Deeply lost in the night. Just as one sometimes lowers one's head to reflect, thus to be utterly lost in the night. All around people are asleep. It's just play acting, an innocent self-deception, that they sleep in houses, in safe beds, under a safe roof, stretched out or curled up on mattresses, in sheets, under blankets; in reality they have flocked together as they had once upon a time and again later in a deserted region, a camp in the open, a countless number of men, an army, a people, under a cold sky on cold earth, collapsed where once they had stood, forehead pressed on the arm, face to the ground, breathing quietly. And you are watching, are one of the watchmen, you find the next one by brandishing a burning stick from the brushwood pile beside you. Why are you watching? Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there. - At Night, Kafka
Stories are made up but they are not lies.
Fiction is the closest way to access truth.
Fiction is the truth unfettered.
Our compulsion to create stories generates in the soft gray mountain folds and valleys of our human mind. We close our eyes and our brain fictionalizes our thoughts, spews images from fears, manufactures totems from dreams, and scaffolds our understanding with myth.
Story is the overflow of the human mind. Our bodies are indistinguishable from our fellow mammals; for better or for worse, it was always our mind that defined our species. In essence, fiction is our unique attribute.
Stories are serious business: we live, die, and kill each other over fictions. We humans, clustered in our fabricated nation states, depleting our resources on the shifting landmasses of a spinning planet, our own works of fiction.
In the beginning, stories leaked from us onto the walls of the caves, they were the spiral scratches on Neolithic stones; they pulsed through ancient hands that squeezed clay into the abundant Goddess shape. All our religions are fiction—holy stories and mythologies that house our spirits. We have danced them, painted them, rhymed them, sung them and worshiped them. Story is the shape of our soul. We are both elevated and controlled by our fictions. The constant playing out of these sacred stories becomes rituals that bind and root us.
Story is the stealing back of the infinite from the finite. Fiction means that we can hide for a moment in a small pocket of eternity as time treats us like shit. Time viciously devours all the pieces of ourselves except that which we have dreamed, released, transcribed, and put into form. Therefore, fiction is an extension of the spirit, the demonstration of our faith in the worth of each other and the value of our own existence.
Long ago, the Greeks recognized the cathartic element of performing tragedies in a shared setting. In ancient times, sacrifice was used as a release. In lieu of actual human sacrifice, a tragic story can heal us. Probably the most painful aspect of being human is the experience of grief. The existentialist Prince Hamlet is an expression of Shakespeare’s mourning of his own son Hamnet who died at eleven years old. So Hamlet is not really a prince, a man of power; rather, Hamlet is a promising child taken before he had a chance to live. He is a boy, among so many boys, who will never fulfil his destiny. The tragedy is surely that, but fiction is the transformation of the dead boy into a communal archetype of grief. Not only does Hamnet live through Hamlet, but Shakespeare’s pain has found that cathartic fictional outlet. And so the unwieldy grief of a genius mind is poured into a shape that now moves by itself, that will continue to resonate over the centuries. It is that grief that still walks out from the obscurity of the wings onto the floodlit stage. As we sit together in the darkness, side-by-side, we are called on to bear witness. Hamlet dying again and again throughout the centuries is the sacrifice that makes us whole. It is the salve for our own grief.
Stories are medicine. The hurt once exposed can be healed by acknowledgement. All my own work is a battle against forgetting those whom the gods forgot; from beggars and refugees in the underworld of Paris; to squatters in London; to broken families adrift on a constricting planet; to women prisoners; to the chorus of hurt voices in The Cruelty Men. Voices I heard first on national radio speaking their truth in twenty-first-century Ireland. The Magdalene women, those children who were caught up in Industrial Schools, and those confined in mental institutions at the mercy of the church and state began to reveal their abuse. I read the grueling Murphy Report and the Ryan Report, and was moved to write the book. Why did I fictionalize them when they were already telling their stories? Once I read their horrific accounts there was no other story I could tell. I wanted to honor their truth in story. Their voices fade in fact and are relegated to newspaper columns and government reports. Fiction lets the painful poetry of their existence enjoin with myth to become something more powerful than us all.
At my book launch upstairs in Hodges Figgis bookshop on Dawson Street, I recognized many people in the audience. However, there was one elderly woman who sat in the second row and she was completely alone. She clutched the book in her hand and was staring at me throughout the reading with a startling intensity. Afterwards, when I was signing books she told me that she had been a slave in the Magdalene Laundries and had heard me on the radio. “I had to come,” she said. “I had to get this book.” I was moved and humbled. I knew then the story was bigger than me. It was outside of me. It had its own life. The book belonged to those who had suffered. Their courage and reliance were what inspired me to write it in the first place. Fiction is a communal act.
Fiction can be the voice of the unrecorded. I write because I took form as an ordinary female human child on a small cold island at the edge of Europe, with no access to power and few resources. I wanted to be beautiful but I wasn’t. I wanted to be special but I wasn’t. I even wanted to sing but I couldn’t. I wasn’t very impressed with myself. Fiction is what saved me. I could be relieved of being myself and slip inside another’s head and think their thoughts. Fiction elevated me. The more books and stories and poems I read, the more steps I took. Literature was the ladder that led up and up to some understanding of what it is to be human; to be mortal yet hopeful; to be doomed yet believing; to be ordinary yet sacred; to be forgotten and yet remembered; to be powerless yet have the power to create.
