For the second time this semester, Crystal Lucky, a professor of English and the head of the Africana Studies program, stood at a podium and introduced a speaker for the second installment of the “black and the green” series.
What started with Norman Mailer’s official biographer, J. Michael Lennon, continued with Colum McCann on Oct. 8 in the Connelly Center cinema, who read selections from his new novel, “Transatlantic,” highlighting the overlap of Irish and Africana cultures with the life of Frederick Douglass in Ireland.
Lucky noted that McCann’s novel unearths the “little-explored connections between these diaspora cultures.” She remarked that it may seem far-fetched for Douglass to have been in Ireland, and although his character is partially fictionalized in McCann’s novel, the historical events are not.
In 1845, Douglass embarked on a two-year lecture tour, during which he met Daniel O’Connell; this led to a break with his early mentor, William Lloyd. Lucky noted the relevance of Douglass’ story for this time, as he questioned the notion of freedom upon which this country was built.
One hundred and seventy years after Douglass’ first published work, McCann’s imagined narrative revives those questions of freedom by intertwining characters’ stories surrounding major historical events of the time.
Joseph Lennon, English professor and head of the Irish Studies department, who spoke after Lucky, observed, “Stories of other people’s lives have always fascinated Colum.” McCann “treats history as story” in this novel and Lennon says he has learned to look for the moments of “sunburst and catharsis” in McCann’s writing.
“I’ve been going so many places lately, and the other day I actually brushed my teeth with Bengay…and didn’t notice for about two minutes,” said McCann, rising to speak and prefacing his reading.
Referencing the combination of the Africana and Irish Studies departments for this event, he said, “This is what education should be about: inclusion, our stories. This is the first university in the world to do this and it is a special privilege.”
“After ‘Let the Great World Spin’,”—for which McCann won the National Book Award and from which he read at the University in the spring of 2011—“I was terrified,” McCann said. He explained that he started a new project and hated it. But Douglass was always in the back of his mind. However, McCann admitted that around the seventh draft of “Transatlantic,” he started to dislike Douglass.
“I started noticing little contradictions in him,” he said.
He said that he learned to deal with the contradictions and used some of Douglass’s own words from his writings in the novel.
“I hope I was true to Douglass. They sent him to Ireland for rehearsal for England,” McCann said. “But he said for the first time he felt liberated.”
McCann read a piece from his novel with the caveat, “This is where it gets dark,” and gave the audience a snapshot of those contradictions in Douglass, such as his failure to speak out publicly about the potato famine in Ireland, though he surely was confronted with the reality of Irish experience at the time. McCann explained that he realized Douglass had to stay true to his original cause: the three million American slaves. In the book, McCann notes—through Douglass’ eyes—that “the Irish were poor, but they were not enslaved.”
In Belfast, there are murals of Douglass on the peace wall, as Irish Nationalists claimed him. “He was 150 years ahead of his time,” McCann said. He embellished a few of these aspects of Douglass’ character in the novel, such as envisioning Douglass’ speeches in Ireland as inspirational fodder for a poor, young maid who emigrates to America.
“Fiction is a funny thing and sometimes it trumps reality,” he mused.
“Read promiscuously,” McCann advised young writers. “Write toward your obsessions, or what might break your heart. You want to break your heart.”
The next part of the “black and the green” literary series will be hosted on Oct. 29 with Lenwood Sloan and Mick Moloney.