‘My opinions tend to be quite straight forward and honest.’
Réaltán Ní Leannáin (Belfast, 1960) hat fan heal april oant ein maaie dit jier yn it ramt fan it projekt Oare wurden/Other words yn Ljouwert wenne en skreaun. Se waard berne yn Belfast en brocht har jeugd dêr yn de jierren sechtich en santich troch. Se wennet no yn Dublin. Yn de jierren tachtich wie Réaltán learares Iersk en Spaansk op ferkate middelbere skoallen. Dêrnei dosearre se oan it Trinity College op Dublin City University en letter op Queen’s University Belfast. Yn de tiid dat se op Queen’s lesjoech, waard der kanker by har konstatearre. Se oerwûn har sykte en skriuwt sûnt dy tiid. Har earste poëzijbondel Turas Ailse kaam út yn 2011. Yn 2015 ferskynde har bondel koarte ferhalen Dílis. Réaltán makke ek in Ierske oersetting fan de deiboeken fan Aoife Brennan. Wy hiene dit petear ein maaie yn Ljouwert, in pear dagen foar’t Réaltán weromreizge nei Dublin.
How was your stay here in Fryslân?
‘When I first arrived I was shown the flat and you can see it’s a lovely space. But I was just put in here and that was that. So, at the beginning it was very, very lonely. I don’t think that the organizers felt it was their duty to help me settle into the community. And because there are only student residences beside me and offices and shops around, I found it very hard to integrate into the community. I didn’t know anyone and I had no way of getting to know anyone. The person I was in contact with was on holidays. So… the first half of my residency was not good. I actually did go home for a break. When I came back things were a little better organized. But not socially.
Also, many thanks to the journalist Kirsten Van Santen of the Leeuwarder Courant, because she wrote an article on me, and because of that article Ensafh got in contact with me. I met Janneke Spoelstra and André Looijenga. It helped to talk to other people, to find out what was happening here, to be able to contextualise how language is used here, how language is viewed. So that helped a lot.’
What are your experiences with the Frisian language? And how do you compare the position of the Frisian language here in Fryslân to the position of Irish in Ireland?
‘I wondered how much the Frisian language is used in daily life. I am a language teacher and I teach a language that is under threat, so I’m very aware of the different aspects of language. My own children, for instance, started speaking Irish, but refused to speak Irish through their teenage years. However, sometimes children change back later in life. My daughter is now teaching in an Irish medium school. In Ireland, Irish is the only language of some schools, such as hers. There is no English used.
It has been really really interesting to see how another country deals with their different languages in a very different way. It has been a learning experience in that respect. I’m also intrigued by your literature. There seems to be a lot of poetry and prose in Frisian. In Ireland we can’t get a bursary to take the time out to write a book, but for some of the books there is a retrospective award given by our literary board. The writer gets a small amount of money, 750 euro. It then depends on how many books the publisher sells after that, but this doesn’t generate a lot of sales, because a lot of people don’t read, even if they do know the language. If it’s not short and online, they are not interested. There are only a few publishers in Ireland who actually publish books electronically as well.
So it’s a constant battle to find the time to write and also to get the publisher to publish. For instance, the publisher that I work with only publishes about seven or eight titles a year. So, if you’re not in that list for that year with him, then you really have to look for a different publisher, and I don’t like doing that. I just sent in a book now, it will probably be 2018 before it is published.
We have one particular publisher, Coiscéim, on his website you can see that he has hundreds of books published. Some of those books are excellent, but some of them are not and they don’t sell, only to the writer’s family and friends and that’s it. I think that’s a big problem with smaller languages. Sometimes the quality control is not there.’
When did you start writing?
‘I didn’t get into writing seriously when my children were smaller, because I never had the time. I had the children to rear, I had work outside the home too. It wasn’t until I was forced to stop working because I got cancer that made me think: ‘You’re not going to live forever, what do you want to do with the rest of your life?’ And that’s when I started writing properly. I had been doing something before, but just here and there, dabbling. I think that’s a challenge that many people have. Writing does not pay, so they have to do other things to pay the bills.’
You wrote a bestseller, Dílis, in 2015. So you are doing well.
‘Well, I’m doing well, in Irish terms. A bestseller in Ireland does not mean money. It means prestige and it means a certain amount of recognition. When I go back I will do an interview in an Irish television program on TG4. When they contacted me to say they wanted to interview me for the next series of programs, that’s when I knew that they thought: ‘Yes she’s famous. She also had cancer, we better get her before she gets it again.’ I will do the interview anyway, that will be fun.’
