Colm Toibin, author of “Brooklyn,” which Ithaca College used for the 2013–14 First-Year Reading Initiative, visited the college Monday for a Q-and-A discussion with students as part of the Ithaca Seminar Program. Toibin, an Irish novelist, journalist and critic, also hosted a reading and book signing for the entire student body.
Contributing writer Faith Meckley sat down with Toibin to discuss “Brooklyn,” the challenges of immigration and finding acceptance in a new place.
Faith Meckley: What was your reaction when Ithaca College informed you that it was using “Brooklyn” for the First-Year Reading Initiative?
Colm Toibin: I was writing what I thought was a very smart Irish story, but of course, it has bigger implications … I didn’t think this would happen to the book, so I was really delighted.
FM: What were you hoping college students would take away from this?
CT: Everyone here, other than people who are of Native American origin, … came to America alone and came frightened and came uncertain. So the image of the lone figure with the suitcase belongs to [all of us]. I certainly have the memory of going to Dublin University from my small town, Enniscorthy, and those first weeks wondering what hit me. I was never going to be able to live at home again or go to high school — that was all finished — and that I would only be a visitor in my own house in the future, like on holidays. It took me a while to deal with. And then I did deal with it, and the strange thing is how you then get over it. Time passes, and you get used to it.
FM: What advice do you have for students who are struggling to make that transition into college?
CT: What’s important to remember is that if you feel the transition is difficult, it passes. The strange thing we have is we, as humans, we get used to things. If you have moments, you’ll have fewer moments next week, and fewer moments the week after … You get used to it.
FM: In “Brooklyn,” one of the themes is self-acceptance and acceptance among others. As an openly gay man, what advice about acceptance do you have for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students?
CT: I think the big one, the big slogan which I really like [is], ‘it gets better.’ All of us have been through it, of the business of feeling, ‘Am I the only person alive? Am I the only person in this town, on this campus?’ Things have changed so much and so quickly … It isn’t just acceptance anymore. You’re in for a pretty good time, in the way that anyone young is. There’s no downside to it now. I think one of the great things about political correctness — which really comes from America — is that you really cannot call people names; there are words you cannot use. That is a good thing! It’s about time people had respect.
FM: You have said previously that your ‘writing comes out of silence.’ What do you mean by that?
CT: I mean that at home when I was growing up, there often was something important, and often would find that no one would talk about it, and as a child you’d learn that something was going on. People wouldn’t discuss openly their feelings or their fears or even an event which mattered. I learned to read that.
FM: Do you fill in the gaps with writing?
CT: Yes, [putting] in some ordinary dialogue of someone just saying, you know, my mother and my sister talking about clothes … and afterwards you realize that actually, something completely [different was] going on in their minds … I think there’s this lovely sense that in the most ordinary things being said underneath them there’s often something else being felt.
FM: How is “Brooklyn” representative of your own life?
CT: I could not have written it had I not spent the 14 weeks before I had the idea for it in Austin, Texas, on my own. I was teaching, and there was no downside to it, except that I had never been so far away from home before, so far from the sea before. I would go home and think — home meaning into a rented space — ‘How many more weeks?’ There was nothing wrong with Austin, except that I just wanted to go home. When I went home, one of the first things that happened was I got this, and I couldn’t have gotten it otherwise.
Correction: Oct. 10 at 10:35 a.m.
The original story said that Toibin came to speak to students in the Ithaca College Honors Program, but he came as a visitor for the Ithaca Seminar Program, including the Honors Program.