on and our attitude towards
art in this place, in this country have allowed that … They have been our scaffolds these
people not in a high-minded way but also as entertainment … Lets not forget that it’s
a good thing to have a laugh ….. I also treasure the fact that I was allowed to go
abroad without any rancor and still maintain my Irishness and come back and raise a glass
tonight … It seems to me that that’s the height of generosity to watch someone go and
then have the beauty to invite them back. I think we have to hang on to that very much
so….I know I’m up here singing to the choir but Christ we have to look after our
young artists … It’s wonderful to see Daniel here from Malaysia here tonight. Thank you
all for the support that you’ve done for the arts. My gratitude is endless. And last but certainly not least there are
those to whom I am most deeply indebted….. These voices may not appear on the actual
pages of my work, but they are there in the way the words are placed. And then there’s
the ones who gave me the voices from the beginning. My Mum Sally McCann, from Derry who used to
bring me up to Derry as a child. My father, Sean McCann, as a journalist and author, a
fantastic journalist and author in his own right, and also the man who fathered this
rose called Bloomsday. There they are right there (applause). He’d stand up only for he
was disco dancing last night and ended up in that little chair. No but there are my
brothers and sisters. There are my own children, Christian, Johnny Michael and Isobella back
in New York. And most of all, most of all there is my wife, Allison, my first and most
eloquent voice, who wishes that she was here tonight, but, as a teacher, and as a mother,
she is busy looking after other voices. But she is here, like we are all here in so many
ways. and I will raise a glass of deepest thanks to her and to everyone else. Go raibh
míle maith agat go léir arís.

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