Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 30, 2020

Author event: Colum McCann in conversation with Mark Raphael Baker (Melbourne Jewish Book Week, online)

If you love the writing of Irish writer Colum McCann, you will love this MJBW interview with Melbourne’s Mark Raphael Baker (author of The Fiftieth Gate, A Journey through Memory).  You can tell that Baker is a real fan, and he asks great conversation starters, but the really lovely thing is that McCann gets to ramble on, the way an Irish storyteller does… while also having really important things to say.

I’ve reviewed Colum McCann’s Dancer but that was ages ago, and I wasn’t impressed by Let the Great World Spin when I read it pre-blog, (see Kim’s review at Reading Matters).  But Baker’s enthusiasm inspires me to explore what’s available.  (See the list from Wikipedia below).  The conversation (as you might expect) ranges around McCann’s award-winning books and his style, as well as the latest… McCann’s new novel Apeirogon which is named for a shape with an infinite number of sides, written after McCann’s visit to Palestine.  This is the blurb:

Colum McCann’s most ambitious work to date, Apeirogon–named for a shape with a countably infinite number of sides–is a tour de force concerning friendship, love, loss, and belonging.

Bassam Aramin is Palestinian. Rami Elhanan is Israeli. They inhabit a world of conflict that colors every aspect of their daily lives, from the roads they are allowed to drive on, to the schools their daughters, Abir and Smadar, each attend, to the checkpoints, both physical and emotional, they must negotiate.

Their worlds shift irreparably after ten-year-old Abir is killed by a rubber bullet and thirteen-year-old Smadar becomes the victim of suicide bombers. When Bassam and Rami learn of each other’s stories, they recognize the loss that connects them and they attempt to use their grief as a weapon for peace.

McCann crafts Apeirogon out of a universe of fictional and nonfictional material. He crosses centuries and continents, stitching together time, art, history, nature, and politics in a tale both heartbreaking and hopeful. Musical, cinematic, muscular, delicate, and soaring, Apeirogon is a novel for our time.

The setting of this novel and its themes in a place not his own was raised and McCann talked in ways that I like about his being confused about what’s going on.  He thinks that we don’t allow ourselves to say I don’t know as much as we should.  Baker asked: What right does an author have to tell a story like this, are there any limits beyond which an author ought not venture? He mentions Alexis Wright and her recent article in Meanjin about who owns the narrative.  She makes an argument about the universality of stories, but also that writing stories ‘not your own’ is another kind of colonisation.

(I read this article, but — and I say this as a champion of Indigenous literature in this country, who’s read 88 books by Indigenous Australians  — I think that writers can write whatever they like and we the readers will decide whether we think it’s worthy of our time or not.  To provide two examples of Australian novels that have IMO transcended this thorny issue… Rohan Wilson’s novel about Tasmania’s infamous Black Line in The Roving Party brought knowledge of a shameful episode in Australia’s Black History to national prominence when it won and was shortlisted for numerous prizes.  Candice Bruce in The Longing (see my review) taught me the story of a character based on Bareetch Chuurneen of the Tarnbeere Gundidj clan of the Djargurd Wurrung in the Camperdown district who survived the Murdering Gully Massacre, and although I’d seen them before I also learned about aspects of possum-skin cloaks that I did not know. I acknowledge that Alexis Wright might think that it’s not my place as a non-Indigenous person to decide about this issue.)

McCann thinks that people talking about cultural appropriation are right, because people have plundered, patronised and taken other people’s stories … but we can hold contradictory ideas in the palms of our hands at the same time and he says that there is a form of writing about other cultures where you go in with humility, you bow your head as you walk into another story. I need to increase my heart by my engagement with your culture. He thinks that we can become better people by engaging in this way.  He thinks it’s important not to isolate ourselves into our own stories, and he quotes Edward Said on the importance of being interested in other people’s cultures.  We need to get much better at listening, and at what he calls radical empathy as an act of humility.

(What McCann doesn’t say, is that also, sometimes it takes an outsider to tell a story.  Irish writer Edna O’Brien’s novel Girl (see my review) is the story of the Boko Haram girls, and nobody in Nigeria, including its most successful and well-known novelists has told this story.)

I love the end of this broadcast when Colum McCann goes outside so that he can obsess about birds in the garden where he can hear them… and his dog gets a brief moment as well!


Short story collections

  • Fishing the sloe-black river. London: Phoenix House. 1994. 
  • Everything in this Country Must Picador, 2000.
  • Thirteen Ways of Looking New York: Random House, 2015.

You can watch this and other Melbourne Jewish Book Week events, free, at their website.

And if you like these events, if you can, make a donation towards the cost of running them here.




  1. Thanks for this review, Lisa. I also watched the interview (one of the benefits of Covid) and enjoyed it greatly. I especially loved his image that you mention, of going into places / cultures that are not our own with humility and a bowed head. As you say, the story might not otherwise be told. Recently I’ve been reading his Letters to a Young Writer; his gentle comments about the process have helped me through a sticky patch — not so much ‘what to do’, but how to approach the writing. Trust the language, he says. The best kind of advice!


    • Hello Robyn, how lovely to hear from you, I hope you and yours are all well.
      What are you working on, if it’s ok to ask?
      (My question has just triggered a thought about the impact COVID_19 is having on all those writers who need to go overseas for research for their current books. How are they getting on, I wonder…)


      • Hi Lisa. Thank you, we’re all well. Lockdown isn’t hard for an introvert like me. But yes, I can imagine many people are consulting google earth as a poor substitute for visiting places overseas. Fortunately, my research trip was last year (though the fires sadly cut short the last leg: a planned trip to Barcelona and everything Gaudi). I’m still working in the thirteenth/ fourteenth centuries, and I’m prepared to tell you this much: that there’s a connection with my two novels. Apart from that, I’m keeping my powder dry ; ), but thanks so much for your interest. It’s given my day a little boost.


        • Gaudi! That is a book to look forward to!
          I had such a wonderful time in Barcelona and Gaudi was at the top of my list of things to do. We were at the Sagrada just before it was due to be consecrated so it was a flurry of activity. You can see my travel blog about it here: Unfortunately the link at the bottom to Casa Calvet, a restaurant that Gaudi designed in broke, perhaps they are a casualty of COVID_19, I hope not.
          The one cheering thing I can say is that Europe is starting to open up again. This can’t go on forever, and you have a wonderful trip ahead of you one day.


          • Oh no, I’ve muddled my message. The new book isn’t about Gaudi — I’ve always wanted to visit there and I added it onto the research trip as a reward. But now I’m still waiting for my reward. But what a great idea for a novel. Gaudi’s mind and vision would be such a wonderful subject. And the research trips…. best ever!


            • Whatever you write, Robyn, I’ll be buying it:)
              But yes, Gaudi!


  2. Completely off topic Lisa so excuse me but I didn’t know where else to post – your book arrived safely in the post today, thank you so very much, I look forward to reading it!
    And on your recommendations (and Sue’s somewhere at Whispering Gums too) I’ve borrowed Loving Daughters by Olga Masters from the library today and am loving it already!


    • Oh, Loving Daughters is just wonderful… and lucky you that your library has it because it is long out of print by now, I’m sure.


  3. I have a copy of ‘Apeirogon’ here to read …


  4. ‘Radical empathy’ is good.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. […] following my adventures at various virtual author talks this year may remember my enthusiasm for a Jewish Book Week conversation between Melbourne author Mark Raphael Baker and Irish author Colum M….  I reserved Apeirogon at the library there and then, and as luck would have it, it came to me two […]


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