A Ghost in the Throat, Doireann Ní Ghríofa
This book was recommended reading by Chris Price in our initial meeting. It is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It was charming and brave. I loved the historical research element, as it was something that I felt aligned to in terms of my own kaupapa, which will also involve a lot of research of archival and older published material. The way that she was focusing/obsessing on one particular historical figure also had some resonance for me and my project, which is focused on my great-grandfather. I loved the killer quote on the dust jacket: ‘When we first met I was a child, and she had been dead for centuries’.
The book weaves her own domestic and personal life in with the story of the 18th-century Irish poet Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill and centres around the writing of her famous poet lament ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’, the keen for Art Ó Laoghaire. The line ‘this is a female text’ is a concept repeated throughout the book, and the author relates it to her own experiences, as well as the challenges and work of Eibhlín Dubh. Something I’ve been thinking about in terms of my own project – that often I like to promote mana wahine in my creative work, and by writing a book focused on my pōua am I privileging a male story? I think there are ways to provide balance though, as there are stories he talks about that are heavily ‘mana wahine’ focused. I can potentially also challenge or talk about my discomfort in some of our versions of stories of atua, which masculinise their identities, when they are usually seen as female. Sometimes when I face this conundrum, I speak of them as gender neutral.
I watched an informative and considered interview with the author online where she discussed the writing of this book, which gave insights into her personality. It was written at a time when she had young children, and Ní Ghriofa talks beautifully about breastfeeding, the manual and physical labour of it, but also the power of breastmilk. When I was a young mother I also wrote about this topic, and wrote a waiata called ‘Waiū’ about how incredible breastmilk is. I was so empowered by what I was learning about the female body and how our tinana respond to our babies’ needs, adjusting the make-up of the milk according to the signals the pēpi sends. It’s all a big emotional/chemical/physical/ physiological mashup of amazingness. Ní Ghriofa discusses her altruistic drive to donate breastmilk to a human milk bank for premature babies, describing how she would pump extra milk, label and store it, then deliver it to the nearest depot. I’m stunned that she had the energy to do all of that on top of her physical exhaustion, and that she was so brilliantly documenting the book’s research journey and writing at that time in her life. Mind you, I was also working on my first solo album at a time when I was having babies, and ironically due to pushing myself by recording in the evenings and then parenting and doing other mahi during the day, my body decided to reduce my milk production, so I ended up having to wean my son earlier than I would have. The irony of recording an album about motherhood, while its creation was probably having a negative effect on my own baby. Not that I could see it at the time!
I haven’t yet read her full translation of the poem as I’m waiting to have time to sit with it and read it all in one go. I feel like that is the only way to do the reading justice. Even though Ní Ghriofa talks about grabbing tiny pockets of time to translate a line or one stanza at a time, and so it was translated in a non-purist manner, in the way of women – particularly new mothers – who must grab small moments to squeeze in what they must do.
She was skilful at tackling the highly personal without treading on the privacy of others; particularly impressive was the way she talked about her sex drive returning after she stops breastfeeding one of her babies:
Once the burden of my breasts diminishes, my inner clockwork clicks back to its usual configuration, bringing with it a hormonal swerve I hadn’t expected. Desire returns, slamming open the door. Desire flings me to my knees, makes me tremble and beg, makes me crawl and gasp in the dark …
I love that line ‘desire returns, slamming open the door’. There’s a link here to the Miro Bilbrough book In the Time of the Manaroans where she is diagnosed with a condition that is kind of opposite to the above. She describes it as an inability to have sex, or resulting pain if she does continue with it, as if her body is closing the door on intercourse, due to the traumatic experiences she’d suffered.
Update: I finally got around to reading Ní Ghriofa’s translation of the poem at the end of the book. It felt like a lovely present or reward for engaging in their story by reading the book. One aspect I particularly loved was how the poem was written from multiple perspectives, that of Eibhlín’s as well as her sister-in-law’s. It made it even more powerful that her husband’s murder had such an impact on the women in his life. I loved the cursing in the poem: ‘Morris, you runt; on you, I wish anguish! – May bad blood spurt from your heart and your liver!’. This reminded me of a type of mōteatea, which were often composed by women and were basically curses, called kaioraora. I don’t know all that much about them, but I’m curious to know more. I was at a wānanga once where we had to compose a verse of a kaioraora, and it was actually a lot of fun finding kupu for it, as gruesome as we could muster.
One sad aspect about A Ghost in the Throat is how difficult it is to find biographical detail about women’s lives from the past. Ní Ghriofa had to find clues about Ní Chonaill’s life through the lives of others – mainly men. Although this poem is famous throughout Ireland and beyond, there is very little record of its writer. It’s something I am conscious of with my own project, that I want to include the lives and existence of my tīpuna wahine within the biography of my pōua. I’m not exactly sure yet how I will do that, but it is a small challenge I have laid for myself.
I was so inspired by reading this book that I have called my own project Ancestor in my throat, which seems to capture what I have been working on this year, by exploring my own stories alongside those of my tīpuna, and in a way allow them to ventriloquise through me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ariana Tikao (Kāi Tahu) is an artist of the sound and word variety, whose first book, Mokorua, was published by AUP in November 2022. She was awarded as a New Zealand Arts Foundation Laureate in 2020 and is a recipient of the Ursula Bethell/Creative New Zealand Residency at the University of Canterbury for 2023.