To read and to talk with Irish author Kerri ní Dochartaigh is to be fully submerged in a dreamscape of interconnectedness, of language, of other writers, of the animal-mineral-spiritual rendered lyrically, in story, in an otherworldly space that’s as earthbound as it is floating in the ethereal. Memoirist, nature writer, art lover, survivor of the Troubles and of her own alcoholism—of which she writes openly in Thin Places and the recently published Cacophony of Bone—ní Dochartaigh is as inclusive in her living as she is in her writing. Which is to say that her books are wide webs of experience, composed with great care, intuition, and attention to language in all its failures and possibilities.
Ní Dochartaigh lives on the west coast of Ireland. We spoke via video. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Cara Benson: I’d like to begin with the idea of the sacred. You write in Cacophony of Bone, “the rhythm and the ritual of it all—the carving of space for my inner thoughts in the thick of such stormy chaos—felt such an act of devotion that I whined & moaned at the moon.” I love this idea of writing as an act of devotion or writing as a sacred act or even as an act of faith.
Kerri ní Dochartaigh: I’m really intrigued by how when we give ourselves fully over to something, it’s a real cusp moment. With writing it feels like taking it one step further because when we give ourselves over into this creative flow it doesn’t happen in a contained way. We always know somewhere within us that we’re just a vessel for it because we are going to give it back out there. My friend Victoria Adukwei Bulley, an incredible British-born Ghanaian poet, writes of this sense of one anotherness, that interconnectedness between ourselves and between the living world and all of the beings we share her with. If we look at writing as being part of that, then I feel it is spiritual.
When I wrote Thin Places, I was at the very beginning of my journey with proper publication. There is a bargaining there that is the first step away from being in your own attic room at your own desk with your own books and your own pens and your own thoughts and your own reckoning with the world. As soon as we move into that realm of publication, and one could say as soon as one steps even a little bit onto that white, male, colonial capitalist’s wheel, I have to be very wary with how I stay true to the work. And when I say the work I’m not just talking about the printed word, I’m talking about the work of showing up in the world. Showing up in yourself. Showing up in your community and showing up in the discomfort that is part of living through various emergencies that we’re living through at the moment.
My British editor for Thin Places was very adamant that all of the parts where I had written about the act of writing should be removed. They felt very firmly that you don’t talk about the writing in the writing. It’s maybe quite an old school view in memoir that if you refer to the act you break the spell between the reader and the writer, which I don’t believe for a second. I feel like readers are really tender and beautiful and empathic and very much attuned with the writing act even though they’ve not been there, but through the reading.
So all of the stuff about the writing came out. And this had been a very important part of the journey. The writing had been as important as going into the thin places in the natural world and just as important as stopping drinking. Just as important as seeking therapy.
It felt interesting for me to give this not distilled, but perhaps diluted version of the story because there was no reference to this vast part of me, which is turning up at the page every single day. When I moved into writing Cacophony of Bone, I knew for certain that I couldn’t write anything again that I would publish without being able to feel like I could totally bring my readers along the journey of writing and the journey of reading, which have saved my life. I view them as intrinsic to my ability to show up as a person, as a human, and now I say as a lover and a mother, as a member of the various communities I’m part of.
I view it as one of the most sacred and spiritual layers of my being and of my lived experience here on this exquisite planet.
Talking about writing as an act of connection, or I’ll add writing as a way to non-otherize the other, I’m curious about the move from “I” to “we” to “you” that you did quite a bit in Thin Places. That “you” served a number of functions in both books, actually. Sometimes it includes the reader as a part of the book. This “you” is actually the reader the writer is addressing. Other times it feels that the reader is put in the position of the speaker. In Thin Places it seemed at times a deflecting move. To deflect speaking from the “I.” I wonder if that is connected to the shame that you write about.
Language is one of the most powerful things that can address this myth of separation that’s at the forefront of the horrifying action that’s taking place in the world against minorities, against the earth and her living beings. We’re bombarded consistently with this idea of separateness and individualism, and it begins very young. There’s a real emphasis on weaning your child early. In America, for instance, parents are pulled away from their child at a ridiculously young age so that they can step back into work, into producing. We need to think about who benefits from this sense that we are all separate, because it’s not most of us.
