Friday 19 April 2019

Pushing beyond historical whiteness of Irish writing

Fiction: Wild Quiet, Roisín O'Donnell, New Island Books, pbk, 250 pages, €10.95

Ruth Gilligan

The title story of Roisín O'Donnell's debut collection, Wild Quiet, follows a young girl named Khadra, whose family have recently moved from Somalia to Co Donegal.

Khadra's naivety colours the narrative voice, as she attempts to make sense of her unfamiliar surroundings: "You listen to the class learning about their God, who's called Geezus and who died on a cross-shaped piece of wood to save everyone."

Her teachers complain about her lack of English, but it is not her language skills which keep Khadra shtum; rather it is the perpetual sense of isolation and the worry over her missing sister that render her "wild quiet".

This interest in culturally diverse characters, in questions of language and communication, recur throughout O'Donnell's work, which has previously featured in anthologies such as Dave Lordan's Young Irelanders and Sinéad Gleeson's much-lauded Long Gaze Back. 'Infinite Landscapes' first appeared in the latter, and tells the story of a young woman trying to piece together her family heritage from her grandmother - "a proud Yoruba woman with a high forehead and an obsession with the music of The Chieftans" - to her artist mother, who found any questions relating to "the complex duality of [the] Nigerian and Irish" aspects of her work "bleedin' annoying". And yet, these "complex dualities" are precisely what O'Donnell's stories set out to interrogate.

In 2014, Pilar Villar-Argáiz's critical volume Literary Visions of Multicultural Ireland pointed out that, although Irish poetry and drama seemed to be engaging with the experience of the so-called 'New Irish', prose was, by comparison, lagging behind.

The main exception was Roddy Doyle's story collection The Deportees, and since then, novels like Oona Frawley's Flight and Kevin Curran's Beatsploitation have also featured black, non-native protagonists.

However, O'Donnell's collection undeniably adds to the relatively small number of texts attempting to push beyond the historical whiteness of Irish literature.

The collection also challenges us to consider what exactly we mean by 'Irish'; by 'foreign'; by 'other'. For example, in 'When Time Stretches', Alex feels a sense of homecoming as he leaves Ireland behind to visit Indonesia where he spent his formative years. In 'Under the Jasmine Tree', Ciaran was born to a Spanish mother, but was adopted and raised by Irish parents, thus blurring his sense of connection.

Elsewhere, when the 'local' boys shout at Kingsley and his brother to "Go back to Africa!", they reply simply: "We're not from Africa! We're from the Navan Road."

As mentioned, language plays a key role in blurring the line between insider and outsider; between belonging and not.

Oisín and his girlfriend meet on a Japanese-English conversation exchange, but find that no dictionary can truly translate how they feel for one another. Meanwhile, in 'How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps', a Brazilian woman marries an Irish man, moves to Dublin and sets about becoming fluent in the country's ancient tongue. She watches Ros na Rún; reads Is Féidir Linn; visits the Gaeltacht. However, in the end, she realises she is seeking a form of connection that goes far beyond words: "How do you say 'I'm lost' in Irish? How do you say 'I'm confused' in Irish? How do you say how you really fell in any language?"

For all its ambition, O'Donnell's collection is not always successful.

A child's naivety is pushed beyond credibility; a touching premise is rendered melodramatic; a story about Antoni Gaudí and his battle with the Barcelona City Council seems entirely out of place. That said, Wild Quiet remains an important addition to the literature of a country which, even now, is struggling to feel comfortable in its own, changing skin.

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