Writing and Politics With Colum McCann
Must an author be engaged with politics?
Irish-American author, Colum McCann, posed that exact question on the penultimate night of the 39th Literary Festival at Old Dominion University.
A packed house of Monarchs and members of the Norfolk community were treated to an insightful speech from McCann, a National Award Winning author, at the Chandler Recital Hall in the Diehn Fine & Performing Arts Center on Wednesday evening.
McCann is an Irish emigrant. His most recent work is the award-winning short story novella, “Thirteen Ways of Looking.” According to his website, the collection was written both prior to and after he “was assaulted in New Haven, Connecticut, punched and knocked unconscious after trying to help a woman who had also been assaulted on a busy city street.” At the time of the assault, he was working with a charity that shares stories between members to promote empathy. Empathy is something that he “briefly lacked” at the time, according to his extended author’s note. However, in his victim impact statement, he touched on the empathy he had for his attacker’s wife, who was the one assaulted in the street, and women like her.
Janet Peery, an English faculty member and an author in her own right, introduced McCann to an audience of mixed ages, ethnicities, and nationalities. She paraphrased him by stating, “a book is only finished when it’s finished by the reader” and that reading is an “intimate democracy.” Indeed, it was as we were treated to many readings from his extensive bibliography.
McCann started with reading excerpts from the novella, “Everything in This Country Must: A Novella and Two Stories,” that took place during the political turmoil of his home country of Ireland in the 20th century. He discussed briefly his own coming to of political consciousness with news of a band being attacked in a skirmish at the Northern Ireland border in the 1970s. His father related him a parable that did not make much sense in his youth, but stuck with him as the years went on.
The story was about a 15-year-old girl named Katie and the harrowing rescue of her family’s draft horse from a flood. Katie lives with her widower father, who lost his wife and son in a car accident with the occupying British army. Ironically, members of the British Army were there to help Katie and her father rescue the mare from the flooding waters. This caused a rift between Katie and her father since she was grateful for their kindness, but the father could not let his grudge pass.
McCann directly answered his question of authors and politics by invoking his experience during the 9/11 attacks in New York City. He found out about the attacks while in the city and heard that his father-in-law was in the first tower, but was able to escape before it tumbled. That’s when he exclaimed, “that day, everything had meaning. If you look at a disused fire hydrant it had a meaning, if you picked up dust off your car it had meaning.” He saw a dog going across the Brooklyn Bridge by itself, a sight rarely seen. It was then that he realized the writer should be engaged with politics, but it must not be demanded of them.