Man Booker winner Burns says N Ireland's Troubles were ‘impossible to avoid'

The author said she was affected by the culture of Northern Ireland.

Northern Irish novelist Anna Burns has said the Troubles were “impossible to avoid” in a culture steeped in division.

Burns, 56, has become the first ever Northern Irish winner of the Man Booker Prize for Milkman, the story of sexual coercion in a controlling society.

Her unnamed character is uncommitted to either cause in the sectarian world she lives in, but Burns said it was impossible for her own life to be untouched by the Troubles.

The Belfast-born author lived in the heavily Catholic and nationalist neighbourhood of Ardoyne, and said it was too dangerous not to live by the rules of a sectarian society.

Burns, whose novel has been hailed as a timely affirmation of the Me Too movement, believes that “little rebellions” of people who do not want to live by these rules can lead to larger changes.

She said: “It was impossible to avoid. It’s in the whole culture, it’s steeped in it.

“I may think, ‘I don’t want to subscribe to all this Catholic and Protestant stuff, so I’ll go to the Shankhill and buy my food’, but you wouldn’t. It would be too dangerous.

“When I was growing up I just thought it was normal. I knew there were Troubles but I didn’t see the insidious nature of the damage that was being wrought.

“You’re aware of bombs going off and shootings, but I didn’t get it all when I was living there.

“I did start going into the centre of town and making Protestant friends, but I would never invite them home to Ardoyne where I lived. Just like I wouldn’t go to their homes. It was taken for granted.”

Burns would not speak of the most profound impact the Troubles had on her personally, saying that the subject made her feel “exposed”.

She was awarded the Man Booker for her story of sexual harassment and community control.

The Duchess of Cornwall  and Anna Burns on stage at the Guildhall in London after she was awarded the Man Booker Prize
The Duchess of Cornwall and Anna Burns on stage at the Guildhall in London after she was awarded the Man Booker Prize (Frank Augstein/PA)

Burns said issues of sexual inequality, coercion and the pressures of a stifling society can be addressed by modest rebellions by those who do not want to be ill-treated.

She said: “I feel that there are people everywhere trying to have their humanity.

“There are little rebellions coming up everywhere. I feel that it’s the change in the individual that makes the bigger change happen.

“There is hope for real change. Perhaps not for my character, as she said ‘it’s one reprisal after another’.”

Burns said she would use the £50,000 prize money to clear her debts, and admitted that money could make writing easier, if the rich have the talent.

“Having money, being rich, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to write. Having money does help.

“To write I need to be grounded, I need to be able to close the door and write. You can’t do that if you have no door to close. It does get in the way.”

Burns said she will return to her home on the south coast of England, where she intends to get back to her two passions: swimming and singing.

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