The Rumpus Interview with Ethel Rohan
I first met Ethel Rohan at Litquake where, amidst a loud and tipsy mob of Bay Area literati, she turned my awkward hello into a conversation. The din around us seemed to recede, pushed back by the bright sphere of her intelligence and generous spirit as she asked me probing questions about my vision for Red Bridge Press and truly listened to my responses. I didn’t know then that she had published two story collections, written for the New York Times and Tin House, and received several awards.
The next time I met Rohan, it was through her most recent story collection, Goodnight Nobody, which received robust and well-deserved praise from bestselling authors and critics alike. Rohan’s remarkable ability to listen—to what is said and what is left unsaid—makes her an authentic and fearless storyteller. She specializes in tales of alienation, from the photographer losing her eyesight, to the girl born with a small, white chicken wing in place of her left shoulder blade. And in language that is both visceral and sublime, she unmasks the otherness in all of us.
Rohan knows a thing or two about being an outsider. An immigrant, she grew up in Ireland and now lives in San Francisco. Her new book, the memoir Out of Dublin, is a raw and powerful account of her parents’ deaths, her history of abuse, and her own fierce struggle to give voice to not only their lives but her own.
The Rumpus: It’s exciting to get to ask you the questions this time around. Your memoir Out of Dublin bears many of the stylistic marks of your fiction: episodic, brutally honest, elegantly wrought, and full of unexpected turns and revelatory insights. One episode stands out as stylistically different than the rest. It’s a recollection from childhood, about a family trip to a caravan park near the beach. It runs more than a page long and is told in one continuous sentence, punctuated by breath and thought. Was this a nod to James Joyce? How does being an emigrant from Ireland impact your relationship with Irish literature and with American expectations of your writing as an Irish woman?
Ethel Rohan: I honestly never thought of Joyce when I wrote that section, although I am besotted with his story collection Dubliners, and I do delight in how he was also a Dubliner, an emigrant, and a writer who insisted on holding a mirror to that which so many would prefer not to see. To think of Joyce as I wrote, though, would have been paralyzing. I wrote the section immersed in the scene and using longhand, which is rarely how I write anymore. There was something about handwriting the piece that pulled the words out of me in a rhythmic, childlike rush and my pen could barely keep up with my thoughts. So much of that section centers on claustrophobia and as I wrote I felt I could hardly contain the words on the page, as though there wasn’t enough space to fit all the things that wanted to get said.
I try not to think too much about identity. I write. I trust I have a unique voice, something that can only be said the way I can say it. Without doubt, of all the influences that go into making me who I am, my Irish childhood is the greatest. I remain fiercely attached to my Irish beginnings and deeply connected to Irish literature—there’s a distinctness, fierceness, and soulfulness to the best of Irish writing that is to me sacred. I don’t think, either, of American expectations of me as an Irish writer. I think of readers’ expectations of me as a writer, period, and that always drives me to do my best.
Rumpus: In the memoir, you write about your father:
He didn’t even talk to his six children all that much, except through jokes, anecdotes, and tales. Like the story about his healthy and intact sister coming home from a vigil to Lourdes with a broken leg, twice. […] The atrophied, bent baby finger on Dad’s left hand, too, that he refused to have surgically removed because it was such a great conversation piece: “Ah no, sure if I got rid of this I wouldn’t be able to talk about it.”
He has storytelling in his bones, literally in the case of that baby finger. Do you see yourself as having inherited that from him? In what ways have you made storytelling your own?
Rohan: My father told me, just a few years ago, he wanted to be a writer. He’d thought up a pen name, too—swapping Ned McDonnell for Nathaniel J. Bergman. His revelation stunned me. How could I not know something so essential about my father? And how extraordinary that we shared the same ambition. His revelation also saddened me, highlighting how, in that bizarre gulf that all too often gapes between parent and child, I didn’t really know my father.
Dad was a great oral storyteller, yes, but his stories were usually anecdotal and humorous, and always directed outwards. His chatter never looked closely at things, especially personal, emotional, or difficult matters. Dad wore armor, to protect himself, to shut others out. I can only guess at the reasons why—wiring and Irish culture and crushing disappointment—but I will never fully know the source of the pain that made him want to remain numb, and sometimes blind, and often silent regarding the things that mattered to him, to our family, to me. I believe he led a largely unexamined life and I find that frustrating and sad.
Dad’s revelation also saddened me because to the best of my knowledge he’d never acted on his lifelong desire to become a writer. Writers write. Aside from two great father-of-the-bride speeches, one for my sister and one for me, and the few greeting cards he sent over the years, I’ve never known my father to write. Writers also read. Aside from the newspaper, I’ve never known my father to read. It remains a great source of pain to me that my father didn’t take more action on various counts over the course of his life, that he couldn’t go deeper with what he did and said. The ironic image I hold in my head of Dad, as a knight in armor, is as full of love and admiration as it is of pain and disappointment.
