How many students get to meet the author of their Leaving Certificate text? Very few, one would say. But on Tuesday afternoon in the James Joyce Library thirty one of our students got to meet Jennifer Johnston, author of ‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’.
An opportunity to discuss and engage with the text in the company of its creator is a rare occurrence. Ms Johnston spoke about her early schooling where creative writing was actively encouraged. She then gave the boys background to the writing of the text and read an extract before an engaging Q&A session. She was humorous, open and frank with the boys, no question or opinion was off limits. Understanding the characters of her work was she insisted as much the reader’s interpretation as her own intention. She encouraged the boys to form their own opinions and not to be constrained by ‘study notes’. When one student expressed his incomprehension at the book’s ending, she encouraged him to elaborate and then highlighted the context of the situation, a position in which she hoped none would find themselves.
Heroism and ‘coming of age’ Ms Johnston emphasised, were at the heart of the novel. Perhaps Rhetoric has a few more miles to go before they can truly grasp the novel’s core and its status as a classic work. They are to be commended for their openness, engagement and level of questioning. The session was a truly educational experience from one of Ireland’s literary greats. We are hugely grateful to the evergreen Ms Johnston for her visit and wish her well with her current writing project.