Books to read about Ireland

Recent news in the UK has brought Irish and Northern Irish politics to the forefront of British politics and front pages of our newspapers. For many people, the recent history of Irish politics will still be lived experience, but for those of us too young to recall, it may be something that school history hadn’t yet caught up with.

If, like me, you know little about the Troubles, IRA terrorism and how this has influenced the current political situations in Ireland and Northern Ireland then now is the perfect time to be reading up on this, in light of the Conservatives striking a deal with the DUP to establish their majority.

Here are a few fiction books that I will be looking at to get a better understanding of the history which is influencing the present:

Cal by Bernard Maclaverty

Cal is a young Irish Catholic, involved with the IRA, living in a Protestant area. He must come to terms with the acts he has committed in the political violence of the Troubles and his guilt, but he must also make decisions about how to, or whether to, move forwards with his life.

A Star Called Henry (The Last Round up Series) by Roddy Doyle

Set between the 1916 Easter Rising and the Truce of 1921, this story features Henry, as a member of the Irish Citizen Army, who meets several historical characters, and engages in the fight against the British. The full series spans most of the 20th Century, covering the reach of Irish politics in the Western world.

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

A view into modern day Ireland and its underworld, this book dramatises the legacies of Ireland’s attitudes to sex and family and the effects they have. A Bailey’s Prize winner this book has been described both as darkly moving and funny.

Troubles by J G Farrell

Beginning at the end of the First World War this book is set against the context in which the violence of the Troubles begins, and the political upheaval of the Irish War of Independence. The book is focalised through a confused observer – a position many modern readers are likely to relate to as we see events unfold.

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

This novel from the ‘modernist’ period treats the changing situation as a signalling of ‘the end’ as British rule in southern Ireland and the end of an aristocratic era comes to a demise. In the midst of this Lois Farquar is attempting to break free from this very way of life, which her relatives are fiercely defending.

These books span the 20th Century, right up to the present day. They cover a range of perspectives, Catholic and Protestant, Unionist and Nationalist, and those on the outside and in between. They capture the complexity of Ireland’s politics and are a great starting point for those who love to explore history through fiction.


GE17: A victory for progressive politics

A lot has happened in 24 hours but, in all practicality, not that much will actually change. Theresa May has refuted calls to resign and it is likely that by the end of the day she will have made a deal with the DUP – whether as a minority government, or part of a coalition, we don’t know.

However, last night was an achievement for millions across the UK. An ‘unelectable’ leader did what no-one else has managed to do and has achieved what was considered impossible two moths ago. He delivered the Youth Vote, which turned out to be decisive in undermining the Conservatives. May called the election to increase her majority, with many commentators predicting a Tory landslide. To have run a campaign which engaged young voters, won back seats and ultimately broken the Tory majority is nothing to scoff at – Corbyn has achieved some momentous strides for progressive politics.

There will be dark days ahead. A Tory-DUP pact will likely deliver a hard Brexit, and will likely continue policies of austerity and cuts. Hopefully, a small majority will be blocked on bills such as Fox Hunting and a repeal of Human Rights. The important thing is that with an increased number of progressive seats, the MPs we have elected can challenge the Conservatives and better represent us. But we cannot grow apathetic again. We must stay engaged, keep campaigning and promoting a more positive, inclusive and hopeful politics. And whether the next vote comes in 5 months or 5 years, we have to make sure that we build on Corbyn’s success, making the Youth Vote a powerful force in politics.

This article was originally posted on Voice Mag


Cambridge Literary Festival 2017

Last weekend I had the privilege of being able to visit Cambridge Literary Festival and seeing some of the best writers and academics discussing a range of subjects.

Although I saw a range of different talks, from literature to history to politics, there were some really interesting recurring ideas which came out of the weekend. In the panels on The Good Immigrant, Women on the March and Where are all the Women, the importance of representation was focused on; ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ pointed out Lennie Goodings.

Yet Darren Chetty showed us that for children of colour, even when they are encouraged to read diverse books in school, they exclusively write about white characters – based upon an assumption that stories have to be about white people. Equally, Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Stateman points out than when we think of professors, academics, politicians and economists we think of men. So these events were looking at what we can do to overturn these assumptions, by pushing harder for representation, to break stereotypes and create more opportunities.

Equally these talks also focused on the importance of speaking openly about sex and women’s bodies, particularly for women of colour, whether it is making sex less taboo as Coco Khan advocates for, or dealing with issues like FGM, which Nimko Ali argues is specifically gender based violence – you are only at risk of it if you are biologically female. With women such as they talking openly about these subjects, and encouraging others, and even politicians to do the same, it is the first step towards dealing with these issues. As Elif Shafak says these conversations are happening, but in homes and cafes, and we need them to happen in a political domain and in the media.

