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Sebastian Barry on his acclaimed new book: 'If I was wise I'd probably have done something else... but I'm not a wise man'

We speak to the Irish author and Laureate for Literature about his new novel, set in 1870s USA.

Image: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

“MY NAME IS Winona…” So begins Sebastian Barry’s new novel, and from these words on us readers are transported to a world that feels in so many ways unlike our own.

A Thousand Moons is set in 1870, following the American Civil War. It’s a world that will already be familiar to Barry’s regular readers, for the novel is a sequel to his previous novel, Days Without End.

That’s where we were introduced to the characters Thomas McNulty and John Cole, two young men who meet, fall in love, become soldiers, and by the end of the novel have adopted a young Native American girl, Winona, as their daughter.

In A Thousand Moons, it’s Winona’s turn to tell us her story. Like its predecessor, this book plunges us immediately into her world, thanks to Barry’s straightforward yet lyrical rendering of her life. The language in both books is sometimes startingly uncompromising, while also wonderfully evocative.

Barry – the current Laureate for Literature, following on from Anne Enright – takes the reader by the hand and leads them into the often dark, dirty and difficult life that his protagonists lead.

The Dublin-born and Wicklow-based Barry writes poetry, plays and books, and has tended to write novels that all orbit around the same family. Roseanne McNulty in the multiple-award-winning The Secret Scripture is Thomas’s relation, while another relation – Jack McNulty – makes an appearance in The Temporary Gentleman.

Barry does this while also tapping into his own family lore, as stories of a long-dead relation who fought in the American Indian Wars led him to write Days Without End.

Wise men

When TheJournal.ie speaks to Barry, it’s at a particularly strange time. It’s just before the first major restrictions come into play in Ireland in order to curb the spread of Covid-19. We were supposed to meet in a city-centre hotel in Dublin, but this is changed to a chat over the phone. Barry’s having to do all of his press for the book from his home, where he will soon have to stay indefinitely. 

Barry says that the book was partly inspired by family experience of adoption. “So it’s been in my mind, that whole issue of the power of that relationship,” he says. ”It can be very redeeming for both sides. And so, I wasn’t afraid to having written or having met Winona through Thomas’s eyes in Days Without End and I wasn’t chary of claiming her as our own. I mean, it’s a disgraceful thought in a way, and a complicated one, but to go back and say ‘well there’s his daughter’ so I can wander slightly left or right of the actual supposed DNA.”

It’s clear in Days Without End that Thomas “adores” Winona, but this also means he “idealises her, and perhaps sees her with that semi-blindness of parental love”.

“And I was very anxious, in a way, to see if she would like to tell her own story,” says Barry. But that wasn’t easy. It wasn’t a matter of just sitting down and writing or imagining, as he explains. It’s more like the muse landing when the muse decides to. 

“Then you get into the weird area where the writer is sitting in their workroom more or less waiting for someone to impart what they want to say. And that’s what I did for a year here in this very room I’m talking to you because of the coronavirus,” says the author. “It was an immensely poignant thing to feel that you could, by hook or by crook, by making it up, maybe you could to some degree authentically accent a human being who lives in the time that she’s talking about in the 1870s.”

When Winona’s voice first appeared, it was in the form of the first sentence in the book – and the first sentence in this piece. A smattering of other lines appeared, over a period of about four or five months.

Barry sent those lines to his editor at his publisher, Faber, and says he “got a sort of shiver when the line was written for some reason, and [my editor] did as well”.

While he was waiting for Winona’s words, he had her pictured in his mind, in the form of an image captured by Edward Curtis (who took many photographs of Native American tribes) called Qahatika Girl. 

“She was sort of my guide, I have to admit. Forgive me if I do sound like, you know, a crazy person or something. But it’s really how I operate, I have to be honest. It is quite peculiar,” says Barry of how this image helped summon Winona forth.

He tells me about when went to Santa Fe last May, after his book was finished, and drove out to the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico, which is largely inhabited by the Zuni people.

There he met a local called Sean, and showed him the photograph that had inspired him, “tentatively, because I was very worried about it as well, as a white man thing, you know, epic in his dense imagination… but I showed it to him and he said’ that’s a woman of this pueblo’,” recalls Barry. “It was like at the end of the huge pilgrimage, you know, and he was identifying her. Now, oddly enough [she wasn't of the Zuni tribe according to Curtis], but there was a tremendous feeling of being talked back to by that photograph, that ‘you’ve reached this place and don’t worry so much’.”

This meant something to Barry because he says “of course” he did a lot of worrying about the novel. “Everything about this book at some level was worrying, and if I was a wise man I probably would have done something else. But happily I’m not a wise man.”

Some of this worry came down to a question of identity. The book is narrated by a young Native American girl, and some may ask – well, what does Sebastian Barry know about being a Native American girl? It’s clearly something he has asked himself.

“Well, first of all let me say how do I identify: I have to say I’m a stupid, straight, old white man,” he says. He’s not making fun, there, of the need to identify himself as such, but more poking fun at himself. 

A Thousand Moons

He indicates, however, that he is able to get into the mind of someone different to himself.

“Having been that little boy for instance of four, so in love with his great aunt and all that she was. It was my ambition not to be an engine driver when I grew up, but a 59-year-old woman, you know,” he says.

“I wasn’t making much of a distinction between genders, so I wasn’t a young woman for a start,” he says of his novel. “I’m not a native person although you could draw some rough parallels between Irish experience in the 15th century and native people’s, but I mean with very different outcomes, and very different weights put into that history.”

He says these worries, however, “sit outside the workroom. These are the worries of the rather different human being that goes around making the coffee and shouting at the dog and all the rest of it”.

