Sunday, February 24, 2013

Expat Author Interview with Ethel Rohan

Author Ethel Rohan
Ethel Rohan, originally from Dublin, now lives in San Francisco. She's the author of Hard to Say (PANK) and Cut Through the Bone (Dark Sky Books), both critically acclaimed. Rohan also has work forthcoming in the spring issues of Arroyo Literary Review and Post Road Magazine and a collection of short-short stories, Goodnight Nobody, forthcoming from Queen's Ferry Press in September 2013. 


IMBO: Ethel, Welcome to I Must Be Off! I'm a fan of your writing. Tell us a childhood memory, something formative.  

Primary School, Remedial Classes
ROHAN: Thank you. As a child I struggled with learning differences and for years attended what in Dublin we called "remedial classes" taught by an elderly nun, Sister Gerethie. Luckily, despite Sister Gerethie's hunchback, walking cane, and black garb, she didn't succumb to the stereotype and I remember her fondly. My challenges to read and write were never diagnosed, that I know of, and to this day I'm not sure if my difficulties were cognitive or emotional (I'm a survivor of childhood abuse). The memory of the struggle, though, remains like a bird on my shoulder that every now and again pecks at me. On one hand, I'm proud and frankly astonished that I've grown from that girl who jumbled text to, of all things, a writer, and on the other hand the insecurities around feeling stupid still burn and I worry that, as a writer, I couldn't possibly be in the right place. 

IMBO: Thank you for sharing that, Ethel. You've said on your own site that having Hard to Say (PANK, available on Kindle) out there in the world was a struggle between your desire to write "as honest as possible" and your urge to hide these stories from people they might hurt. When I began writing the story of my own sexual abuse, I called my mother to let her know. "The mother in the story is culpable," I said. "Just use me any way you need to," she said, "but write that book." Yet another writer, whom I respect greatly, once told me, "Your story is your own, but you don't get to write other people's stories." My question, Ethel, is where does my story end and someone else's begin? And how do you feel about this?

ROHAN: I'm sorry, Chris, we have that shared history. Your mother's reaction, "Just use me any way you need to," is exceptional. I would not have gotten my parents' or siblings' blessing to write Hard to Say and I'm sympathetic to that, but, yes, I finally came to terms some time ago with the realization that my story and my struggles are mine to tell.

In childhood, I was sexually abused by a man outside our family. Because of my confusion, fear, and shame around the sexual abuse, and because our family was already broken by my mother's psychosis (she was a paranoid schizophrenic), I felt this huge pressure and responsibility to remain silent and not add to our family's, and in particular my father's, pain.  

In adulthood, my silence around my story of sexual and physical abuse was hurting me and I reached a point in my life and in my writing where I wanted to be done with silence and with hurting. I wanted my voice back. I also wanted the stories out of me so as to clear space for new stories. I'm not married to my past and my pain. I'm willing to give them up. Writing Hard to Say was a form of my giving up the stories that choked me. Let me be clear: Hard to Say is a tiny collection of linked facts, truths, fictions, and fabrications. They are also the most candid and painful set of stories about myself and my family that I have ever written. But the characters are not me or my family, they are collages hacked together by my open wounds, skewed perspective, twisted imagination, and faulty memory.

As for where does my story begin and another person's end? I don't know. I think that's up to the storyteller to decide. A writer's motivation will determine a lot. Our intentions in the telling must be pure and empathetic. They must be an honest search. Otherwise we are going to do damage. Why write to do damage?  
IMBO: I agree. When did you first feel like a writer and what was the first story you published?

ROHAN: My first meaningful memories of writing are from when I was about 14. By that time, I no longer struggled with reading and writing and was an honor student in most subjects. My English teacher, her freckled face shrunken with worry, asked me to step outside the classroom. I supposed I was in trouble again (I sometimes liked to play at class comedian and prankster), but she wanted to discuss the short story I'd turned in. I hadn't written to the required topic, she told me in her rich baritone, and because of that she'd graded my story a 'C'. She said she loved the story, though, and that it pained her to penalize the work. I could see the upset in her eyes and face, like she'd an ache somewhere in her head, and I returned to the classroom stunned: It was the first time I'd ever felt I was good, really good, at anything. Most importantly, it was the first time I’d ever felt anyone cared I was good, really good, at anything.

The first story I published was from maybe 12 years ago with an online Irish magazine, Electric Acorn, a magazine that's sadly long since defunct. The story, titled "The Auld Triangle," was about two male characters from working class northside Dublin, Aidan Ivers and Charlie Owens. I wrote a terrible novel about those two young men over a decade ago and they still haunt me. Aidan and Charlie appear in the opening story, "Major Drill," in my forthcoming collection, Goodnight Nobody. The story was first published by World Literature Today last year and readers really seemed to like it. Hmmm, maybe I need to revisit that novel...

IMBO: It's so hard to look back at projects that have lain dormant for so long. What do you expect to find when/if you return to Aidan and Charlie?

ROHAN: Ha! I think there’d be a lot of cringing. In revision, I have to police myself for overwriting, so this novel would be filled with the overwrought because as a rookie I didn’t see how my work overreached. The tattered manuscript would also be cluttered with details and description, something else I did in my early writing. I’d still like to go back and read the ms, though, because of the characters and all their inglorious flaws and failings and because back then I wasn’t worried about rules and getting the work “right,” I was just writing, letting all the ideas, characters, action, and prose spill. Back then, the work did runneth over. Now, I have to go drilling.    

"I only truly became happy here in America when I let go of the idea of my separateness and instead embraced my sameness."
IMBO: I know that feeling. Do you ever work with prompts? How do you pry the stories out these days?

