Friday, November 30, 2012

The Cork International Short Story Festival

 by Cecily Lynch      © 2012 

In the august surroundings of Triskel Christchurch, participants in the International Short Story Competition gathered to read their stories aloud to us, denizens of Cork. The audience varied from the teenage student to the portly professor in his eighties. The authors came from far-flung places such as Shri Lanka, New Zealand, Manitoba, Israel. They mounted to the stage, the lights dimmed, the mic was adjusted and it was take-off time into the unknown.

It was a magic carpet, bearing me to exotic places and emotionals depths. The authors read of strange lands, where whales basked, where special people rode the whales and so became leaders of their tribe. They read of love, loss and suffering, the basic motifs of humankind: fathers and sons, conflict and reconciliation, rebellion and freedom, and the approach of death.

The stage was like a United Nations conference:
so many races were represented. I noticed that there was a preponderance of young women, beautiful against the black curtain. They were journalists, editors, publishers, professors, and they also had a creative talent that delighted the audience. Another new element this year was the emergence of writers in Gaelic, such as Eilis Ni Dhuibhne and Nuala Ni Ghallchoir, who wrote stories in our native tongue about life in Dublin and in the west. The English translation was up on screen, and I did appreciate that the stories were beautiful and based on our tradition. For the theme, this year was Tradition and Native Culture.

A former professor of mine, whom I hadn't seen for forty years, did a masterly exposé of the basis of the traditional oral story, the basis of all narrative. He defined the themes of the ancient oral tale as continuing in today's short story. An interesting thesis, borne out by the stories that followed it: effort and failure, then, finally, hard-won success.

I liked the story of the Maori man, eldest son in a large family, now at University in Wellington, whose father in his eighties rang him every night, asking and pleading with him not to forget their native culture, for he would have been a chieftain warrior in ancient times. The son was more interested in his Ipod than in the oral tradition of his tribe.

The story that won the huge prize was set in Israel. It was both touching and humorous. Two strangers, both survivors of Auschwitz, sat in a locker room of the public swimming pool. They were in their eighties. They had never ever spoken about their experiences. Was it guilt to have survived? Or shame? Or a merciful blockage of the memory? 
One guy noticed that the number tattooed on his arm was consecutive to the number on the other man's arm. He spoke to him: "We must have been in the same workhouse..."  Silence followed, dragging on for several minutes. Suddendly the first man lifted his bowed head and said: "You must have skipped the queue. I was before you."  Healing, even then, was taking place in their joint laughter.

Long live the Cork International Short Story Competition! Eyes glazed, heart full and moved to the core, I struggled home on the number 8 bus, marvelling that such nurturing delight could come so unexpectedly into my everyday mundane life.

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