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THE SAN FRANCISCO BOOK FESTIVAL turns out to be exactly what it’s billed as: a “celebration of books”.  Leave your cares, your TV, your Internet (although it does rear its ugly head) and your sense of time behind you,and head into an arguably dying realm. After all, the Japanese have already invented the slim, compact, CD ROM book-reading device which you hold in your hand and press a tiny panel to turn the “pages”.

San Fran Book Fair-Web

For all that, books, their creators and their enthusiasts appear strangely healthy this weekend, by the end of which strong backs are necessary to cart away compulsive print purchases, many signed by the gang of authors who have descended on the town for the event. Over the weekend, you could attend readings by American book heroes as diverse as Amy Tan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tobias Wolff, Joy Harjo or Alice Walker, with visits by writers from China, India and Peru.

The Pads, of course, are no exception. Not to be completely out­ done by the mucho-sexy Frankfurt extravaganza, San Francisco this year featured a strong Irish – Indeed Celtic – presence, with writers travelling from the auld sod and around the US to participate in a special panel entitled “The Wild Colonials: The Writing Irish Abroad”.

A corresponding Scottish contingent showed up to prove there is more beyond Hadrian’s Wall than Irvine Welsh – and a double-up reading on Saturday night proved not only good entertainment for the audience, but what can only be described as a fucking mental post-event rattle worthy of any sound literary gathering.

Those responsible for the Irish round-up are The Irish Arts Foundation, a group founded In 1985 to “foster top quality art and culture (both traditional and contemporary) from Ireland and her Celtic sisters”. The biggest annual manifestation of this is the Celtic Music and Arts Festival, which attracts over 10,000 people each March.

Last year, they took on the Book Festival, in cahoots with Conor Howard’s Anna Livia Books, presenting a “Famine Panel” with speakers Peter Quinn, Gabriel Byrne, Eddie Stack, Brid Mullins and Sean Kenny. This year they have brought in novelists Colm Tóibin, Emer Martin and Colm McCann, as well as poets Sara Berkeley and Eamonn Wall, combining the discussion panel with a series of readings around the Bay area.

“Our collaboration actually started a few years ago,” explains Elgy Gillespie, of the Irish Arts Foundation.”Conor and I founded “Gael Force” in 1990, where we organized events In order to fund-raise for “AIDS Help West” in Galway. At the same time, Peter O’Neill and Eddie Stack started running the Celtic Arts Festival. We realized that we had learned how to run events, and that we had a big, new audience of Irish people in the area,so it went on from there, really.”

With the panellists soberly assembled by 12:30pm on Sunday – despite overnight festivities with their Scottish counterparts – “The Wild Colonials: The Writing Irish Abroad,” duly kicked off the afternoon with a lively discussion on contemporary literary developments in Ireland, broaching everything from women’s writing to the current apparent boom of young writers with the British publishing industry.

Much speculation was sounded on what exactly has tempered the change from the grim days of the 1960s, when John McGahern’s The Dark was banned, to the recent blossoming o writers both in Ireland and among the diaspora. The much-flaunted “Irish renaissance” trip is not something, according to the panel, that we can afford to be smug about.

Colm Tóibín astutely pointed out that it may be worth questioning whether the Irish arts are currently somehow being abused as a “front line in the State’s economic Interest”. Having gone from being despised, banned and rejected to suddenly being able to work tax­ free and benefitting from the State’s policy of culture-promotion, he cautioned that writers may be prompted to rest on their laurels and create “safe” work.

“There is a serious danger in this idea of publishers going for some ‘Irish thing’.” suggested Colum McCann, “but then again, there are a lot of Irish writers not published internationally. I think Irish writing will go even further – to the outer edges of society, of language; of form, that writers will question further just so they won’t get branded as the generation that ‘had it easy’.”

In response, Eamonn Wall described how, although educated in Ireland, he found it a liberating experience as a poet to come to America. “The Irish poem that I grew up with was short, polished, formalist,” he said. “On the streets of New York, or out in the Dakotas, I realised that this new inspiration could not fit into what I had learned. So it forced me to change very fundamentally what a poem was, how I went about writing poems. It’s easier if you go abroad, particularly to multi-ethnic environments, where there are many different kinds of voices you don’t hear directly In Ireland …”

Other subjects included the ineluctable influence of politics on Irish writing, with some spirited Interactions. When poet Sara Berkeley suggested that the difference between the contemporary Scottish writers and the Irish was that In terms of Britain,”the Scots are still angry,but we have moved on, we’re not as angry any more”, Emer Martin cut in with the observation: “That’s very sad, really – because we should be furious! There is a war going on!”
Question and answer sessions followed the Irish panel debate, including several that referred back to this subject.

“There is a great connection between fiction in Scotland and Ireland,” concluded Colm Tóibín. There are huge levels of silence in both societies surrounding how we live. There have been enormous changes in both societies in the last twenty years, and yet both still present themselves to tourists as being very beautiful, unspoiled,innocent, which in reality is not the case. When you read Morvern Callar or The Trick Is To Keep Breathing (Janice Galloway), you know that the writer is telling a fundamental truth of a society through the novel; that something very private indeed is being made public. This is what makes our novels different than novels from, say, the South of England. Those silences don’t have the same amount of tremor and power.”

For the future, San Francisco’s Irish and Scottish communities plan to keep the West Coast safe for the arts by continuing to host monthly readings and other events. The Irish Arts Foundation and Anna Livia Books plan to present two Irish panels at next year’s book festival, one from a female perspective. In the meantime, the annual Celtic Music and Arts Festival takes place In March, and will feature a “Green Ink” Irish writers conference.

Mind you, as one Scottish wit suddenly observed late on Sunday afternoon, “What’s so un-fucking sexy about the Welsh?”

Helena Mulkerns, San Francisco, September 1996
Published in Hot Press Magazine, Dublin