Looking at the Stars is a limited-edition anthology of Irish writing including poetry, prose and non-fiction. Costing €15 per copy with a limited print run of one thousand copies the anthology is hoped to raise €15,000 for the Rough Sleepers Team of the Dublin Simon Community. This effort has been helped in part by participating book stores agreeing to sell the anthology with all proceeds going directly to the charity. You can find a list of participating stores as well as details where the anthology is still available on the site. Edited by Kerrie O’Brien and Alice Kinsella Looking at the Stars gathers many writers from various genres as well as service users and providers of the Dublin Simon Community to provide a commentary on what it means to be homeless in Ireland today.
A common perspective within the anthology is the writers’ reaction to poverty, perhaps the writers’ own experiences with, or observations of, rough sleepers. Pieces like those contributed by Theo Dorgan and Afric McGlinchey capture a sense of helplessness, an inability to meaningfully aid, and a frustration at the loss of dignity of another living being. The sense of helplessness in such contributions helps illustrate why so many writers were willing to contribute to the anthology, using the familiarity of their craft to approach what can often be seen as an overwhelming civic issue.
Many contributors opt to inhabit the perspective of those affected by homelessness and offer insight into the conditions, both material and emotional, that homeless people find themselves in. Sarah Bannan’s Because Privacy shows how easily a sense of worth can be stripped away by the inquiring look of a bureaucrat and how privacy, and the sense of safety it affords, is often not afforded to those without homes. Louise by Belinda McKeon helps push past the dead weight of buzz words like “emergency accommodation” and captures the frustration of having to live in quarters where you are not welcome or wanted. The multitude and variety of stories like these speak to the many forms that homelessness can assume.
Within the anthology broken homes drive people to isolate themselves, addiction overpowers, bureaucracy fails, the accumulation of adversity and the removal of support that most would take for granted places individuals in the care of the state and at the mercy of charity. While never painting poverty as ennobling Looking at the Stars does affirm that homelessness is a human experience. Within each piece there is a sense that the characters are very much more than the situations that they find themselves in.
Not every piece in the anthology deals directly with homelessness. In some cases the scope of the work is varied, dealing in broad strokes with themes like loss, loneliness, and isolation. Whatever disparity may exist between pieces in their individual state the curation of the overall work is deft and overarching and done with a subtly which allows these broader themes to move seamlessly through the anthology connecting each piece to the greater work itself. It’s this editorial hand which makes the collection such a pleasure to read. While individual pieces will sing to individual taste, there is a momentum and a journey in which all of the writing is involved.
While offering insightful and humane writing Looking at the Stars also offers a challenge to the homelessness crisis and the society which has cultivated it. Choosing to focus on the systemic creation of homelessness as a by-product of insular capitalist systems writers like Donal Ryan and Rick O’Shea point to the role of unregulated financial agencies, the Celtic Tiger, and consumer greed as the forces which have taken people’s homes and which transform the city street from thoroughfare, to refuge, and in the most tragic cases deathbed. Sarah Clancy’s Solution to Homelessness is a stinging rebuke of the offhand false logics used to reduce homeless people to lazy stereotypes and excuse the complacency of those who refuse to help. Entries like these offer an incisive take on the homelessness crisis looking at how the situation has come to be and who is responsible.
Of all the writing in the anthology it’s the accounts of those who have experienced homelessness, in particular the non-fiction entries, which offer the most profound insight into what life is like in Ireland when you don’t have a home. An entry by service user Donal talks with refreshing openness about mental health, the complicated nature of medication, and the struggle to be well. Paul Casey’s piece Housing a Homeless Spirit shows just how mundane and simple a process becoming homeless can be. Senator Lynn Ruane’s piece Human Too is a moving retelling of some of her experiences working with homeless people. It reveals a huge amount about the loss, isolation, and pain that many rough sleepers suffer with. Senator Ruane highlights how there are universal needs which we all have, homeless or not, and how receiving help can be as equally bizarre and awkward as providing it.
In many ways Human Too epitomises what Looking at the Stars is about. It details hardship to illustrate the humanity of those who are suffering and offer insight into their situation. Reading the anthology you get a sense of how insidious the many forms of homelessness can be, how easy it is to become homeless, and get a glimpse at the culture of indifference which has allowed homelessness to grow. Looking at the Stars is worth your time and money because it challenges that sense of apathy and helplessness, taking literature off the shelf and showing that art can help create a better society not just reflect the one we live in.
An anthology that captures great humanity in the face of adversity without ever acquiescing to sentimentality, records a failing of the state without ever slipping into polemic, Looking at the Stars is an earnest gesture of charity that shines thanks to the creativity and insight of its contributors and its genuine attempt to help.