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'Speaking out about imbalance can shake people up'

Journalist and and Irish Book Awards-nominated editor Sinead Gleeson on why speaking out can help bring change.

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2015 HAS BEEN the year of #readwomen and #wakingthefeminists – and it’s something that editor and journalist Sinéad Gleeson is noticing with pride.

The editor of The Long Gaze Back, an anthology of Irish women’s writing, she is nominated in the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards (in our TheJournal.ie-sponsored Best Irish Published Book section), which takes place tonight.

For Gleeson, her book is one way of addressing gender imbalance in Irish literature, which saw women absent from big-name anthologies, which in turn contributed towards them being absent from the literary canon.

“There were hundreds of women writing – they just weren’t being put into anthologies,” she told TheJournal.ie when Long Gaze Back was published.

The default, whether it is in politics or family life or the courts, for a long time was male and I think it was the same in literature.

She recently discovered that Norah Hoult, who features in Long Gaze Back, was one of Ireland’s most-banned authors. She was banned twice as many times as Edna O’Brien.

Waking the Feminist writers

Since we last spoke in September, the Waking the Feminists movement kicked off. It was a response to the Abbey Theatre’s Waking the Nation programme for 2016 (you can read a report on its launch here), which the national theatre acknowledged was not gender-balanced.

“Fiach [Mac Conghail, outgoing director] has done brilliant work in the Abbey, he is really clued in on social media and programmes a lot of engaging stuff,” says Gleeson, reflecting on Waking the Feminists. “But I don’t understand how the omission happened in the Abbey when there are women on the board.”

She acknowledges that the fear of speaking up can be “a really paralysing thing”. “People can do it in fiction, people can do it in theatre [plays]. You can say what you want in your play, but if you want to ask ‘why wasn’t my play used?’, that isn’t fiction.”

She doesn’t single out the Abbey, noting that the Gate Theatre is similar when it comes to women’s representation on stage.

“It’s the smaller theatres, the pop-up places, the likes of the Project Arts Theatre that are doing things [that include more women]. It’s the iconic, heavily-funded traditional institutions that seem to be very male dominated. It doesn’t occur to anybody to change that.”

Balance in the literary world

When asked if a Waking the Feminists movement should take place in Ireland’s literary world, Gleeson says that there is room to focus on gender balance on panels and at events.

It shouldn’t just be about having a tokenistic writer on panels, she says. Organisers need to look at gender balance from the very beginning of the process.

“The thing is, when you start a programme, or start to plan a panel event, you need to look down, not at the end when the programme is printed.”

When a woman-only programme, or anthology (like the final two editions of the Field Day anthology, added after uproar over the dearth of women included) is added to a male-heavy one, the message it gives women is “you’re separate, you’re outside, you’re other”, says Gleson.

The mindset from the start has to be about inclusivity, equality, making it broad-ranging, with voices of people of different abilities, of different colours, of ethnicities.
I hope the conversation will keep on happening. And any time in the future anyone programmes anything, that they will check themselves and ask ‘is this balanced.’

Absent voices

As presenter of the Book Show on RTÉ, Sinead Gleeson, along with producer Zoe Comyns, makes a big effort to have gender balance on the air.

She notes the recent survey which looked at the absence of women’s voices on current affairs radio, saying she hopes it is taken on board behind the scenes in radioland, and it makes people question how they programme their shows.

This report “started a national conversation, a social media conversation”, which she hopes will make listeners notice the next time a radio presenter doesn’t feature any women on their show.

“Even big broadcasters are now aware people are listening. I would hope the next time a vacancy comes up [for a broadcaster], they might go ‘this is our chance to make a difference’.”

Speaking out

For Gleeson, the power for change is in people’s hands. She believes in calling out imbalance when you see it, which is something she does on Twitter in particular.

Another way we can change this is when you spot [something], even if it’s a tweet to someone, you have to call it out, you have to point it out. It just doesn’t occur to people. They don’t see that their festival [for example] is very male dominated. People don’t notice it until you point it out.

She adds: “If a small thing like Waking the Feminists became the global thing it became, it proves speaking out on imbalance can shake people up.”

Of tonight’s Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards, Gleeson says the fact the newcomers list is entirely populated by women is “really inspiring”.

I remember in 2012, there were a lot of conversations about post-boom fiction. The [new writers] started to emerge and turned out to be Kevin Barry, Donal Ryan [and others]. I do remember thinking ‘where are the women, where are the new female voices?’

But within a few years, those women had emerged – women like Danielle McLoughlin, who’s been printed in the New Yorker, Sara Baume, and Eimear Ryan, to name just three.

Gleeson acknowledges that sometimes women can be slower to speak up, so suggests “maybe it just took a little while for their voices to emerge”.

I think this is the year [for women writers]. It’s not just been a great year for their voices here – they are all being picked up by big publishers.
All of the big US and UK publishers are watching what’s going on in Ireland.

As for 2016, she thinks “it will be a brilliant year” for women in literature.

In fact, so many great new voices kept emerging while she was editing the Long Gaze Back that she had many moments of “there’s another new voice I don’t have room to include”.

There was such a huge amount that she hints we might see a Long Gaze Back II on the shelves, doing yet more work to introduce Irish female writers to a wider audience.

In two years’ time there will be so many there might be new room for another anthology.

The Long Gaze Back, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, is one of the books shortlisted in the Best Irish Published Book category, sponsored by TheJournal.ie, in the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. The winners will be announced at a gala ceremony tonight at the Doubletree Hilton hotel in Dublin.

Read: These books are fighting to be named the best in Ireland>

Read: Here’s why Ireland’s women writers aren’t being ignored anymore>

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