Most of the beings of the world are begging to be in one anotherness, in interconnectedness. What if we were able to step fully into that and understand that we are deeply embedded in an incredibly diverse multi-layered ecosystem? As soon as I’m you and you’re me. As soon as I am the trees and I am the soil and the worms. As soon as the person round the corner’s children are actually my children and I’m responsible for them and they’re responsible for mine. As soon as we blur those imagined boundaries right out because they’re not real, we’re going to act differently. We’re going to act quicker, we’re going to act more in unity and harmony and togetherness.
I’m trying to live as if every being that I interact with I’m responsible for. If I live like this, then I have to speak like this, and I have to write like this, which I tried to do in Cacophony Of Bone. When we widen language, we widen understanding and we widen questions. We allow for questions that we might not necessarily allow for if things are too boxed off. I feel like it’s questions that are going to get us through.
Shame is something that I write about a lot. It’s something I carry ancestrally and intergenerationally. I carry it based on the landmass I’m from. I carry it based on experiences I’ve been through. Allowing myself to feel as if I can be that level of connected with other beings actually allows the load to be shared out of it.
The I-you, we-they, it’s always really drawn me in, authorial voice and distortion. I’ve always been drawn to writers moving towards this form of distortion. Or if we think of light for instance. I’m really drawn to light as well. The older I’ve become I understand that I’m drawn to light not just for the obvious connotations, but I’m drawn to it because of its shapeshifting abilities. Its ability to distort. Its refraction and reflection and how light is never really just light. It’s very circumstance-based. It’s very contextualized. I suppose that that’s how I feel about authorial voice. As writers, as creatives in general, we hold such ability to question what we’ve been told for so long, which is crumbling. The old ways are crumbling. What will they be reshaped as?
The idea of light as context and the authorial voice within it brings to mind some of the ways in which you work with storyline. In both books you provide this lyrical, historical, natural context full of folklore and environment and yes, light. In a way you preference the ambient, the situation, and then in comes the “I,” and sometimes it surfaces in cheeky ways. There’s that parenthetical moment in Cacophony of Bone about revealing that there might be a baby growing in you. In other books that might be a big plot point, but here it just bobs to the surface, swimming among all the other material, and ducks under again.
This is the way that I experience life. As a survivor of various forms of abuse and trauma, and being an addict coming through that and being at the . . . no, I don’t want to say being at the other side because there is no other side, it’s a circle. But being at a different part of that circle now has made me so much more—it’s more than open—it’s like raw to the world. Why it’s written with these peeks of the “I” coming out is because I really do feel myself as being embedded in that way within the world. That includes when I enter a book. It’s the same as being in any field or being with people. That’s a difficult reality to write in standard chronological line after line after line after line.
I tried it in Thin Places and I found it really tricky. It went through seven major edits to try to interweave that glimmer of the “I” with all the history and politics and nature. With Cacophony I wanted to see what it would be to write the way I experience life. To actually do that and see how that stood.
There are themes in our lives, images or tropes that reappear and that don’t seem to be in other people’s lives. They seem quite random but are repeated to such an extent that we know that they’re for us. We can choose to ignore them or we can choose to lean into that and see where it takes us. To understand that we are living in a world that biologically and scientifically exists because of a series of particular patterns. Why shouldn’t that exist within us, not just physically, not just biologically, but why shouldn’t that reality of patterning exist within our own lives and our days and our seasons and our years?
I don’t view any piece of art, whether it be music or a children’s painting or a book that’s taken ten years to write, I never view them as being purely human because I’m confident that no matter what, we are in this continual dialogue with the world around us. Art helps us to keep the threads that tie us together. Those ties are already there, but they are weakened by overuse, by overwork, by trauma, and by being alive in a world that is so deeply impacted by greed and, I’ll say it again, by white male colonial violence, predominantly.