The range of talks show a clear concern about how geo-political history is affecting contemporary society, with talks on Russia from the fall of the Berlin Wall through to Putin, an examination of Trump’s first 100 days and Elif Shafak speaking on contemporary politics in Turkey. We are seeing a growing concern over relationships with Russia, divergent politics and the spread of populism throughout the Western world.

For both Sarah Churchwell and Elif Shafak polarising views and the inability to compromise is dangerous, and we risk diverging further by refusing to listen to and converse with our opponents. Equally Shafak and Coco Khan both demonstrate how nationalism is concerning. For Khan, it is alienating and threatening, while Shafak sees how in Turkey it is damaging free speech, academia and democracy.

Despite the apparent range in the subjects of the talks I went to, there were many recurring themes which illustrate common concerns within contemporary society, but these talks also aim to explore solutions, stoke debate and help fuel action and change.

Overall it was a great weekend and I was excited to see so many wonderful speakers, and be involved in such interesting discussions on literature and politics.


In Conversation with Ali Smith

Last week I saw Ali Smith in conversation with Jackie Kay through Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts.

Smith is an award winning author, with multiple Man Booker nominations and a Bailey’s Prize win for her acclaimed novel How to Be Both. Her recent project is one of much bigger proportions and began with her 2016 novel Autumn, which has been called the first ‘post-Brexit’ novel. The series will see four books, each named after a season, written right up to the mark of contemporary politics and current affairs, with the second installment, Winter, due at the end of this year.

Smith is incredibly astute and eloquent in her writing and no different in person – she frequently expresses quotable maxims, starting with ‘dialogue is what life is’, when discussing the style of her most recent novel and the relationship between it’s two main characters Elisabeth and Daniel. A reading from the book illustrates how it resonates with people – a bureaucratic trip to the Post Office had many in the audience nodding and laughing in recognition.

The discussion that followed was rich and philosophical; exploring how people are made of of who they were, and all the possibilities of who they can be. Looking at the importance of being ‘current’ in her most recent project Smith notes that we will always be pushed up against the moment, and the thing that allows us to expands dimensionally is knoweldge – the importance of books and reading an important recurring theme within Autumn. Daniel constantly asks Elisabeth what she is reading, telling her ‘always be reading something.’

Another stellar quote from the night was her idea that ‘imagination is the nation to which we will all always belong.’ This sentiment is a beautiful, unifying concept when thinking about a book which is concerned with an issue so divisive as Brexit, and the polarisation in political views that we have seen across the Western world over the last year or so.

Perhaps the best moment of the evening was an audience question asking the authors the most important books to them. Jackie Kay chose The Black Unicorn, Collected Checkov and Autumn itself. Smith chose Kay’s Trumpet, Collected Shakespeare, and ‘whatever I read next’ because books never end.

It was so lovely to see two writers who admire each other so much and are evidently close friends in discussion together, talking about incredibly interesting subjects. I was very excited to speak to Smith after the event and get my copy of Autumn signed. All in all a wonderful night and I’m incredibly excited for the next in the series!


Books For Change – Part 1

Virago Press is doing a social media campaign #BooksForChange designed to share inspirational books by women everyday throughout March. Here is my list for the first 15 days – check out my picks:

1 The book that made me a feminist: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall 

Anne Bronte’s tale of a woman who asserts her right to independence at a time when women were little more than property was the first thing that ever made me realise that the women were not treated equally, and it inspires me to be like Helen every day.

2 Hidden from History: Hidden Figures

I recently saw the chart topping film at the cinema and was blown away. I’m now keen to read up on these incredible women in more detail in the book that inspired the movie.

Image result for anne of green gables rachel mcadams3 Stories of Girlhood: Anne of Green Gables

A childhood favourite – Anne epitomises the struggles many girls go through, learning to become comfortable in her own skin. The recent Rachel McAdams narrated audiobook is a great way to revisit it!

Image result for We Should All Be Feminists4 Read in one sitting: We Should All Be Feminists

Adichie’s call to arms is a powerful demonstration of why we all need feminism and a must read.

Image result for bad girls throughout history5 #ShePersisted: Bad Girls Throughout History

This beautiful compilation of 100 remarkable women shows the tenacity and perseverance of women who fought to achieve success and change the world.

Image result for jane eyre6 Favourite first line: There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

This classic and unforgettable intro is from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, if you haven’t read it, stop what you are doing now.

7 Short Stories: The Garden Party

Mansfield was a pioneer of the short story and her isolated and frustrated characters give us a unique insight into human psychology.

