Photographs by Nate Grubbs

Jan Carson is a writer from Ballymena. She currently resides in east Belfast, and with this in mind, has written an essay exclusively for Kin. The idea stemmed from a notion about how a sense of place and having Northern Irish roots has influenced her writing. The accompanying photographs are by Nate Grubbs, an American from North Carolina, who now lives in Amsterdam with his Irish wife, Claire

Writing Home

The narrator of my short story, Settling, claims that, “anonymity is something that does not exist in East Belfast. The houses are simply too close together, the walls too thin.” I live in one such house; an unremarkable two up, two down in a street full of similarly unremarkable houses, all of which are shoved together like library books on a too full shelf. I have barking dogs to my left, a coughing man with arthritic pipes to the right and, overhead, a dozen or more planes per day, chortling loudly as they trundle in and out of the city airport. There is no such thing as absolute privacy when the city encroaches so heavily upon your personal space. There is no such thing as perfect silence either.

Belfast, like Manchester, Liverpool and many other post-industrial cities, is known for its terraced housing. Entire sections of the city are dominated by verisimilar rows of tiny, redbrick houses with doors which open straight on to the street at front and back. The East is particularly synonymous with terraced housing. Maps of Belfast from the 1890s reveal a city almost entirely situated on the western side of the Lagan. By 1910, the prodigious advance of the shipyards and the need for affordable homes to house shipyard workers had radically changed the topography of the city. Almost overnight hundreds of terraced houses had eroded the green spaces of the East. The speed and economy with which these houses were erected meant that space and privacy were often compromised in order to optimise the land available. Though the residents are now enjoying the timely addition of inside toilets, central heating and more serviceable kitchens, many homes in the Inner East haven’t grown much since those days of rapid industrial expansion. I’ve spent most of the last two decades living in a series of little Belfast houses. I’ve grown accustomed to limited space and audible neighbours. I sometimes forget how much land houses occupy in other parts of the world. Once, whilst renting a bijoux mid-terrace, an American friend came to stay. She took two steps into my living room, (which was also my dining room and kitchen), and asked where the rest of my house was.

In my tiny, terraced home it is impossible to fully divorce myself from my neighbours’ lived experience.

With space so limited personal boundaries are often blurred. In my tiny, terraced home it is impossible to fully divorce myself from my neighbours’ lived experience. When next door watches Coronation Street with the volume cranked up, I get a slightly muffled episode of the same programme. When they argue, I become an unsuspecting witness to the row. When they begin blasting Enya in the middle of the afternoon, (as they are wont to do with frightening regularity), I vacate my own home quick sharp, retreating to the relative solitude of the coffee shop on the corner. One house spills into the next and, to a certain extent, my life is impacted by my neighbours’ choices.

The line between outside and inside often feels equally fluid. In a terraced home, the street beyond the front window is both a playground for the house’s younger occupants and a sitting room in the summer, when the sofa gets dragged outside, and the barbeque comes with it. The back alley becomes a run for the dogs, a place to store bikes and wheelie bins and, for those who’ve watched a little too much Escape to the Country, grounds to experiment with tomato plants and runner beans grown in tubs. The street itself is an extension of the living room. Many of my neighbours stand outside their doors chatting to each other, enjoying conversations which, in more suburban areas, would inevitably be conducted on the telephone. They shuffle their little dogs up and down the road thrice daily; dog ownership is an excuse to maintain contact with the world outside their own four walls. In such a closely-lived community the street-fronted window, which is both peered through by the passerby and, peered out of by curtain-twitching ladies in carefully positioned armchairs, is a fitting metaphor for the way the exterior world encroaches upon the inner. It is like a viewing panel at the zoo.

A few years back I read Four Sides Full, Vona Groarke’s meditation on the role of the frame within art. I was reading it in small, mullable sections, whilst working on my last novel, The Fire Starters. The book is set in East Belfast, the neighbourhood I live, work and write in. At the time I was thinking a lot about authorial distance and the self-imposed frames writers place between themselves and their subject matter. Groarke writes, “the poem is first framed by silence, and then it is framed by noise.” Most writing sits snugly within a border of white space. This distance helps distinguish the ‘writing’ from the, oftentimes pedestrian words the reader is constantly bombarded by. As Groarke says, “if no white space cushioned the poem its language would have to brush up against the language of the world. The world where language buys sausages and fills insurance forms. Where it writes rejections and makes empty promises…And if there were no white space to mark it off, how would we know the difference?” It is the poets who’ve truly mastered the art of white space. The best poems are so essential and jarring, it’s as if the poet has discovered an entirely new way of employing language, a form alien to the everyday mediocrity of words used to procure food and complete forms. Most novelists maintain a reasonably thin boundary between the world and their attempts to pin it down. They retain a modicum of authorial distance whilst trying to write fiction which is grounded in enough reality to make sense. As I read Groarke’s book, I began to consider how notions of closeness and distance impacted my own writing. I decided that The Fire Starters needed to lose its frame. I had to aim for a thin, almost fluid line between my own lived experience and the landscape I was describing in my novel.

