Lucy Caldwell is Keeping 'er Lit

The award-winning Belfast author on the importance of women having their voices heard in contemporary fiction, ahead of a special Open House Festival panel

In 2015, Irish arts journalist and broadcaster, Sinead Gleeson, edited an anthology of short stories by Irish women writers called The Long Gaze Back. The book attracted a fair amount of attention, particularly within literary circles, as it spanned four centuries of talented women writers, championing their work in a way which isn’t often seen.

Indeed, while a couple of writers from Northern Ireland were included in the anthology, the next question being asked was: when’s the northern version happening? The Glass Shore is now set to fulfil this role in the autumn and is sure to be a topic of discussion for author and playwright Lucy Caldwell at the upcoming Open House Festival in Bangor.

As part of the festival, which runs throughout August, Caldwell will be joining a panel of three women writers in an event called ‘Keep ’er Lit’ at the Old Auction Rooms on Gray's Hill, August 10. Compered by Belfast author and playwright Glenn Patterson, who was BAFTA-nominated for his Good Vibrations screenplay, the discussion will centre on female writers, the stories they tell, and why their voices should be heard.

'I’ll be on a panel with Ayisha Malik and Doreen Finn,' says Caldwell. 'Neither of them are from Northern Ireland, and Ayisha has written a comic book about a Muslim woman’s search for love, so the focus might be on telling 'less expected' stories.

'When my short story was published in The Long Gaze Back last year and I suddenly found myself on panels with women writers, I realised how unusual it was. I’m rarely on a panel with women writers. Having your work published in the context of being a female writer does create a sort of sisterhood.'

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Writers Doreen Finn and Ayisha Malik will join Caldwell in the panel discussion

Caldwell, a multi-award-winning author and playwright, recently published her first short story collection – Multitudes – in May, with all of the stories containing female leads. Indeed, she makes a point of writing strong women into all of her work, as she believes they’re still under-represented in literature and in theatre.

The East Belfast-born author, who has lived in London for more than a decade now, maintains that women’s voices be heard in the arts – and elsewhere. 'It’s always really interesting and important to have women’s voices [heard], especially in Northern Ireland. When I think of the history of Northern Ireland it’s all male politicians and male voices that come to mind.

'The experience of The Long Gaze Back anthology really made me push Sinead Gleeson to do the Northern Irish anthology, as it’s 30 years since something like that happened. The Glass Shore is like a history of Northern Irish women writers, going back 300 years and bringing us up to the present. Sinead has managed to unearth writers I’d never heard of before, and I like to think I know my women writers.'

Caldwell’s involvement in the Open House Festival meanwhile, stems from a connection made with another female writer from Northern Ireland, Lesley Allen, whom she found online a few years ago. Reading web articles on a somewhat less productive writing day, Caldwell says she stumbled upon 'a really moving blog post' by Allen, who is also one of the Open House Festival organisers.

'She talked about how she had wanted to be a writer for a long time and then everything went wrong,' says Caldwell. 'She had a book deal and then the publisher pulled out, so she had to go back and tell her family and friends it hadn’t happened after all. I wrote her an email and said "hang on in there… one day you’ll be telling this story when you’ve been published…'

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Open House Festival staff enjoy the latest books by the authors taking part

Allen finally got her book, The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir, published this year, but it has been 'quite a long road' to reach this point according to Caldwell, who has maintained contact with Allen since. 'She’s involved in organising the festival and is a debut author herself, so is keen to have a programme of different, interesting female voices.'

When Allen asked her to take part in the festival, Caldwell subsequently familiarised herself with the work of her fellow panellists, who hail from London and Dublin respectively. Multitudes is set largely in East Belfast, though links Belfast and London, with all-female narrated tales and more than a few ‘coming of age’ stories.

Malik’s novel, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, on the other hand, is a Muslim love story which has been dubbed 'the Muslim Bridget Jones'. Meanwhile, Finn’s debut novel, My Buried Life, is about a tortured poet, so the panel discussion should certainly be eclectic and, as Caldwell says, focus on 'unexpected stories.'

The aim of the event is to shine a light on new women’s fiction, so is ideal for both budding writers or simply those who just love stories and reading. So as these three 'keep 'er lit' on August 10, there's a fair chance they'll spark some of the next generation's passion for the pen as well.

Keep 'er Lit takes place at the Old Auction Rooms (Arredare), Gray's Hill, on August 10 as part of this year's Open House Festival, which runs all throughout August in Bangor. To book tickets for this and other events visit Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell is out now on Faber & Faber. The Glass Shore will be published by New Island Books on October 31.