8 The book that changed my life: The Bell Jar

This book broke my heart and when I finished it, I cried for days. But any book that has that much affect on you has to change your life and in hindsight it has a profound affect on how I view my body, my mental health and my hopes and dreams.

9 In Her Words: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I have never read Angelou but this is at the top of my TBR and a must read in any feminist book list.

10 Stories of Friendship: The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants

This series is probably fairly problematic for any number of reasons but it does prioritise female friendships which is not a common thing to see in children’s or YA literature.

Image result for gone with the wind11 Nasty Women: Scarlett O’Hara

Women do not have to be nice or likeable and Scarlett O’Hara couldn’t care less what you think of her. She is entitled, manipulative and spoilt, but she is real, relatable and damn well successful too.

12 Must Read Classics: Shirley

Charlotte’ Bronte’s Shirley is an uber-feminist version of Jane Eyre – she knows what she wants and no man will get in her way.

13 Ladies of Letters: Plath – Letters Home

Sylvia Plath struggled with depression all her life and this can be seen throughout her writing. I really want to gain more insight into the writer who has affected me personally, and what better way than through her letters.

14 Women who changed music: Lady Sings the Blues

A pioneering Jazz musician and singer-songwriter, Billie Holiday is nothing short of legendary and has been hugely influential in modern American music.

15 To open your eyes: The Second Sex

The inequalities outlined in this book will horrify you, but it also made me aware of the amount of misogyny I internalise, in a way I can’t now forget or brush aside.

Feminist February – Round Up

If you hadn’t already seen I’ve spent February reading a range of different feminist texts in order to learn more about the movement, diversify my reading and learn some intersectional feminist theory. Since the current political climate is looking dismal for women’s and minorities’ rights, educating myself is one of a number of things I can do to stand up for these rights, and hopefully by sharing what I’m doing I can encourage others to do the same.

So what did I read?

I haven’t read this much since I was studying literature! Over four weeks exactly I managed to make my way through:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Stay With Me
  • The Bloody Chamber
  • Ms Marvel
  • Bad Girls Throughout History
  • Bad Feminist
  • On Beauty
  • You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain
  • Feminism is for Everybody
I was so proud that I read so much – namely because I raced through a few which were just utterly brilliant. I was also glad I managed to get such a wide range – the books include fiction, essays, history, graphic novels and comedy.

I also had a wonderfully diverse range of authors, including women of colour and those who identify as LGBTQ+. The books explored feminism from these diverse perspectives, pushing me to see views outside of my own.

What did I learn?

I learnt so much this month. The issues covered were as diverse as motherhood, abortion, women’s representation, race, religion, class and sexuality.

Thanks to Phoebe Robinson I learnt how much politics is embedded in black women’s hair. Roxane Gay showed me the importance of language in both patriarchal oppression and feminism. Zadie Smith made me think about the beauty standards I still internalise, despite my intellectual position on these issues. Ann Shen gave me the women’s history lesson I never knew I needed.

I have a new feminist hero in Kamala Khan. I am inspired by how we can rethink women in fairytales and female sexuality thanks to The Bloody Chamber. Atwood and Adebayo both had me in tears with their explorations of female identity in relation to motherhood and the value society places on this.

All in all I have an awful lot to think about thanks to this challenge. I’m so glad I got to read these books and decided to do this challenge. I am keen to make this something I do regularly, and so I hope continue this challenge next Feb!

I also want to say thanks to those who got on board and also completed the challenge, it was great to see people so interested in what I’ve been doing!

Feminist February – Week 4

In case you missed it, I have decided to spend February reading exclusively on feminism! Check out the books I aim to read and the reasons behind my Feminist February Challenge

In my last week of this challenge I delved into the academics of feminism with Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and bell hooks Feminism is for Everybody. 

These books were a brilliant pair, looking at the different forms and perspectives on feminist thinking. Smith uses a number of black female characters in her book, all of which seem to be based on typical stereotypes but she complicates this, making making these women seem multi-dimensional, real and conflicted. She explores a number of issues around political and ideological extremes, but the novel centres around aesthetics itself, an issue central to the women and female identity in the novel. Kiki is overwieght, and while she seems happy in herself, doubts do seem to arise in relation to her marriage.

Her daughter Zora is fiercely intellectual but is unable to reconcile this with personal beliefs, obsessing over her appearance and aspiring to patriarchal beauty standards. She also illustrates how women themselves are capable of perpetuating misogyny, labelling Victoria, the 18 year old who subscribes to patriarchal ideas of sex, a ‘slut’.

By the end of the book Kiki and Zora both seem to have undergone a change, learning something about themselves in the climax of events, and it is clear that they come out empowered.

