Writing against the current: challenging the precedent in unprecedented times

Tolka is a new literary journal carving out a space for creative nonfiction in Ireland

“How about ‘formally promiscuous nonfiction’?” Liam had written into our WhatsApp group in early January. We had laughed and dismissed it. We were desperately trying to think of how to sum up Tolka, our new literary journal of essays, auto-fiction, reportage and everything in between.

We had waded through all the riverine metaphors possible (permeable, overflowing, tidal) and come up dry. And then the more we jokingly used the phrase “formally promiscuous” with one another, the more apt it became, perfectly encapsulating the weird, genre-bending, hybrid nonfiction we were seeking.

The summer of 2020 was a strange one for me, as it was for the rest of the world. I had recently returned from New York and that June began a new job remotely. I lived in the wilds of Waterford with my mother, sharing a ragged garden and one car between us. Life was none too shabby, all things considered, but I missed my friends. I missed cultural events with warm, free wine and not enough seating. I missed talking about books and music and art in real life.

One night I called my friend Seán and we drank beer and talked about all those things we both missed. The conversation led us back to an idea we’d had years ago, to start a literary journal with all kinds of nonfiction. I first met Seán when we lived together in Drumcondra squalor. We would sit in our cold, damp kitchen planning great things – literature things, journal things – that never ended up happening.


Seán moved to London to work at Faber, while I worked at Lilliput Press, before moving on to New York. Then the virus came, demolishing plans and aspirations for so many people. But for us, pandemic restlessness offered a chance to begin something new. Seán mentioned his friend Liam might be up for coming on board, having made similar notional plans together, at book launches and in beer gardens, over the years. Then, in the course of a Zoom chat the following week, Tolka was born.

We talked about our favourite writers and dream contributors. We talked about why nonfiction was so vital to contemporary literature, laughing at our own pretension, but we were nonetheless fervent and earnest. We all loved literature that was difficult to categorise, that gets lost between different sections of the bookshop. Is it fiction or nonfiction, memoir or personal history, essay or auto-fiction? Something about the formal messiness of so much contemporary literature and the insufficiency of these labels made us determined to create a home for this kind of writing.

We had our grand plans – a name and the bones of a manifesto. We would rustle up some money one way or another. Then one day, doom-scrolling on Twitter, I stumbled across a ray of light: the Arts Council’s Literature Project Award, created specifically to support literary projects borne out of the pandemic year. I did a little dance, before emailing Seán and Liam.

From there, everything seemed to just flow. Most of that is down to the hugely supportive and collaborative community of journal-makers, writers, publishers and editors who exists in Ireland. We never felt we were in competition with others, rather that we were expanding the existing literary space and contributing something new and exciting to it. The editors of the Stinging Fly, the Dublin Review, gorse, Sonder, Banshee and others have done so much to welcome and fortify us, be that a social-media shout-out or a three-hour-long Zoom call.

The response we received to our submissions call-out was staggering. As we suspected, there existed a huge appetite for a creative nonfiction platform, for a place dedicated solely to essays, reflections, conversations, personal stories and everything that flows between. Many pieces we received concerned the pandemic, of course, but others spoke to the current moment in a more oblique way. We received some deeply moving submissions on grief, for example, and many on travel.

These two themes arose time and again – it seemed writers either needed to process the grief and trauma of the pandemic or to escape it completely by returning to more fluid times, when they could wander through the world at ease.

The 12 pieces of writing which make up Issue One – from contributors such as Jessica Traynor, Brian Dillon and Doireann Ní Ghríofa – are varied, touching on everything from love and migraines to video games and addiction. Certain themes do thread their way through, in ways we could not have anticipated. Mothers and motherhood feature heavily, as does the exploration of strange spaces and cities. We didn’t give the issue a theme, as we wanted contributors to respond purely to our call for “formally promiscuous” writing, to see what could emerge from our unapologetic conceit.

Our contributors have been a joy to work with, engaging in a dialogue that expands our understanding as readers and sharpens our skills as editors. I did have some imposter syndrome when starting out, but Seán, Liam and our contributing editors, Caoimhe and Martin, were all hugely supportive and we share knowledge and bounce ideas as we go. We all trust each other implicitly, because we’re doing this for the sheer love of it. That dedication and sense of purpose makes working into the small hours and over weekends feel worthwhile.

I’m aware that Tolka sounds a bit notion-y – seeking to publish “formally promiscuous” nonfiction and attempting to “push the creative boundaries” of the art form. We are full of it, as my mother might say. And that’s OK. Because tagline aside, we’re just trying to create a space for weird, experimental and wonderful writing. When I started this venture, I felt slightly lost and untethered, but each piece in Tolka has allowed me to reflect on and reassess the world in different ways, has moved me, has grounded me. And I am sure – in the way only a young upstart would be – that it will do the same for each and every reader.

Tolka holds a second launch event on June 10th at 7pm