I find strange ways to silence my voice. I’m working on finding out why, but a mix of factors – personal, familial, cultural, societal – contribute so that when I feel the need to express my bewilderment or anger at a set of structures and rules, I write realms in my mind and those words join the millions of others gathered over a life of mostly quiet observation. The young words push into the decreasing memory space, they watch the older ones fall off the edges, they turn back to face the outside, next time, next time she writes, next time she opens her mouth, we’ll be there, armed with the courage to jump.
One of the strangest ways I find to silence myself is to write a novel. I’m almost guaranteed to imprison those words again, when they’re armed and organized, their desperation cloaked in the quiet politeness of a novel that now needs to fit in to yet another set of structures and rules, those of the ‘publishing’ world where we argue about punctuation, editing, design, creating a brand, finding an agent, the correct way to (not) respond to a personal attack in a review, how to market, how to sell, how (not) to make money, until the energy of those words is depleted, the mind silenced again by the sheer distance of the fall.
I moved to the US for the chance to be in a country where my skin color would not immediately label me. I have to laugh now at my naivety, ending up in a situation where I hesitate to leave my house, because I’m now a brown person walking, where I set my navigation app to alert me if I go even a few miles above the speed limit, because I’m now a brown person driving. The words are gathering, but they will probably slip out in disguise, for the moment, until I am an American citizen.
I hesitate to comment on things going on in Ireland as I don’t live in the middle of it now and I can only find out about it through the filter of the news here (very filtered) and my Facebook friends (possibly an echo chamber, but pierced by hate-filled comments on open threads). I know there’s a debate going on in Ireland about an Irish-born brown person. I know that are many other aspects to the situation, not just the color of his skin. I read the comments on a post about the situation. I felt the same sickening in my gut when I read the lines and between the lines. I only have 30 years of living in Ireland and being an Irish citizen, I don’t have the ‘born in Ireland’ tag, that you can glance at on the collar of a white Irish person’s shirt (on any white person’s shirt). Brown skin is the first handy label, it obscures the ‘Made in Ireland’ for both those who were made there and those who were formed there. I can only imagine what it feels like to be ‘not Irish’ even though you were born and raised in Ireland. I know what it feels like to agree inside with the Irish friends who helpfully explained that I could never really be Irish. In the same way I knew from a young age that I would never be Nigerian despite being born there. I was Indian, however, until I gave up my Indian citizenship to become an Irish citizen, and in my inner thoughts over the years, I stopped being the Indian I had been and found myself absorbing Irishness, the charm, the humor, the beauty, the warmth, as well as the insularity, and the training that looked at a non-white person and just ‘knew’ they were not Irish.
I wrote a book about an Indian-Irish woman who was born in Ireland, partly because I didn’t want to justify the expectation I felt that I might ever be considered Irish, even by myself, and partly because I wanted her story to speak to the white Irish who can at least allow the unfairness of mentally refusing Irishness to a non-white person who was born in Ireland, even one with a white Irish parent.
Arm out, I held back the hordes of my other words, maybe the next time, the next time I write, the next time I open my mouth, my own story will be there, armed with the courage to jump.
Here are two extracts from ‘An Outsider Inside’ that I’ve picked out, but really the whole book is about labels and fitting in, in whatever society surrounds us.
~ 1 ~
Dublin, Ireland. 2012
The shove on my spine was rougher than expected in the jostling, but cheerful, crowd.
I spun round.
He was a typical fecking lesbian-hater. Even had a handwritten ‘No Women Screwing Unless I’m Watching’ sticker on his metal-covered leather jacket. At a Pride march.
I moved towards him, anger outweighing fear. My head came up to his pierced nipples, inches from the swastika tattoo hidden in the jumble of skulls, crossbones, and chest hair. The smell of armpits and the stale sweat of beer on his beard invaded my nostrils.
I took comfort in the gardai I’d noticed about 20 feet away, standing in a group, bantering with the crowd. A female guard who’d eyed me up earlier, now turned, her interest piqued by the altercation.
I glared up at him. “Did you push me?” Raised my voice. “Did you fecking push me?”
He grinned, and I flinched at the stench of his breath. I glanced to the side again, almost wet my pants. Where were the cops? I couldn’t see them on the crowded sidewalk. Too late to back down now. Fecker couldn’t shove me, and get away with it, not here, not now, not with thousands of us marching to be seen and heard.
He said, aiming the comment at the guy beside him, “A fucking loudmouth lesbian.” An English accent. Didn’t think my blood could boil.
“Yes, a lesbian.” Looking him straight in his red-stained eyes, I said. “Do you have a problem with that?”
“Yeah, bitch.” He towered over me. My gut crawled into my chest. Fear and anger had clumped into an adrenaline-soaked ball in my stomach. Where were the women? The fading chants of my group dissolving into the crowd of marchers answered that.
Where was the guard? I risked a glance to where the cop in her now welcome navy uniform had been. There! Two uniforms, pushing through the bodies.
My eyes flicked to his.
His mouth twisted into a snarl. “Not just lesbian, a bastard mulatto.”
The matching, but bigger, companion snorted from his right. “Which one of your parents was the black bugger?”
