Born in County Wexford, Ireland in 1955, author Colm Tóibín studied at University College Dublin and published his first novel in 1990. Since then, he has written 10 novels, of which three were nominated for the Booker prize, two collections of stories and numerous works of nonfiction. His 2009 novel, Brooklyn, was adapted for the screen in 2015 and his 2021 novel, The Magician, won the Rathbones Folio award. Last year he won the David Cohen prize for literature. Tóibín’s latest book of essays, A Guest at the Feast, is published by Viking.
God’s Children Are Little Broken Things by Arinze Ifeakandu
It’s a collection of stories about gay life in Lagos by a young Nigerian writer. He has made this life not only interesting, but filled with strange dramas and funny desires and a society in a process of change. And individuals who are, in a way, caught and freed at the same time by their sexuality. The characters are given great complexity; the drama lies within the self as much as it does in the relationship between the self and society. It’s a tremendous book and I don’t think it got enough attention.
I teach in New York for what they call the spring semester, even though it mostly is deep winter. The best thing about New York are the concerts organised by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at the Alice Tully Hall, the ones usually on Sundays at five. No matter how old I get, there are always many people older than me there. And that is comforting. As is the acoustic and the range of quartets and trios played. And the idea that this is the hidden America, maybe even the real America, the one no one knows about.
A Whistle in the Dark, Abbey theatre, Dublin
This is a Tom Murphy play about an Irish family in Coventry and the father and youngest son who arrive from the west of Ireland. The drama is between the son who has settled there and has an English wife, the other brothers, who want to fight, and the father, who’s worse than all of them. He’s a hypocrite and a liar, yet he has all the veneer of respectability about him. I first saw it in the 80s, when actor Séan McGinley was playing the younger characters and he’s now playing the father – it was an extraordinary performance.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
One of the first poems that I ever cut out from a magazine – could it have been 1970 when I was 15? – was Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s Lucina Schynning in Silence of the Nicht, which is the very first poem in her Collected Poems, which came out last year. The book contains more than half a century of work. (Ní Chuilleanáin was 80 this year.) Her poems hold their mystery; the energy is released by the phrasing, the reticence, the exquisite tonality, the gravity. Last week, I was reading over and over one single poem from her volume The Sun-fish (2009). The poem is called Where the Pale Flower Flashes and Disappears.
This is a chilling three-part, six-hour series that showed on PBS in the United States. Directed by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein, it manages to be clear about complex historical truths without attempting to simplify. Using skilfully edited footage, it tells a number of horrifying personal stories about families who sought to escape from the Nazis. But it also pays close attention to antisemitism in the United States and how America, led by rightwing ideologues, closed its doors to Jewish refugees. And how much inspiration the Nazis got from segregation in the American south.
I went in September and it was very exciting because there are new sites around Cusco you can visit. Then there was the wonderful adventure of getting the train down the river valley and ending at Machu Picchu. It was overwhelmingly beautiful: the fact they built this terraced city on this peak and the way the weather would change all the time. I found it spiritual – the mountain becomes a sacred place. I’m too old now so I didn’t walk up, but I did walk down, so that is my big boast. Walking down was hard enough, I have to say.