The recent literary racefail events made me realise how much my reading (and the bookshelves around here) are mostly dominated by white authors writing about white characters. It's not always necessarily stated that characters are white, but it's implied. After the Bloomsbury debacle, I skimmed the shelves of the bookshop I work in, focusing on the kids/YA section, and noticed how little ethnic diversity was represented there. Same goes with my bookshelves. Not enough non-white characters or authors.
It's not today news, it's something I should have always been aware of. And I sort of was, but not completely. I've always been intrigued by books with characters from different cultures, because most of the times, it's the only way for me to get to know closely and personally someone whose background is so different from mine, even if this person is fictional. I'd love to be able to travel more, meet people from all over the world, with any kind of skin colour, and know how they live, what they think. But I'm stuck in Ireland, a sort of immigrant myself, with all of my friends being white (very white!) and almost all Europeans. I'm also not the most sociable person, and although Ireland is more multicultural than ever, I've never being friends with a Black or Asian person, for example. And that's where books come in handy. They supply me with what my lack of sociability should provide. That's a way of seeing it anyway.
And that's why I picked up The Deportees and other stories. OK, also because I heart Roddy Doyle to infinity and have been waiting to read this for ages.
This is a collection of eight stories which Roddy Doyle wrote for Metro Eireann, the first and only multicultural paper in Ireland. At the end of the 90's and the start of the noughties, Ireland's celtic tiger was beginning to roar. "I went to bed in one country and woke up in a different one", writes Doyle in the foreword. This new Ireland was the home of hundreds of thousands of "new Irish" coming from all over the world: Poland, Zimbabwe, Romania, Spain, South Africa, Philippines, Nigeria, Italy, Lithuania, France, Pakistan ...
In the 80's Jimmy Rabbitte, the character who forms the band the Commitments, famously said that the Irish were the niggers of Europe. Now Ireland is the place many Africans choose as their home, and Jimmy Rabbitte wouldn't even dream of saying the same again. No, now what he dreams about is forming a band made entirely of immigrants! In the story which gives the books its title, "The Deportees", we get to meet Jimmy again, years later, married with kids. And dying to form another band, even though his wife is expecting another child and hates the idea. But he can't help himself and one day he grabs his laptop and writes the ad for Hotpress:
Brothers and Sisters, Welcome to Ireland. Do you want the Celtic Tiger to dance to your music? If yes, the World's Hardest-Working Band is looking for you. Contact J. Rabbitte at 089-22524242 or email@example.com. White Irish need not apply.
This was one of my favourite of the collection. It's basically a sequel to the Commitments, which despite being way too short for my greedy taste, manages to recreate the same cheerful, upbeat, and absolutely hilarious atmosphere of the original novel. Alone, it would make the book worth reading. But it's not the only great one in the mix. It's true that it's a very diverse collection, in every sense, but I found it had more highs than lows and I loved it in its entirety. I devoured it. And now I'm afraid I'll have to buy my own copy 'cause I can't bare to be without it.
I'd definitely want to reread some of them. Especially "Black Hoodie". It's a story told from the point of view of a white Irish teenager who teams up in school with an extremely intelligent and proud Nigerian girl and two other teens, one of which on a wheelchair, to tackle the issue of prejudices against black people and youths in hoodies. It has a real YA feel, the usual Doyle's irresistible humour and some great characters I'd love to know more about.
Another one which intrigued me but left me ambivalent at the end was "The Pram". It's a genuinely spooky story about a Polish child-minder, a baby, a pair of creepy twin girls, and an old pram. Taken out of contest, as a sort of ghost story, I would have loved it. It actually spooked me out quite a little bit. It's cruel, and it shows the condition in which child-minders, especially foreign ones, are treated by wealthy Irish families. But I felt uncomfortable about the way the polish nanny comes across. Without spoiling the ending, if I were one of those wealthy southsider kind of mothers...let's just say I probably wouldn't feel very welcoming towards a Polish nanny again. Maybe the point of the story was only to write a well-crafted urban-gothic story without any other intent. That's fine. But in a collection where the main point seem to show the beautiful country Ireland has become because of the arrival of foreign folks, and to present a different take on some urban legends about what these foreign folks do in the private of their homes (setting up brothels and slaughtering Irish sheep, for instance), this particular tale seemed to me out of tune.
New Boy wasn't out of tune at all. It was short and moving, and just about perfect. It shows how the introduction of a new boy, from Nigeria, into an Irish class, causes some disruption. But it's nothing different than to what happens to a newbie in almost every school. Kids are cruel, at first, and bullies love to show their muscles at every occasion. But the new boy is tough too, and he won't be an easy target. I loved how it shows the little kid's thoughts, his bewilderment at the absurd behaviour of his teacher and his classmates, and I loved the ending. Wonderfully bittersweet.
Another one I really enjoyed was "Home to Harlem", about a black Irish young man, who goes to New York looking for his roots, trying to understand where exactly he can fit in. It was seriously funny, if maybe lacking of a real plot. I didn't mind, cause the dialogues, and the Roddydoyleness made up for it.
So, yeah, I enjoyed most of them, with the exception of "57% Irish" which was too confusing, and too rushed, although I liked its basic idea.
Although not all perfect, they were truly enjoyable, and more importantly, they were necessary.
P.S. While posting the link to Metro Eireann I found out that you can read even more stories on the website. I never even thought of that. Score!
I also found this video of Roddy Doyle talking about his book.What he says about the meaning of Irishness is important. That the act of defining a nationality is an act of exclusion and thus it's problematic. I completely agree. The idea that permeates the Deporteess instead is one of inclusion. It's embracing as opposed to confining. And that's why I can't help but sings its praises with all my heart.