Book Passage: Elisabeth Sheffield

An essay from Elisabeth Sheffield on her new novel Ire land, available to order from publisher Spuyten Duyvil.

Ireland came, of course, before Ire Land. But not as an actual island destination, entailing an airline ticket and a passport (though I did end up going to Belfast). Rather, I first got there through Joyce, particularly via Ulysses and Finnegans Wake and later through Beckett’s trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable.  The literary terra of Ire Land in fact begins with a jar of soil pilfered from Beckett: “I am in your mother’s room, though it is not I who live here now.” Then again, when I wrote what is now the first line of the novel, which was actually composed somewhat after the original beginning (Sandra’s Dorn’s opening message to Madmaeve17), I wasn’t exactly sure what, with this appropriation of an appropriation, I was laying claim to

Or to put it another way, I knew where I was, sort of, but not why. When I started envisioning the territory of this novel, circa 2013, I was thinking about violence. Literal violence, as in the Sandy Hook and Aurora theater shootings, of a sort that always seemed to be perpetrated by white males. I was also thinking about anger, the simmering grievances and resentments in the various pockets of American culture, and the links between anger and violence. Though it would be a few years before the “deplorables” insured Hillary Clinton’s defeat, and another seven or so before they laid siege to congress with handguns, baseball bats, truncheons, flagpoles and Viking spears, it seemed to me that some new (or reawakened), potentially explosive force was stirring in the inequalities of the economic recovery and the factionalism of identity politics. Poor and not so poor white people were starting to feel corralled and cut off from opportunity in a way that they had not before. So it was a deliberate choice to give my main character, Sandra Dorn, a pasty white working class background, and to have her pull herself up the socio-economic ladder with an advanced education (something that it is much harder to do now than it was back in the 1970s and 1980s for anyone without influence or affluence), only to tumble back down again—due in part to self-destructive choices, but also due to larger political and financial forces undermining the prosperity of working and middle class Americans everywhere.

But in addition to being white and (formerly) middle class, Sandra Dorn is also a woman, and an old woman at that. And besides actual physical, historically recordable violence, I was also thinking about a less explicit kind of violence—the violence that language does to bodies as it captures them for our understanding. As I wrote, I found myself focusing almost exclusively on the latter kind of violence, not least because I think it feeds the former: conceptual categories (e.g., “black,” “white,” “deplorable,” “little old lady”) confine and constrict, and bodies push back. This second kind of violence plays out via the dramatic events of the novel, in Sandra Dorn’s actions and interactions with other characters. I have also attempted to make it play out through form, in the tension between the central text, composed of Sandra’s recovered correspondence, and the marginalia of her mysterious editor. Increasingly, the latter butts up against and distorts the boundaries of the former, and the comprehensible, initially realist body of the narration slowly breaks down, undergoing, at the end, a kind of textual warp-spasm.

Which brings me back to Beckett, and the “Ire Land” that preceded mine. Revisiting the trilogy after I began writing Ire Land, teaching a course on Joyce and Beckett to undergraduates at Queen’s University Belfast, “it was then that the sound of a gong, struck with violence” (Molloy), struck me, for the first time. The trilogy is rife with violence, beatings, poundings and stompings, one of the more graphic being Mahood’s “stamping under foot the unrecognizable remains of [his] family, here a face, there a stomach, as the case might be…” (Unnamable). And with that violence, there’s also rage—rage at being bound up in a body, rage at the inadequacy of language, even as language serves all too well to bind. Hence “I would gladly give myself the shape, if not the consistency, of an egg…a big talking ball, talking about things that do not exist, or things that exist perhaps, impossible to know, beside the point” (Unnamable). I realized that what I wanted to do (and was in fact already doing) was to take that rage and put it in a female body/egg, to see how it would crack…

And then there are the fairies. Because Sandra Dorn is cracking (up), and maybe I was too. Near the end of the five months I spent in Belfast, we drive to see the Hill of Tara, an ancient site steeped in sacred myth and magic. I’d read that C.S. Lewis (who was born in Belfast) had drawn on Tara for the sacrifice of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, one of my favorite books when I was young. As my partner and two kids wandered the grounds, I sat on a knoll for at least half an hour, recording impressions and sensory details in a little red notebook, including a description of the flock of huge black ravens that had alighted on a swathe of grass nearby, disconcertingly close and loud. When I was finished writing, I joined my family in the gift shop, which was about to close. Quickly scanning the books, I picked up a couple, including one titled Irish Superstitions. As my partner drove us back along the coast road, I leafed through it, coming upon the following: “The ancient Celts considered the raven to be a significant bird of augury…It is generally seen in negative terms. For example, the appearance of a raven while new work is being undertaken signifies that the work will not be a success…” Shortly afterwards, I discovered that the notebook I’d been writing in, which also contained all the notes and observations I’d made during my time in Belfast, and which I’d hoped to eventually work into Ire Land, was missing. The next morning, I called the Hill of Tara gift shop (for surely I’d put it down when I was looking at the books), to no avail: no one, the young woman who answered had seen anything “resemblin’ a wee red notebook.” Someone, or something, didn’t want me to write this novel, and the paranoia lingered for weeks. I even thought about giving up on the “cursed” project entirely, having soured on both on the narrative voice and the story. But eventually, back in the arid light of Colorado, the spell, or whatever it was, broke. I decided to make the na daoine maithe, the “good people” who’d stolen my notes, part of the story. Because what is paranoia but a fantasy of “outside” beaks, tapping away at the brittle shell of self? Or to quote Sandra Dorn, “when you know, deep down, that no eyes are upon you, you invent them.”

Elisabeth Sheffield is the author of four novels, Ire Land (A Faery Tale), published by Spuyten Duyvil (2021), Helen Keller Really Lived (FC2 2014), Fort Da: A Report (FC2 2009), and Gone (FC2 2003), as well as a critical book on James Joyce. A National Endowment of the Arts Award for Literature Fellow in 2012, Elisabeth Sheffield has also been awarded two Fulbrights, in Kiel, Germany (1999-2000), and in Belfast, Northern Ireland (2014), and a writing residency at the Hanse Institute for Advanced Study in Bremen, Germany (2016-2017). She teaches in the Creative Writing program at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and lives in Boulder and upstate NY with the writer Jeffrey DeShell, two boys, two cats and a shiba inu.

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Issue 13.1

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