Anna Burns is an award-winning author best known for her third novel Milkman, which was awarded the Man Booker prize in 2018: this marked the first time the award had a Northern Irish recipient. Born in North Belfast in 1962, Burns’ writing reflects her upbringing during the early years of the Troubles and the lingering impact of the violence she experienced.
Burns grew up as one of seven siblings in a working-class, Catholic family in Ardoyne. As was common among large families living in small homes known as ‘kitchen houses’, she lived with her unmarried aunt over the road. “I’d go over to the house so I had all that rowdiness, which was important, then I’d go back to my aunt’s for the quietness”. Reading formed an integral part of her childhood and Burns describes hers as a ‘bookish family’.
Like many of her generation, Burns’ formative years were defined by the developing conflict in Northern Ireland. In 1969, her family became one of the hundreds evacuated from Ardoyne as the violence intensified in the aftermath of the burning of Bombay Street. In an interview with The Independent, Burns recalled how “the soldiers at the refugee camp south of the border in the Republic of Ireland brought her more food than she had seen before…She couldn’t have been more upset when she was sent back to school.”
Much like Milkman’s protagonist, the unnamed ‘Middle Sister’, Burns did her best to avoid the political situation around her. “There was the disconnection of thoughts and feelings,” she says. “I think that was my way of coping. I didn’t want to know, basically. I wasn’t alone in that. Lots of people didn’t want to know.”
Remarkably, Burns did not benefit from much of a formal education. She regularly mitched school and preferred to educate herself. It was a night class in English at the College of Business Studies that formally introduced her to literature. By this time, she had moved to the university area and got occasional work as a copytaker (an individual employed to type reports as journalists dictate them over the telephone) for the Belfast Telegraph and the Irish News.
“I was always tired and there was a teacher who was boring. It was very hot and we would doze off. Then one day this teacher strode in — Pat McCann — and he said: ‘What are you all doing? You are all sleeping. This is English!’…He just woke us all up and he introduced me to literature…After that one class I went home buzzing — I wanted to go to his class. I wanted him to teach me.”
Burns is the author of three novels – No Bones, Little Constructions, and Milkman – alongside the novella Mostly Hero and her writing has brought her numerous accolades. No Bones won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Milkman won the Man Booker Prize 2018, the 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Fiction, and the International Dublin Literary Award 2020.
Unsurprisingly, Burns’ personal experiences greatly inspire her literature. All of her work deals with the fallout of living in a conflict-ridden society. Her 2001 novel No Bones charts 9-year-old Amelia Lovett’s experiences of growing up in Belfast. Opening with the arrival of British troops, the relentless outbreaks of violence – both political and domestic – cause teenage Amelia to find refuge in bouts of drinking, anorexia and bulimia.
Her best-known novel, Milkman, is arguably her most political work to date. Although the characters are unnamed, the location is unstated and paramilitary or state violence is not overtly shown, it is undeniably a novel inspired by the Troubles. The 18-year-old ‘Middle Sister’ finds herself coerced into a relationship with the much-older and more-influential ‘Milkman’, a paramilitary figure. Claire Kilroy states that ‘Burns’ targets are more insidious forces: the oppressiveness of tribalism, of conformism, of religion, of patriarchy, of living with widespread distrust and permanent fear.’
Her writing also explores the consequences of violence on mental health, a topic that still looms over post-conflict Northern Ireland:
“She meant depressions, for da had had them: big, massive, scudding, whopping, black-cloud, infectious, crow, raven, jackdaw, coffin-upon-coffin, catacomb-upon-catacomb, skeletons-upon-skulls-upon-bones crawling along the ground to the grave type of depressions. Ma herself didn’t get depressions, didn’t either, tolerate depressions and, as with lots of people here who didn’t get them and didn’t tolerate them, she wanted to shake those who did until they caught themselves on. Of course at that time they weren’t called depressions. They were ‘moods’. People got ‘moods’. They were ‘moody’.”
It was only once Burns had left Belfast that she could begin to recognise and understand the impact of her own experiences. In 1987, she moved to London to study Russian at Queen Mary College but never finished her degree. Although she keeps much of her private life confidential, she cites her struggle with sobriety as ‘one of the hardest things she has ever done’.
Living in England, the distance – both mental and geographical – from Belfast allowed her to begin to research the conflict she had lived through. “I would read about something I remembered but which hadn’t engaged my feelings at the time. And then I would start to get my feelings. Fifteen or 20 years later I would be sitting in my room in London having a reaction emotionally to something that happened 15 or 20 years ago.” Processing this emotion, firstly through reading and subsequently through writing, signalled the beginning of Burns’ development as an author.
Often people will ask her: “Are you still writing about Ireland? You have to let go, you have to move on.” But Burns questions this: ‘How do I move on?’ The Troubles is such an enormous, immense occurrence in my life, and in other people’s lives, that it demands to be written about. Why should I apologise for it? It is a very rich, complex society in which to place a fiction.”
In her acceptance speech for the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award, Burns cited the impact that Belfast’s libraries and specifically, Carnegie Oldpark Library, had on her adolescence in North Belfast:
“There seemed to be a black market in library tickets when I was growing up. No one seemed to have their own yet managed to go into the building with about three to five cards and come out with about nine to fifteen books! So, I thank too, the lovely Old Park Library in North Belfast and the Central Library in downtown Belfast. Not just for playing a huge role in my reading life but for letting everybody away from being a different person from whom their library card’s that week were saying they were. Libraries are good sports and to go from being a wee girl haggling over library cards with my siblings, my friends, neighbours, my parents and my aunt, to be standing here today receiving this award is phenomenal for me…”
Anna Burns’ story reveals that success is not always linear. Her personal journey highlights how experiences of violence at a young age will have a lasting impact: a theme shown throughout her writing. Burns’ work – full of local idiosyncrasies and characteristic dark humour – manages to be both anonymous yet familiar to anyone acquainted with North Belfast. Therefore, she is a worthy addition to our list of #greatwomen.
You can view Anna Burns’ full acceptance speech at the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award, including her homage to Carnegie Oldpark Library here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WSMC2rizNrg
 For more on this see https://www.rte.ie/archives/exhibitions/1042-northern-ireland-1969/1048-august-1969/320459-refugees-arrive-from-northern-ireland/
 Anna Burns, 2018. Milkman. 1st ed. London: Faber and Faber.