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Irish novel on Immigration can teach Brexit Britain a lesson

By henrymartinhm, Jan 31 2017 12:30PM

Immigration is a loaded word in our current political and social ecology. It was a primary tenet of the Vote Leave campaign in the UK and their portrait of immigrants (free loaders, terrorists, and by insinuation, people of colour) resonated deeply with voters across the UK to deliver and reveal so unambiguously a broken Brexit Britain. Across Europe and further afield, countries wrestle with the moral responsibility to accept refugees or close their borders.


Every immigrant, of course, is an emigrant and the shift in perspective it takes to grasp this distinction seems willfully avoided nowadays. A tip: putting yourself in another’s shoes is the easiest way of doing this. For instance, in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, Irish people were reassured that UK nationals did not regard the Irish as immigrants. But whether or not voters (or politicians) chose to accept the Irish as immigrants, the Irish (I am one of them) always felt an emigrant in the UK. To deny the Irish the right to own their heritage, not only whitewashes them (an extension of UK-Irish history), but, more broadly, reveals voter laziness in understanding the nuance of immigrant experience.


Since April 2008 over 480,000, mostly young, Irish left in the aftermath of the Irish recession. Many of these emigrants were young and university educated: a ‘brain drain’ much lamented and debated in the media and on the street.This mass exodus is the background to E.M. Reapy’s much-praised debut novel, Red Dirt, set in 2011.


Joseph O’Connor has called Red Dirt 'a remarkably accomplished and vivid debut novel,' Mike McCormack wrote 'the gap-year generation of young Irish men and women who went to Australia has found its laureate,’ and the author took away the award for Best Newcomer in December 2016 at the Irish Book Awards in Dublin. This praise is deserved: Red Dirt is an assured and accomplished novel with haunted characters, heightened vernacular, deft tonal shifts, and page-turning action.


The novel is split into three sections, ME narrated by Murph, YOU narrated by Fiona, and THEM narrated by Hopper. Reapy, from Co. Mayo, who is known in Ireland for her short stories, plays to her strengths in this genre—each chapter has a distinct voice and the first person narration works perfectly to create intimacy and immediacy in the stressful and action-heavy scenarios the characters find themselves in.

Ostensibly each character has come to Australia to avoid the recession, make money and have an adventure. This they find impossible to do—haunted by pining parents, ex-lovers, and children left back home.


Their inability to let go of home cripples them; they drink, take drugs, and get into sticky situations that endanger them and the people around them. Unmoored from home and civilization they regress to their basest selves: suspicious, paranoid, lusting, and—in two stories—surviving off the land in the punishing outback. This is the story of three distinct characters, but their experience of hardship, alienation, and spiritual exile will resonate with emigrants, and in particular Irish emigrants, around the world.


The author deftly conjurors an Ireland that children growing up in the 1990s will recognize; Murph recalls the good of home, ‘the young and auld fellas would be out the back of the church on a Sunday morning with cheery bloodshot eyes talking about football and pints. The smell of turf burning. The taste of McCambridges dosed in real butter, Purple Snacks, Supermac’s chicken burgers, Club Orange. The Rain. The awful bollocking rain that soaked us and quenched us.’ Fiona, however, recalls only the bad, ‘The evictions. The suicides… All the parked-up cars. All the unlived-in property. All the full exile planes.’


It is memories like these that Irish emigrants take with them everywhere; cultural baggage that makes each resistant to the catch-all, inelegant, label of immigrant that the media, with such ease, turns to.


Towards the end of the book in a rare moment of moralizing, one character, Hopper, turns to another and suggests, ‘it’s not the event but how you interpret the event that’s important.’ In this, Hopper suggests to Fiona she look past her knee-jerk view of life. This is advice worth reflecting on today as border control tightens, new political party platforms get written, and xenophobia gains credence across the world. What we call ourselves—not what others call us—defines who we are.


The emigrant needs to continue to write their story and have it read, to bypass the sloganeers and dubious media, and to help shape what happens next.


< Red Dirt 9781784974640 PB JAN 17, Head of Zeus >

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