Emma Donoghue: “We’re relying on the arts more than ever.”

May 29, 2020
Lily Polowin, Digital Communications Officer at the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

On Tuesday, June 2, the Association for College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE) will present the plenary Generation Gaps with renowned Irish novelist and scholar Emma Donoghue. This will be Donoghue’s very first digital lecture (apart from a Facebook Live with author Philip Pullman!) and I had the honour to interview her for the occasion.

Generation Gaps will be a talk (with short readings) about the challenges – technical, psychological, political and even ethical – raised by writing about both youth and age. It is a subject even more timely than usual these days, as our elderly seem to be attacked on numerous fronts: not only are they more physically vulnerable to the ravages of the pandemic, but some have even suggested that they are economically expendable.


Speaking of timely subjects, Donoghue has a new novel coming out in July 2020 entitled Pull of The Stars, which centres around nurses in Ireland during the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918. I know what you’re thinking, this can’t be a coincidence! The truth is she finished writing the novel back in the fall 2019, before she could even anticipate the global consequences of COVID-19. As a historical fiction writer – who also happens to have a Ph.D. in English Literature from Cambridge University – Donoghue’s subject matters are usually intended to be timely in some subtle sense, but she confessed seeing one of them pop up on headline news is an entirely new experience.

Strange serendipity aside, Donoghue is especially looking forward to being able to focus her readers’ minds on healthcare workers. This is the second novel she has written about a nurse, the first being 2016’s The Wonder, which was a finalist for the Giller Prize. In both cases, the writing is about the intense commitment in hospitals of nurses, doctors, volunteers, and orderlies. Pull of the Stars is an opportunity to capture not only the correct medical details, but also the mindset of those whose commitment to their work means they give and give and give, sometimes at considerable personal risk. 

This focus on the social fabric is something we, at the Federation, have in common with Donoghue. Just as humanities and social science researchers play an essential role in advising policymakers about the social, ethical, and philosophical dimensions of pandemic response, writers and especially novelists of historical fiction help us make sense of events that seem unprecedented and overwhelming.

“A lot of what I’ve noticed during lockdown is that we’re relying on the arts more than ever,” Donoghue says, “not only just to kill the time, but to make sense of these events.” She believes that both humanities scholarship and popular art forms such as fiction help in framing those decisions and making them thoughtful ones, instead of knee-jerk reactions. “Having the historical perspective is hugely helpful in giving you an understanding of what you’re going through. […] It can really help to put things in the larger perspective.”

Generation Gaps is presented by ACCUTE as part of the Federation’s Virtual Conference Week 2020. The online event is free and open to the public. Register here.

Emma Donoghue’s upcoming novel Pull of the Stars (July 21, 2020) is available for preorder through Harper Collins.