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"I wrote from anger": This hard-hitting Irish book is about tattoos and tragedy

We spoke to the author, Deirdre Sullivan.

LIFE AS A teen can be tough – and even tougher when you are facing big problems at home.

For Ces (17), an abusive father and abused mother mean that life at home is not comfortable at all. To deal with things she retreats inwards, hides her feelings, dreams of when she can be free, and fulfil her wish of becoming a tattooist.

Needlework

Needlework Cover

Ces’s world is explored in the dark new young adult book by Galway born and Dublin-based author Deirdre Sullivan, Needlework.

It’s been described as:

…the sort of book adults worry about teenagers reading, the sort of book teenagers need to have written for them.

Sullivan, a teacher who is also the author of two books in the Prim series, says Ces is a survivor.

“She’s based a little bit on my mum. She was diagnosed with a disability when she was 14,” Sullivan tells TheJournal.ie. “There are an awful lot of things she was told she couldn’t do because it would be too hard on her body, and she’s just gone ahead and done it anyway. I wanted Ces to do that, I wanted her to be aware of the narrative of the victim.”

That narrative, explains Sullivan, goes like this: “Oh her life is ruined now, oh she’ll never get over that’

“I wanted her to know that people said that, and hate it,” says Sullivan.

Sullivan’s mother knows the character is partly based on her. “I think she thinks it’s important because people with disabilities get pigeonholed a lot, and disability is a very large all-encompassing thing,” she says, adding that the rhetoric of “‘they have to overcome this, they have to overcome that” about people with a disability is not true.

“It’s not overcoming to them – it’s just living their life.”

Sullivan is a teacher who works with children with autism, and teaching them has taught her new ways to look at the world.

If you’re walking around with a child with autism you really do experience things differently. They show you ways to experience the world. They say they communicate differently but the kids communicate all the time with their body language, with their facial expressions.

One of the saddest characters in the book is Laura (Ces’s mother), and she’s someone Sullivan has a great deal of sympathy for.

“She is doing her best but she is not able to be what Ces needs,” explains the author. “[Ces's] father failed and betrayed her. From very early on she’s learned that the traditional people you ask for help won’t help you, they’ll do the reverse.”

The book explores how a young girl deals with difficult emotions. “There’s a bit where Ces describes her grandmother as a hard thing in a soft shell. Ces is a soft thing in a hard shell. She’s built it up because if it went in it would never stop going in.”

“It grew from anger”

Sullivan doesn’t write with a moral message in mind, but the book is, essentially, about domestic abuse and its impact on people.

“It grew from anger,” says Sullivan of Needlework. “It’s an issue that’s hugely important to talk about and it’s an issue that doesn’t get talked about, and it’s a problem for so many women.”

“It’s not only women who experience it, but women are the majority of those who are affected,” says Sullivan of domestic abuse. “So I wanted to write about that and I wanted to write about how creativity can be a refuge.”

Ces uses tattooing and sketching as a way to escape from the reality of her life, and access her potential. “I think that no matter what you’re going through, if you are creative that can be a refuge for you no matter what medium it is,” says Sullivan.

A raw and honest read

Deirdre Sullivan Source: Picasa

The book was written for young adults, but it doesn’t shy away from darkness. It’s raw, it’s honest, and it’s hard to read at times.

How much of Sullivan herself is captured in Ces? “I don’t think you can write in the first person without identifying with your protagonist a certain amount,” says the author, who wrote “bad poetry” as a teen and used “creativity as a coping mechanism”.

“I think sometimes when you are a young adult a lot of your life is imposed on you by other people,” she says, mentioning school timetables and parental relationships.

“With creativity you’re taking tools, be they a paintbrush or your own body, or just a pen and paper, and making something that is really yours.”

The importance of tattooing

shutterstock_324788036 Source: Shutterstock/IvanRiver

Needlework is written in Ces’s words, but scattered throughout the pages are descriptions of tattooing. What’s the significance of tattoos in this book?

“When you’re born your skin is this perfect envelope that covers you; it’s as soft as it is ever going to be, it’s poreless and as perfect as it is ever going to be,” explains Sullivan.

As you grow up, you gain scars. “To a large extent you have no control over what the world does to you, but tattooing is making an active choice to put a scar of your own choosing on your body. There is something really powerful and beautiful in that.”

“I was really interested in what it could mean to someone whose agency had been taken from them at such a young age,” continues Sullivan. “[Ces is] a very powerful strong character but she is powerless to change the path her life has taken at the moment. But what it would feel like to plan to reclaim that power, and what would you choose to put on you, if you choose it what would it be?”

Sullivan has two tattoos now, but ironically when she wrote Needlework she had none. One is of a guinea pig, “to remind me to be kind to soft, gentle things”, inspired by a guinea pig she had who died of a broken heart after his cage mate died.

The other is a star on the inside of her elbow, inspired by a similar tattoo the writer Dorothy Parker had.

Sullivan began writing young, starting with diaries kept from the age of seven or eight, going on to writing stories inspired by – or retellings of – her favourites by the likes of Enid Blyton.

She started writing seriously in college, and found herself commissioned to write the Prim series by her lecturer Siobhan Parkinson, who taught her creative writing.

Sullivan is part of the burgeoning young adult (YA) literary scene in Ireland, alongside names like Louise O’Neill and Dave Rudden, who just published the first in his Knights of the Borrowed Dark series.

“It’s great that people know what it means now when you tell them what you write. It’s not so much a genre, it’s a demographic,” she points out.

Much of the more recent YA publications have explored subjects like rape, eating disorders, and dystopian futures. 

Why are teens in particular so drawn to darker subjects? “I feel because you’re so pumped full of hormones and your emotions are amplified,” says Sullivan.

“I think your teen years naturally bring you to a dark place, and children like to read books that reflect their sense of the world. I think that’s why dystopia [is popular].”

Sullivan points out that, for those who feel some young people shouldn’t read about these topics, there are young people who are living through these situations.

“There are children who are coming home every day to that, children who are going to bed at night and having to deal with that,” she says. “And one of the reasons I believe people read, and I think reading is very good as a tool, is to develop and teach empathy, because if you’re reading the story of a protagonist you’re in their head.”

The book is book of the month in Eason, and a recommended read in Dublin’s Dubray books. Needlework is out now.

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