Do you think you will sell more books when you appear on television?
‘The problem is that there are only so many people who are going to buy the book – and I think most of them have already bought it. I think it will be useful for the next book, because it will keep my name in the public arena. I’ll be the first to admit I do use social media a lot: Facebook, Twitter and my own blog. I find it very useful, because sometimes when you want to get a message out there, it’s the only way to do it. For instance, I’m blogging about my experience here at the moment. There is the official blog ‘Oare wurden’ and obviously I have to be very careful and respectful about what I write on that one. But my own opinions go on my own personal blog. I’ve had it now for nine years. My opinions tend to be quite straightforward and honest. Not a lot of people respond on the blog, but they write about it on Twitter, because that’s quicker. People in Ireland are very polite, if they don’t agree with me, they tend to simply not write anything. On some topics I get no response, because I know people don’t agree with my particular views, for instance, on women’s rights, which is very problematic in Ireland. Abortion is not allowed. I write about how to get the abortion pill from the Netherlands, and I write about how we need to get legislation permitting access to abortion. At present the repressive legislation is endangering women’s lives, we have had deaths in hospitals. I am 55 now, I’ve been dealing with this particular fight for women since my teenage years, and it has still not happened, not in Northern Ireland nor in the Republic of Ireland. When I moved to Dublin in 1986 from Belfast there was no divorce. You could only get a prescription from the doctor for the contraceptive pill if you were married. That’s how far behind Ireland was then and in some ways it has not changed. You cannot get the morning after pill over the counter, you have to go to a doctor. Depending on your doctor he/she might be asking you all kinds of questions and making all kinds of judgements which a doctor has no right to make. I did have a doctor like that many years ago and I changed to a different one. We have a long way to go in Ireland on women’s rights.’
You also have a battle to fight for your language.
‘Yes. Irish is an official language in the south of Ireland, but only some people speak it fluently. The official figures are about a quarter of a million Irish speakers, but on a daily basis not as many, nowhere near as many. They will say that we have all these children in Irish schools, but a lot of children, once they come out of the school, at the end of the day change from Irish to English. We speak languages in a particular context, so their reasoning is: ‘I speak Irish in school, but on the street I speak English.’ Unless they have social outlets in Irish, then they won’t learn to speak it outside. And a lot of children don’t. With language you need people actually using it in their daily life, but you also need status, official validation. It’s very hard to go into a government office and use Irish in your dealings with the government. There are some courses in Irish in some government departments. For instance I taught one of the courses in the Irish government for people working in the offices and some of the political representatives, the ministers. But again, the courses are optional. Most people who took them wanted to move on to other jobs and this would help them get that promotion. But there were also some people who came because they loved the language and they wanted to be able to feel more comfortable using it. So that was good.’
Did you have time to write here in Fryslân?
‘I did have time to write, yes. Although I did find that it was very hard to write when I was lonely. I wrote down a lot of thoughts on paper. I will leave these scribblings for a while and then return to them to sort them out into readable prose. When I go home I will be able to write a story within a week, then it will be sorted. I need space in between to let things settle and to process my thoughts about things. The story I’m writing as a part of the residency will be around 6.000 to 10.000 words. I hope to have that ready for Oare wurden by the end of June. But I think there will be other stories that will come out of this particular trip, eventually.
I am disappointed that I didn’t get to live in a rural setting, because I would prefer to be able to go out walking in the country, to see the sky. I get more done when I have space to walk. It would have been nice to see the sea, although that’s not always an option. ‘
Did you make trips in the province?
‘I did. I went out to various places along the dike. So I was looking to various parts of the old dike wall and the new dike wall. And then the flood plain from the Waddensea. I went out to Vlieland, Harlingen and I was at Marrum at a festival. Yesterday I went round the north dike area, west of Stiens, and I had a look at the new and the old land there and the canal system. It was gorgeous. I would have loved to have been able to stay there when I was here. I also loved the beach and the woods on Vlieland. Over there I did a lot of writing in the evenings because there were a lot of things happening in my head. Leeuwarden is very pretty and it is an excellent city of culture, but I prefer to live in the country.
At home I live on the outskirts of the city of Dublin. Where I live there is a lot of wild parkland, so there’s a lot of space to go and lose yourself if you want to. I can go to the beach as well in Dublin, easily.
I think if I had known what buses to get here in Fryslân and where to go, it would have helped. There wasn’t a lot of information available. I had to find out about the OV-chipcard myself as well. I think the organization has learned a lot of lessons for the next Oare wurden-writer who will come here.’
Your first book of poetry Turas Ailse came out in 2011. It is based on experience. Do you write a lot about your own experiences?
