Two Countries, One Book

Ryan Dunne meets Theresa Breslin, the hotshot Scots author writing across boundaries

Theresa Breslin'd 'Divided City'‘A young man lies bleeding in the street.
It could be any street, in any city.
But it’s not.
It’s Glasgow. And it’s May – the marching season.
The Orange Walks have begun.’

With its message of religious, cultural, racial and sexual tolerance, Theresa Breslin’s novel Divided City could be written as much for the people of New York as for those of Glasgow.

The reality is that regardless of nationality, many readers can relate to a story detailing friendships across social divides of cultural identity and inherited bigotry. But undoubtedly the reference to the Orange Walks of the marching season will have a particular resonance with the people of Northern Ireland.

‘There’s a huge affinity between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Did you not know it’s obligatory to have a relative here?’ Breslin chuckles. The award-winning author’s latest novel was selected as this year’s One Book, an ambitious cross-border project that aimed to get a thousand people across the northwest to read Divided City.

This cross-community, multicultural programme is something of a Tower of Babel with stronger foundations, a chance to use literature as a weapon against the forces of sectarianism and hatred.

‘The power of words is very strong, you can see that if you’ve ever been to Berlin and seen the monument to the burning of the books,’ Breslin states. ‘It’s a very powerful image and the first thing any dictator does. Books are extremely powerful.’

A joint venture between the Western Education and Library Board and the Donegal County Library Boards, the One Book community reading project is part of the 'Inspiring Readers' programme. WELB Assistant Chief Librarian Trisha Ward shares Theresa’s belief in the potency of the printed word.

‘We want to get people to read more and read more widely. We’re trying to show that books are a way of changing attitudes,’ Ward explains.

‘We want to encourage young people to read history, to actually go and see what their history was about and to explore through books where they and the people around them have come from.’

One of the group’s recent projects invited young children to draw what they imagined an alien would look like – a fun way to splash paint around, but also a subtle exercise in the children’s perceptions of ‘outsiders.’

Ward and her team plan to invest their experience from these fledgling days into future projects with Donegal Council and hopefully the councils of all the border counties.

‘We’re trying to show that different councils can come together and develop projects of this nature. We hope that we can secure future funding by demonstrating that this sort of project does make a difference,’ Ward declares.

‘We wanted a book that would challenge people, one that was also a really good read. Divided City has it all.’

Besides examining tensions between the Protestant and Catholic communities, Breslin’s book broadens the scope to include the modern plight of asylum seekers in the UK.

In Glasgow the book was used as the catalyst during Tolerance Day to encourage 400 young people from varying backgrounds to come together and discuss their experiences.

With her Carnegie Award for Children’s Literature and lifetime’s devotion to the cause of promoting reading among young people, Breslin seems the ideal ambassador for the One Book campaign.

‘I’m deeply, deeply honoured,’ she says. ‘I'm very flattered and excited about the project, it sounds amazing. It’ll be interesting to see how it works. Already in Glasgow there’s been some work done in bringing different communities together and challenging young minds.’

Breslin recounts interviewing rival football fans during the books' research, with shameless asides on her lack of sporting knowledge. It seems that after centuries of feminism, from Lady Godiva to the Suffragettes and Madonna’s Sex, we’ve learnt that women need not necessarily understand football.

Breslin makes good use of the stereotype in her tales of offside-rule naivety, recalling how her amusement during one match turned to shock when a friend explained the link between the Irish Famine and fans bombarding the pitch with potatoes.

After the launch at the Omagh Library the project next moves on to Enniskillen, Bundoran and Buncrana. Having been born in a small town outside Glasgow, Breslin feels an affinity for the rural areas of Ireland.

‘Driving down from the airport, leaving the city and travelling down here, it was beautiful to see the countryside,’ she says wistfully.

For her next project Breslin trades the rain and clouds of Scotland for the sunshine of Renaissance Italy, with a book detailing the life of a young boy working as a servant to Leonardo Da Vinci – but she is quick to assure that she's not creating a rival to Dan Brown’s monster hit The Da Vinci Code.

‘It’s such hard work researching in sunny Italy,’ she laughs.

Will Divided City help to build bridges in this beautiful, beleaguered country? Critical and commercial success heralded the book’s publication with the hardback edition selling out immediately, followed by two reprints. The first stones have been laid.