“The person in the workroom is just grateful to hear what they’re identifying as the whistle tune of a vanished person or a seemingly vanished person. I was aware of the cautions against it. But, you know, like the child told not to go into the dark wood. That’s the very thing that makes you go in isn’t it, that’s what it felt like.”

Tragedy and survival

Winona’s story is in many ways a tragic one. She is an orphan, and suffers terribly from racism. In the book, she survives an incident of sexual violence, but is unable for a long time to put what she experienced into words.

Barry says that he remembers “respecting and being quite overwhelmed by the fact that she didn’t have words. And because of course… Her real name is Odijinka, and she was given her name by Thomas because he couldn’t say the Sioux name, the Lakota name, and language is a huge issue for her because she realises she can’t even buy things in the store, unless she has good English. She says she has to speak like an empress to survive being beaten up. And so language is everything.”

He adds: “What I also respected about her was that she spotted that she was having moments where maybe she could solve her own troubles. You know that moment. It’s always a feeling of sorrow in parents when you realise your children are solving their own problems, but they have to do it.”

The book displays at full flow the racism toward Native American people. “This is the immense, one of the many disgraces of America, the way they have things set up for themselves – and that’s not an ultimate criticism of the entire country, it’s just a fact,” says Barry.

On a trip three or four years ago in the US, he went to a museum where he met a Native American woman. When she realised he was from Ireland, she divulged her own story to him, a story that made it into A Thousand Moons. 

“She said: I grew up on a reservation with my father. And every time he went into town, every time, he went into town to buy groceries or buy supplies, he was beaten up.

“It’s almost the first thing that Winona says in the book. Which I felt that was, it wasn’t so much giving the information or… it was like here is a fact – you know, put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

The book also draws on the MeToo movement, which Barry calls “a beneficent revolution for women”. 

“I think there are various ways of seeing and there is a way of seeing that is a form of blindness,” he says, and goes on to tell the story of a teenage girlfriend who he says was attacked but who did not want to tell her family.

“She said, I just told them I had an accident – don’t say anything else. And she picked herself up, dusted herself down, came out of hospital after a week or two, and continued on. Now, I saw that with my eyes. But I didn’t really see what that was,” says Barry.

“The immensity of that courage. I hope I knew the horror of what happened to her, but the actual way she dealt with it. So, because of the MeToo movement I’m looking back with at least those shutters off my eyes as a male person. I’m thinking again about that courage. I’m amazed by it.”

He says he would give a lot to have a Tardis and be able to go back in time and undo what was done. But he can’t, and so he says “a book is a gesture of that sort as well, it’s to put a marker, to notice the level of courage required. The world makes it so dangerous for our daughters, to put it that way.”

To be in any way vulnerable invites attack, says Barry. “And that’s a horrible trait in human beings, obviously.”

During his publicity trail for Days Without End, Barry spoke about his son, who is gay, and how this inspired him to write about a same-sex relationship. Yet things may not have changed that much between the days of Thomas and John, and his son’s experience today.

“I mean, even though we’ve had the marriage referendum, for instance, nevertheless, my son will attest that not a week goes by where somebody isn’t saying something to him in the street, simply because he’s gay.”

A Thousand Moons sees Winona talk about being a ‘nothing’, someone lower than the lowest in society. She and her friends who are free slaves are judged, owned, abused because of who they are. 

“When we talk about lowest of the low, the lowest of the low in society, my impulse in Days Without End was to show, contrary to what some people might think, as it were, the radiance of being gay,” he says.

“And contrary to what people generally in America, universally or pervasively might think in America about native people. I wanted to, at least, even if inaccurately, describe the radiance of one individual person that in fact, you’re putting at the lowest. A person, an individual who deserves the greatest elevation as a living human person.”

Barry is 64 now, and describes this stage of life as being “less a process of thinking and more a process of concluding”.

He says that part of his work is “to try and identify the level of danger that the individual well – in this case the young Lakota person [Winona] -  is in in the world. In order to protect them. If that makes any sense, even in history, you know, it’s like a prayer sent back, it’s like a piece of witch’s magic sent backwards in time,” he says. “Because Einstein said you can’t go back but it’s still there, it’s a message in the bottle of a novel, you know, to say We love you. We love you. We love you.”

There’s a sense that Barry feels that, having been through persecution ourselves, the Irish should stand up for those who are suffering.

“When we went to America after the Famine years in the millions, we were being called scum. I mean we were the missing link between apes and man according to Thomas Carlyle,” says Barry. “We know what this is but we’re removed from it now. But that doesn’t mean we don’t therefore have a responsibility to carry arms, to find the magical metaphorical Spencer rifles, to enact a kind of magical cure or something. It’s all quite useless and at the same time it’s in the uselessness of it, that its purpose and its proof resides.”

He says that with regard to this and his writing, he feels like he has been given a task – akin to when, as a child, he would go to the well with his great aunt to collect water.

“So I feel in the making of a book that I’ve been given by the cosmic great aunt a sort of task,” he says. “And though the child resists it at first, in the making of it an enormous satisfaction is is gained. And that’s what I feel, and I also feel in being allowed and being sort of ticketed to talk about Winona for the next hopefully year or two. It seems like a privilege to me.”

It was a privilege, too, he says, to meet readers after he wrote Days Without End. “Having people who happened to be gay, but of all ages going up and shaking my hand or saying something, and just making me feel that that you had a purpose, that you had a task.

“Without that, you know, what are you, you’re retired…”

No sign of that just yet.

A Thousand Moons is out now and available to buy online from booksellers.

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