‘I write a lot coming from my own experience. But I change one character a little, and then I change another bit and then I change another bit, so there are little bits of truth in there, but they are mixed in with everything else and it becomes something else at the end of the day. If you simply write about your own experience it is not necessarily a good story. It is okay, but it needs more, to give it tension or to give it interest. So you need to have various layers and various information from different points of view or characters. to give it richness.’
Your book Dílis evoked a lot of discussion. Can you explain?
‘It talks about Belfast in the 1970’s. A lot of it is written from a woman’s point of view, from a mother’s point of view or a child’s point of view. Those are pieces of forgotten history, because they weren’t considered to be the important part. The important version was the politicians, the bombs, the terrorism, the fighting. But behind all that you always had the families, who were trying to live from day to day to day. So there are a lot of different stories in there that relate to that time that give a different perspective and show how difficult it was for families to lead ordinary lives through those years. It also deals a lot with women – women as mother, child, carer, women who look after older people, younger people, people their own age, partners – all the different facets of a woman’s life. On the cover of the book there’s a woman with a puppet, who is broken, because everyone is pulling at her. She has her children pulling her one way, she has her partner pulling her the other way, she has her parents and her employer pulling her. Dílis has two meanings. It means faithful, because a lot of the stories are about people who are not faithful in love or in personal relationships. It also has the meaning of being faithful to your language, to your community, to your religion and there are a few stories in there that deal with that aspect of being faithful as well. And for that we use a different English word: staunch. If you talk about someone who is very staunch, it means they have very strong views and they are very narrow in the way they think, they are not going to consider anything outside those particular views.’
You spent your youth in Belfast. Does the fighting then still bother you now?
‘It doesn’t bother me in myself, but I still see that many things have not changed. When I go back to visit, people are still divided in the same way. They may not be throwing bombs at each other anymore, but they are still on either side of that same line. If you go to Belfast today and say that you are an atheist, they will still try to find out: ‘Are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist? So, what side of the line did you come from?’ But people talk more to each other now, which is a big improvement.’
You were a teacher in Irish and Spanish and you travelled a lot. You went to Spain more than once.
‘I did one year of university at eighteen and then I needed a break. So I went for a year to Spain when I was nineteen and I was teaching English. It was a marvellous opportunity because I was the only person who spoke English for about fifty miles, a hundred kilometres around. No-one spoke any English to me and I had to speak Spanish. It was up in the central mountains and it was just amazing. I’ve been back to Spain many times since to different places to do language courses. I’ve been to the Basque country to examine how they use their language. I’ve seen Catalan in use, Gallego, Valenciano – they will tell you it’s different from Catalan, I don’t know – either-either – and then the south of Spain where they have their world of their own. I also visited Costa Rica, where they speak a very different kind of Spanish. That visit gave me interesting insight into how languages change or do not change if they’re colonial languages. I did part of the Camino to Santiago from Leon to the west, a fabulous part of the country. Later I would like to walk the part of the Camino from La Coruña to the sea. I find that walking is very beneficial to thinking. It helps me to clear my head and things pop into my head. I always keep a notebook on me, so I can write things down.’
What are you going to do after you get home?
‘My father is 93 next week, I’m going to visit him. Many of his memories are in my stories. I have to write my story for Oare wurden. And I’m going down to county Cork in Ireland, I have a one week writing residency there. I want to get a start on my next book down there. That’s going to be a novel about my grandmother. My grandfather joined the British army in World War I, went over to Malta with the British army, met my grandmother and brought her home.’
How do you live in Dublin? Are you married?
‘I am married. I have two children in their late twenties. I used to teach, but I don’t teach anymore, except sometimes when people ask me to do a special workshop. I write. At the moment I’m trying to clean my house! I was in the middle of that when I got the call to come over here. They told me I had two weeks to make my preparations to go to the Netherlands. I’ll have to get on with that when I get back.
My daughter teaches in an Irish medium school and my son is presently looking for work. He lives in a house in the center of Dublin with two Venezuelans, one Italian and a Brazilian, which is fairly typical for the center of Dublin, it’s pretty international. He has a degree in Chinese and Spanish. You think: Chinese, that’s great, but the problem is that all the Chinese speak better English than he speaks Chinese. Anyway, he will find what he needs to do in life somewhere. He’s thinking of moving to Spain, because he thinks it’s cheaper to live there and I think he also likes the sun. We’ll see, he’s young. It could be Canada, or Australia. A lot of his friends have gone to Australia, so he might go and follow them. We’ll see.’