Alice Lyons

An Interview

Maeve Mulrennan

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Oona, by Alice Lyons, was published earlier this year by The Lilliput Press. Alice is a writer and visual artist based in the West of Ireland. Named after it’s protagonist, Oona is the story of grief and it’s impact on a person throughout their lives. Growing up in New Jersey, USA, with Irish heritage, Oona then migrates to the West of Ireland, where she practices as an artist. The book explores the Oulipo method - Alice has omitted the letter o in all but one chapter of the book.

From very early on, the reader witnesses the fracturing of identity of the protagonist. In the beginning of the novel Oona's mother is dying, which leads the young Oona to understand the unspoken in relationships. I began our conversation by asking Alice how silence, loss and dissolution of identity is further developed in the novel:

“Well the key thing in Oona's story is that her mother is dying in her house and everyone in the family knows, but she isn't told because it's thought she is too young to know. But she knows. So she has to pretend to the outside world that she doesn't know and still try to honour what she knows inside to be true. And this tears her apart, causes a fundamental fracture because she can't resolve the split between these inner and outer worlds; they are so divergent. So she splits off from part of herself. It's common. Many people recognise this way of dealing with grief, with dishonesty, with abuse. The book tracks Oona's spinning out of control in anxiety and fear and then a gradual process of self-reconfiguration through contact with the material world. The materials of art-making and of the natural world, of rural Ireland and its culture begin to offer Oona a way to come back into contact with realness.”

Oona moves to Ireland, and despite previous stays still encounters some struggles with a place that is both known and unknown. I asked Alice how Oona's immersion into a different culture further her struggle with her identity, and how this was unpacked through the use of language & silence:

“In a way it's like Oona jumps out of the frying pan and into the fire, moving from suburban New Jersey into rural Ireland. It's complicated! Because in her New Jersey neighbourhood, language has become 'beige' in the project of assimilation into one bland 'American' identity. All the first generation immigrants ditched their ethnic identities, dropped all the vowels and diacritics from their names to be closer to what was seen as the norm, which was WASP. This is not a superficial loss. Language cuts deep, of course it does. So when Oona moves herself to rural Ireland, at first she is overwhelmed with the verbal gymnastics and linguistic richness of the people in her village. They've not lost the art of conversation, and this impresses her. But over time she comes to see that their language, while being rich and mobile in so many ways, is also just as artful in its ability to misdirect and to say very little of substance. She sees how fluency does not equal sincerity. And it is authenticity--'realness' is the term I like-- that she is seeking.”

The book adheres to the Oulipo method, where a deliberate constraint is placed on the language by the author. Probably the most well known of these is George Perec's La Disparition (A Void). Alice cites Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban as a book that impacted her in her recent article in the Irish Times about her book.[1] In this article she also discusses how constraints can allow exploration and playfulness in language. This structural technique sits within a book that Alice describes as a hybrid, something which she hasn’t been asked too much about:

“Everybody mentions the fact that the book has no o, but not many have mentioned its hybridity as to genre. The publishing world and the market like to place things in genre categories and Oona is marketed as a novel, but it's not in the conventional sense. It's a hybrid. Oona is part fictional narrative, part poem, part image/text work, part novel that veers into essays.”

I asked Alice to talk a bit about the chapter titles in Oona. They are listed at the beginning with the heading ‘Key’, but are absent throughout the text, with the chapters identified through their numbers only.  When read together, the titles are in themselves a poem. I was reminded of the chapter titles in Ulysses, and how they mirrored the unseen structure of Homer’s Odyssey. The word ‘key’ rather than contents suggests an architectural plan or maybe a map.

“Yes, the 'key' is a collection of titles that I used as a scaffold when writing the book. At the very end of the writing process, I removed them to see if the thing would stand up without them, and it did. I submitted it to Lilliput without the key at all, and then sent it later in the course of a conversation about chapter titles. Both my publisher Antony Farrell and my editor Colm Farren liked the key and wanted to include it as is. In that scaffolding sense, it is comparable to Joyce's episode titles in Ulysses though I was not working with the broader elaborate schema that he used and unlike Joyce, I've included the titles in the published work. I like that you read it as a poem. I guess it's a hybrid thing, which is right for Oona, because, well, above.”

