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Myth and Memory

Namita Gokhale, Jan Carson and Vayu Naidu in conversation with Paul McVeigh at JLF Belfast 2019 at the Lyric Theatre

Myth, memory and culture were the ingredients for a lively panel discussion between writers Namita Gokhale, Jan Carson and Vayu Naidu, facilitated by novelist and playwright, Paul McVeigh at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival in Belfast.Myth and Memory

One of the JLF founders and co-directors, Gokhale has written 19 books and has worked a lot “on myth and the constant reinterpretation of myth in current India.”

Naidu, also born and raised in India, has been “very influenced by myths and mythologies” and said they’d helped her to write about history in her fiction. However, for East Belfast author, Carson, her interest in mythology was more about “making up my own myths – contemporary myths.”

Indeed, growing up, Carson was surrounded by stories from the King James Bible rather than Celtic myths, which she said made her feel a bit more disconnected from traditional mythology than her fellow panellists. She added that her reworking of myths was subsequently coloured by this particular storytelling language from her childhood.

Asked by McVeigh why she created modern myths and what they allowed her to do, Carson said her magical realism style allowed her to address topical issues in a more indirect way.


Jan Carson

“For me, Northern Ireland is a prime candidate for that,” she said. “It amazes me that we don’t have more writers here working in that field.”

She added that in a society where people have “become numbed to the status quo,” surrealist writing was a way to “stop people in their tracks” and help them take stock of things.

During the discussion, Gokhale described how India was steeped in mythology and said there were two epic myths – the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇ – which were originally told in oral form before being written. She herself has retold the Mahābhārata in Mahābhārata, The Book of Shiva.

“It’s a very vital and living topic in India,” she said. “Myths dominate and control every aspect of life [there]… There are many different levels of gods and goddesses in India – and a lot of goddesses who are goddesses in their own right.”

Naidu, meanwhile, who performs epic literature as well as being a writer, said Indians tended to “think in a kind of poetry.” She added that, living as she does now in England, she carried Indian mythology with her as a way of viewing the world.

lyric ceiling“For me, the myths are a memory for how I understand the Western world,” she said. “I won’t give up that way of thinking.”

Each of the writers shared some of their work with the audience, with extracts read by Carson and Gokhale and a special oral storytelling performance from Naidu.

Reflecting on the differences between oral storytelling and writing, she said: “The oral tradition is action-driven. When you’re writing, you’re in isolation – it’s more immersive.”

Going on to discuss memory, Carson, who also works with people who have dementia, said she’d learned that memory was something that wasn’t fixed. “As you grow and gain life experience, it changes your perspective of the past,” she said. “The memory [of things] begins to change.”

Collectively asked by McVeigh if holding onto memory too much could also prevent cultures from growing, Naidu said people could indeed get very fixed into the past. However, she added that, “collated memory can be a transformative thing.”

With Gokhale previously explaining how Hindu icon Radha is “the subject of every Bollywood film,” the event finished rather fittingly with an impromptu rendition of a Bollywood song from another festival participant.

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CULTURE NI_I first discovered the treasure trove that is Culture NI a few years ago, when I was working as a newspaper reporter at The Coleraine Chronicle. The weekly newsletter that was delivered to our office inbox was a fount of information about what was going on in the arts across Northern Ireland, and it not only kept me and everyone else up to date on events, it also allowed us to follow up on north coast artists, and give them even more exposure in the paper.

Eoin McNamee (photo by Sarah Lee), who I recently interviewed for Culture NI

Eoin McNamee (photo by Sarah Lee), who I recently interviewed for Culture NI

Without Culture NI, we wouldn’t have heard of many of these artists and events, as there’s no other online resource which so brilliantly archives the cultural scene in Northern Ireland.

Culture Northern Ireland is, as it says on the website: “Northern Ireland’s leading arts and cultural website, covering music, literature, heritage, sport, dance, theatre, the visual arts and much more besides.

“With thousands of articles, reviews, profiles, event listings, and multimedia content, Culture NI is a unique and exciting resource.”

