Q. We were delighted when Farhana Shaikh chose The Language of Remembering, as our first prize winner. It’s a beautiful, haunting story about, amongst other things, memory, language and grief. Could you tell us a little about the process of writing this story. It’s genesis and iterations? The use of second person is so powerful here, I wondered if you landed on that straight away for the story or found your way there?
A. When living in Brazil I became slightly obsessed with language and identity, sameness and otherness. I was trying to understand and explore how a person can change through another language, whether it be because they are suddenly ‘the other’ or because they feel inherently different in that new language. The 2nd person also took over my writing at this time as I suppose I myself was going through a certain disconnect, and the 2nd person has a way of showing that distance, that disassociation. The story itself came to me quite quickly— I wrote the first few paragraphs in my notebook, and then within a day or two transferred it to my laptop and had the bones written. I wanted to put Oisin in a situation where he was connecting with a language lost while still trying to process trauma through the language learnt. I think, most of the time, in situations like these, no language is ever enough to get to the depths of those sticky, unmovable emotions. I suppose the story is a way of trying to do that somehow.
Q. In your bio you mention that you have written a novel that originated from this story (exciting!). Can you tell us a bit more about that?
A. Yes, exciting is one word for it, torturous being another. When I finished the story Oisin’s voice didn’t leave me. So I kept writing just because I was enjoying being in the flow— at the start I was unaware I was writing a novel, which was a saving grace. Then, when it started to take shape I sat for a long time with Brigid and tried to understand her past, and by doing so, her narrative unravelled. The novel itself alternates between Brigid, in 1970s rural Ireland, discovering her pregnancy as a teenager, and Oisin’s chapters that deal with him returning to Ireland with his wife and daughter to restart a life and take care of Brigid, who has early onset Alzheimer’s. It is a novel about language and identity, but also about trauma and the exploration of language to make sense of events. I also hope it manages to show the abundance of love in the relationships and the redemption that ultimately stems from that. It’s now complete and with my agent so fingers crossed I have more news soon. Ye will be the first to know!
Q. Do you have particular short story writers you return to again and again for inspiration/craft?
A. At the moment I don’t have specific writers I go back to— I did for a long time. Also, when I’m focusing on a bigger project like a novel, I tend to avoid all my favourites as they make me feel incredibly inferior. For the last few years, since moving back to Ireland, I’ve been trying to discover new writers and have been very lucky. Some of my favourite books lately have been, ‘Though The Bodies Fall’ (Noel O Regan), ‘Is Mother Dead’ (Vigdis Hjorth), ‘The Lost Daughter’ (Elana Ferrante), and ‘All Down Darkness Wide’ (Sean Hewitt) and my favourite short stories of late are anything by Alexander MacLeod, I Am Pizza Rat (Han Ong), every single short story Louise Kennedy has written, Stephen Brophy’s story ‘A Great Day For The Parish’. Some other brilliant short story writers who I look up to hugely are Lucy Caldwell, Donal Ryan, Wendy Erskine and Bernie McGill.
Q. The Irish literary scene is so exciting at the moment, with a plethora of amazing writers producing incredible work. Do you have any thoughts about why this might be? How does this encourage and support you?
A. Yes, it is so exciting. It’s so incredible to see the Irish literary scene continue to grow and I’m very proud to be a very small part of it. I think the reasons are varied but do come down to an incredibly generous arts council along with city and county councils that really do help artists in so many ways. Also, the literary journals. We have The Stinging Fly, Southword, The Dublin Review, Poetry Ireland Review, Banshee, Winter Papers, and then the newer journals that are really helping writers get their work out, Howl, The Pig’s Back. I’m incredibly proud to be one of four editors of The Four Faced Liar, now going into issue three. I think there is a huge desire for writers to give back and to help other writers. Since moving home I’ve been blown away by the support of other writers and their willingness to give their time and share their knowledge. The Munster literature centre has been a huge part in a lot of Irish writers’ careers, including mine. I was also lucky enough to receive the Paul McVeigh Residency in 2023, which is another amazing showcase of writers helping other writers. I think all this helps a writer feel part of a community and grow confidence in their work, and of course, improve their writing. It really is a beautiful thing to see.
Q. Could you say anything about the value of entering a competition such as ours?
A. I’ve been entering it for a long time and have been lucky to be shortlisted in the past. I think by entering writers are showing faith in their work, which in itself is a huge step. Also, I think by reading the anthologies with the winning entries a lot can be learnt in terms of craft and language and can help improve future submissions— I know it did mine. It’s important too for writers to not lose faith in the story but to be open to reworking it and maybe giving it space. I often feel when I finish a story I rush to try to send it out, this is because it excites me, I have created something and I want people to see, but most of the time it needs space, it needs work. Patience is important and it’s something I’m learning.
Q. Finally, any words of advice for writers thinking about sending us a story?
A. Yes, send it to yourself as if entering it into the competition. Then download that document and find all those mistakes and turns of phrase that could be improved. It’s always when we press send we find the mistakes.
Thanks so much Patrick, such thought provoking answers. I’m definitely going to use that last tip myself!