‘From every day routine to brittle homecomings and back, glimpses of life in the field.’
Today I review a collection of short stories written by Irish Writer Helen Mulkerns.
Ferenji and Other Stories is published by Doire Press and has just been shortlisted for the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards in the category of Short Story of the Year.
Ferenji is a fictional work, but is inspired by Helen Mulkerns personal experiences when she traveled as part of a UN Peacekeeping group to war-torn parts of the world.
Please read on for my thoughts…
A young soldier finds a child in a minefield…
A doomed love affair crashes in a ghost resort…
A homecoming volunteer is haunted by what he witnessed…
In a drought-struck outpost, an aid worker fights bureaucracy…
and in a shade of a tree in a war-wounded town, women pray each dusk for peace
Ferenji ~ a word from old Arabic or Persian derived from the historical term ‘Franks’ or ‘foreigners’
Contemporary variations of it are found in native tongues across the globe from Ethiopia to Thailand, and it’s meaning runs from affectionate to pejorative.
Helen Mulkerns spent many years working with the UN Peacekeeping Operations in Guatemala, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. This is what makes her collection of short stories so very unique.
Personal experiences always add to the authenticity of a book. Throughout Ferenji, Helen Mulkerns brings the reader with her on a journey to a land that is so unfamiliar to most of us. My exposure to these war-torn lands is what I have seen and heard in the news. Helen Mulkerns adds another layer. Through the use of her writing and imagery, we the reader are introduced to a more intimate and hidden world.
Helen Mulkerns was a photographer with the UN. The horrors that she would have captured on film and the memories she would hold closely in her heart and mind are now on paper, revealed though fictional accounts but enhanced through real experience.
There are thirteen stories in total in this collection. Each is a stand alone, yet Helen Mulkerns uses a great technique, where she ties some of the characters across more than one story. We see the landscape through the eyes of peacekeepers, army personnel and photographers, who are witness to these very harsh environments on a daily basis.
‘The view through the windscreen was familiar by now, but the utter starkness of the desert still managed to impress and terrify the Lieutenant all at once, every time she went out on patrol….On both sides of her, she could see a random scattering of spent shells, ammo boxes and nose-dived rockets with the occasional live mortar peeping from the sand’
‘A Child Called Peace’, the first story of the collection, has such strength in it’s descriptions, where the innocence of children is revealed, an innocence that soon turns to horror. We see it all through the eyes of an Irish Lieutenant struggling to maintain her composure as the full reality comes crashing in on her. There is great courage among the natives, with an almost acceptance of their fate, which for me was the true horror of the tale.
‘Blue Tarpaulin’, is a very short essay in the collection, yet the simplicity of it really struck a chord with me. On completion of this book my 11-year old daughter asked me if any of the stories were suitable for her. Without hesitation I chose this one for her. I have selected the opening lines to share here….narrated by a ‘blue plastic thing’ whose words speak for themselves.
‘I am blue plastic, a simple thing. Mass produced, distributed in panic, witness to horror, immune to it. I have no voice, no sight. I have no bones, no arms, no brain, but I am the world’s unlikely protector in the places it prefers to forget’
The collection follows the path of a photographer who had gone ‘hard core…where else was there to go?’ Phillippe has become almost immune to what he captures on film, believing that these images of ‘Blood and Bone’ are what the world needs to see. He gets caught up in the photograph, no longer truly seeing the human element. He is almost desensitised by the atrocities he witnesses.
Each story adds another layer to the complexities of these communities and the barbarities inflicted on the inhabitants. Helen Mulkerns’ anthology may be of a fictional nature but the brutality of life in these places is played out in a very credible and frightening manner.
Ferenji and Other Stories evokes imagery that is so real and convincing, that as a reader you have to remind yourself that this is not a collection of actual letters but a work of fiction. Some stories were stronger than others for me, but overall Ferenji is a very thought-provoking account of the inhumane conditions suffered by many in our society today, as seen through the eyes of the ‘foreigner’…
Purchase Link ~ Ferenji and Other Stories
HELENA MULKERNS’ debut short story was shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award. Over twenty of her stories have since been internationally anthologised, including one that was shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize and another for the Francis MacManus Short Story Award. She originally worked as a music journalist with Hot Press Magazine and went on to write for The Irish Times, The Irish Echo, Publisher’s Weekly and the The New York Times, among others.
She worked as a press officer and photographer in UN Peacekeeping Operations in Central America, Africa and Afghanistan. She holds an MA in English Literature and Publishing from the National University of Ireland Galway, and has edited two anthologies: Turbulence (Tara Press, 2013) and Red Lamp Black Piano(Tara Press, 2013). In 2009 she founded The Cáca Milis Cabaret, which now takes place on an occasional basis in Dublin and Wexford. She received a bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland to complete her fiction debut, Ferenji and other Stories, a themed-collection of short fiction. (Courtesy of Doire Press)
Twitter ~ @HelenaMul
Website ~ http://helenamulkerns.com/