Australia’s newest Irish novelist

Evelyn Conlon
Evelyn Conlon

Evelyn Conlon agreed to talk to Frances Devlin-Glass about her career as a writer, and this is an account of a discussion on 12 September 2013

Evelyn Conlon is now officially an Australian novelist: her latest novel, Not the Same Sky, about Irish Famine Orphans of the 1840s, sits proudly among the Australian novels in Readings bookshop.  Categories matter in bookshops, and Evelyn is justifiably proud of having made it to the Australian Fiction shelves. She is a part-time Australian by election (living and working in Ireland with an Irish passport), having run away to the bottom of the world as a young woman of nineteen. From 1974-5, she lived the seventies’ dream of freedom, moving from job to job and place to place to get the maximum value from her travel, working as a receptionist, for an insurance company, as a researcher on an encyclopaedia of Australia, as a secretary and a barmaid, among other jobs. Since then, she has frequently boomeranged:  she had become besotted by the landscapes, the colour, the sounds of the wildlife (especially birds) and the people, especially of rural Australia. Mt Isa was one of her significant destinations, and she relished the rough and tumble of the Miners’ bar in the Mt Isa Irish Club. I’ve no doubt she was a star attraction: attractive, witty, forthright.

Her writing life began early at school in Monaghan, and like many young girls, diaries and essays were the starting point. It was heartening for her to have her writing read to the class by a teacher who recognised the talent she had. She was in print early, her first short story, ‘Foxgloves’, being published in New Irish Writing, the Irish Press newspaper when she was sixteen. The piece was in its way quite subversive: an critique of marriage and its boredom. She was frustrated about how women were described in contemporary Irish fiction. Although so young, in retrospect, it can be seen that she had set herself on a path that would focus on women in Irish society and in the world, and would challenge and query taken-for-granted gender inequities. These days she wears the label of feisty (spirited, but optimistic and rational) feminist with pride.

Returning from her ‘gap’ years in Australia in 1975, with blinkers about the world discarded, innocence lost, and a much broader outlook, she decided to have a child and then took on the hard slog of an undergraduate degree at Maynooth. She needed a crèche service; there was none; so, she set one up. She had her second child in second year and by third year was separated from her children’s father. Her experiences deepened her and she began to identify with the radical end of the Irish Women’s Liberation movement. – Irish Women United.

Second level teaching was what she wanted to do, but it was a short career, however, for she was sabotaged by institutional prejudice – against her opinions and ‘separated’ status.

Her reading became more international. Certainly, in these years she was soaking it up from a crowded field of women writers: Alice Walker, Grace Paley, Doris Lessing, Toni Cade Bambera, Zora Neale Hurston, among others. Feminist presses like Virago and the Women’s Press stoked the boilers, rather than contemporary Irish women writers, though of course she had read Edna O’Brien (when her work became available – despite the after-effects of State  censorship in Ireland making it quite inaccessible when Evelyn needed to be reading her). She had also read Mary Lavin, and she too eventually contributed to her growing consciousness as a writer. Evelyn remains happier to style herself as a writer of the world rather than specifically as an Irish writer, however, hence the novels about America and Australia.

The National Writers Workshop of the early 1980s marked a watershed in her development as a writer. When she was mysteriously dumped from her teaching job one morning, she decided to become a freelance writer, doing reviews, radio programs, and some ESL (English as a Second Language) teaching to butter her bread and that of her family.  Her trajectory as a woman writer with two children is the classic one:  it wasn’t until they were coming into their teenage years that her writing career could really take off. To date, she has four novels, three collections of short stories and several edited collections of stories/essays, to her credit. The next collection of short stories, one of them an Australian one, is already with her publisher.

As a writer, her process is to immerse herself thoroughly in an issue: for example, in Skin of Dreams, she took on capital punishment, visiting Death Row in the US to help her understand her own position; in Not the Same Sky, she traversed the paths of some of her invented characters, beginning with an imagined journey from Sydney to Gundagai, Galong and the Ryan estate, and Yass, the police-able limits for a long time of the settled districts in Australia.  It was in Gundagai where she had a sense that the ‘hungry grass’ of Irish legend, made a call on her energies, and the novel about migration began to germinate. The novel drew on the diaries of the surgeon, Charles Strutt, who accompanied the girls on the literally good ship, Thomas Arbuthnot, where he saw to their education and preparation for service in a new land. His continuing imagined thoughts of them is a sub-theme of the novel, which focuses mainly on the girls and their subsequent histories. They are a mixed bunch and the four leading lights have very different takes on the new raw land. The chief virtue is of this novel is the freedom Evelyn Conlon gives herself to imagine the girls’ experiences of life-threatening hunger, the continual and unabated losses involved in leaving home and family, their responses to the journey and to the new landscapes both physical and social. It’s a work that will resonate with migrants from many quarters of the globe: these unassuming and very dignified women (with one feisty exception), if they survived, suffered for the next generation silently.  We’re fortunate to have among us a writer who is intent on shining a light into these dark recesses of our largely unwritten history. We can thank historians for the facts; but we can salute novelists for making them resonate emotionally.

EVELYN CONLON recently visited Australia to launch her new novel, Not the Same Sky at Readings in Carlton and to speak at the Famine Commemoration event in Sydney. An elected member of Aosdána, the Irish association which honours distinguished artistic work, she has been writer-in-residence in colleges in many countries and at University College Dublin.

FRANCES DEVLIN-GLASS is an editor of Tinteán.