Literature enthusiasts thronged the Class of ’51 Reading Room last Wednesday, April 12 at 5 p.m. to see Irish author Ruth Gilligan speak about her fourth book, “Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan”. Gilligan’s visit to Vassar was merely one stop on her North American tour for Nine Folds, which constitutes her American novelistic debut.
In “Nine Folds,” Gilligan explores themes of belonging and conversion in writing about the Jewish community in Ireland, which by current estimates numbers around 1,000 and is shrinking. “Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan” contains three historically separate narrative arcs–they follow, respectively, a Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant family to Ireland at the turn of the century, a mid-century Jewish boy named Shem who is institutionalized and a contemporary Irish Catholic girl named Aisling—all of which, Gilligan foreshadowed at her lecture, intersect by the novel’s end.
As part of her research process, Gilligan relied heavily on the power of oral histories. “I had tea with nearly every member of the Jewish community in County Cork,” she explained, and along the way, unearthed myriad, though perhaps stereotypical, parallels between the Irish and Jewish communities.
Both groups, she elaborates, formed diasporic communities with grand literary traditions, and somehow managed to maintain a certain self-deprecating sense of humor despite being oft-persecuted.
One tale that resurfaced again and again in these conversations, says Gilligan, is the “story about the boat.” As legend has it, many Jews fleeing the pogroms in Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th Century left their country for America by boat. When the captain announced a stopover in “Cork,” however, the Jewish immigrants heard “New York,” and deboarded to find a new, if accidental, home in Ireland. There they have stayed, concentrated mostly in County Cork and in the Belfast region (in today’s Northern Ireland), albeit in reduced numbers from the community’s height of 5,000 strong.
Gilligan’s influences include writers such as Jewish-American author Nicole Krauss and Israeli author David Grossman. Gilligan was particularly inspired by Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin,” a daring work set in 1970s New York City and centering on Philippe Petit’s infamous tightrope walk.
Gilligan follows McCann’s example, who learns about other lives in an attempt to write toward what he wants to know. Among the communities McCann has researched and subsequently written about are the Roma of Europe, homeless Black residents of New York’s subway tunnels and gay ballet dancers in Russia.
Visiting Professor of English Sinéad O’Connor and Professor of English Paul Russell, who both helped organize the event, concurred. “Writing toward what one wants to know is the great freedom of the fictional experience,” Russell said. He added that he was once horrified by a visiting professor who counseled the men in his creative writing class only to write from a man’s perspective. “An approach such as McCann’s,” asserts Russell, “encourages empathy and frees us from the prison of ourselves and our biases.”
Lecture attendee and English major Emily Chancey ’18 agreed: “I’m interested in reading her new book and was particularly struck by her interest in creating empathy through literature. Creativity and storytelling are impactful ways to explore the narratives of marginalized communities.”
Such an approach, of course, also runs the risk of instrumentalizing the experiences of the communities in question for one’s own personal gain.
As Gilligan herself asks, “What right did I have to write this novel?” In order to address such concerns, Gilligan follows McCann’s lead—she embeds her timidity over writing about other lives and her anxiety of appropriating others’ experiences into the narrative itself, often through her characters’ voices.
Concerns over appropriation, it seems, are not the only risk that Gilligan takes in writing about the Irish-Jewish community. As Oona Frawley writes in a July 2016 review of the book that appeared in the Guardian, “Even in 2016, writing an Irish novel with Jewish characters takes chutzpah, since so many critics and readers will immediately remember that most famous of Irish literary heroes, Leopold Bloom” (The Guardian, “Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan by Ruth Gilligan Review – Tales of the Irish-Jewish Experience,” 07.01.2016). Frawley is referring, of course, to the main character in James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” perhaps the most infamous exploration of the Jewish community in Ireland to date and a mainstay of the Irish literary canon. It appears, therefore, that Gilligan is treading on hallowed literary ground, and will have to add a fresh take to the topic.
In Gilligan’s view, she is doing just that. She attributes her success as a novelist, in part, to her tendency to write for a young adult audience: “One of the reasons [the novels] did well is that they kind of filled a niche. Young adult fiction didn’t really exist as a genre in Ireland then in the way that it does now.”
Gilligan acknowledges that her work is not entirely unique, however, and that it is in fact informed by many of her own experiences in her youth. “These were autobiographical novels, completely.” She also remarked with a wry smile that her friends still cringe when they recognize a particularly embarrassing scene from their youth in the pages of her books.
Yet, one of her greatest joys during the writing process occurs when those she knows intimately connect with her work. “My highest high is, even beyond the [being published in] America thing, and the nice reviews, when a friend or a colleague or even someone you haven’t spoken to in ages sends you a text saying […] that scene with the breakup, or whatever, that was amazing,” she said.
To the aspiring writers at Vassar, Gilligan offers this advice: rather than obsessing over getting published, write about what makes you passionate and trust in the fact that you are consumed by it. She realizes that this is easier said than done, however. Her reaction to her editor’s warning that she probably would not be published was less than measured: “Poor guy, I just burst into tears!”