Writing is a form of activism. Sandrine Uwase Ndahiro examines the functionality of literature in celebrating the ‘New Irish’…
The transformative period Ireland finds itself in makes it imperative to engage in a national conversation on topics of race, ethnicity and diversity. The fluidity of Irishness needs to be addressed. I have been invited to take part in various multidisciplinary panels that engage in the multifaceted Irish society, and how every aspect of society must mirror this change. The Irish literary landscape is an area that still needs to catch up to this multicultural reality.[restrict]
Power of literature
Over the past few months, I have been thinking about the power of literature, in particular the power of being able to construct your own story. I have been a literature student for the last seven years with a BA in English and History, MA in English, and currently pursuing a PhD in English literature. I have an in-depth understanding of the power of literature, especially its power to create social change.
This is a key characteristic of Contemporary African literature where you see three different generations of African writers produce counter-narratives of the colonial struggle from a distinctive African perspective, as far too often their story was told in a Eurocentric manner which was dehumanising, and refused to capture an authentic representation of African life and aspiration. With this in mind, I always felt a disconnect from multiplicity as a function of literature, growing tired of how my story was told as an ‘Other’, while my real story was visibly missing from the Irish literary canon.
Literature has the power to influence change and pave the way for readers to tap into the new reality of marginalised voices on the fringes of society. As Claire Connolly and Marjorie Howes point out in the Irish Times: “In the absence of a strong Irish school of political sociological theory, literature has often been called upon to step in and tell the story of Ireland.” This striking observation left me wondering: if literature has the power to tell a specific story, then ‘Who gets to tell the story?’ I ask this question because marginalised voices are left out of ongoing discussions in Irish discourse. It is almost impossible to have a comprehensive view of new Ireland if these conversations exclude those that do not fit the norm of Irishness.
Engaging with the question of ‘Who gets to tell the story’ made me think about my journey of writing. The fear of no one caring nor listening to my narrative is something that stunted my creativity. The last time I wrote a personal essay, before 2020, was in my Leaving Cert English exam. After that, I abandoned that creative part of me. Doing a degree in English, the use of the word ‘I’ becomes a foreign concept as it is not an accepted form of academic writing. Last year, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter global movement, I had this urgency and desire to write down all my fears and anxieties, about the current political climate and truly explore what it means to be a young Afro-Irish woman in a racially articulated society. In the last two years, I have been able to face my fear of telling my story because I have had a newfound appreciation for the function of literature and the overwhelming feeling of being in full control of my own story.
There is a clear visible presence of minority voices in contemporary Ireland especially those from migrant backgrounds. The isle of Ireland has had a long history with migration and being a multicultural society. Sociologist Steve Garner traces this back to the late periods of the 1990s. Garner notes that, “Since 1996, the Republic of Ireland has been transformed into a country of net immigration” (47). This period created a cultural shift in every aspect of Irish society. The Celtic Tiger period (1994-2007) that led to the influx of immigrants saw the birth of a new Ireland, an Ireland that is home to multicultural communities.
One of the most prominent cultural shifts that I have been recently engaging in is the effects of Celtic Tiger on the Irish literary scene. The literary landscape was transformed as this new Ireland called for the need to see new voices telling their lived realities of being an ‘Other’ in this new Ireland. Pilar Villar-Argaiz book Literary visions of multicultural Ireland: the immigrant in contemporary Irish literature (2013) addresses this transformative period as she explains how “ the literary world in Ireland is still overwhelmingly ‘white’, this is undoubtedly changing as large-scale immigration has altered the ethnic composition of Irish society” (3). The lack of diversity in the literary landscape mirrored the slow progression of having more diverse representation in different sectors of Irish society. There is still a slow push to understand how those who do not fit into the outdated version of Irishness being solely white still have something to say when it comes to contributing to ongoing discussions that are shaping our current reality.
