THE Coke Zero bicycles scheme in Cork city was the inspiration for a mature student of UCC’s Masters in creative writing course.
American Nejla Gaylen, 52, has written a soap serial about a visitor to Cork who suffers an apparent accident while cycling one of the bikes.
The first episode, called Moving Along, will begin a 12-episode run in The Echo on Monday, as part of our popular Summer Soap feature.
Now in its fifth year in The Echo, the summer soaps are chosen from work submitted by students of the MA in the creative writing programme at UCC.
In the saga, Nejla’s American character, Kate, is hit by a bus. Over proceeding episodes, she talks to her sister on the phone about her life.
“The accident causes Kate to reflect on some things that have happened to her,” says Nejla, on the phone from the U.S. “Like me, she has uprooted herself from America and there are observations about Cork.”
There is a shocking twist towards the end of the soap.
Nejla, reared in Michigan and living in Georgia for 25 years, always wanted to visit Ireland and was drawn to Cork for its foodie culture and friendly people, as well as the creative writing MA at the university. She signed up to use the city centre bikes but “always felt like I was taking my life in my hands” when she steered into the bus lanes.
“The story kind of came from that. I definitely wanted Cork to be in the story but I could only express Cork as I saw it so my character sees the city through her American eyes.”
Nejla, who has three children in their twenties, has always worked in banking and finance. “I went from my creative mathematics side to creative writing. I’ve always been interested in writing but I’ve never published anything and never tried to. But people who know me know I write little stories that I share with friends and family.
“When I travel, they always expect to get stories from me. I also do a lot of business writing. In all my jobs, I’ve been the go-to person for that.”
When Nejla signed up to do the MA at UCC, she “fell in love with poetry. That was a surprise to me. I had come to do fiction. I did poetry under Leanne O’Sullivan. She is very energetic and is a wonderful lecturer. Attending her lectures touched something in me that I wasn’t aware of, in terms of contemplating writing poetry as much as I do now. Leanne introduced me to the poetry of Mary Oliver and other poets.”
As part of the experience of being a writer in Cork, Nejla attended Ó Bheál, the weekly poetry evenings at the Long Valley. “I kind of surprised myself there. I did my first public reading there. Once I started, it was actually fine. They’re very welcoming there.”
Subjects that Nejla writes on include relationships and spirituality. Her undergraduate degree was in psychology which is “quite useful” for fiction.
“I write fiction and poetry. Sometimes, I find it challenging to do both. I’m working on something that mixes all of the bits. It’s a memoir that is interspersed with poems. I’ll present it for my thesis in September and hopefully will get it to a publishable stage.”
Nejla is all too aware of how difficult it can be to get published. “But there are different ways of putting yourself out there that were not in existence 50 years ago. Now, when you write a book or a collection, it may not necessarily be published in the traditional manner. I hope to put myself out there.”
A blogger website is something she’s putting together with the help of UCC.
Surprisingly, Nejla says she chose to study the Irish language as part of her work at UCC. “I took modern Irish as a language. I thought it was so interesting. I love that the road signs are in English and Irish. I wanted to experience more Irish.”
Nejla says she now has basic Irish and found studying the language difficult but fascinating.
She is in horror at Donald Trump. “He’s an embarrassment. He has done a lot of damage to our country.
“But he’s just one person. We could get over him as one person but it’s all the other people that rally around him. He’s not president all by himself. There are lots of people who actively put him in that position. They think what he says and does is OK. They agree with it. That’s the bigger problem.”
When Nejla landed back in America because of the pandemic, she had been “unplugged from things here. When I first landed, there were the riots because of the police killing of (African American) George Floyd. And when I came back into Atlanta, a gentleman there had been shot. (African American Rayshard Brooks was killed by police.)
“The global pandemic and nationwide rioting were really surreal. It felt like I was somewhere else. It wasn’t what I knew or understood.”
Nejla, who is black, has herself been the victim of racism. She has light-coloured skin and green eyes. “People often ask me what am I? They’re trying to assign a race to me. The answer is I’m American. But that’s not always good enough for people.
“So I say I’m American but outside of that, I am black. My children are bi-racial. They identify as black as well.”
Nejla plans to return to Ireland. She has been invited by a friend to stay in West Cork.
“I’m looking to relocate in Skibbereen,” she adds. From there, Nejla hopes to pursue writing as a career.
FOLLOW NEJLA'S SUMMER SOAP STARTING IN THE ECHO AND ONLINE AT ECHOLIVE.IE ON MONDAY