This, I quickly realised, would mean deconstructing the already thin barriers which separate my personal space, from the public. In a metaphorical sense, (and occasionally -with an ear pressed against the living room wallpaper, or an eye squinting through the Venetian slats- a literal sense also), I would have to remove the walls which sit, like filters, between myself and my neighbours on all four sides. I would be attempting to record a universal experience though there would only be one hand holding the pen. The implications of this decision were two-fold: I became a nosier writer, paying purposeful attention to the overheard, the stolen and borrowed moments which might otherwise pass me by. I also became a transient writer, intentionally moving outside my own interior spaces to pass through the external landscape of the East, blurring the line between observer and participant. The Fire Starters became a novel written on the move: sometimes from the front seat of my ancient Vauxhall Corsa, occasionally on the bus, (or the Glider as we now call it in the East), most often on foot, stomping up and down the little streets with my parka hood up, so my neighbours couldn’t see me staring.

I’ve always written best in the inbetween spaces: airports, boats, trains, the Aircoach to Dublin when it’s empty enough to afford space for a laptop and a pair of free-flying elbows. There’s a freedom to be found in the liminal which seems to encourage creativity. Many writers have written their best and boldest works whilst in exile; caught between the place they’ve left behind and the place they are aiming for. I can’t speak for others, but for me movement allows a degree of objectivity I struggle to achieve when I’m grounded in one location. It’s something to do with the casting off of restrictions. In transit I have left one reality with its responsibilities and fixed assumptions behind, and have not yet arrived at my destination point and all the issues awaiting me. My mind always feels less cluttered when it’s moving. I am lighter in my thinking, less bound to pre-conceptions. I’m able to observe the world around me with a kind of camera-like objectivity.

When writing The Fire Starters I carried the idea of the book -it’s characters and plotlines- in my head for many months, allowing the novel to gestate whilst I paced the boundaries of what would become it’s written landscape. Writing on foot allowed me to maintain the objectivity I’ve come to associate with liminal spaces whilst retaining the affinity I have with the streets which make up my own neighbourhood. Viewing the street as an extension of my personal space, meant it was almost impossible not to be present in the situations I walked through. The landscape I was observing and, later, recording became both personal and public. I could be simultaneously objective and subjective. I could write about problematic things with a degree of detachment and yet feel utterly implicated in the issues I was writing about. This careful blend of distance and responsibility felt like the only way for me to write well about the place I’ve come to call home.

I quickly discovered that this process would require a different, more focused kind of walking than my usual quick dashes between the gym, the grocery store and my favourite coffee shops. In 1790 a young French writer, Xavier de Maistre, published Journey around My Bedroom. As the title would suggest, it was a painstakingly detailed account of traveling around his own sleeping quarters, observing the familiar through purposefully estranged eyes. So successful was the experiment, de Maistre repeated it in 1798, this time travelling by night in order to produce Nocturnal Expedition around My Bedroom. In 2015, I’d embarked upon a similar project, writing 365 tiny pieces of micro-fiction on postcards, each piece written in response to an overheard or observed detail from everyday life. I borrowed heavily from both de Maistre’s ideas and my own experience with Postcard Stories when writing The Fire Starters. I couldn’t just walk the same familiar routes and expect to find material for my novel. I’d have to adopt a posture of unfamiliarity so I could record the familiar with the clarity of a new experience and also be sure I wasn’t missing those tiny details -seemingly mundane- yet necessary when capturing the essence of the East.

Each piece written in response to an overheard or observed detail from everyday life.

So, I moved through familiar streets and situations in the guise of a stranger, noticing things I’d previously passed over unimpressed: upper floor windows, apocalyptic Gospel Hall signs, the impressive precision of our street’s resident bulldog, which seemed to shit right in front of a different doorstep each day. I began to find colour in the everyday happenings of East Belfast: the woman who drags her grocery-laden trolley into the coffee shop toilet, the wee lads hanging off the Connswater Bridge to hook their football out of the mudflats, the starlings congregating, like over-zealous punctuation, on the telephone wires behind the paintball place. I found that the ordinary could become mystical -epic even- if I looked at it really intently for long enough.

What did I learn from this process? I learnt how to be both close and distant as a writer; to be present enough to write truthfully and yet sufficiently absent to write with some degree of honesty. Ultimately I learnt that, when it came to storytelling, truth and honesty aren’t necessarily the same thing. When the frame is removed from a painting, poem or novel the line between artist and art blurs. It becomes impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. There’s no such thing as anonymity when the writer places herself within the writing, no such thing as privacy either. This realisation is both liberating and utterly terrifying. I now find myself implicated in the story I’ve created, partially responsible for both the beauty and the brokenness I’ve sought to record. Public and private experience, the external world and my internalised interpretation of it are inseparably merged. Perhaps, this was always inevitable. There seems no other way to write a place with so many lives pressed tightly together, like library books on a too full shelf.