I’m often spoken of as a nature writer or a memoirist, but actually I love the world of art and culture. I love the world of love. I’m thinking with writers like Audre Lorde and bell hooks on whose shoulders I stand. The work of Black women is never given the amount of anything it deserves. So many of the writers that I love have been impacted by reading Black women and communities that support each other and that type of ecology of care. That speaks hugely of how the natural world works. In Gathering Moss Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks of the mothering that mosses do.
It felt really important that I spoke about that year [of the pandemic lockdown], but I understood that I am not this disconnected being much as this book was written at the end of an isolated lane. I was in such community, and that’s what art does.
An important part of connection, to my mind, is individuation. And the “I” is a way to assert differentiation. We can, especially as women, well I’ll speak for my own experience, because it’s important to think about who gets to say “we.” Who gets to speak for others. But it’s notoriously more prevalent among women, an over focus on other or on the bond itself to the detriment of the “I.” The ability to differentiate and to tell one story is actually foundational in fostering a healthy bond.
I love Melissa Febos’s book Body Work, where they talk about how so many particularly female writers that they’ve worked with feel that they don’t want to use the “I” or they don’t want to tell their own story. They feel like, “why is my story important?” How important it is that we can give our stories and speak our truths and the power that that holds.
I love what you said about who gets to speak the “we.” There’s an incredible writer, Jessica Gaitán Johannesson, who’s written a wonderful collection of essays called The Nerves and Their Endings. There’s this part where they speak of how anxious they sometimes feel using the word “we.” Their partner says, “well, which ‘we’?” We have been made to feel as if there’s this script and “they” matter and then there’s this group that doesn’t matter.
It’s back to that myth of separation. Your “I” is not less important just because you’re linked to someone else. In fact, in a way, that makes it more important to speak your truth because your truth directly impacts on everyone else as well as impacting you because we are in this one anotherness. That’s why writing and art in general is so important, and it’s so important that publishing moves towards making room for voices that have been minoritized for so long and through violence. That’s why I’m delighted to be with Milkweed. I’m so deeply humbled by the work they do.
I want to make sure we talk about birds. Birds figure into my story and they are part of my partner’s story, which I’m writing about, and clearly they’re in your work, and you and I are not alone in this. Why do you think writers are wanting to get after birds?
In Thin Places I explored this idea that we’ve always been drawn to flight as a race. With flight comes imagined freedom and this observational sense, this looking down or looking from a different level. That is kind of what writing is. In a way, it’s that bird’s eye view of the world.
I do think that there is something about the way that they live. I looked in Cacophony at how the bird makes her nest with her body, and the resilience of birds. I think that speaks a lot to how the everyday is far from ordinary. If you decided that you were only going to spend your life observing even one family of birds—drawing them and trying to understand them and telling their story and listening. You would probably have a very rich life. You would probably encounter things that you wouldn’t have encountered had you not decided to do that.
We’ve been aware of birds from a young age. They were one of the first things that my toddler noticed in the world outside. There’s a reason for that that we might not understand, but there is something pretty great going on.
It seems to me that what people are drawn to learn and write about is actually moving away from birds. I feel like there’s a move from the air into the soil in what’s being published and what I see on my social media streams. I’m seeing a lot of mushroom talk. I’m seeing a lot of soil talk. I’m seeing a lot of people who are really drawn to slugs and worms, and I am wildly drawn to snails at the moment, and slugs.
I wonder if there’s something going on with us collectively. We are drawn to particular things at particular times of our own development because we need to learn from them right then. If we ourselves are drawn at particular times to particular things, what are they telling us? And are we listening?
I wonder if that move is in some way in response to the grief that’s associated with birds at this time. This is a huge generalization, of course, but I feel that there’s a sense of hope or possibility in soil and in mushrooms. Remediation feels right at hand, whereas birds are more ephemeral, they fly off and obviously are in tragic decline. And we need what’s right under us that is booming in its regeneration through decay.
What I feel we need to do to enter back into full relationship with the living world is understand that a draw towards the soil is actually still a love of or a draw towards birds. And that’s where things get tricky. Right?
I think it’s a developing consciousness. I feel like enough of us are moving in a direction that many people have already been pushing towards for so long. Pushing is the wrong word because it’s not aggressive in any way; it’s actually gentle. It’s more slug like.
