Activist Orla Egan reflects on Katherine O'Donnell's beautiful new queer Irish novel Slant

In her stunning new book Slant, Katherine O'Donnell describes the joy of queer tribes and remembers the AIDS crisis. Orla Egan tells us more.

The image shows a split screen of two photos. On the left is Katherine O'Donnell holding a copy of her new book Slant. She is standing in front of a bookcase smiling. The image on the right is a closeup of the book cover. It shows three punk looking women in their twenties in a bookshop. It has a pink colour cast applied.
Image: @NewIslandBooks via Twitter

Ahead of the highly anticipated launch of Slant, the first novel by activist and academic Katherine O’Donnell, Orla Egan, founder of the Cork LGBT Archive, gives us a sneak preview of what we can look forward to. 

Katherine O’Donnell and I go way back! Young dykes losing ourselves (finding ourselves) joyfully on many the dance floor. Fellow activists planning the first ever LGBT float in a Patrick’s Day parade (Cork 1992). Co-teaching a sexuality module in UCC in the 1990s and getting reprimanded for it! Ka has my love, respect and admiration.

Katherine O’Donnell is best known for her work as a teacher, a thinker – she is Professor of Philosophy at UCD – and an activist centrally involved in many campaigns, including Justice for Magdalenes. She is well and widely published, but this is a new departure for her, her first novel.


As I sat in the corner of my red couch, having finished reading Slant, I felt seen. Wow, wow, wow. 

A few years ago, I created a Cork LGBT Exhibition, Cork Queeros (Ka featured as one of the Queeros).  My aim and hope was that people seeing the exhibition would feel seen or see someone with whom they could identify. Slant did that for me. I felt myself, my life, my community and my city reflected. While not autobiographical, the story certainly draws on Ka’s own experiences in a way that lends authenticity to the writing. 

Flashes of Ka dancing filled my head as I read her recollection of the magic of those times:  “I could feel again what it felt like to be twenty-odd: the rush of that intoxicating cocktail of optimism, gratitude, joy for the love I had found, the dancing superpowers of being a lesbian.”

Slant is filled with a beautifully written celebration of what it was to be a 1980s lesbian, a dyke, and to find our tribe: “I was hit by that sharp green sensation of meeting the world with an expanded, curious heart like when I was a young one. I had felt then that I was part of a tribe moving as wind: sometimes salty, sometimes rain-drenched, sometimes howling, then playful, tickling, a gentle breeze; but always bringing more oxygen and possibility to the world, changing the atmosphere and dappling the light.”

The theme of queer tribe, of our chosen family, permeates the book: “That magical night transformed me. I became immediately, and with relief, more confident, settled and deeply happy among my queer tribe. I belonged with the lesbians and gays and the other queers, this was the family I chose, this was where I would grow and become wise.”

Being part of that tribe, that community, ameliorated the impact of living in a heterosexist, homophobic 1980s Ireland: “In my twenties and thirties, a kind of magic shroud, a patina of grace, had sheltered and buffered me from feeling the full force of the blows.” Yet there is also an acknowledgement of the impact that it had on queers living through those times – perhaps it was not as rosy as we had experienced it. 


In the book, Ka talks about this as being a soldier in a war, of being one of the walking wounded, realising the damage, the wounds – the war we fought and many lost. “I realised that I had endured cuts and breaks and deep injuries after all.”  She captures this in a particularly poignant phrase: “I had thought a lot of the war might be over by now,” there is an acknowledgement that, while many battles have been won, homophobia, transphobia and sexism have not gone away and the war is not over.”

Familiar haunts provide the backdrop for the stories told in Slant: Quay Co-op, Loafers Bar, Cork Women’s Fun Weekend, Women’s Camp, and Lesvos. Those more familiar with Boston and Provincetown will surely also recognise the locations described. 

Key social issues and campaigns are dotted throughout the book as well – the lack of access to condoms and contraception, Mother and Baby Homes, Industrial Schools and other places where we hid people away, the murders of gay men in Dublin in the 1980s, Charles Self and Declan Flynn, ILGO (Irish Lesbian and Gay Organisation) and the ‘No to Water Metres’ campaigns. One of my favourites was the description of the lesbian sex wars in London. 

I laughed out loud when I read the description of acquiring the dyke ‘uniform’ – the search for the perfect white t-shirt, the Levi 501s, the short haircut. We so often had slagged each other about this in the back of Loafers. I remember the teasing I got when I acquired my first pair of Levi 501s – not yet ‘out’ but clearly on my way there. There is an interesting take on ‘coming out’, or is it ‘coming in’?

There is a beautiful celebration of lesbian love and sex without ever getting crass. “To be naked with Jenny would be as easy as prayer: simple, sacred, rapturous, blessed, blessed, benediction.” And elsewhere: “I remembered what it had been like to feel the tenderness, craving, passion, lust, risk, vulnerability, hormone highs and deep satiety, the swagger, the fusion of sex and love-making. Liquid heat.”

The impact and heartache of the HIV/AIDS crisis are a central theme in Slant, with a focus on the key role played by dykes in supporting those affected by the virus but also in AIDS activism and campaigning for accurate information and effective treatment (leading to the current situation where most people who are HIV Positive and can access treatment, are healthy and non-contagious; U=U {Undetectable = Untransmissible}). 

The book encapsulates the pain, the loss, and the anger at the inactivity of those in power: “This fucking president and his disgusting government and most of America are only all too delighted! A couple of thousand are dead and thousands more infected and it’s no problem at all to them is it? Haitians and the homeless, hookers, heroin addicts and the homos. They really believe that God is on their side and sent the plague to kill ye US! Awwww, it’s a shame though about the ‘innocent’ haemophiliacs!”


A theme close to my heart – the importance of archives, of gathering and preserving our history, telling our stories – is also central to the story: “When this war is over, we will want to write the history, and we may lose the war, but I’m not going to have those fuckers write the history.”  

Perhaps Slant can be seen as Katherine O’Donnell’s way of queer archiving, of telling some of our histories through the stories told in the book. It certainly resonated with this Cork dyke!

Thank you, Katherine O’Donnell, for writing this important and fabulous Irish queer novel – you done good girl.

Orla Egan led a discussion with Katherine O’Donnell in Cork City Library on May 18 about the new novel.
Slant by Katherine O’Donnell is now available to buy from New Island Press.

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