It is of course a writer's duty to take every opportunity to promote her writing. So when playwright Debbie Freeman rang me up to say that she was organising a reading, the culmination of a writing workshop she had been running on the theme of Immigration and Identity, and did I have anything I could read to contribute to the evening, well, I said yes right away: my new novel, The Forgetting (as yet unpublished) hinges to a great extent on this very theme.
The reading in the Jewish Museum would be the final event of the three-day Cheetham multi-faith festival. John would also contribute a poem, writer Sue Sterne would read two of hers, and the workshop writing would be read by two professional actors, Nicola Gardner and Mary-Ann Coburn. Everything should be great. Then it got to Sunday afternoon, the day of the reading, and I went to look over the piece we had chosen from my novel.
Problem. My protagonist was a man with a West-Meath Irish accent. Now give me any other accent - Scottish, Yorkshire, Welsh, Dublin at a push - and I can do it, no hassle. But West Meath? With that especially nasal twang, and those particular vowels? Which, actually, though I knew they were particular, I couldn't in fact hear in my head, even though I'd heard them fine, I thought, while writing - even though, for goodness' sake, I had relatives of my own from West Meath? How strange is that? Well, those relatives are dead now so I could hardly ring them up to have a listen. I could just picture those jokers smirking down from their clouds with their mouths tight shut as I tried to remember: did they occlude their 'i's or didn't they? And, you know, that's not the way to learn an accent: the best way is instinctually, not cerebrally, letting the patterns slip sideways onto the back of your brain...
Does it have to be West Meath? John asked me. Well, yes, somehow it did, somehow I had the feeling that any other accent would render the whole piece so fake to me I wouldn't read it convincingly. Just do a hint of an Irish accent, Mary-Ann suggested: just watch the 'r's. Yes, I'd have to do that, but surely it would sound really fake... My heart was sinking.
My turn. I stood. I asked that if anyone present was Irish they'd look kindly on my reading. And then I gave up worrying, stopped thinking, started reading and sank into the time and place of my story, and to my utter surprise, out through my mouth, from the deepest recesses of my brain - with only the odd moment of wavering - came a voice just like that of my dead West-Meath Aunty Anne.
It was a great evening. All the other work was fantastic - moving and funny. Nicola and Mary-Ann gave beautifully judged readings, and Debbie threaded everything together with a thoughtful and entertaining commentary.