The first thug leaned in, inflamed eyeballs receding under heavy lids. “Bet a pound twas a dirty black fucker fucked your cheap white mother.”
The fear got swallowed up in the old dark cloud that rose from my heart, fogged my brain. I screamed above the noise. “He was an Indian motherfucker and she is a gorgeous Irish woman who’d eat you English Nazi bastards for breakfast.”
The cops barked warnings, getting louder as they neared, but I yelled into the angry face above me. “Hope you get what’s coming to you in our Irish jail tonight.”
He swung. I ducked and his fist and arm ploughed through the male cop. I leaped to my left as the female cop’s baton crashed down on the thug’s skull, felt a pinch on my jacket as I fell past the other Nazi.
A few colleagues surrounded her, their batons ready, but the thug was out cold and his buddies backed away.
“Are you okay?” Her voice held more concern than required, seeing as I’d escaped and her partner had taken the blow.
Time crawled by on its knees.
Grinned up at the cute cop.
She knelt. “Don’t worry, there’s an ambulance coming.”
“Why?” The word trudged off my tongue. My mind wandered, not sure where.
Gentle hands on my clothes, my lapel badges clicking through the buzz in my ears.
I looked along my body.
Darkness crept out in a circle on the pocket of my pink jacket. Chloe had given it to me a long time ago, but she’d only gone last month.
My hand fretted at the stain, fighting a strange, uncaring, gravity. I squinted at my fingertips. Crimson blurred from six of them.
The breeze touched my brow, chilly on wet skin. I shivered.
The cute cop’s hair shone above me, a dark halo against the sun.
My throat protested, muscles tired, but the words needed out. “My name is Jaya Dillon. I am a lesbian. I am Irish-Indian. I have the right to walk the streets of my country.”
Her eyes were kind. “Yes, you do.” She smiled, held my blood-splattered hand, the only part of me that felt warm. “How bout doin that without pissin off the nut jobs who’d beat up anyone who’s different?”
I wasn’t sure if my lips arrived at a smirk though my cheek muscles started the journey. “Wouldn’t be as much craic now, would it?”
The bursts of a siren picking its sluggish path through the throngs pierced her surprised laugh as the light faded from my day.
Edited Extract (to avoid spoilers as this passage appears twice in the book in different ways) –
“I dropped out of the womb of an Irish-American banished to Ireland by her white family, onto an Irish hospital bed so that gave me the Irish part, the shocking sight of my darker than expected skin and hair lessened slightly (and a little later) by eyes, all of me darkened by the genes of an Indian student visiting New York then gone, lightened by my mother’s pale blonde blue gave the nurses and my mother’s extended family pause before condemnation, gave me a chance in the depths of seventies rural Ireland, a tanned baby rather than the black babies they were instructed to be charitable to, but who’d never drop into their midst, who’d never be one of them.
My mother’s fierce protectiveness, fierce as a lioness who knows her cub is unique, damaged, different, special, beautiful, would inspire unwelcome feelings in the village, even the good feelings uncomfortable, who wants change, but the lioness banned from the wild for being too wild was not going to be tamed by the laws of rural life. She flowed through, her cub in tow, demanding the glory for having produced such an exotic seed. And the family and village, dazzled by her leonine charm, opened their hearts to the bedraggled cub who didn’t officially know she was not full lion, more half-lion, half-tiger.
I was occasionally reminded of my difference, not by accuracy, but by the chants that followed the Travellers when they stopped by the village. I look more like one of them, the easy-tan skin, the dark-blonde hair, and amber eyes glowing with the same wildness no matter how much I kept it hidden under the required tameness of me.
I’m ashamed I didn’t stand up for the Travellers, not that they needed my help and I didn’t add to the chants, but inside I found myself counting the ways I was Indian-Irish or Irish-Indian and the ways I was special rather than different, oh, your hair is so thick and lush, your eyes, holy jesus, they are something else that colour, you lucky thing, you get such a nice tan, no fecking freckles on you.
See, that’s my Indian side. Though the impression most of the village had of Indians was the roaming Sikh salesmen so I guess I was an itinerant to them, anyway. I hadn’t yet seen, and neither had they, the explosion of medical and scientific staff from India and Pakistan, the gentrification of the Indian image in Ireland took place in towns and cities out of view of my child eyes and happened only in my twenties when I was away from the rural, when I was in the urban of Galway, when I creaked and groaned with the growing pains of modern Ireland, growing, but yet unable to graft new shades of skin, unable to see beyond into the Irishness of birth, of soul, of thought, of presence. There were scales everywhere. I felt sorry for the blackest of the Irish born here, but never Irish to the Irish; the half-skinned, born here, but considered a curiosity, a half image of Irish; and the light-skinned right-blooded, not born here, but Irish by heritage, a full image of Irish, but still not full Irish to the Irish.
There are years and years of Irishness I don’t get to claim as there are years and years of Indianness I don’t get to claim either, except in my genes, but all they produce are the features that give me access, the legal right to be present. They don’t give me the key to the Irish and certainly not to the Indian. They give me a door to the displaced, the window on the itinerant passing by, who at least belongs in his own world of motion.”