Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 8; 28 February 2021

Roisín O’Donnell, Wild Quiet

The “Irish” short story in the 2010s

Kingsley, the 10-year-old narrator of “How to be a Billionaire”, is an Irish citizen by birth but thinks of himself as Nigerian. As far as he’s concerned, the only child in their class who really is Irish is Shanika. She has “hair like autumn” and was born in London. Kingsley is perceptive and imaginative but bad at making connections and seeing relationships between things. He has “special needs” and a tendency to get people’s backs up, unintentionally for the most part. He doesn’t seem to notice or care when people are angry with him.

Because he had to repeat Junior Infants, Kingsley is in the same class as his younger brother Ezekiel, who often ends up protecting him and keeping him out of trouble. When a writing exercise in class requires him to describe where he comes from, he doesn’t know what to write:

Where I’m from on Hunter’s Run is a block of flats that’s not finished. The stairs are filled with flyers saying Buy One Get One Free, Sky TV, Macari’s Takeaway. There’s a lift that’s normally broke. Behind the flats there’s this place everyone calls Wasteland. It’s where more flats were going to be, but I guess they never finished it, so now it’s just mud and bits of bricks and weeds and long grass and bits of stuff like somebody’s door or somebody’s window. (New Island Books paperback edition, p. 27)

Unable to describe this, Kingsley instead starts “drawing my name graffiti-style”. The teacher is not pleased and asks him if this is a true reflection of where he’s from, to which Kingsley replies “Yeah”. It appears that Kingsley doesn’t connect the idea that he’s Nigerian with any sense of where he is “from”. In his mind, he’s not really “from” anywhere, and Nigerian is simply what he knows he is, possibly because other people have told him so.

A disconnect between what what people believe they are and where they are from comes up in several of the stories. In “Under the Jasmine Tree”, a 33-year-old architect named Ciaran visits Seville to meet his birth-mother, Alma (who is, among other things, a poet). He had been taken away from her at birth and adopted by a family in Ireland. This had apparently been done by Catholic nuns, with the approval or encouragement of Franco’s government.

Alma seems to find the meeting more distressing than Ciaran does, but he too has had difficulty coming to terms with the circumstances of his birth:

I always knew I was adopted … but I always thought I was Irish. It wasn’t until I started doing my own research that I found out … that I found out about you. (p. 68, original ellipsis)

The narrator of the first story, “Ebenezer’s Memories”, is the daughter of a “mixed marriage”: her father was Catholic and her mother is “Protestant” (probably either Presbyterian or Church of Ireland). When the narrator’s parents eloped to England both families cut off contact with them. Her father was killed on one visit back to Derry. Ironically, his murder to have had no connection with his having married a Protestant:

They think my dad stumbled upon “someone up to something” in the docklands that morning. It wasn’t a political killing as such: more a chance; a misfortune; an incomplete memory. (p. 20)

After Gerry’s death, his widow moves with their two children to Sheffield, and begins to visit the children’s surviving grandparents each year for Christmas and often in the summer as well. Gerry’s mother is in a nursing home and hasn’t forgiven Maggie for the loss of her son. Derry is a city in which certain memories are actively suppressed (and a carefully selected few assiduously fanned). But some of the suppressed memories manage to escape.

During her childhood, Catherine didn’t associate the Derry where her grandparents lived with the “Northern Ireland” of the tv news bulletins. But piece by piece she starts to put together both her own family history and the broader history of the place. She does this from the summer of 1998 onward. From the date, we infer that the Good Friday Agreement has made it safer for her to poke about in the past. The leaking of memories isn’t an unequivocally good thing, of course. Catherine associates the Omagh bomb with her own digging in the pit of memory and for a while thinks she might have been responsible for the atrocity.

In the end, she is wiser and she knows more about her own background, but she hasn’t worked out what to do with that knowledge:

Lines were worn into my palm now, and loneliness seeped from me. My copied accent had settled into a neutral lilt, and the confusion I’d felt as a child had only intensified. I’d moved to Dublin, but that hadn’t solved anything. The older I’d become, the less Irish I felt, and also the less English, so that now I felt effectively stateless, lost between worlds. (p. 20)

Catherine has, at last, more of a sense of where she’s from than either Ciaran or Kingsley has but that hasn’t helped her to understand what she is.

In several of the stories, O’Donnell seems to be confronting the reader with the question as to what it means to be Irish. A Dublin-born boy whose father (unlike him, not an Irish citizen) has gone back to live in Lagos? An Englishwoman with grandparents in Derry, who moved to Dublin after their deaths? An adopted child with an Irish name who has only as an adult learned of his Spanish origins? But, once the question has been confronted, she seems to insist that the answers don’t matter after all. Catherine may feel that she’s “stateless, lost between worlds”, but is this (a) true? and (b) really such a bad thing?