ROHAN: I'm lucky, Chris, in that I don't suffer writer's block, if I even know quite what that is. Some days the writing just comes easier and better than others, but I never feel blocked or that I can't write. I dismissed the use of prompts for a long time, preferring to start off my stories from a character's voice, but I've grown to enjoy prompts a great deal and find them excellent springboards for stories. Prompts have a powerful way of tapping into our subconscious and drawing out gems.

IMBO: It is somehow miraculous how a few random words can dig so deep.

ROHAN: But the danger, I think, with prompts is that the writer can become too attached e.g. I've used the 'five words' writing prompt a good deal, but find in revision that some or all of the very words that got me to my story may need to be removed for the story to be its best. I think this is true of all prompts and the very impetus that gets us into a story may, in the final revision, need to be cut.  

IMBO: And that's OK, I think. They did their job, right? OK, so tell us about where you were born and how this place is portrayed in your writing.

Ethel Rohan's Childhood Home
ROHAN: I was born in Phibsboro, a working class neighborhood that's close to Dublin's inner city. My earlier work was always about Dublin, and in particular the northside neighborhoods much like my own. While Dublin, and Ireland in general, feature less in my work the longer I live in the States, my Irishness, my Dublinness, are always at the heart of my work: in its rawness, ugliness, and misery, and in all of those opposites too. Despite what was sometimes a brutal childhood, I'm fierce about my family and country and they, even without my trying, always infuse my stories.  

IMBO: In an Irish Times article co-written with Sarah Griffin, you say, "Emigrants have to let go of any sense of preciousness around having a single identity." Could you speak a bit more about this?

ROHAN: Too many immigrants have an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality and live with a divided heart, always seeing their mother country as home and their adopted country as the other. I only truly became happy here in America when I let go of the idea of my separateness and instead embraced my sameness. I also let go of the idea that my Irish values and culture were “better” than American values and culture. Now, I celebrate and try to live by the best of both cultures and value systems.

IMBO: Have you ever experienced culture shock?

ROHAN: When I first arrived in San Francisco, I believed the move was temporary. I planned to stay through the three months of summer and then return to Ireland, at which point I believed I'd have stayed away long enough to gain enough emotional distance from my abusive boyfriend, allowing us to stay split-up and well away from each other. I also believed three months was a respectable enough sojourn to allow me return home without shame and embarrassment, having shown everyone I was indeed a wild adventurer and that when I had said I was leaving, I had meant it, dammit. Three months became six became twelve. Yes, I was homesick and I very much felt Americans were the weird, loud, overly familiar and, dare I admit, obnoxious, other. I told myself I wasn't staying, that the move was temporary, that I was going back "home." Then one year became two became three. I met my now husband just six months after I arrived, and he and the large, rocking Irish community here were a huge draw and I kept staying. My husband, the city itself, and then slowly, finally, the American people anchored me here.

IMBO: I know what you mean about "loud, overly familiar and . . . obnoxious." We do have that reputation. I've lived in Germany for 18 years and am all too aware of how loudly Americans talk. We do tend to project and smile too much. But what changed? What made you warm to us? Tell me you've become a bit louder and obnoxious too, please.

"Individual by individual is what changed and broke down America, and specifically San Francisco, for me."

ROHAN: I’ll let others decide if I’ve become louder and obnoxious. I know I’ve gained a little wisdom along the way. It wasn’t just the sounds of San Francisco that were so startling at first, but also the sights. The diversity of San Francisco was initially shocking. All these different people of color and creed and identity. I was twenty-two when I moved to America and up until that point I’d only ever met a handful of people of color and had never met anyone who was openly LGBT. Hell, I couldn’t even cope at first with how often and effortlessly people told each other “I love you.” It was disturbing. Yes, San Francisco, after repressed Ireland, was like stepping into a tub of hot water. I’ve acclimated very, very well and remain grateful that my ignorance, prejudices, and complacency got kicked so hard. Individual by individual is what changed and broke down America, and specifically San Francisco, for me. One by one, each person I came to know and care about dispelled my biases and preconceived notions. I've come to love San Francisco and its people and feel blessed that I get to extract and live by the best from both cultures.

IMBO: Turning now to a recent story, "Skirt," in the current issue of Connotation Press. Well, there are actually three stories here. I like how Noreen, in "Dying Juices" sums up what I see as the thread through these narratives: "I'm just saying what I'm thinking." As do Gary and Dad in the other two stories. Is honesty--saying what you're thinking--a theme that binds here?

ROHAN: Maybe I was subconsciously subversive in these stories. One thing the Irish are not good at is saying what they’re thinking or feeling, at least not on any issues of import. The Irish can be honest to the point of cruelty and cloaked to the point of ridiculous, but this is usually around trivial matters. Despite enormous growth in the past couple of decades, the Irish remain a reticent race and saying anything about anything that matters, especially matters of the heart, is something we too often turn away from.

IMBO: The Irish sound a lot like Southerners in the US! Finally, Ethel, I always ask the author to share the work of another expat author and tell us, if you want, a bit about his/her work.

ROHAN: Well, she hardly needs any introduction, but Yiyun Li comes immediately to mind. Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. She lives in the Bay Area and I’m fortunate enough to have crossed paths with her several times here in San Francisco and also once at the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival in Ireland. She’s masterful and her fiction is extraordinary. Read more about her here. Read her heartrending personal essay (which the wonderful Kyle Minor introduced me to) here.  

IMBO: Thank you so much for this interview, Ethel. It has been grand getting to know you and your stories better.  

Buy the Kindle version of Hard to Say HERE. And watch for Goodnight Nobody forthcoming from Queen's Ferry Press.

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire)