It’s been 13 months since I left Ireland for Toronto to further my career in publishing. Since then, I’ve toyed with writing about my experience. From very early on, I’ve been urged, encouraged, and cajoled by those closest to me into documenting an account of the experience—so they can see how I’m getting on, I have no doubt. But I have also come to think that this invitation stems from a curiosity about the way Toronto, and in particular the Toronto publishing scene appears to outsiders. The result is in no way meant to be comprehensive. And I can promise you that by the time you have read it, I will feel differently about some of what I’ve given you here. There is nothing cohesive, nothing consistent, and nothing finitely true about living in a country not your own. This is an attempt to make sense of what I’ve found here, how Toronto has changed me, and what I may do next. It begins a process of investigation, on my part, into what it means to leave the country I love for greater opportunities elsewhere.
The Early Days
I arrived in Toronto in April 2014 armed with nine years’ experience of working in and around publishing in Ireland. I carried with me a hit-list of important names, publications and events, introductions of Austenian proportions, and a determination not to miss a trick during my two years in this country. I carefully noted the names of every single person I met and wrote them in a notebook when I got home. I went to every single event I could. Indeed, I’ve gone to more publishing events in this year than I did in nearly a decade in Dublin. The scale of things here continues to catch me off guard. It has affected all of my preconceptions, my gut reactions, my ways of seeing.
So Many Poets
There are as many poets in Toronto as there are on the island of Ireland today. Also, there are as many publishing courses in Canada as there are creative writing courses. Hence, everyone is either a trained publishing professional or a trained writer. While I did make a conscious decision to enter publishing after my MPhil and after seeing The Hours (I thought it a noble profession, how grand!), I do think I landed my first publishing assistant job with a scholarly press by a number of accidents. At home, there is one publishing MA offered by NUI Galway. The rest of us are literature students who learn on the job.
Events are held in bars, the publishing house’s back yard, bars, bookstores, bars, and renovated hotels. Not one event I’ve attended has been held in a state or cultural institution. I wonder whether this has much to do with liquor licencing laws.
Events are hosted by the editors, confidently, entertainingly, humorously, and with oodles of personality (I’m looking at you, Emily Keeler, Damian Rogers, and Derek McCormack). Not one event I’ve attended has been officiated by a state representative, although they’ve been present in the audience.
The confessional, personal essay and its hyper-, nay, meta-engagement with contemporary and pop culture has a presence here that is only just beginning to gain ground in Ireland. The variety but specificity of topics has struck me as new, interesting, and sometimes troubling (for just how recent it all is), from an essay on the lonely colour palette of the Spike Jonze film, Her, by Durga Chew-Bose to Spencer Gordon’s essay on the staged-ness of wrestling and CanLit in Little Brother 3. Then there was the What We Talk About When We Talk About “Witchy Women” lecture that covered the commercialization of witch hunt history, costume designer Vera West, and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
The demographic of the publishing industry in Toronto is decidedly youthful, or else I’m suddenly old.
Great care is given to conversation; words are chosen cautiously. The many words the Irish have for many different things (e.g., “thing” can apply to that tool over there you can’t quite remember the name of right now. It can also be substituted for “yoke,” “thingy-me-jig,” “yokey,” “yokey-me-bob,” depending on how cross or hungover you are feeling). We are a nation whose language was driven into the shadows by a ruling elite, rendering its speakers second-class citizens. Because of this (and a host of other social, political, and historical reasons I will not go into here), Irish has manoeuvred its way into the English spoken in Ireland, known as Hiberno-English. Many of our idioms and colloquialisms, and indeed our very syntax, is derived from the Irish language. While the Irish language is today a household or community language for just one percent of the population, one in three people will say they understand Irish to some extent. I’m in this latter group, claiming no handle on the language whatsoever; French comes much more naturally to me. But Irish and Hiberno-English are very different things and they live side by side, respectfully acknowledging each other within one cultural identity. They are the languages to which immigrants to Ireland must adapt, and, in this, Ireland remains a much more homogeneous place than Canada. The melting pot of multiculturalism, to my ear, flattens out the English that is spoken here. I’m so in the habit of reading writers like Kevin Barry, Sebastian Barry, Anne Enright, and Claire Keegan, where the gymnastics of the language they use is a huge part of the fun, that I’m truly challenged by a plot-driven book told straight and to the point.
The rambunctiousness and deception, then, at the heart of Hiberno-English is lyrical and playful but virtually untranslatable to the Canadian ear. Where an Irish person will nod and pretend to understand what you mean for the sake of flowing conversation, I’ve found myself breaking down idioms on more occasions than I care to remember. The alternative, though, is to remove them from my conversation but for me this means paralysis and death, and it’s not a compromise I’m ready yet to make.
Elsewhere, new words and phrases like “I feel like” and “I wanna say” stand out immediately. Why is “I think” less common? “Neat” and “sick” still cause me to wince a little as they remind me of those Nickelodeon shows from the ’90s. My favourite new word is “outlier”: so egalitarian, so respectful to the loner. Place-names too are humourously familiar: London, Stratford, York, Wexford, Newmarket, Barrie, Durham, Islington. Others are not so much, but they are all the more gorgeous for it: Okanagan, Muskoka, Gander, Funk and Fogo, Aurora, Tecumseh, and Strachan. The presence of silent consonants, in particular, conjures the latent Irish speaker in me and is a daily thought-provoking event.