One chapter does not exclude the letter o, and appears almost like a hidden document revealing the real Oona, or what Oona could be. The chapter -o- differs in tone, language and structure and is visually very different on the page from the rest of the book. I asked Alice to talk a bit about -o- , where it is placed in the book, what it does, and the voice:

“You're the first reader to mention how this chapter looks different on the page. Thank you for mentioning that! For me, I'm not writing about visual things so much as engaging with language itself as a visual medium. You know taking all the o's out of English makes it a much more compressed, collapsed, dense thing to see on the page. There's less white space. And Oona's soul is in a similar state at the book's start. She's dense to herself and to the world. And I was pleased to find a way for the language to visually represent this state. The unnumbered chapter, simply called '-o-' is written from the point of view of an essential part of Oona that she cannot contact, that she is deaf and dumb to. So it has the o's in it and, voila, the language looks lighter, airier, fresher on the page. The life is in it. It's placed in the first third of the book. Maybe it's a voice that she is out of touch with, but she reaches toward. That chapter ends with this: 'All I know is I'm alive and detached from you. For now. For a bit. For as long as it takes.'”

From 2015 - 2016, Alice Lyons was the Radcliffe Fellow in Poetry and New Media at Harvard University, where as well as developing Oona, she also researched the Native American history of where she grew up in the USA. In the book there are references to place-names in the US and the loss / reappropriation of Native American place-names.  I asked Alice about how she envisaged this connecting to an Irish audience, with its loss of place-names through language and colonisation?

“Well Ireland knows everything about colonisation and its impact on culture and language. Friel's Translations is the artistic epitome. In Oona, the suburban streets of her New Jersey housing development are named after Indian nations a thousand miles to the West that have nothing to do with the history of the region. They're used in the marketing sense to give the development exoticism. It's a grotesque distortion of history and an appropriation of culture for the market.”

The book also has black and white drawings dispersed throughout it, which Lyons says: 

“The drawings of Native American arrowheads by Hazel Walker are reminders of a deep silence about the history of the United States, where Oona (and I) grew up. It was and is still largely is a bitter silence, more so in the East than in the West, where the reservations are, about the fact of the existence of first nations. That they are there, as George Oppen said. Yes, they are part of history but they are part of the contemporary world, which has tried to erase them or relegate them to history. The ravaging of the Navajo and Hopi nations by Covid-19 is yet another appalling stain on that country's conscience.”

The inner covers of Oona contain a reproduction of  San Bernadino Resuscitating a Drowned Child a 15th century early Italian Renaissance painting by Sano di Pietro. Alice speaks about its connection to the text, specifically chapter 95, which begins “This chapter deals with a painting but first there is a priest part”:

“Chapter 95 of Oona, 'In the Rainwater Barrel', centres on this painting, and the book’s publisher Lilliput Press were very keen to feature the image so that readers could both look at the painting while reading my riffs on it. The central image is of a child floating underwater in a barrel surrounded by adults who can't seem to pull him out. I thought it was fascinating that they just stood there looking at him, doing nothing, while the angel of San Bernadino looks down on the scene from the sky. It got me thinking about the idea of saving another and saving oneself. I can't really summarise more than that. You have to read the chapter.”

Alice goes on to discuss the the relevance of this work and the broader art movement to her work:

“I've been obsessed with Sienese quattrocento painting forever, especially works by Fra Angelico, Giotto, Sassetta, the Master of the Osservanza and this fellow, Sano di Pietro. I've made copies, done abstract studies of them and published quite a few poems about them. What are they about? What they have to say to a woman of the 21st century? I love them for their awesome visual power, the abstract rhythms of colour, shape, and flattened spaces. The awkwardness of expression before the development of 'proper' 3 point perspectival drawing and so forth. To me it's the expression of a human mind that isn't yet invaded, and eclipsed by, reason. 'Fruitful confusion over sterile clarity', something the writer Russell Hoban said, sticks with me. Early Sienese pictures show a confusion of time, present, past and future, depicted in the one scene, which is how time really works in the quantum sense. I want to see beyond the religious dogma narrative of these paintings, to what these depict about our basic birth/life/death dilemmas. That's what I try to do in the book. But I worry that the inclusion of that image might over-emphasise it as some sort of overarching symbol, which I don't intend. It's part of the inherent tension in publishing a book; how much to include to help the reader along versus what to leave out so as not to hit readers over the head with some idea of meaning. I like what Sebald says: 'Be experimental but include the reader in the experiment.' In that spirit, we included the reproduction.”

Alice Lyons is a writer whose work embraces the visual arts. Author of three books of poetry, she is recipient of the Patrick Kavanagh Award for Poetry and the inaugural Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary awarded by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Her poetry film, The Polish Language, co-directed with Orla Mc Hardy, was nominated for an Irish Film and Television Award (IFTA, 2010). Originally from the USA, where she was Radcliffe Fellow in Poetry and New Media at Harvard University 2015/16, she has lived in the west of Ireland for over twenty years. She lectures in writing and literature at the Yeats Academy of Arts, Design & Architecture, IT Sligo.

Oona was published in 2020 by The Lilliput Press