Postcard from Ireland
Wena Poon, the Singapore-born author with a book longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the 2008 Singapore Literature Prize, had a whale of a time reading her work at the recently concluded literary festival in Cork, Ireland
GOOD LITERARY FESTIVALS aspire to give something to the public: a book-shopping opportunity, an interesting workshop, the chance to see a favourite writer in the flesh and get a book autographed.
The best literary festivals, however, accomplish much more.
The 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival (September 17-21, 2008) that took place in Cork, Ireland, is financially backed by the city’s council and organised by the Irish poet Pat Cotter and the small staff of the Munster Literature Centre. Every year, it awards €35,000 to the best new volume of short stories in the world. More importantly, it sponsors many of the longlisted authors from around the world to live, read, listen, and eat and drink together in Cork for five whole days.
decorating the streets with banners and signs
Cork is the second largest city in the Republic of Ireland (after Dublin) and sits on the banks of the River Lee. Founded as a monastic settlement in the 6th century, it was settled by Vikings and grew into a prosperous port during the Elizabethan era (1558-1603). In 2005, Cork held a one-year tenure as the European Capital of Culture, attracting over a million visitors.
Despite being excited about the opportunity to read from my book, Lions In Winter (MPH Publishing, 2008) at Cork, I had my reservations. I’ve always had a horror of “lit fests.” I was, however, relieved to find that the Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival wasn’t about writers preaching about “Literature” into microphones, or groupies lining up to get their books signed. It was about taking small, intimate workshops and learning from some of the most talented and generous writers in English fiction today. It was about chattering with writers and editors and getting pissed in the Long Valley, an old literary pub with faded lamps, night after night. And, best of all, it was about endless readings—which were really, at their best, performances—and screaming and giving high fives to the writers whenever they delivered a gut-wrenching, one-two punch performance of a story that just slew everybody. Together we rediscovered the oral tradition of storytelling, and for five days we experienced what the bards of old already knew: the simple happiness of huddling together and telling each other stories over a pint or two.
By the end of the first night, I was delighted to find that the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival wasn’t highfalutin. If anybody had any corners, they were knocked off. If anybody had any doubts, they were dispelled. We had—after many rounds of Beamish and Guinness—distilled the Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival to its very essence. It had become, as the American writer Jon Boilard calls it, the “Frank O.” And whether we were world-famous, or not famous, or editors, or publishers, or literary agents, or writers, or poets, we had become a fellowship. It was as if Pat Cotter, the organiser, aimed to replicate in five days what a community of writers in Cork, Ireland, would have naturally formed in five decades. And he came very close to doing so.
Good literary festivals inspire readers. Great literary festivals inspire writers. Thank you, City of Cork, and thank you, Pat. Old Frank O himself would have been proud.
She’s pictured here with Carys Davies (Some New Ambush) and Vanessa Gebbie (Words from a Glass Bubble).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Star of October 5, 2008
Wena Poon’s photographs courtesy of Shanti Matulewski