Hybrid communities like the one that I come from, being Rwandese and Irish, are something that needs to be visible in the literary scene as it is a step forward in the journey of making Ireland a more inclusive and diverse nation. I remember the first time that I came across this new writing was in my MA in a class called Literature of Migration where I read Melatu Uche Okorie’s This Hostel Life (2018) which details the lived experiences of people in Direct Provision. I distinctly recall being grounded in this moment of pride as this was the first work that I read that was written by an Afro-Irish woman writer. This moment changed my appreciation for Irish literature as it was truly the first time that I was reading an Irish literary text where I felt this deep connection and love for hearing the voice of an ‘Other’ within the Irish literary canon.
This moment acted as a source of inspiration for my literary endeavour as it was the first time that I truly believed that my voice too could be something that would be welcomed in the Irish literary scene. Before this life-changing moment, I had let myself get sucked into this void of believing that people like me didn’t belong or were not welcome in the literary discourse. It was time for me to take up space in Irish literature and showcase the power of owning your narrative. There were others engaging in these discussions and I was about to join in.
‘New Irish’ writers are key in shaping a future Ireland. Social issues are being explored through artistic and literary perspectives. These new perspectives are bearing witness to the fact that Ireland is now a multicultural society. Writers such as Chiamaka Enyi-Amadi, Melatu Uche Okorie, Feli Speaks, Shivar Joyce, Tiziana Soverino, Ola Majekodunmi, Emma Dabiri and Chandrika Narayanan-Mohan are some of the writers, poets, and playwrights that are leading the conversation of this new Irish literary scene. They are normalising the ‘Other’ being an integral part of contributors to the cultural landscape of Ireland. Each one of them in their unique way is making it possible for new entrants into this field like myself to feel represented and seen. This determination to take up space is what inspired me to come up with Unapologetic.
Unapologetic magazine is an idea that stemmed from my love of writing and activism. Being exposed to African cultural texts made me aware that writing is a form of activism, but I had been detached from this idea when applying it to my current reality. During 2020 when Black Lives Matter protests were sweeping over the globe, I found myself moved by what I was seeing and felt this urge to write down all these mixed emotions. Through writing, I was able to make sense of my fear and anxieties of what was to come next now that Ireland was engaging with the conversation of race and racism. I found myself having so many ideas that I wanted to explore but lacked a place where I could be unapologetically myself. I knew that I was not the only person who was feeling this overwhelming sense of taking charge of their narrative, and writing about social issues from their distinctive lived experiences. When it comes to social issues, minority groups are always talked about and are never the ones doing the talking. Their narrative is controlled to fit into this category of being an ‘Other’ and is projected by a variety of stereotypes. These stereotypes assume that minority groups are all homogenous with no distinctive features.
Unapologetic is a new space that celebrates the cultural richness and unique experiences of different members of our society. Artists, writers, activists, and academics were invited to contribute to our first publication, entitled “ Change Makers”. We were overwhelmed by the huge response to the call for participants, and we received great support for the publication. This response proved that the vision for Unapologetic was something that people had been waiting for. It is a space where they can be authentically themselves, a place where they would be adding to the ongoing conversation about social issues in Ireland. By submitting their work to Unapologetic their voices would not be brushed aside, ignored, or viewed as unimportant. Instead, their voices were celebrated and championed. We are in such a unique position right now. We are at a cultural crossroads where we must view diversity as a gift and understand how we must celebrate and cherish all voices that are informing our current reality of contemporary Ireland. These voices will pave the way for a more inclusive and accepting Ireland, which provides safe spaces for marginalised voices to take control of their narrative.
Lastly, literature has the power to invite you into a different world where you have access to an individual narrative. It has the power to shape our understanding of the importance of providing spaces where people can be unapologetically themselves, where they are producing narratives that are authentic to themselves and are in no way trying to appease the reader.
Villar- Argaiz, Pilar. Literary visions of multicultural Ireland: the immigrant in contemporary Irish literature. Manchester, England; New York, New York: University Press, 2013.
Connolly, Claire and Howes, Marjorie. “Charting the evolving story of Ireland’s literary history.” The Irish Times, 22 Feb 2020. ( https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/charting-the-evolving-story-of-ireland-s-literary-history-1.4172541)