Writing Emigrant Lives

 
 

With emigration figures still on the rise in Ireland, Síofra Ní Shluaghadháin takes a look at the legacy of emigrant literature in Ireland.


IT’S well known that emigrants and narratives of emigration and immigration have formed the backbone of some of the most influential works of the 20th and 21st centuries, not only in Ireland, but around the world. Emigrants face a unique set of challenges and experiences, and their stories touch upon some of the things that emphasise our shared humanity. In a world that is becoming increasingly divided along various different lines, and with anti-immigrant sentiment on the rise, is it time to look again at some of the best and brightest voices that have travelled far from home?

Ireland is certainly no stranger to the idea of the emigrant writer – some of our finest literary voices, including Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, spent decades in forms of “cultural exile”, fleeing from an oppressively conservative culture, and a regime of censorship which saw much of their work rendered unpublishable in their home country.

This outsider status gave these writers a unique view, not only of the lives they were living themselves, but also of the country they had left behind. Irish writers are no strangers to any part of the world (which led recently to an article in the Irish Times which asked if there is an Irish novel set in every country in the world).

“Ireland is certainly no stranger to the idea of the emigrant writer.”

On the other side of such stories, the effects of emigration on communities at home has also featured heavily in the Irish mentality. From the page to the stage and screen, the “American wake” and the desolation it left behind it appear repeatedly in Irish literature. These are stories of loss and grief, but they are tinged here and there with a certain sense of optimism. This tension is what makes the story of leaving one which we are willing to read again – it is a tension that cannot be simply resolved, and there is no formula to deal with it. Many have tried, from Brian Friel to Anne Enright, but the hunger for home, and the trouble of being an outsider in one’s own community remain a static struggle in these tales. One of the recurring themes on both sides of this literature is that of community; the Irish abroad tend to congregate together.

Further afield, migrant communities have found solace in telling their stories in their own way. Using every medium, these authors, dramatists and poets have told stories of finding new identities, and negotiating old ways of life with new. One of the most fascinating elements of the genre of migrant literature are the ways in which different narratives have been linked together.

Unlike any particular national literature, the narratives of migrants share a tenuous set of common features, highlighting the fact that each narrative and journey is intensely personal, regardless of their shared commonalities. Colonial narratives, such as Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea, highlight a certain desire to “make like home”, and how, in failing to embrace their new surroundings, some migrants can wall themselves off from the world.

“Unlike any particular national literature, the narratives of migrants share a tenuous set of common features.”

Such is also the case with Enda Walsh’s play, The Walworth Farce, where the characters spend their time negotiating between the memory of home and the reality of the present. Within this genre of fiction, there is often a sense of history being made present.

This can be seen throughout literature, from slave and post-slavery narratives of the Caribbean and the American South, to the tales of migrants in London’s East End. Storytelling is a way of maintaining and re-enforcing identity, and it has been used in a powerful way to describe the choices faced by migrants when they are far from home.

Recently, writers like Monica Ali have highlighted another form of this story, the voices of the first and second generation, caught in that very real struggle between their present, and their cultural past. These struggles take many forms, such as language, education, even food. These characters are representative of a struggle to belong when they exist with a foot in two very disparate camps.

Migrant literature allows the sense of the “other” to be brought home; the central message always giving a resounding sense of the fact that they are just like us. Experience does not define humanity, and migrant literature reinforces the fact that, under it all, we are all human.

Encompassing a range of different viewpoints, there is little doubt that the stories of migrants are ones that need to be told and heard. Using their voices, and their stories, the reader can see through their eyes, reconciling the “Other” with themselves, thus ending the separation between migrant and native.

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