On “A Ghost in the Throat” by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

Patrick Mimran, Ghosts (France: Haute-Rive Publishing, 2013)

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
Biblioasis, 2021

Doireann Ní Ghríofa leaves no mystery as to what A Ghost in the Throat is; the first sentence a definition as well as a proposition: “This is a female text.” The end of this first introductory sentence similarly concludes on a note of enticement, a trail left for the reader to follow; “Join in,” Ghríofa beckons. The term “female text” never leaves A Ghost in the Throat. Functioning as a secondary ghost that haunts the novel, it is accompanied by the ongoing question of just what a female text is. There is a crude, simplistic answer to this question, provided by Ghríofa and the unfolding personal narrative: the female body and all that it produces — whether physically, like milk (“a pale text in pale sheets”), or emotionally and intellectually — is a text. Similarly, this includes female kinship on a biological level, as the speaker refers to her daughter as “a squirming, living female text,” as well as the production of female-oriented histories that are passed on in whichever form will best ensure their survival. But a female text is also an affect, an intangible but palpable sensation synonymous with urgency and yearning for knowledge.

There is an equally simplistic way of summarizing A Ghost in the Throat, for those looking for a more conventional way of deciding whether to pick a book up. Told from the first-person perspective of the speaker, who may or may not be Ghríofa’s literary persona, the novel tells of the speaker’s infatuation with the eighteenth-century Irish noblewoman and poet Eibhlín Dubh, who composed “The Keen for Art Ó Laoghaire” after her husband is murdered. Embarking on a journey of literary detective work to uncover missing details about Dubh’s life, the speaker undergoes her own transformative journey of personal reckoning, contemplating the intimacy of her body as it relates to her loved ones and to the surrounding world, which constantly places expectations on what it means to be female. While this description encapsulates Ghríofa’s stunning book in the most rudimentary way, it also exemplifies how such a summarizing approach is simultaneously a refusal to engage with the various forms of labour undertaken in the text, by the speaker, by Eibhlín Dubh, by Ghríofa.

A Ghost in the Throat is a new addition to the growing field of autotheory. Autotheory challenges the dominant emphasis on theoretical frameworks and the idea that one should draw primarily from influential thinkers within their discipline by demonstrating that personal, lived experience is an equally viable source of knowledge. The uncertainty that saturates the speaker’s declaration that “My evidence is only the evidence of my body” is placed front and centre in autotheory, the words repeated until they are stripped of the upturned question at the end and reformulated as an assertion. Ghríofa’s book similarly works towards this goal, though perhaps not as overtly or with the same activist-like fervor. Ghríofa situates the speaker’s meeting with Eibhlín Dubh in an unconventional, though arguably more honest and humorous, manner compared to the lengthy life stories often told in response to the question of how one came upon x or chose to study y. “When we first met, I was a child, and she had been dead for centuries,” the speaker tells us, the separation across time mitigated by the intimacy it foreshadows, knowing that, years later, the speaker would “donate [her] days to finding [Dubh’s],” and “Whenever there wasn’t space for both of us […] I chose her needs over mine, skipping meals and showers and sleep.” In theorizing an alternative role of the translator as someone who works within language but also across literary forms, A Ghost in the Throat gives credibility to authorial liberties and literary flourishes. When she “prop[s] an armful of books in [Con O’Leary’s] elbow and a light drizzle over his shoulders,” Ghríofa is not merely filling in the hazy historical picture by inventing details; she is engaging in a form of creative excavation that responds to the argument of that’s not how things were with but they easily may have been — why not imagine they were?

Ghríofa’s novelis a testament to the power of and love for literature as shown outside of the restrictive boundaries of the academy. “I know how unqualified I am to attempt my own translation,” the speaker admits to herself and to the reader, “I hold no doctorate, no professorship, no permission-slip at all – I am merely a woman who loves this poem.” A Ghost in the Throat captures the kind of obsession with a literary text and a historical figure that bibliophile romantics continue to site as the reason for making books their lifelong companions. At the same time, Ghríofa emphasizes the added struggle and love that goes into this form of obsession if one is a woman, whether seeking to tell her own story or to pass on inherited knowledge. The result is another kind of birth that similarly involves nurturing care and the eventual release into the world with the hope that the resulting truth continues being reincarnated through the usually unpaid but no less passionate emotional labour of women.

Review by Margaryta Golovchenko.

Margaryta Golovchenko (she/her) is a settler-immigrant, poet, and critic from Tkaronto/Toronto, Canada. The author of two poetry chapbooks, her individual poems can be found in Menacing Hedge, Lon Con Magazine, Acta Victoriana,Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and others. She has written literary and exhibition reviews for publications including Canadian Art, Peripheral Review, Cornelia, Arc Poetry Magazine, The Puritan. She is an incoming student to the art history PhD program at the University of Oregon. Margaryta can be found on Twitter @Margaryta505.

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