Maude Weiss
Independent Scholar

Creative Commons 4.0 by Maude Weiss. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Teresa Caneda-Cabrera, ed.

Peter Lang, 2023. 202 pages.

ISBN: 9781800794818 (Softcover)

ISBN: 9781800794832 (ePUB)

Evelyn Conlon is an important contemporary Irish writer as well an activist, who has been publishing since the 1980s. Her writing is witty, original, subversive, and hopeful. She was a major contributor to the feminist literary movement of the latter half of the twentieth  century which sought to redefine women’s roles in stories and storytelling. Despite this, there has never been a volume of critical analysis devoted purely to Conlon’s work. That is, until now. Telling Truths: Evelyn Conlon and the Task of Writing, a collection of essays brilliantly compiled and edited by M. Teresa Caneda-Cabrera, is “the first book to provide a critical assessment of her work” (1). It is split into four sections, with essays in each section pertaining to the overarching theme of “the task of writing”.

The first section is titled “Writing against the Norm: Representations of Women’s Lives”. In Chapter 1, “‘Women Behaving Badly’ in Evelyn Conlon’s Short Fiction”, Rebecca Pelan provides a clear, readable analysis of the types of women that Conlon writes about, these women being authentic and ordinary, just like us, and how they “behave badly” by rejecting the status quo. Conlon, herself, is likened to these characters because of the way she, in two of her stories, is “‘writing back’ to the work of well-respected male authors” (14), such as in “Two Gallants Getting Caught”, a take on a James Joyce story. Interestingly, this story gets unpacked by three more critics in different ways, which illustrates the rich, interpretive quality of Conlon’s work. But Pelan does not fixate on a couple of stories, she looks at a broad range of them to bolster her argument. Additionally, she provides helpful historical context, allowing us to situate our understanding of Conlon in the evolution of literary subjects during the twentieth  and twenty-first  centuries.

In Chapter 2, “Moving about the Irish Short Story”, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne instead focuses on the stylistic and thematic evolution of Conlon’s short story writing by comparing “The Park” and “How Things Are with Hannah These Days”. Ní Dhuibhne provides insightful observations about Conlon’s writing, but also the short story form and its capturing of “the lonely voice”. I was moved by the beautifully written final paragraph of this piece in which Ní Dhuibhne characterizes most Irish short stories as ending on “the equivalent of ‘Amen.’ Let it be. It’s not good, but let’s get on with it. It could best be described as the voice of compromise, rather than the voice of protest” (42). While this chapter certainly fits the overarching theme of “the task of writing”, it is not clear how it fits in with this section, whose title suggests the essays here would employ a critical feminist lens. Chapter 3, on the other hand, seems to flow from chapter 1 quite seamlessly. M. Teresa Caneda-Cabrera’s essay, “Women’s Mobility in Evelyn Conlon’s Fiction”, tells us how women in Conlon’s writing “behave badly”. They move. By moving about the place, women defy the patriarchal notion of women being static “at-home”. Caneda-Cabrera gives us the historical and political context for this “institutionalized” narrative of “at-homeness” in twentieth-century Ireland. I was fascinated to learn both that de Valera’s constitution promised the state would endeavour to ensure women did not need to enter the workforce, and about the ban on married women from entering public service (46). Caneda-Cabrera also examines the myriad of movement that exists in Conlon’s work and all the inherent contradictions of journeying. As an American residing in Ireland, born from an Irish woman who resides in America, and, thus, intimately familiar with all the contradictory feelings that arise due to moving away from one’s home, I found this chapter to be particularly engaging and revelatory.

Section II is titled “Writing and Power Relations: The Politics of Language”. The first essay in this section, “Hurtful Intimacy: Kinds of Knowing in a Pair of Evelyn Conlon’s Short Stories” by Seán O’Reilly, shows how Conlon’s use of metafiction makes commentary on the politics of language: who gets to tell the story, who gets to make meaning of it. I found this essay to be a welcome aberration from how fiction is usually discussed in regards to Conlon because O’Reilly reveals a potential scepticism Conlon holds about fiction-writing and the knowledge it produces (one insight that I really enjoyed was his observation that Conlon’s story “Telling” is a story that literally tells, rather than shows what happened, completely contrary to how we are taught to write – he suggests that this reveals Conlon’s own sceptical attitude towards the rules of fiction). O’Reilly’s piece is clearly and cleverly written, and forces one to question the abilities and limitations of fiction writing. The following chapter, “Riffraff: Evelyn Conlon’s ‘Two Gallants Getting Caught’” by Marilyn Reizbaum, is a thorough analysis of Conlon’s short story “Two Gallants Getting Caught” as a “riff” on Joyce’s short story “Two Gallants”. Reizbaum shows the circuitous nature of Joyce and Conlon’s stories when looked at together and likens Conlon’s “riff” to the mise en abyme technique of placing a copy of something within itself. She draws attention to the layered wordplay in both their writing styles, while engaging in wordplay of her own. Due to the complex nature of the content and style of this essay, I found myself having to reread this chapter and gaining new understandings each time, exactly as Reizbaum does through her reading and rereading of Conlon and Joyce.

