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How Can We Tell Our Own Stories? Colm Tóibín

Festival of Ideas

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The essays of novelist Colm Tóibín are centre stage in his new collection, A Guest at the Feast, exploring the intersection between life and fiction. In this conversation with Bristol Ideas, he touches on the complexities of law and the Catholic Church in Ireland, his mother’s relationship with literature and his experience living in Venice during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The personal and political have long been aligned for Colm Tóibín, whose essay collection A Guest at the Feast continues the author’s journey in positioning his own life stories within the landscapes and contexts of their times.

Tóibín speaks candidly about his experiences growing up in Catholic-run institutions, offering insights into the consequences of the extreme sexual repression enforced by the church and the subsequent wilful ignorance of abuses in schools. He considers the Catholic Church and religion at large in relation to other elements of identity, including homosexuality and authorship. He poses questions about his position as a writer within these spheres of influence.

In the collection’s final essay, Alone in Venice – first published in the London Review of Books – takes us back to 2020 when the Covid pandemic was at the height of its powers. We meet Tóibín in Venice, a city eerily devoid of tourists during this time. He describes spending time in each of Venice’s 14 churches, getting to know the paintings on their walls – and evaluating how light changed the way we see and understand iconic images, such as the many paintings of the Crucifixion.

Colm Toibin’s A Guest at the Feast is published by Viking.

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Colm Tóibín is the author of ten novels, including The Magician, winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize; The Master, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Brooklyn, winner of the Costa Book Award; The Testament of Mary; and Nora Webster, as well as two story collections and several books of criticism. He is the Irene and Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University and has been named as the Laureate for Irish Fiction for 2022–2024 by the Arts Council of Ireland. Three times shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.

Jenny Lacey

Jenny Lacey was for many years an award-winning radio presenter, working for LBC and for the BBC. She was the BBC’s Education Correspondent for the South West, and became Managing Editor of BBC Radio Gloucestershire and then BBC Radio Bristol.

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