Image via Kirby Fenwick
My Grandfather was born in Coalisland, a small town in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland in 1933. He emigrated to Australia in the early fifties. He died nearly eighteen years ago. I know these facts about him but I never really knew him. I have one memory that gets fuzzier as time goes by - the edges are becoming smoother, and the sounds and smells are long gone. I know he was playing Santa at a family Christmas gathering. I know my cousins and I were called up one by one for him to give us a gift. I know all this, I know it was him, but the only reason I could tell you what he looked like is because of the photos of him my mother keeps. His face no longer appears in that memory, if it ever really did.
Family is a strange imagining. It is at once both one simple thing and a hundred other more complicated things. In the traditional sense, our families have a significant influence on our lives. They shape us in ways that we can’t even quite articulate beyond a feeling, something vague and incomplete, yet incessantly real. There is one type of family, equally simple and complicated, that has become a source of contemplation for me. That family is the literary family. The poets and authors and stringers of sentences borne of a country that come together to create a disparate family, but a family nonetheless. My literary family is Australian first. A childhood wrapped in names like Norman Lindsay and May Gibbs, Mem Fox and Paul Jennings, John Marsden and Ethel Turner and Ruth Park. And later, as I grew older, names like Tim Winton, Joan Lindsay, Bryce Courtenay, Kate Grenville and Christos Tsiolkas, Peter Carey, Miles Franklin and Helen Garner. And always under the shadows of Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson. It’s a family I’ve always felt proud to be even a tiny part of, a family I’ve felt privileged to play at the edges of. But in a few weeks that family will expand. Because in a few weeks, by virtue of my Irish grandfather, a man both memory and myth, I will be at once Australian and Irish. A dual nationality opens up a literary family that feels like a grand opportunity shadowed by crushing expectations.
Ireland has a rich history of words. For a country short on space, its literary family feels full and expansive, and maybe even a little crowded. Names like James Joyce, WB Yeats and Samuel Beckett tumble forth easily; masters of prose and poetry like Leland Bardwell, Iris Murdoch, Roddy Doyle, Mary Lavin, Bram Stoker, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde and CS Lewis are not far behind. As I list these names, for the first time I begin to appreciate the vastness of talent wrapped up in this Irish family, a family that soon I will be able to lay some claim to, as tenuous as that claim may be. As Irish citizenship approaches, my straddling of these two literary families has me questioning what it means to be a part of a literary family, and what influence such a family can have. Is it possible that I can find a place within a family that has no obligation to let me join? And if I do find a place, what does it mean for my words? Words that, until now, have always been tangled in the identity of the Australian family. As I move between these two families, what becomes of my voice?
In The Anatomy of Influence, Harold Bloom discusses the anxiety of influence and its impact on writers. In literature this anxiety displays itself through the conflict between generations, and it’s this conflict that is the basis of creation, according to Bloom. I’m not sure I agree with Bloom’s hypothesis. But if it is true at all, does the fact that I’m only now embracing my Irish heritage mean that there is no anxiety? In willingly placing myself into this family, is the conflict absolved? Or does the anxiety take on a new face, wrought by my choice to straddle two families, to grasp the history of the Irish and the familiarity of the Australian?
The threads of the Australian literary family are spliced together with pieces of our Indigenous history, British colonisation and immigrants from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It’s a literary family with a thousand different voices and as many stories to tell. Amongst these voices is a subversive feeling, words that move from subtle to obvious but with a sincere undercurrent of something that almost resembles hope. But there is darkness there too, something hidden. Perhaps this can be attributed to a literary history with only a couple of hundred years to draw on, a history we’ve yet to fully explore. Australia feels young, like it’s still finding its voice, like it’s still deciding who it wants to be and what it wants to say.
On the other hand, Ireland is steeped in Celtic folklore, it is a country of myth and legend. Its history is fraught with tragedy and death, from British colonisation to famine and throughout, entwined with the Catholic religion. The influence of a history cannot be discounted and how this influence manifests itself often does not make sense. The words of Irish writers, the ones I’ve read at least, feel like a curious mix of humour and melancholy; a mix often spiked with pride and satire. They paint an Irish landscape that is filled with soft warmth yet girt by rough edges. But they belie an ability to look beneath, to draw pictures with words of confronting moments.
Curiously, by sitting them side by side I’m struck not by the differences but by the apparent similarities. Just how at odds are the words of the Australian and the Irish writer? Are they more aligned than I imagined them to be? Is the humour reminiscent of the hope? Is Ireland the proverbial big brother to an Australia following a somewhat kindred path?
And yet, I wonder if I’m placing too much emphasis on the potential influence of this Irish literary family. I’m hardly well-read when it comes to Irish literature. Names are familiar, but sentences remain untouched. Is it possible to be influenced, to have your words pushed and pulled and shaped, by simply standing (figuratively of course) amongst the overwhelming, enormous names of the Irish literary family?
The truth is that that I have no idea if balancing myself between these two literary families will have any impact on my writing. When I attempt to locate my place within this Irish family as I’ve tried to do in the Australian canon, will my words change? Will they say different things? Will they mean something else? Helen Keller said that ‘A man can’t make a place for himself in the sun if he keeps taking refuge under the family tree.’ So perhaps I’m placing too much trust, too much belief, in this idea of the literary family. Perhaps being a part of these two families will change nothing. Perhaps my words will continue as they always have.
The truth is, I just don’t know. I guess I’m about to find out.
Kirby Fenwick possess an incomplete journalism degree and a penchant for stories outside the news - those two may or may not be related. She drinks so much tea her blood group is now Sencha and next year she is running away to Europe with a Irish passport tucked under her belt.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.