Luana, the protagonist of “How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps”, does not claim to be Irish, but is required to obtain a badge of (Irish) nationality so that her registration as a primary school teacher can be finalized. None of the Irish people around her, including her husband and in-laws, can form a sentence in the first official language, but then they’re not trying to become teachers. She enrols on a course, “Irish for Beginners”.

Most of your classmates will be Irish retirees in search of a new hobby. If they gawk at you and ask why the feck a Brazilian girl like you is learning Gaelic, explain that you are a primary teacher with a master’s in education from São Paulo University, you moved here to Ireland because you fell in love with an Irish man, and that you must learn Irish in order to teach at primary level. (p. 90)

Like Luana, Khadra (the central character in the title story) is living in Ireland but is not (and does not look) Irish. She’s an 11-year-old Somali refugee who spent several years in Dadaab refugee camp, where her younger sister Aniya was lost. Khadra now attends a primary school in remote, rural Donegal, where she refuses to speak, though she befriends a fellow pupil named Saoirse. Khadra hadn’t wanted to leave Dadaab for Europe:

How are we going to find Aniya if we don’t stay here? (p. 128)

Saoirse remarks that the silent Khadra is “wild quiet”. In Donegal, “wild” is often used to mean “very” or “extremely”, so the apparent contradiction appears easy enough to resolve. But perhaps it’s easier than it ought to be. Khadra’s silence really does seem to contain or conceal something much more turbulent:

Words bubble in your throat. If you made one sound, you might say everything. From the trapdoor of your lips, machine-gun fire would pour. You would speak about the smell of the tarpaulin on the lorry where you hid, the first sight of white tents stretching to the horizon, the stench of Dadaab in your hair, Aniya’s clammy hand in yours, the listless, always-alert kind of sleep in a port town rumbling with trucks, and the way the small boat swayed beneath your feet. If you said something, you might not stop. From your lips it might all spill out and flood the yard. (pp. 135–6)

It should be clear from what I’ve written so far that many of the stories in Wild Quiet deal with questions of identity, nationality, origins, and displacement or migration. This isn’t true of all of them, though. One of my favourites, “Titanium Heart” is about the transformation of Sheffield from the Steel City it used to be into a city of trees. This effect of the deindustrialization of England is, however, related to the grief of a woman whose child has died, so that it seems to her husband that her bereavement is the cause of transformative effects in the wider world, in much the same way that Catherine in the first story thinks that by reminding herself of “things we’d rather forget” she might have caused the bombing of Omagh.

Only Stephen suspected that the hairline fracture in Eva’s titanium heart was somehow causing the meltdown. …
Grief and shock do strange things to a relationship, thought Eva, like molten lava silently oozing into crevices and changing the landscape. (p. 53)

It’s understandable that our own personal pains and sorrows should seem to us so momentous that we can believe that they are having an influence on large-scale socioeconomic or political change.

Another story that I like and that doesn’t have identity or origins as an obvious theme, is “Death and the Architect”, in which Antoní Gaudí attempts to outwit, control or at least keep up with Time, as he continues to work on La Sagrada Familia, even after his death.

It is incompleteness that fascinates us. Poles never reached. Liners lost mid-ocean. Hands almost held. Skins almost touched. Nearly completed spires paused on their ascent into the Barcelona sky. And a church under construction for more than a century. “When will it be complete?” the tourists are always asking. But only Time will tell, and she for the moment is jumping up and down on the yellow cranes surrounding the basilica, trying to get them to break.

I don’t feel I’ve come close to doing justice to Wild Quiet. Collections are difficult because any individual story is liable to contain more than its short length leads us to expect. There remain several stories that I haven’t even mentioned, at least three of which — “Kamikaze Love”, “Infinite Landscapes” and “On Cosmology” — I’d like to have said something about. I may write a short essay on one or more of these, eventually. For now, though, I’ll conclude by letting the end of the first paragraph of the third one speak for itself:

Despite having made a career in science, I never was much good at biology. “Zygote” is a new word for me. I only learnt it yesterday when I googled “three weeks pregnant”.

In the next issue, provided I manage to reread Ulysses within the next two weeks, I’m hoping to take a look at William Empson’s idiosyncratic (some would say “wrongheaded” or worse) but illuminating interpretation of Joyce’s great novel.

Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 28–Feb-2021.