The reader is as vital to the book as the writer. Instinctively, as an unremarkable child who had no other powers, I understood that I had control and authority as a reader. As Kafka said, “Someone must watch, it is said. Someone must be there.” If the writer is the guide to bring us into a deep place of contemplation and understanding, then I, the reader, was the empathic witness the guide was longing for. Reading is an act of great love and trust. It is how I survived my unlovely human form.
Story is the human impulse to dream aloud, to bring the dream into a shared place. If this material life was all, we would go grey with weariness. In his short prose poem “At Night”, Kafka proposed that when we sleep we all meet and are finally unified. As a renowned insomniac, maybe he felt he was being abandoned and missing out. I am a good sleeper and could have told Kafka that we do not all actually gather and meet in sleep like he contemplated, but rather we meet in books. It is a profound exchange of psyche. The reader lives the writer’s dream in its entirety and intensity. Like aliens arriving on another planet, we can walk around each other’s minds, traverse the unfamiliar fathomless oceans, scale strange soaring mountains, and share sustenance at the corner tables in cafes tucked away in the exotic cities of another consciousness.
If the space of story is that of the shared dream, then what would it be like to exist in a world with no fiction?
It was Féile Na Laoch, festival of the heroes. This special festival only occurs once every seven years in Cúil Aodha, an all-Irish-speaking area of County Cork. On the final day of the festival, seven poets, seven storytellers, seven musicians, and seven painters are awarded a heroes medal by the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, himself a poet. I was invited to become a hero and I offered to drive my fellow heroes Judith Mok, the classical singer and poet, and her husband, the Dublin Poet Michael O’Loughlin. Michael wrote an extraordinary response to Kafka’s idea of us all meeting in a world of sleep in his poem “Sleeping in Prague”. He read it to me from the back seat of my car on the long rainy road trip to Cork. His poem starts with what could be a description of what it is like not to have shared our stories, to be living in a fictionless world.
“Torturers know this. Keep us in light
and we shrivel like dead flowers -
keep us from sleep and we drown
like fish in the air, we sway and flail
like sailors on land, like astro-
and cosmonauts walking in space
cut off from the mothership”
Judith Mok then said that she too had a poem and read hers to me from the front seat. As I navigated through the tolls she asked me which one was better. Like the diplomatic parent I told them they were both equally good. Michael leaned in to me from the backseat and said, “Don’t worry Emer. Only three more hours of this.” On this journey it was Michael who told me about Kafka’s idea of all of humanity meeting in the dream space. His words echoed in my head as we continued through tiny colorful towns into the lush dense countryside of Cork. We arrived in Cúil Aodha, and those of us who were nominated heroes sat in a circle in the local community hall and engaged in a public discussion about the relationship of story to the land itself. The President of Ireland was wearing a three-piece suit with a Maori tie. Peadar Ó Riada, the musician and composer, told stories of Maoris and Australian aboriginal people who travelled to this area and how their belief that story is what brings the land alive is very similar to ancient Irish beliefs. After all, what is a land without stories?
Later, in procession behind the Cullen Pipe Band, we followed the President to Páirc na Laoch, the field of heroes, where the ‘Swirling of the Waters’, a ritual to remind us of our common heritage, took place. Or, as Michael put it, “An Irish field, full of Irish people doing Irish things.” We were invited to share our work with the hundreds of people who had gathered. Jovially, the President of Ireland mingled with local people and with some tourists who had happily stumbled on the event. I was struck that his aide-de-camp, an army captain, followed a few paces behind, in full military uniform, carrying the poetry books of the president in his gloved hand. The festival went all through the night.
The President read his poem about rural women and their resilience. Under the stage lights, I couldn’t see the crowd, but I felt them listening. I read the story of a young woman raised in an industrial school who is transferred to a laundry at sixteen. She works alongside her birth mother but neither of them is told the truth of their relationship. At 3AM Judith Mok sang a lament in Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews. It was a fifteenth-century Spanish song about a mother who found her child dead in the cradle and couldn’t tell her husband when he came home. The song is a fictional metaphor for the loss of the homeland when the Christians conquered the Iberian Peninsula and expelled Muslims and Jews. A hushed, reverent audience felt the sorrow of their displacement through the centuries. Later I found myself exhausted and curled up on a plastic tarp, clutching a bottle of whiskey, in a cold field in Cork listening to the bagpipes play as I got rained on. I thought of Kafka, “they have flocked together as they had once upon a time and again later in a deserted region, a camp in the open, a countless number of men, an army, a people, under a cold sky on cold earth, collapsed where once they had stood.” Was I getting too old for festivals? I longed for my warm bed back at the hotel. No doubt, I would give anything to be back in the body of that unlovely child I was as a teenager. I would be more forgiving of her. Then it occurred to me how happy I was to be here in a field of stories. After half a century in human form, I have come to terms with my existence through fiction. No one slept that night. Everyone had a story to tell, whether through poetry, prose, painting, or song. And people had flocked together to listen to all these stories. We were no longer separate entities; we moved in one dream. Fiction IS the mothership. It is where we touch and become known to each other. It is where we stop calculating and advertising and instead reveal ourselves. It is our only way home.