“Why’d You Move to Toronto?”
In thirteen months, during countless events, and over dozens of coffee-fuelled chats, every single person who I met and conversed with, at some point during our encounter, asked me, “Why’d you move to Toronto?” with a wry smile on their face. There’s now a game show bell that goes off in my head when I’m asked this question, and I’ve learned to smile back and take it as part of that Torontonian need to see itself in others’ eyes. I should have put a dollar in a jar each time. And in thirteen months, during countless events and over dozens of fuelled informal interviews, one person has asked me “What did you do in Ireland before you came here?” One.
I started with a scholarly press, Four Courts Press, in 2005, moved to Ireland Literature Exchange in 2008, just as the economic crash was dawning, and I published the first issue of The South Circular in March 2012. In April of that year, I was on the up and enjoying the modest public profile I had always wanted. The next 10 to 15 years of working to make things happen in the publishing and arts sectors stretched out ahead of me. However, 10 to 15 years of self-congratulating, working within a petri-dish, trying to build an international profile from that petri-dish, and ultimately losing the courage and the ovaries to make anything interesting or risky did not appeal to me. And almost simultaneously, I was single for the first time in nearly eight years, and my mind returned to the friends of my youth: LM Montgomery, Alice Munro, Atom Egoyan, Leonard Cohen, the McGarrigle sisters, Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, and Feist. These were my bright and oh-so-white touchstones of Canada. I giggled knowingly at the episode of This American Life called “Who’s Canadian?” I applied for a visa and got it. I spent a year preparing for the move. Thoughts of Canada danced with thoughts of how to consolidate what I had gained in Dublin and the opportunities ahead.
What Did You Think Would Happen?
That you’re now reading my words here on The Town Crier is indicative of how welcoming the industry has been, where everyone has agreed to meet for coffee and everyone has been pleased to see me at an event. I’ve received respect, awe, and flattery for the work I did in promoting Irish writers worldwide with Ireland Literature Exchange (an editor at House of Anansi loved that we would gift free copies of books to international publishers). I’ve seen embarrassment and genuine disappointment in the face of my interviewers when they realized that I am over-experienced and under-credentialed for a role and would ultimately find boredom there. I’ve been praised by a Random House editor for my gumption and courage in setting up a digital magazine of short stories called The South Circular. Often, the conversation reverses back on how to adapt my experience with Irish writers and translation to an industry which is primarily focused on its own output and the output of its immediate neighbours. I’ve been grateful for this consideration and while on the one hand it does come naturally to me (I have an awful habit of starting sentences with “Well, with Irish writing you get …”), on the other hand, it’s not why I came to Canada.
This generosity of time and interest for what I’ve been trying to do (work in-house) has expanded with each and every encounter so that my eventual involvement with The Puritan and The Town Crier is now the result of me doing pretty much everything but work in a publishing house. So my first year in Toronto has been nothing like I expected it or wanted it to be. But it has taught me that it’s OK to want things as long as you are prepared to accept what you receive along the way. In this realization, I am no different from every other immigrant to Canada, people for whom I had no thought before I moved. Now, their story increases in importance for me, as it helps me to understand the highs and lows of my immigration. Naturally, I am now curious, for the first time, about the story of Irish literature in Canada: what was brought over, what was created here, and what can be brought back. This curiosity has been stoked by stories of lively literature festivals in the east, in finding kindred publishers in Halifax, on feeling a certain familiarity with and understanding for St. John’s peculiar propensity for producing daring and imaginative writers. Reading Lisa Moore and meeting Michael Crummey have been important moments in forming this Irish question. Discovering that Emma Donoghue is considered a Canadian writer has been another.
Losing and Gaining Touchstones
Upon arrival, my touchstones were immediately revised by the prevalence of Atwood over Munro in the public arena (Bloor Street dimmed low around me when I saw Ms. Atwood scuttle across it to an event in the ROM one evening). I quickly realized that Munro and Montgomery are now part of a fine but fading tradition. Mavis Gallant withered my face with her cool gaze over post-war Europe; the sentence is her preferred warzone. Michael Ondaatje held his hand to my lower back while I walked and cycled the streets of Toronto, and I too fell for Patrick Lewis in In the Skin of a Lion. bp Nichol reached into my semiotically-trained cerebrum when he spoke of “print as the frozen record of sound.”
Along the way, I’ve accidentally found new touchstones for living in Canada. These are the crop of young writers I’ve been lucky enough to meet: Domenica Martinello, Spencer Gordon, Kevin Hardcastle, Naben Ruthnum, Amber McMillan, Mathew Henderson, Jacob Wren. They are also the people whose work I’ve fallen for: Aisha Sasha John, Shane Book, Lisa Moore, Anne Michaels, Emily Keeler, Michelle MacAleese. Then there is the journey of First Nations’ culture, the history of stained glass in Toronto, the history of printing in the city, the yard sale, going home at 2 a.m., and, of course, the Irish in Canada.
I think I’m finally understanding there are only tiny similarities in our histories, none of which can be rounded up in one blog post. The story of the Irish in Canada, is, I think, better known in Canada than it is in Ireland, such is the enormous presence of Britain and the US in daily Irish life. So, in the coming months, on this platform here, I hope to give you a snapshot of what is occurring in Irish literature right now and to marry that with a certain Irish-Canadian story, too. I hope to settle in, so to speak, to a dual identity, in which, for the time being at least, neither dominates but both can thrive.