Those of us who take pride in Irish literary heritage need to take a good hard look at who is represented in the Irish literary canon, and in contemporary Irish literature. Skein Press, a new press whose first publication is This Hostel Life, aims to amplify the voices of writers from an ethnic minority background: a noble and necessary goal, which doesn’t necessarily mean the writing will be any good. Happily, in this case, it is.
This tiny book is beautiful, a lovely thing to hold and a pleasure to read. It is bookended by essays, the first by the author and the last by an academic, with three stories in between. I wish it was longer, but it is timely and probably we shouldn’t have to wait a day more for its dissemination, so arguably it was right to publish even though it’s slight. The three stories are surprisingly distinct, with strikingly different subject matter united by themes of gossip, superstition and prejudice, and characters struggling to hold tight to rationalism and compassion. Two of the stories are set in Ireland, and concern the experience of African migrant women here; two concern the lives of Nigerian women, one recently moved to Ireland, one living in a remote Nigerian village about a century ago. All are written in clean clear prose with a wry eye for detail and a steadfast refusal to spell things out too deliberately.
One of the successes of the book is its depiction of Irish people from the perspective of different migrants. In the title story, a discussion among women waiting in line in a Direct Provision centre gives way to frustration at the staff employed by the private operator of the centre, where just two of four windows are open while crowds of residents wait impatiently for their weekly basic provisions.
“‘Dem dey outside dey smoke,’ Mummy Dayo nod her head like she is know many things we don know.
‘After dat, dem go take break. Dat’s Irish people for you!’”
The women go on to mock a nineteen year old Irish boy who they say doesn’t know the alphabet:
“All dis children for here, they don know nothing, Mama’.”
It is refreshing and discomfiting to eavesdrop on these guests of our nation, living in Direct Provision centres, as they try to make sense of their captors, and the society that endorses their captivity. The second story, Under the Awning, presents a different discussion, this time among African women who have successfully got their papers and settled in Ireland, and who see the casual stereotyping of their identities with clear eyes. Some sharp observations about life in Ireland delicately reference the 2003 citizenship referendum without explicitly introducing or explaining it. The details are less important than the outcome: the tacit message of otherness that greets children born to racialised migrants in Ireland, the fact that it didn’t have to be this way.
At times the stories have the quality of a sketch, or perhaps a fable. Characters are left blank and lacking flesh: in Under the Awning, the members of a writers’ workshop are not even given names, being reduced instead to letters of the alphabet. Curiously, it is the final story, The Egg Broke, which has the greatest depth of characterisation and narrative realism, in spite of its utterly fable-like setting. It is only from the introduction to the book that we know the story is set at some point early in the 20th century. The central character has a clear and decidedly contemporary rational voice, in spite of the almost ethnographic nature of her tale, concerning traditional superstitions against twin births. The story, set in a rural Nigerian village, presents unsettling doubles with Irish history of policing and controlling women’s reproduction. When the pregnant protagonist stumbles and catches the pot she is carrying on her head (such details give a startling reality to the story without ever being over-emphasised), her mother in law scolds her, pointing at her belly: “save the important one first.” Later, when vaguely-understood tradition demands that the newborn twins are taken away and disposed of, the devastated narrator reflects on her husband’s family who enabled the act:
‘They now walk around with shoulders bent from helplessness and shame. I hope their shame is for themselves; for who would not raise a finger to save their own?’
The local specificities of barbarism committed against women and their babies vary around the world, but it was difficult for this 21st century Irish feminist to read this story and not relate to the work Nigerian women must do to rid themselves of patriarchy’s deep roots.
The book is bracketed by two essays, which would feel excessive if they didn’t add so much to the experience of the stories. Okorie’s prose is consistently reserved, uncompromising in its determination to show rather than tell. Liam Thornton of the UCD School of Law writes the closing essay, ostensibly to elucidate the legal and social context that provides the backdrop for the stories in the book. Wmid the careful academic notes, it is his mounting frustration at the system as the essay progresses that finally permits us to hear the fury that is so tightly controlled in Okorie’s taut texts. The quotes Thornton draws on from successive Ministers of Justice who were the architects of the Direct Provision scheme are shocking, cartoonish in their indifference to the plight of asylum seekers: had they been written in the fictional context they would be considered overblown. He points out that since 1997 governments from across the political spectrum have failed to address a cruel system, and states:
‘Political parties that ferociously opposed the system of direct provision while in opposition, happily lived with, and often defended, the system once they had reached the dizzying heights of governmental office.’
He goes on to lay the truth out baldly:
‘The system of direct provision is a system of enforced poverty, the core purpose of which is to make Ireland and deeply unattractive location for asylum seekers…’
I believe Liam Thornton, and agreed with him before I opened this book. What Melatu Ucke Okorie achieves is to make this something other than an abstract outrage. She introduces black people, African people, into an Irish context and allows them to speak with convincing clarity, simplicity and often humour. Their voices become important and credible. It would have been nice to hear more from her, and them, and we can only hope that we will again soon. The book, which is available online from Skein Press, is highly recommended.