Author Advocates Power of Literature in Social Movements

Literature has the power to influence large social movements, according to author Colm Tóibín, in the annual George P. Lecay Lecture in Copley Formal Lounge on Nov. 9.

The lecture, hosted by the Georgetown University Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice and the English department, aims to bring literature, social justice and culture together as one, according to Georgetown University English Professor Cóilín Parsons, who introduced Tóibín. Tóibín is the author of the 2009 novel “Brooklyn,” which was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated feature film in 2016.

“All of these lectures have reminded us, in this room and in others, just how important the study of literature and culture is, and we’ll continue to be in the formation and the sustenance of democratic societies, and of the increasingly vital place of the humanities in this world that we live in,” Parsons said. “That’s the work that the George Lecay Lecture series has done for us.”

Parsons said Tóibín is the ideal writer for the lecture, as his previous work draws on the experience of minority groups as well as the profound impact of culture on individuals and societies.

“Tóibín has proved himself a committed and a sympathetic painter of the inner lives of the marginalized, female and gay characters in particular,” Parsons said. “He is undoubtedly of the the finest thinkers about, through, and in literature today.”

Tóibín focused on Irish authors James Joyce and William Butler in his lecture. Tóibín discussed their works in light of the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, one of the most violent insurrections in the Irish Republic’s struggle for independence from England.

Tóibín said Ireland’s search for a national identity during the rebellion came to influence Ireland’s culture and the literature of the period.

“Part of the reason why the rebellion continues to haunt us, and perhaps even mystify us, is the fact that some of the greatest writers of the age were connected to the leaders of the rebellion,” Tóibín said. “These writers allowed the rebellion itself into their work both directly and obliquely, but nonetheless powerfully.”

According to Tóibín, the writers of the time tried to affect the changing nation by using their literature to encourage social and political change across the country.

“In this time in Ireland, poems, novels and plays sought to capture, to encapsulate and indeed influence and formulate what the future might be, not merely the future of the imagination or of the mind or the spirit, but life itself, daily life, politics, public memory, the life of the nation, indeed the life of the state,” Tóibín said.

Katherine Sargent (COL ’20), who attended the event, said Tóibín’s discussion of family makes his work particularly interesting.

“I’m excited to see him today because I’ve read a bunch of his works, and I’m a really big fan of him. I’m Irish-American; I think he is really good at describing the experience, of what I can imagine, families and how they change as they emigrate.”

Megan Pohl (COL ’17), who attended the event, said Tóibín’s lecture gave her new insights into Irish literature and history.

“I think it’s really interesting to see how he engages with this topic,” Pohl said. “I’m also not as familiar with Irish literature as I would like to be, so I think this is eye-opening and definitely fun.”

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