Monday, July 16, 2012

Mother America, by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

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The stories in Mother America, a brand-new collection of writing from one of Ireland's young stars, are emotionally, locationally, and temporally diverse, and Ní Chonchúir's prose is both simple to read and beautiful to contemplate. You see right away why she is so highly regarded on an island that honors its literary spirits.

This collection got me thinking about two aspects of writing that I now think are intertwined. (Maybe the connection between these two aspects is obvious; still, it's one my brain is formulating for the first time.) The first springs from a comment fantasy writer Daniel Abraham made to me. He said, "Genres are where fears pool." That is, genre fiction is free to explore (and often does explore) whatever aspects of our cultural and social psyche make us uncomfortable, confuse us, or frighten us. Powerful women? Out-of-control technology? Dying and, worse, living alone? Yup, we as a society (and often as individuals) grapple with these very concepts. And in order for us real people to confront our fears, the books we read end up confronting them, too.

Now put that thought on hold for one moment while we contemplate the other aspect of writing, which is more craft-based than the first one. In my opinion, any successful story involves a character facing some difficulty and either actively overcoming it, or actively failing to overcome it. (That's a very simplified version. Bear with it.) Otherwise, the story is a vignette, a glimpse, a snapshot (not a photograph--a successful photograph can very much tell a story). Many writers and critics will tell you that the purpose of a short story is to capture just such a moment, and that change of any kind is unnecessary. I disagree with them. The difficulty faced can be minute or it can be monstrous or it can be monumental; it can be getting out of bed, or it can be landing a Volkswagen on the moon. But it must be there, and the character must face it, and regardless of the result, the character must be changed or affected in some meaningful way.

Why shouldn't these two concepts come together? In genre, the pooled fears are our fears. You could read that to mean that in "literary" fiction, the fears are not ours, but belong... to whom? To the authors? To the characters alone?

Baloney, spelled B-O-L-O-G-N-A. In order for us real people to confront our fears, the characters in the stories we read have to confront them, too. Genre simply has more options to make our fears metaphorical, symbolic, exaggerated, or otherwise removed from the "real world." Fiction set in this "real world," stories like Ní Chonchúir's, don't allow the degrees of separation. The fears aren't metaphorical here; they are personal. In either kind of story, the fears are there.

Stories are where fears pool.

This is why each and every story worth its salt has a difficulty that a character must face. Everything that is puppy-dogs and cotton-candy and rainbows doesn't resonate, doesn't ask questions, doesn't evaluate. We don't learn who we are as individuals and as a race by being happy all the time. We learn who we are by facing our fears.

The thread that sews together the stories in Mother America is, ostensibly, motherhood. Yet I see the thread of facing fears more strongly than I have in many genre collections. Fear of living alone. Fear of committing infidelity. Fear of parenting. Fear of how to define oneself. Fear of death. Fear of living. Fear of knowing, of being a child, of being part of a couple, of being part of a family. Fears many of us have on an intensely intimate level.

In many of these stories, nothing "happens" in an external sort of way. (In many others, all kind of events "happen.") Either way doesn't matter. Plenty happens when these characters step up to their fears. And when they do, the reader is right there with them, joining in the showdown.


  1. Wow, lovely post, Zach. Thanks a million :)

    1. Aw, shucks. Thank you for reading it, and for writing the stories in the first place. :)

  2. What I enjoy most about Nuala's stories - and this is all down to her prose - is that, regardless of whether the characters undergo change, I feel changed for reading them. That's the pull of strong writing.

    Great post, Zach.