Yes, I like to think I inherited my storytelling from Dad, and I’m grateful for that gift. I also believe I feel compelled to look closely at things, especially the difficult things, because Dad couldn’t, and I’m grateful for that curse-gift too. It hurts to confront our pain and our flaws, and the pain and flaws of others, but it’s only in looking closely at such things that we can connect, raise awareness, grow, and bring about change.
Rumpus: It’s clear your father loved you, and you say, “I would have donated my organs to please him.” Yet your relationship was full of things that were left unsaid, things that couldn’t or shouldn’t be spoken, and things that went unheard. This memoir breaks those familial and social taboos, and, like all memoirs, it exposes not only the writer but those close to her. Given the stakes, how did you come to the decision to give those silences a voice?
Rohan: I agonized. I’m talking insomnia, panic attacks, feelings of self-loathing, urges to pull the manuscript from the publisher, and shuddering declarations in the mirror of quitting writing entirely. I realize many, especially nonfiction writers of memoir and the personal essay, might think, “It’s 10,000 words of (sadly) familiar, commonplace material—what’s the big deal?” We are each unique and we all have our various comfort levels regarding self-revelation and revelations about those close to us, and publishing Out of Dublin put me into a tailspin of terror. It’s not just that I’ve essentially stood on a soapbox and blasted pivotal moments from my life with a bullhorn to the masses (or, you know, the ten people who might read this tiny e-book), it’s that I know my parents, private to the point of paranoia, would hate that I’ve exposed myself, and them, in this very public way. I can picture my aunts and uncles, too, my cousins and former neighbors and family friends. They will feel shocked, and possibly outraged. A huge part of me, though, hopes hard I’m not giving my imagined detractors enough credit and that they’ll see some value to my telling these pivotal stories from my life.
How aptly put, “to give those silences a voice.” Somewhere in childhood, I lost my voice and it took me over three decades to find it again. It was worse than just losing my voice, though. It was a sense of going unheard, of not mattering. Of paralysis. Secrets in my childhood silenced me to the point of powerlessness and I grew up to feel full to bursting with all the things I couldn’t say. Out of Dublin is me raising my voice, loud and strong, for the girl I was, for the survivor I am. For all girls and survivors.
Rumpus: As the oldest daughter, you bore the responsibility of caring for a mother who struggled with physical and mental illness, a mother who was volatile and sometimes beat you with a belt. You write that after one of her beatings, “My fingers traced and pressed the welts, playing around with how much pain I could take, as I filled with the fizz and pop of rage and betrayal and awe.” In the memoir, you describe other, awful moments of hurt and betrayal, in language that could leave bruises, but I didn’t walk away from this book feeling beat up. You don’t let the rage win. Your awe at what you can endure seems to somehow become resilience. Where do you think this resilience comes from?
Rohan: “Your awe at what you can endure…” I have a sense of awe at what all of us can endure. I immediately think of the twenty young children and six members of staff shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and the more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped in Chibok, Nigeria, and how their loved ones are not only enduring, but actively protesting and seeking resolution. I think of my own parents, each so strong and determined, but not in ways that best served them. I’ve mentioned irony here already. Perhaps the greatest irony is that much of my resilience comes from my parents. They suffered, and withstood, so much in life. What I’ve learned from witnessing their lives, what I don’t think they understood, is that much of the quality of our lives is determined by the choices we make and the truths we’re willing to face. I’ve chosen resilience over rage, truth over deception. Rage served me well for many years, getting me through, but rage will only take us so far before it turns as corrosive as acid. Awe and truth are much better places to be.
I’ve felt a strange knowingness, too, ever since I was a child. I’m not sure I have the words to explain. It’s this feeling I had, this conviction, that I would make it. That always, no matter how bad things ever got, I would be okay. I used to think this internal voice came from God. Maybe it is God. Wherever it comes from, it’s another gift I’m grateful for.
Rumpus: The book begins with the epigraph, “Women, burn bright.” How did it come to you?
Rohan: Since girlhood, I’ve felt a fascination of fire. I have strong memories of sitting in our small, dilapidated living room and staring into the orange-red-blue flames as they leapt skyward, their shadows dancing on the ceiling and walls, the sparks shooting upwards and arcing downwards, burning out like falling stars. I watched mesmerized, all the while making up stories in my head, usually of distant places and escape. Staring into the fire gave me solace. I’m also fascinated with fire as power, as passion, and as transformative. As beautiful danger. The image of women’s spirits igniting and burning bright is fierce and marvelous.