Feminism is for Everybody exemplified many of the issues Smith raised, with individual chapters on a range of different topics. Amongst the more interesting things that hooks explores are ideas such as global feminism, the insights that lesbian women offered to feminism, and the damage that women can do through exacerbating patriarchal structures, namely when it comes to violence against children.

I am so glad I read these books because they helped me to see things from different perspectives to my own. They also helped me to uncover some of the patriarchal values and standards which I have internalised, and by identifying these hardwired issues, I hope I can challenge them in the long run.

Goodreads Review – Autumn by Ali Smith

AutumnAutumn by Ali Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t think any book has had me crying, then laughing again in such a short page span. It is beautifully written; a perfectly pitched political satire without risking cynicism. Smith has made this so current and relevant, capturing the atmosphere of political tensions after Brexit, reflecting the horrors of the refugee crisis so poignantly, and questioning how we look at and interpret the world using utterly beautiful explorations of art and literature.

The exploration of 1960’s pop art culture, as well as interwoven allusions to texts such as Brave New World, A Tale of Two Cities and The Tempest were seamless, incredibly clever and, on occasion thought-provoking, challenging the reader to reconsider their readings and interpretations – something which Daniel makes Elizabeth do throughout.

I particularly love that this book avoids being ‘doom and gloom’ or entirely apocalyptic despite the difficult political events it draws on for material. Despite it being ‘autumn’ and the awful state of increased racism and intolerance which pervade the novel, it maintains a sense of beauty and hope, rooted in the on-going theme of art.

It is a very ‘literary’ novel and so those hoping for strong plot or character may be disappointed, however it is a sad, beautiful, relevant and thought-provoking analysis of our society today. I am looking forward to Smith’s next instalment and only hope she can capture more recent political events, since Autumn was published, with the same touch.

View all my reviews

Obama’s wise words for the west

Obama’s comments on Saturday at the National Prayer Breakfast are words we should be paying very close attention to rather than criticising. While there is no doubt about the seriousness of terrorism on the world stage and the threat posed by Islamic State, Obama instead addressed the attitudes contributing to drastic increases in Islamophobia in recent years. By telling the western world, and specifically its Christian population, not to get on a high horse over extremism Obama bravely confronted the issue from a perspective that had gone on to be criticised and even be labeled ‘offensive’.

President Obama, photography by Wikimedia Commons
President Obama, photography by Wikimedia Commons

Yet nothing Obama said was offensive.  Furthermore, his examples were completely true. Regardless of anyone’s opinions on the issue it is undeniable that many people have suffered as a result of Christian endeavors or at the hands of the white western world. While it would be wrong to condone extremist actions due to an unsavoury history of them in the western world, Obama wisely acknowledged that a white western population with roots on Christianity cannot take a moral high ground over extremism. More specifically he noted that extremism is not a phenomenon exclusive to Islam. On this side of the pond at least many seem to forget that once up on a time, not so very long ago, terrorism was a thing of the Cold War or linked to the IRA. Moreover, it becomes ever more apparent extremist actions are not attributable to any group as a whole.

Those eager for confrontation, retribution and revenge have to remember that in taking such action, we must ensure we are not encompassing the millions of Muslims who condemn IS and extremist groups. These people have far more right to take a moral high ground as their religion and identity has been affected by both those groups and the western world which refuses to differentiate. To put current events into a wider context, we must remember that different religions have been opposed, in conflict and exploiting others for hundreds of years, we can go back to the crusades and the inquisition, like Obama, or even recall the extent of anti-semitism perpetuated by Christianity, right up to the holocaust. It would be wrong not only to believe ‘we’ are morally better, but especially to feel justified in launching any violent retaliation. While there may be limited options of how to deal with the increasing activity of ISIS, we must remember that any action will have wider repercussions, and as military action always does, affect a number of completely innocent lives.

Obama has done something rare in politics, namely leading the way…

Furthermore, returning to the President’s address, Obama’s comments on free speech in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks were perfectly poised between a defence of the right to free speech and a condemnation of using it to offend or insult a religion. He took a stand of solidarity with the targets of such verbal attacks claiming ‘we’re equally obligated to use our free speech to condemn such insults — and stand shoulder to shoulder with religious communities.’ While many are criticising the presidents words claiming them as offensive, I would like to suggest that it is refreshing to hear a world leader express such a sentiment. No longer needing to appeal to his audiences for votes, Obama has done something rare in politics, namely leading the way rather than attempting to pander to his voters. This shows that if we really want to take the moral high ground and not, as Obama warned against, the ‘high horse’ (a subtle but significant difference) we must approach the issue in a way that condemns both extremism and racial prejudices. Unfortunately I do not know what that is. However, as shown in his incredibly wise address, if anyone can start is down that road, it is President Obama.