Event Review: Voices

By Conor Fallon, one of the #DBF2020 Young Writer Delegates

Taking place in the National Library of Ireland, Dublin Book Festival’s Voices: An Open Door Book of Stories event opens with a stark fact from host, Rick O’Shea: 1 in 6 people in Ireland have a literacy difficulty. According to the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA), a person at this level may be unable to understand basic written information. Rick notes that not only does this limit one’s lived experience in a practical sense, but it deprives them of the joy of reading books.

Voices: An Open Door Book of Stories, edited by Patricia Scanlan, is an anthology of short stories by 27 well-known Irish writers, written in plain English. This event features Helen Ryan, Policy Officer at NALA, as well as contributors to the collection. The event proves to be a moving reminder of the importance of storytelling in our society, and also of the work that organisations like NALA do to help people with literacy difficulties navigate their day-to-day lives.

This barrier to reading for pleasure, says Helen Ryan, served as inspiration for Patricia Scanlan to begin the Open Door Series of novellas. While working as a librarian, people would ask: ‘do you have any books for me to read?’ –  me being emerging readers. She discovered that there was no reading material for people who found reading fiction an intimidating prospect. NALA asked Patricia to write a short story which could be used for people with literacy problems utilising NALA’s services. This was the beginning of what became the Open Door Series.

When Helen reads an excerpt from Patricia’s story I have a Voice, which features in the collection, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes the story friendly to emerging readers. I know, having read about the project, that the story has been written to make the plot discernible, the language clear and simple. However, when listening to the story, the writing is vivacious, full of smooth, pleasant rhythms and cadences. It is a credit to the Patricia’s writing that she has been able to produce a story which is at once accessible and so well-formed.

As the discussion continues, we hear about the problems that people with literacy difficulties have faced during the COVID-19 Pandemic. NALA has worked with people who have encountered a range of issues: people who have difficulties filling in government documents; people who are struggling to help their children learn from home; people who find navigating the internet difficult; and people who have purchased smartphones to keep in touch with friends and family but don’t know how to use them. As NALA celebrates its 40th year, this is a timely reminder of the essential services that they provide to so many people.

Carlo Gébler is next to join. He reads an extract from Cell 13, a short story inspired by his time spent working in a prison. He notes that a large number of people in prison cannot read or write at all, and a large number of the rest are at least functionally illiterate. He goes on to emphasize the importance of narrative in prison: that one must be able to tell a story in order survive.

The event ends with two more readings. First, Dermot Bolger reads from his story That Special Moment, written in the style of a memoir. He reads with great warmth, and we feel as if we are fondly reliving the tale with him.

The final contribution is from Emily Hourican, who reads from her story Spirit Animals, which involves a sister living in the protagonist’s house rent-free and a child who might need an ‘assessment’. It is a moving story on the strange and often contradictory nature of familial love.

An unexpected upside of the online format of this year’s festival is that the people who feature in the event are free to come along and interact with those watching in the live chat, as Helen and Patricia kindly did.

This event was my highlight of Dublin Book Festival 2020, and I have bought my copy of Voices: An Open Door Book of Stories as a Christmas present for my mother, hoping to get her back into the swing of reading.

Voices: An Open Door Book of Stories can be purchased here.

The event can be replayed here.