The cover of Oils, a poetry pamphlet by Belfast poet, Stephen Sexton, which I recently reviewed for Culture NI.

The cover of Oils, a poetry pamphlet by Belfast poet, Stephen Sexton, which I recently reviewed for Culture NI.

Produced by the Nerve Centre in Derry – Northern Ireland’s leading creative media arts centre – Culture NI was dealt a seemingly fatal blow this week with the announcement from the Arts Council NI – its principal funder – that its core funding was being cut.

It wasn’t the only organisation to hear such news of course. Blackstaff Press and Guildhall Press –  our leading publishers based in Belfast and Derry – also suffered the same, along with various other arts organisations. (More details on the story here.)

You can read more on the devastating effects of the cuts to Culture NI here, but suffice it to say, after 10 successful years in supplying Northern Irish readers and indeed, readers worldwide with news of our thriving arts scene, five jobs are now at risk, as well as many more part-time jobs in the myriad freelancers who contribute to the site.

The faces behind Culture NI

The faces behind Culture NI.

News of the cuts in Northern Ireland is nothing new of course. Belts have to be tightened, as the NI government, while telling us they’re committed to developing and supporting the arts on the one hand, continue to take away vital funding on the other. Budgets must be managed, but the question on many people’s lips is this – when the cuts not only threaten to reduce the output of a key service like Culture NI but will actually kill it altogether, surely there needs to be a rethink?

Culture NI has been campaigning about the funding cut since the news broke and so far, its 400,000-plus readers seem to be getting behind this, tweeting and signing the petition to have the funding restored. If you have a couple of minutes to add your name to that, it would be much appreciated. Just click here.

So, why keep Culture NI?CULTURENI

  • It’s NI’s leading arts and culture site
  • It updates daily with FREE content on ALL the arts in Northern Ireland
  • There are interviews, reviews, features, competitions and more
  • It’s FREE promotion for artists/musicians/writers/performers/festivals and more
  • You get a FREE guide to What’s On in NI
  • You can discover new events/artists that you’d never hear of otherwise

EwagoralsThese are but a few reasons why we should keep Culture NI.

You’ll notice the word FREE is mentioned a few times. This fantastic resource is free for anyone to browse, read and digest at their leisure at any time of the day or night.

It’s crammed full of more than 10 years of archived material on Northern Ireland’s arts and culture scene and if it goes, that’s an online museum lost.

The website also recently underwent a revamp just a couple of months ago, launching a fully mobile responsive site as it prepared to march on into the future.

Newspapers and magazines have little space to give to the arts. They offer massively reduced coverage of the vibrant cultural scene that we still have in Northern Ireland and the thing is – if Culture NI is to disappear, who will be left to champion this? There are other organisations and publications of course that promote the arts, but Culture NI is your one-stop shop and more. It’s unique in the level and quality of content that it provides. Read freelancer Terry Blain’s views on the matter here.

With (L-R) NI crime writers Stuart Neville, Brian McGilloway and Steve Cavanagh

With (L-R) NI crime writers Stuart Neville, Brian McGilloway and Steve Cavanagh

I’ve been freelancing for Culture NI for the past year and have enjoyed every minute of it. I love the arts and am a big fan of the local literary scene (as readers of my blog will know!). I’d hate to see this wonderful website disappear over money.

If you’ve read this far, then thank you. As a writer, this is how I can show my support.

The Arts Council NI has today posted this message on Facebook:

“We are receiving emails regarding the annual funding award made to Culture NI. Thank you for your views. You will know that the Arts Council has had to take difficult decisions in a very challenging funding climate and we appreciate your interest. We will be meeting with the Nerve Centre soon to hear their concerns.”

We know belts have to be tightened, and the Arts Council NI is, of course, a vital organisation in Northern Ireland that is very much appreciated for all that it does for arts and culture here. Let’s not forget that for a minute. They’re simply having to make tough decisions in an ongoing economic climate that’s battering the arts.

If you’re interested, you can read my archived work for Culture NI here, or on the Articles section of this blog.

I’ll keep you updated! #SaveCultureNI

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