San Miguel de Allende

A night with author Colum McCann in 21 cantos


Colum McCann signing books after his talk at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference this week.

Colm McCann came to the United States as a young man to write the great novel. When he got there he discovered he had nothing to say. So he bought a bicycle and pedaled out of Boston in search of a Muse. A year and a half and 8,000 miles and many flat tires later, he rolled into San Francisco a changed man.

Along the way, he collected hundreds of stories and made some profound discoveries about people and himself.

Everyone should try that at least once. (My recommendation, not necessarily Colum’s.)

Or, try this. When Tommy Orange was writing “There There,” and found himself in a hole, he’d strap on his running shoes and go for a long-distance run. He ended up with “good solutions and really bad poetry.”

OK, let’s stop here for a moment.


This may sound like the start of a personal fitness column but it isn’t.

Both authors spoke this week at the 15th annual San Miguel Writers’ Conference & Literary Festival (#smwc2020) and they are big fans of each others’ works. They said as much. 

So, I felt some sort of alchemy at work here. 

Maybe the two of them could tour the Native American communities — on bicycles! — and gather the stories that cry out to be told to a hungry world.

Maybe in two years. 

Tommy Orange is busy with his sequel to “There There” and Colum McCann has a new novel, “Apeirogon,” due in a week or so. …

OK, never mind. 

Back to our original story — which may or may not follow the structure of McCann’s latest work:

1   An apeirogon is a polygon with an infinite number of sides. It is also the title of Colum McCann’s new novel arriving this month.

2   It is a novel but the story is based on two real men who share a common tragedy: They both lose young daughters to Israeli-Palestinian violence. 

Rami Elhanan’s daughter Smadar dies in a suicide bombing. Bassam Aramin’s daughter Abir is killed by Israeli soldiers. Their losses bond the two men and they work together to restore sanity to their countries.

3   McCann breaks his story down into 1001 numbered segments he calls cantos, inspired by the Arabic folktale collection “One Thousand and One Nights.”  McCann’s segments build outward from 1 to 500 and then focus increasingly inward as the numbers retreat back to 1.

4  The two men who inspired this story will join McCann on a book tour of the United States.

5   McCann was born in Dublin and has written six novels, including “Let the Great World Spin.” Now he has seven. He lives on the upper west side of New York City where he claims he is the “least cool” author

6  McCann’s purpose in San Miguel was two-fold: to talk about his writing and also to share his passion for Narrative 4 Story Exchange, a program in which young adults from all over the world are paired up to write their own personal stories and share them with each other. Much as the two men in his new book did. 

There are story exchanges in 12 countries and 18 U.S. states. The stories he says, break down barriers, destroy stereotypes, and demolish “barriers of gender, wealth, race and geographical borders.” 

7   “Language is a powerful weapon, says Colum McCann.”My job is to put a spark in the heart or head that raises to a fire much bigger than I can start.”

8   In the 1930s, Albert Einstein and Sigmond Freud briefly became pen pals. Einstein raised the question, “Can the mind be made resistant to the psychosis of hate?” A timely question as Hitler was rising to power in Germany on that very platform.

McCann says it took Freud a few weeks to get back and his answer wasn’t very hopeful: “Mankind has an instinct for hatred.”

He extended a delicate frond of hope, however: Anything at all that creates emotional ties between human beings can immediately counteract war.

Stories, McCann says, can create those emotional ties.

9   The Einstein-Freud exchange was published as “Why War?” in 1933. The two men fled Germany shortly after.

10   On his bicycle odyssey, McCann collected hundreds of stories from the people he met. He came to the conclusion that stories “are the thing that binds us together.”

11   The flip side of the coin is listening. McCann has his young adults read each other’s stories out loud. 

Listening isn’t something adults do very well these days. McCann notes that we “have a narcissistic need to be correct, especially in the political world.”  

Stories sound increasingly like whining. I have to win the battle.  I’m right. You’re wrong.

“The lack of affection for other people, especially people in need, is astounding,” he notes. “We can’t tell a proper story unless we are listened to but we must listen (fist) to be listened to.”

12  The Gospel of McCann is based on “radical empathy” — ‘You step into my shoes and I will step into yours.”

He sees this as a new form of government.  Want peace? “Disrupt the comfortable narrative” that is keeping the world in chains.

13   In the Story Exchange, McCann’s team might pair up a street kid from the Bronx with a coal miner’s son from Kentucky. They start out “terrified of the supposed other … then something changes. Walls melt down. We find we’re not as different as people have told us we are.”

“I wish I was 15 years old again,” he says. “I wish I was Greta Thunberg — there are a thousand of them out there!”

14  “Stories can take away your house. They can take away your country. Language is a powerful weapon.” 

15    Need an example? Facebook is a powerful form of storytelling. Currently, operatives from other countries are fabricating stories of division, mistrust, and dissent aimed at sowing fear “of the other” into each of us. They are posting these mini-dramas to Facebook where they are spread by the gullible and unsuspecting.

My two cents, not Colum’s. But I think that is what he was getting at.

16   During the Q&A, Tommy Orange stepped to the microphone and addressed the elephant that has been inhabiting the room since the publication of “American Dirt,” a novel about Mexican immigrants by a white woman from New York City.

The novel has been roundly criticized for cultural tone-deafness and cultural appropriation and also defended as the work of a storyteller.

Orange wondered, how do you step into the shoes of another, write across cultures? In other words, how does an Irishman write about an Israeli and a Palestinian? What is the importance and risk in caring for their voices?

McCann welcomed the question from his friend. “Writers, actors, musicians can go into (racial/cultural) spaces for all the wrong reasons.” Enter with respect, honesty, decency going in, he suggests. 

He also recalled that at one time the Irish were not considered white people. They also suffered under colonization, discrimination, and slavery. (My own migrant kin changed our name from O’Haughen to Hawkins for a paycheck — at the insistence of an English boss.)

17   “I really hope we can understand one and other, and I really hope we can remain different.”

18   “Facts are mercenary bastards. Motherless and fatherless facts get shipped off to whatever orphanage we want.”

19   So, just as it is important to recognize that we are “the same in many ways,” — how about, also “we’re different in many ways” but just recognize the fact and do not judge it.

20  “Storytelling is great on its own but when it leads to action, it is a profound thing.”

I once had a journalism professor who spoke proudly of “sending shitkickers out into the world.”

McCann’s “shitkickers” are armed with each other’s stories and the knowledge that the prevailing narrative of the oppressors is bull shit. His Greta Thunberg’s.

21   At one point, McCann quotes Jorge Luis Borges, “Being with you and not being with you is the only way I have to measure time.” I borrowed the quote after his talk and wrote it on my Valentine’s day card to my wife because, yeah, that says it all better than I ever could.


4 thoughts on “A night with author Colum McCann in 21 cantos

  1. Pingback: A night with author Colum McCann in 21 cantos « Bound for Belize

  2. Ivonne Montes de Oca says:

    I missed McCann’s keynote address, so Im grateful for your report. It captures some valuable insights and allows us to grasp some gems from McCann’s thinking. Thank you!


  3. Robert Cooksey says:

    Sorry I missed his talk, but I am inspred to read, and follow him, because of your remaks, thoughts and benign encouragement 🤗❤


  4. Pingback: In a chaotic world, writers play with the traditional structure of novels | Musings, Magic, San Miguel and More

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