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Acclaimed author Colm Tóibín visits Birkbeck

Students and alumni heard him speak about his Booker Prize-shortlisted novel The Testament of Mary

On Monday 17 October, 500 students and alumni heard acclaimed author Colm Tóibín speaking about his Booker Prize-shortlisted novel The Testament of Mary at the Man Booker at Birkbeck event. 

Introducing Tóibín, Professor Hilary Fraser, Dean of the School of Arts, reflected: "The Man Booker Foundation and Birkbeck have much in common: both aim to bring the best cultural and intellectual achievements to the widest possible audience."

During his conversation with Professor of Creative Writing Russell Celyn-Jones, Tóibín shared with his audience how a class he gave on power and voice in Antigone stayed with him for over a decade, until he came back to the idea in The Testament of Mary, where he gave voice and power to a woman who the scriptures had silenced. He explained how at the time he was writing the novel other authors were experimenting widely with the "unreliable narrator", yet he knew that he had to create the most reliable author possible, because if the reader doubted Mary's account for one second then he would have lost them. He also talked about the varying reactions to the book around the world, from the Irish's "liberal attitude to books" to the personal abuse that he received from some North American readers.

The audience were able to put questions to Tóibín on his work and these covered the transition of the work from play to novel; how to most powerfully portray violence in a novel; translations of his work; and self-censorship by authors.

Following the event, Tóibín attended a reception at the Keynes Library, attended by donors, volunteers and students. Professor Fraser welcomed guests, thanking donors for their support which, among other achievements, has funded the refurbishment of the Keynes Library, the opening of the Peltz Gallery - an exhibition space currently hosting the Cinephilia exhibition - and scholarships for students on Birkbeck's MA creative writing.

Alexandra Davis, an alumna of Birkbeck's MA History of Art who attended the reception, said: “What a privilege to hear such a distinguished author speak so eloquently about his writing, his inspiration and The Testament of Mary. I will be haunted by his powerful and memorable reading of an extract from his book depicting the reincarnated Lazarus. As a Birkbeck School of Arts alumna, the evening made me greatly miss my former literary and arts studies!”

Vanessa Onmuewezi, a creative writing student and editor of The Mechanics' Institute Review - Birkbeck's annual anthology of short stories by creative writing students and alumni, said "The lecture is a brilliant opportunity for all students, and especially aspiring writers, to share an audience with an established author. To gain insight into their career and dedication, and to see them still having fun with it”.

This was the sixth Man Booker at Birkbeck event, with previous events having hosted Sarah Walters, Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alan Hollinghurst and Ali Smith.

A blog report on the event will be available on our events blog shortly.