The final chapter of this section, “Translating Evelyn Conlon” by Ira Torresi, was my favourite of the collection. More than just analyzing Conlon’s writing process, Torresi literally walks us through her own process that she undertook when translating two of Conlon’s works. Because of the challenges she faced while translating, we learn about the peculiarities of Conlon’s use of language. When I first read some of Conlon’s stories, I knew there was something odd about the way she wrote, but I could not  quite place my finger on it. Torresi’s challenges as a translator highlight exactly what those oddities are. I greatly enjoyed the anecdotal nature of this essay and the sense of being granted a backstage pass into the writing process. I particularly loved the end in which Torresi points out that a recurring motif of Conlon’s prose is highlighting the unnoticed work of women and, Torresi, as a woman translator whose work is often unnoticed, is, in fact, making the work she has done visible. It is a perfect ode to Conlon.

Section III of the volume is titled “Writing the Past: History, Memory and Trauma”. In the first chapter in this section, “Rites of Return: Evelyn Conlon’s Not the Same Sky”, Margaret Kelleher considers the role of memorials and analyzes Conlon’s novel Not the Same Sky as a “rite of return”. She considers both memorials’ effect and affect, listing out some of the emotions they inspire like anger and shame. Kelleher’s essay is saturated with both Conlon’s voice and other critics’ voices, and, while it is  necessary to converse with other critics and sometimes use their frameworks, I found myself searching for Kelleher’s voice and struggling to find it, which is why the end being more personal felt needed. Kelleher also beautifully ends on the suggestion that the power of Conlon’s fiction is in its ability to imaginatively reconstruct all that is lost in the empty spaces between facts. In chapter 8, “Later On, Later On, and in Another Country”, Patrick Leech follows Kelleher’s discussion of memorialization by discussing how Later On, a collection of writings about the 1974 Monaghan bombing, edited by Conlon, was, itself, a memorial. Not of stone, but of words. Leech brilliantly analyzes the ways in which a monument of words differentiates itself from monuments of stone, and how this type of memorial can have further-reaching, universal implications, while, still, at once, honoring the locality and individuals directly affected by that harrowing day.

The final section is titled “Writing and Ethics: Explorations of In/Justice”. Joseph Bathanti’s poetic sensibilities ring out through his style and the content of his chapter, “Prisons, Prisoners, the Death Penalty and Resurrection in Skin of Dreams and A Glassful of Letters, by Evelyn Conlon”. There is a rhythmic, lyrical movement about his writing. He contends that the two main female characters of these books, through their learning about, and gaining intimacy with, prisoners and the prison system, become released from the confines of their previous selves and understandings of the world. He likens what happens to these characters to religious epiphany/pilgrimage (possessed by “the spirit”) – this metaphor is employed very effectively and I found myself convinced by his interpretation of the characters’ transformations. In the final essay, “Ethical Encounters with the Spectral in Evelyn Conlon’s Fictions”, Isabela Curyłło-Klag claims that Conlon’s work is full of ghosts, but not the foreboding, malevolent kind we usually think of. Rather, ghosts that promise hope and guide us to a more humane way of living. Curyłło-Klag argues that the ghosts who appear and haunt Conlon’s work are there to unsettle, rather than to indicate we settle for what will always be. This ending essay is the perfect way to honour Conlon’s contribution to moving us towards a more just world.

While these essays are nicely organized around four central themes, the essays are not limited by the themes of their section and certain ideas reappear again and again throughout. What we have then is a multiplicity of different voices engaging in a cohesive conversation. Fittingly, the volume ends on a literal conversation between Evelyn Conlon, herself, and Paige Reynolds. This coda gives clearer insight into Conlon’s thinking and her approach to her writing – as revealing “what’s happening in the unseen corridors” (176) – as well as her appreciation for her readers’ interpretations. This volume of reader’s responses is a meta-showcasing of that process at play, it is the readers of Conlon’s storytelling and the meaning they have taken from it.

As foundational and important as Conlon’s role in rearranging the landscape of Irish writing has been, she has not received nearly enough attention or recognition for her contributions. Her writing has seemed to me to occupy one of those “unseen corridors”. This volume is a necessary, engaging and thought-provoking shedding of light into that corridor. And, hopefully, it is just the beginning.