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A Talk by Anna Burns – Booker Winner 2018

Small, dressed all in black, hesitant, evidently nervous in the spotlight, Anna nevertheless provided an intense, captivating hour, speaking in a hushed, rushed Northern Irish accent:

‘Sorry. I forgot your question, was that what you asked? I’m used to writing down my thoughts rather than speaking them…’

The question was about her writing process:

‘There is no process. Some writers block everything out before they start, whereas I know how my sentences end but not how they will start. I went to a City Lit course for 2 years. I started writing in my 30s – piecing together notebooks and identifying themes and characters…’

Anna started reflecting on the relationship between location, identity and belonging:

‘I came to London 30 years ago. People ask me where I’m from. I’m from Belfast, I’m Northern Irish. I’ve lived in London for over 30 years but people assume I’m Irish first.’

Although it’s captured the zeitgeist, Milkman was written in 2014. ‘It’s Belfast in the 1970s and it’s everywhere at the same time,’ Anna said sadly, continuing, ‘I did try to give the characters in Milkman names but nothing fitted. The sisters, for example, I’d see them a little like puppies – bounding around, full of energy… a pack of interchangeable, joyful puppies…. it’s the lack of names that makes it universal but it wasn’t intentional.’

Milkman may be universal in its themes of division and but it’s very specific to one place and time in history – Belfast in the 1970s. A place where everybody is ‘other’ – from the other side of the road, the other side of the city, the other side of the water, of the political divide feels all too relevant in today’s polarised world.

‘The use of language to hide the real meaning….Brexit, Northern Ireland, they’re calling it a backstop – what does that mean? In Belfast, we say ‘sorry for for your trouble, we refer to it as the Troubles when it was murder, it was war….’

Writing started to unlock long buried traumas for Anna, memories she’d buried deep inside as a coping mechanism.

‘I didn’t make a conscious effort to write about Ireland, the Troubles, the divided city…but I started remembering many, many things….’

One of the more shocking images in Milkman is the mountain of murdered dogs

‘That was definitely a memory from my childhood. It might not have been as big as I remember but I was only around 8 at the time – their throats cut – it’s a hair trigger society – one wrong word, one false move…’

The paranoid society of Northern Ireland in the 1970s is vividly evocated throughout the book where fitting in is everything and being part of the wrong tribe in the wrong place can have disastrous consequences. Like the central character in Milkman, Anna was a bookish schoolgirl who walked down the streets where she lived with her head in a novel by Thomas Hardy. The book also captures the #me-too movement as the central character is stalked by the titular Milkman. Anna pondered;

‘Why didn’t she say no? Why didn’t she speak to her mother about what was going on? If she had done, would her mother have listened? I don’t think so…who will believe me, I will get through it, I will cope, I will not make a fuss. People would stop and stare and I’d be thinking why is this worthy of being looked at? I’m the girl that walks and reads? Why are they watching me?  Why is this worth remarking upon? I was expected to get married at 16. I always just knew I was not going to be doing any of that. I got through school. I existed. I distanced myself from what was going on around me….’

The Booker win is clearly a life changing experience for Anna, one she is still coming to terms with. Anna gives heartfelt acknowledgement to those who kept her going;

‘I was homeless and on benefits.  I couldn’t feed myself. I went to food banks… I’d have liked to have a different ending for the characters but I do what they tell me – I can’t help the way it ended.’

Small, dressed all in black, hesitant, evidently nervous in the spotlight, Anna nevertheless provided an intense, captivating hour, speaking in a hushed, rushed Northern Irish accent:

‘Sorry. I forgot your question, was that what you asked? I’m used to writing down my thoughts rather than speaking them…’

The question was about her writing process:

‘There is no process. Some writers block everything out before they start, whereas I know how my sentences end but not how they will start. I went to a City Lit course for 2 years. I started writing in my 30s – piecing together notebooks and identifying themes and characters…’

Anna started reflecting on the relationship between location, identity and belonging:

‘I came to London 30 years ago. People ask me where I’m from. I’m from Belfast, I’m Northern Irish. I’ve lived in London for over 30 years but people assume I’m Irish first.’

Although it’s captured the zeitgeist, Milkman was written in 2014. ‘It’s Belfast in the 1970s and it’s everywhere at the same time,’ Anna said sadly, continuing, ‘I did try to give the characters in Milkman names but nothing fitted. The sisters, for example, I’d see them a little like puppies – bounding around, full of energy… a pack of interchangeable, joyful puppies…. it’s the lack of names that makes it universal but it wasn’t intentional.’

Milkman may be universal in its themes of division and but it’s very specific to one place and time in history – Belfast in the 1970s. A place where everybody is ‘other’ – from the other side of the road, the other side of the city, the other side of the water, of the political divide feels all too relevant in today’s polarised world.

‘The use of language to hide the real meaning….Brexit, Northern Ireland, they’re calling it a backstop – what does that mean? In Belfast, we say ‘sorry for for your trouble, we refer to it as the Troubles when it was murder, it was war….’

Writing started to unlock long buried traumas for Anna, memories she’d buried deep inside as a coping mechanism.

‘I didn’t make a conscious effort to write about Ireland, the Troubles, the divided city…but I started remembering many, many things….’

One of the more shocking images in Milkman is the mountain of murdered dogs

‘That was definitely a memory from my childhood. It might not have been as big as I remember but I was only around 8 at the time – their throats cut – it’s a hair trigger society – one wrong word, one false move…’

The paranoid society of Northern Ireland in the 1970s is vividly evocated throughout the book where fitting in is everything and being part of the wrong tribe in the wrong place can have disastrous consequences. Like the central character in Milkman, Anna was a bookish schoolgirl who walked down the streets where she lived with her head in a novel by Thomas Hardy. The book also captures the #me-too movement as the central character is stalked by the titular Milkman. Anna pondered;

‘Why didn’t she say no? Why didn’t she speak to her mother about what was going on? If she had done, would her mother have listened? I don’t think so…who will believe me, I will get through it, I will cope, I will not make a fuss. People would stop and stare and I’d be thinking why is this worthy of being looked at? I’m the girl that walks and reads? Why are they watching me?  Why is this worth remarking upon? I was expected to get married at 16. I always just knew I was not going to be doing any of that. I got through school. I existed. I distanced myself from what was going on around me….’

The Booker win is clearly a life changing experience for Anna, one she is still coming to terms with. Anna gives heartfelt acknowledgement to those who kept her going;

‘I was homeless and on benefits.  I couldn’t feed myself. I went to food banks… I’d have liked to have a different ending for the characters but I do what they tell me – I can’t help the way it ended.’