Loud in the Time of Chaos

Ethel Rohan

Noise. It’s killing. I think this during a concert at the United Irish Cultural Center, San Francisco. The gathering is largely a mix of Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans, over 1,200 of us sitting on metal chairs—clapping, tapping our feet and moving our heads—captivated by the world-renowned Irish musician Sharon Shannon and her band.

The rousing, sometimes melancholy playlist carries me back to my native Ireland. All that history, culture and genius. All those ghosts. All my memories. It’s almost too much. It’s also glorious. Which is saying something because I didn’t want to come to this concert. I didn’t think I could stand any more noise. I was persuaded, however, and here I sit just rows from the stage, consoling myself that at least this is sacred sound.

The other, unholy noise has been coming at me for months, ever since the run up to the US Presidential election and it’s only gotten worse since the Inauguration. The noise so relentless, so deafening, I can’t focus on much of anything else. It doesn’t seem like there is much of anything else. Democracy, humanity, our very planet are at stake. I’m angry, frightened, exhausted, and not a little hopeless. Which is an especially terrible state to be in ever since my first novel published a few weeks ago, a milestone I had hoped would be very different.

At the best of times, writing a book is Atalantan work. Once the novel is sold, however, work of a whole other and no less daunting kind begins. Profit-based work that writers generally aren’t suited to. How to kick to the surface in a sea thick with other books vying for attention? And then how to still have the nerve and stamina to wave our bound labor of love in the salt air alongside all the others and somehow convince readers to pick ours?

Whether we like it or not (not), the onus is on writers to give our books the best visibility possible—ads, social media, events, media guest spots. I don’t like the business side of writing, but in the past I’ve embraced my lot and worked hard at publicity and marketing for as Emerson wrote, nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. But these loud days I barely have enough energy and concentration to answer emails, let alone muster the needed zeal to pull off a successful debut novel campaign. Yet I’ve persisted as best I can. I’ve learned that the dream isn’t so much to publish the book, but to make the book matter.

For all these reasons I’ve shown up every day to try to get my book into as many readers’ hands as possible, but it’s required every ounce of me, and it’s taking its toll. I’m hearing this from other writers, readers, and artists too, in person and across social media. Particularly writers of fiction. Amidst the world’s ever-mounting chaos and tyranny what does my speck of a made-up book matter? It seems frivolous, self-indulgent, even immoral—this solitary practice of pretending and then this conflicted push to get my book read. It’s adding to noise that’s already too much. It’s taxing everyone’s already burdened bandwidth, including my own. Shut up, I want to shout. Me. You. The growing confederacy of demagogues. Everyone. Please shut up.

The noise I make should be cries of resistance, not of read me. I should be taking greater action to save democracy, and the world. What of the small acts? What of the common wisdom that stories foster empathy and connection and are transformative and necessary? What of marching, signing petitions, phoning government, and making donations? Does any of it matter nearly enough? Just as I think this angst is going to drive me from my chair, and from the concert, Sharon Shannon plays a mesmerizing slow air on her accordion—melodious music that’s intended for listening, rather than singing and dancing. Her eyes are closed, her expression beatific. Her pale, sinuous arms open like a swan’s wings right as it scores the surface of the water and her instrument follows, stretching its pleated, red innards to the last and making the most enthralling sound. She’s playing with her every fiber. She’s giving us the greatest, most powerful part of her. Another jolt cuts through my insides. Writing is my greatest, most powerful part.

The concert ends. There’s a standing ovation and reverberating applause. We get louder, swept up in an exuberant, rising swell, adding to a night of noble noise. I feel more energized, more purposeful, than I’ve felt in months. I’ve been unraveled, but not undone. I’ll recover and I’ll return, stronger, louder. I won’t, I can’t, shut up. Tyrants silence because they know the power of their detractors’ noise. Humanity has to be noisier. We have to make bigger, better kinds of commotion using our greatest, most powerful parts. If the din is right enough, necessary enough, it will save us.

In this I hope.


Ethel Rohan’s debut novel is The Weight of Him (St. Martin’s Press, February, 2017). She is also the author of two story collections, Goodnight Nobody and Cut Through the Bone, the former longlisted for The Edge Hill Prize and the latter longlisted for The Story Prize. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, OZY Magazine, BREVITY Magazine, and more. Raised in Dublin, Ireland, she lives in San Francisco where she is a member of the Writers’ Grotto.