I had no idea the percentage of beings that are living in the soil. I always had a sense of it, but to really begin to understand it now is huge. It’s that interconnectedness thing again.
You write a lot about the inability to get the right language for something. You do write as you live, and in life you’re a collector, a gatherer of bird nests and of all sorts of objects. In your writing you gather words. There’s an accumulation and gathering of language so that it can hold contradictions and possibilities and impossibilities.
This strikes me as the antithesis of Jacques Derrida’s ideas about erasure. He, too, felt that words couldn’t always get after something and so he was apt to erase them, while leaving traces of them behind so that the effort and the trace element of the word that wasn’t perfect was still there. That so-called imperfection was the thing that readers saw.
Rather than erasing or a removal in front of my eyes, though, you’re gathering.
I feel like what that speaks to is at the heart of everything that I’m working with at the moment, a sense of beginning to view failure differently. Viewing failure as a really fertile experience, as a deep learning experience. With writing I view it as this continual carving and this total remolding and reshaping and even getting it down on the page and it being printed and it’s staying in that form and not being edited feels like a really big thing because actually we could be just continuously reshaping and changing and chopping and cutting.
When I say that I couldn’t find the word, or this is the only way I could “word” this and it’s not quite right, I’m allowing myself to be on the page as I am in life. Which is flawed and not perfect and not finished, this kind of Buddhist ideal of things in constant flux and not being permanent. How humbling I find it. And healing. I find that since allowing myself to step into this relationship with failure through my writing, it’s allowed me to step into the sense of that in my every day, and that has done so much for me and continues to do.
I used to have the experience a lot if I sent a piece of writing in for publication that included places where I’d write that I couldn’t find words, particular types of editors would say, “Oh do better.” Or “Come on, you’re a writer” type of thing. I think it is completely OK to say this is something that exists within our world or within me or within my experience, but at the moment I can’t word it. That’s a level of humility.
It’s so interesting, your response. I never once felt it was a performative thing to judge about you as a writer, but that you were capturing that language has its limits. In other words, I never saw it as failure, but speaking to the limits of language. There’s Laurie Anderson’s famous line about language being a virus.
Who is incredible. And Pauline Oliveros on listening—listening as a concept. We know so little about it. About voices. I’m also thinking of the Terry Tempest Williams book When Women Were Birds, which was given to me in the writing of Cacophony of Bone. It’s a weaving. Which is what birds do. And it’s what women do. And I’m thinking of this part, I don’t even remember where it’s from, but I’m reading a lot at the moment about women and kinds of darkness.
Oh, it’s a Sylvia Plath poem. She’s speaking of women and darkness and women weaving and a woman by the cradle and a woman knitting and this idea of what it means to be in darkness. And what it means to bring experiences into light. And how important transformation is. Joseph Beuys talks of transformation and language. In order for language to be transformative, language itself has to be transformed. That ongoingness.
That brings me back to the idea that the everyday is far from ordinary, and a word that is ripe for transformation. I live in a former church that has this phenomenal spire pointing skyward. It’s such an amazing architectural feature, a focal point. The footprint of the building, which is admittedly less eye-catching, is where it meets the ground. It’s more mundane, we might say. But the origin of mundane is world, is earth. It’s telling that this has come to connote dull. That earthbound dailiness is maligned. That idea is due for a transformation.
I’m always thinking with the ideas of Virginia Woolf and this sense that we should never take it that the small experiences in life are of less worth or less fertile or important than the big ones because the small ones are so important.
I suppose that’s the beauty of being alive. That’s the message and the question and the answer all in one.
Cara Benson is the author of the hybrid collection (made) (Book*hug). Her stories and poems have been published in The New York Times, Boston Review, Orion, Best American Poetry, The Brooklyn Rail, Identity Theory, Fence, Hobart, and many other venues. Her interviews, essays, and reviews at Electric Literature, Bookslut, 3:AM, Full Stop, Poetry Society of America, and elsewhere. She has received a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and the bpNichol Award. She lives in the unceded ancestral homelands of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohicans.
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