With the holidays quickly approaching, your family traditions may be on your mind. Today, Issue 051 author Kathryn Keane talks with us about traditions and how she used them as fuel for her story “The Last Wake.”
LSQ: Old traditions and family are at the heart of this story. That these traditions die with the wake of the mother is poignant. Why did you choose to connect the two things in this way?
Kathryn: Traditions matter because of the people who practice them. Having traditions, customs, rituals matters. Without them, we become unmoored from ourselves and each other. At the same time, though, if traditions hurt and restrict us, or if traditions have no connection to our values, our loved ones or communities we care about, we shouldn’t be bound by them.
I had been thinking about a family bereavement at the time of writing this story. I’d observed and participated in a lot of funeral traditions after this family member’s death, and seen firsthand how the loss of someone with a long enough memory is essentially the loss of a culture. I connected the death of old traditions and the death of a person because they were connected in my personal life. I also connected them because traditions and people are one and the same. We are what we do repeatedly.
LSQ: Even though Paul had long since moved away, the ghosts appeared only to him. Though he felt guilty about not visiting and was out of place, why was he the better choice over Margaret?
Kathryn: I wrote about the ghosts interacting with Paul because his relationship to home and family is more complex and interesting, and it’s more emblematic of what I wanted to write about. Margaret has a straightforward relationship with her hometown, her social class, and rural Irish culture because she’s never wanted to leave it. Although she’s more narrow-minded, she’s able to be more nuanced and mature about home because she’s developed an adult relationship with it. Paul still has an adolescent, black-and-white viewpoint of home as somewhere purely to escape from. Being confronted with the ghosts and the value of their stories is him being confronted with the limitations of that viewpoint.
Paul has also achieved social mobility, and to do that he’s had to leave – and he’s had to Westernize. The writer Edward Said, in his book Culture and Imperialism, discusses how colonized cultures like Ireland react to their colonization. He describes three distinct stages: stage one, where cultures wholly identify with their colonizer, stage two, where cultures aggressively promote an independent, nationalist movement, and stage three, where cultures settle on an understanding of themselves as a hybrid between what came before the colonizer and what the colonizer imposed.
It struck me, reading these ideas, that they’re very like how an individual human being grows up. First you have total identification with the parent, then an aggressive denial and separation, then an understanding of the self as both what was given to you and what you’ve made of yourself. Paul starts the story in that adolescent mindset personally. But it’s also very present in terms of how he conceives of Ireland vs the wider world. He wants to be anything, anyone other than the person who came from the material and cultural limitations colonization forced on him and the world around him.
At the time of writing this story, I was also thinking through how best to write about Irish culture in a speculative context. I love fantasy, science fiction and horror because of their ability to depict ambiguity, strangeness and possibility. For a long time, that literary project seemed to me to be the complete opposite of the Irish literary tradition, which focuses heavily on the restrictiveness and narrowness of traditional Irish culture. With this story, I wanted to find a way to integrate both these things – to create Said’s hybridity in my own style.
In this story, Paul learns how to integrate his origins into his conception of himself, both individually, and culturally. He’s the better choice for the ghosts because he’s the one who’d be most changed by them, and because he’s more representative of postcolonial hybridity.
LSQ: The ghosts seemed like the nicest people at the wake and they told the best stories! Did you base these women on anyone you know?
Kathryn: Every character I write has their basis in real people. But it’s never a one-to-one relationship – I find similarities between people that are relevant to the story I want to tell, and then blend multiple people together. The ghosts are people in my family. They’re also family friends, and acquaintances, and strangers I’ve met out in the world.
LSQ: Everything was going to be different, and yet still Paul connects the internet cable. Is there a parallel here to modernity and changing country life?
Kathryn: Writers can’t make definitive statements about what happens ‘after the end’ of a text, or beyond a text. That’s up to a reader’s interpretation. So I don’t want to definitively say yes, everything was going to be different, or no either. But if you’re asking about my intention while writing, Paul saying this, and it being refuted by the ghosts, was actually intended as a final denial of the reality of his mother’s death. Keeping the ghosts around, and keeping the house the same as it always was, was my way of representing his wish to put off the grieving, the acceptance and the corresponding maturation he needed to go through.
The internet cable entering the rural household, though, is absolutely intended as a commentary on modernity. Ireland in 2022 is the wealthy European headquarters of many of the world’s largest technology companies. Ireland as recently as 1982 was a place of widespread poverty, with governmentally sanctioned censorship, an ethnically monolithic population and religiously motivated institutional murder. Our modernization process happened fast, and Ireland and its people are still haunted by its past. The cable to the outside world is well and truly connected now, but we’ve still got our ghosts to contend with.