Aoibheann Sweeney’s debut novel, Among Other Things, I’ve Taken Up Smoking, is quite simply the story of a girl’s journey from one island to another. Miranda Donnal is a young woman caught between her father’s world as he doggedly translates Ovid in the mythic fog of Crab Island, Maine, where she has grown up motherless, well-educated and utterly lonely, and the draw of New York City, where she is sent by her father after forgoing her college admissions test to work at the Institute for Classical Studies that he founded there decades ago.
The story that unfolds in Miranda’s voice is marked by the geographic and generational ambivalence of an emigration narrative, despite the fact that both Sweeney and her heroine were born in New England. “I grew up with an unspellable Gaelic name in Boston,” says Sweeney, “and I got a lot of credit for just being Irish because we were supposed to be the underdogs. I always thought my grandfather came straight from the old sod to here, but actually my great-grandfather came over in the 1880s and married into a very lace curtain Irish family in Queens. His wife, my great-grandmother, died when their children were young, so he sent them home to Ireland to be raised. But by then he was a pretty wealthy merchant, and they were hardly working the land. He was able to send for them to come back and be educated as teenagers in the United States, and eventually they all attended university.
“Around the time the book was being published, I discovered that the last house my great-grandfather lived in was only a neighborhood away from my own apartment, and that it was quite well-to-do and so on. I think some of the confusion, or secrecy, around the Irish side of my family history crept into the book. The main character is really trying to find her roots and identity.”
Sweeney’s novel is a loose retelling of The Tempest, which Sweeney describes as a “springboard” for her own story of a girl, like Shakespeare’s Miranda, stuck on an island from age three with her distant father after her mother’s disappearance and death in the surrounding waters. “I think I felt a real sympathy with her,” explains Sweeney, “because in a way she is the classic girl who grows up with a really strong education, but no skills in the real world.” Miranda Donnal’s childhood is deeply impacted by the presence of Mr. Blackwell, an unmarried, part-Native American fisherman who steps in as a surrogate second father to softly fill in the places where her own father falls short, teaching her to cook and fish and drive their dory, helping her make molasses cookies on her first day of kindergarten. As the unspoken but also unhidden intimate relationship between Miranda’s father and Mr. Blackwell unravels, Miranda is left even more alone.
“I get lots of different reactions about the father having a relationship with what I see as the Caliban figure of Mr. Blackwell. But that’s Shakespeare’s idea, that Prospero is necessarily having a complicated relationship with Caliban, his slave, and Ariel, his attendant fairy.” For Sweeney, this retelling was also about breathing new life into Miranda, a character somewhat overlooked in Shakespeare’s version.
“The relationships that stand out in the play are those between Prospero, Ariel and Caliban. Those relationships are really what Shakespeare is more interested in—Miranda has very few lines. But if you’re a girl trying to find a way into Shakespeare, that’s what stands out for you.
“I think Miranda’s situation is also a classic one to write about as a first novel. What would happen if you could have somebody who has just hatched out of the egg, just fresh—what do they see in the world? I think a lot of first novels are about just trying to see what’s there to a new mind.”
What’s there is a revolutionary take on the coming-of-age novel that draws on mythology as well as a rich history of American literature to create what a Washington Post review refers to as “post-gay fiction,” although Sweeney rejects the term. “No movement is ever as simple as the debunking of it sounds,” she says. She takes her inspiration from early- to mid-20th century closeted lesbian and bisexual writers who “never wrote explicitly about their sexuality, but all wrote about the complications of love and desire. Their work was not only admired by the literary community but by the broader American public. I feel like I come out of that tradition and I’m honored to be able to be continuing one in which I can be out as a gay person. But I don’t think that means we’re past it in any way.”
Like her predecessors (“writers like Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, and Elizabeth Bishop”), Sweeney has succeeded in writing a novel that refuses to marginalize itself. “The gay rights movement seems to have not only brought lesbian writers out of the closet but out of engagement with a literary tradition they have every reason to take pride in. Understandably, lesbian authors today feel compelled to write about explicitly gay characters, but…contemporary lesbian literature tends toward the counter-cultural and has a narrow readership.” She says, “It was a relief to me that my book did not have to be pigeonholed.”
Once in New York, Sweeney’s central character begins to put together the pieces of her father’s life there, developing an understanding of who he was before her just as she is developing the person she will be, grown up, without him. She begins a sweet and nerve-wracking affair with Nate, a beautiful and well-bred graduate student fellow at the Institute, but finds herself seeking out momentary interactions with Ana, a Latina selling terrible coffee out of a street cart. Both relationships escalate to crescendo when Miranda joins Nate on a trip to his family home in Long Island for his sister’s wedding. Overwhelmed by their WASPishness and feeling out of place in a red dress Ana’s had made for her, Miranda decides to cut and run just before the wedding begins, leaving a sparse note for Nate and instantaneously throwing away her ticket to assimilation in a world where she’s never belonged. “I think, interestingly, that this happens to a lot of people who come to New York,” says Sweeney about her heroine’s ultimate decision in the novel. “So many people feel their life open up for them when they arrive here. That definitely happened to me in New York. I fell in love with the city and all the freedom that it represented. So many people my age—even then, in my early twenties—were locked into lives that they felt like they couldn’t get out of. And I felt so differently that I thought, the only thing I can do is write about this and let people know that there are other options, even if they are imaginary, just to remind people that they always have a choice, that there’s a million adventures for everybody to have.”
The novel ends on a gentle note, with a cathartic conversation between Miranda and her father, as if the understanding she’s wanted to reach with him has been there all along. “What I hope I got across was how much forgiveness there can be between generations,” says Sweeney. “It seems like kind of a dead end game to declare ‘gay’ or ‘not gay’ or the truth or not truth—because as is hopefully seen in Miranda’s life, it’s all very flexible anyway, and individual.”
She’s right. This is not a moralistic coming-of-age novel, nor is it particularly interested in whether its characters are ‘gay enough’ for gay fiction. “In a way, that forgiveness is really forgiveness of yourself for making choices that you can’t understand, and taking risks. I remember when I came back from New York I met a lot of people who hadn’t traveled at all, out of their own cities or out of their own country—out of their comfort zone. There was just kind of a lack of exploration, which to me was what adulthood was about—you didn’t have to be from any certain class to do things differently. I wanted to write something that reminded people they had more choices than just the one they were born with.”
As for a second novel? “I’d like to write some fiction that has siblings in it because I grew up with siblings, part of a relatively big family, and it was a little lonely writing about a girl who lived alone with her father.”
For Aoibheann Sweeney, starting her own family has brought her closer to her Irish heritage. “My partner is Irish, from Dublin, so I go back there every Christmas now, because it’s where the other part of my family is. My daughter is actually in Dublin right now with that side of the family. Ireland is a big part of my life now, in a very different way than it was growing up.”
Aoibheann Sweeney is the Executive Director of the Center for the Humanities at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. She lives in Brooklyn, and has roots in Donegal.