ARE YOU IRISH? POETRY IN A MULTICULTURAL IRELAND
(PI News March/April 2010)
Recently I’ve had the bizarre experience of a reviewer assuming that English is my second language, despite the fact that I don’t now, nor have I ever, written in French. English is my first language, the language my Irish mother taught me. And although my father is French-Canadian, he never spoke a word of French to me. I have a few phrases of useful French: Oú est l’auberge de jeunesse and Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?, and a few words of useful Irish, póg mo thóin and ‘slán’, but neither of my parents ever felt the need to pass on the languages of their youth. I spoke English in Canada and speak English, albeit with a Canadian accent, here in Ireland, the place I have called home since I was twelve years old.
Having a reviewer decide my cultural and linguistic identity, and set it in print as fact (presumably on the basis of my name), has made me wonder about other non-Irish, Irish people, living and writing here, contributing to the wider literary and artistic scene. Have they, too, been reviewed under erroneous cultural assumptions? Have they been accepted as writers by their country first, before launching out into the wider world? And by ‘their country’ I mean the country they live in, pay taxes in, drink in, sleep in, raise their children in, rather than the country of their birth. And to go deeper into the idea of bloodlines and language-lines, how Irish do you have to be, to be considered an Irish writer? Does the poetry business in Ireland have standard criteria for assessment? Would an Irish grandmother do, as it does for both the national soccer team and the Irish passport office? Or would a surname as Gaeilge suffice? Perhaps it’s time to introduce blood testing, like the American government uses to ascertain if you possess certain genetic markers that make you part- Cherokee or part-Ojibwe. Would an official record of the time spent here as a child, schooling, accent or idiom be considered?
It’s Louis MacNeice and his cultural identity crisis all over again. When asked, ‘Are you Irish?’, he is reported to have replied: ‘You might call it that.’ (Whereas Beckett, when asked was he English, replied 'au contraire'). The responsibility of all reviewers is, obviously, to get the facts right. As the Canadian poet Milton Acorn once wrote: ‘before we use up truth / our tongues’ll slough off’. The power to decide the identity of a poet and state this as fact comes with an extra burden – the reviewer must read the poems in a way that the average reader is not required to, they are not as free to bring their own experiences and prejudices to the poems. A reviewer must also take the broader cultural context into account – which includes doing the bare minimum of research. No book of poetry is written in a cultural vacuum, and no book is read within a cultural vacuum. Ultimately, literature is discovered and read first in its country of publication, and in order for writers to gain a readership or any critical appreciation, not only do they need to engage with, they need to be accepted within the country in which they reside. And as Ireland becomes less homogeneous, this may take a bit of extra effort on the part of a reviewer to come to an accurate (at least factually) reading of the poet.
Ireland is beginning to fill the silences left around the tabloid media’s standard version of Irishness. Dedalus Press has just published a collection of poems (Landing Places: Immigrant Poets in Ireland) written in English by immigrants in Ireland – a term they have decided will include not only people who were born outside Ireland and came to live here, but also those born here who have one or both parents born elsewhere. In their call for submissions, the editors, Borbála Faragó and Eva Bourke, stated that:
'This anthology is intended to reflect the increasing diversity of cultural life in Ireland and to give first and second generation immigrants an opportunity to showcase their distinctive contribution to contemporary Irish literature, as well as to celebrate their difference at the same time.'
With a bit of luck and broadmindedness, this will bring out into the open a discussion of what constitutes ‘Irish’ poetry, no longer limiting non-Irish born or reared or half- reared poets to being cultural novelties, or exotic ‘others’. In this way these questions of identity will become explicit and enter the wider discourse surrounding poetry in Ireland. These are the considerations that reviewers, readers, critics and poets will have to take on as Ireland moves away from a single cultural identity, and conciously incorporates these ‘blow-ins’ into the national literature, not simply shunting them into the literary landscape as a bit of background colour.
At this point, I should round off this argument with a summation, or a solution of sorts. But because I’m on the edge of being considered Irish, I’m left with a list of questions that I’m not in a position to answer. Can a cultural hegemony such as Ireland – with its post-colonial history of forcefully and rigidly declaring the parameters of its cultural and geographical identity, to the point where a proportion of its full-blooded Irish citizens consider themselves outside this boundary – make space for those who don’t even have an Irish name, or accent, or even freckles to fall back on? How will poetry in Ireland, along with the reviews, discussion and criticism surrounding it, accommodate these fluctuating cultural boundaries?
Further, will the many ‘Irish studies’ university programs, here and abroad, take on this broader definition of ‘Irish’ in their literary analyses ? And finally, if ‘literary exile’ is the term for the experience of a writer being disregarded or misrepresented by the country they have left, what is the word for being disregarded or misrepresented by the country in which you live?