Prof. Alyson Grant
English 102: Irish Literature
The Intruders: Ireland’s Othering of Ethnic Minorities as Demonstrated in “How I Fell In Love With The Well-Documented Life Of Alex Whelan” and “Under The Awning”
Ireland’s complex and tumultuous history has resulted in a cultural identity deeply entrenched in a knowledge and love of country. However, as two Irish immigrant authors, Yan Ge and Melatu Uche Okorie, demonstrate in their harrowing short stories, it might come down to something much more reductive: skin complexion. “How I Fell In Love With The Well-Documented Life Of Alex Whelan” (Ge, 2019) and “Under The Awning” (Okorie, 2018) both demonstrate a perception of non-white minorities in Ireland as something foreign, not quite Irish, something other. This othering, either rooted in feigned admiration and reducing the other to exoticism, or, conversely, based on explicit contempt and fear, results in the same consequences for the individual affected: loss of identity, feelings of dehumanization, and self-hatred. These effects are depicted via personal accounts of the stories’ two respective protagonists and the intimate interactions they experience.
Yan Ge’s tale takes the reader within the confines of her protagonist’s troubled mind through her first-person narration. That character, a Chinese-born Irish woman, is permeated by others’ perception of her. Her cultural background is so often misconstrued by white Ireland that she has grown detached from it. An instance of this distortion comes after watching a Japanese film among strangers when one asks her about Japanese culture, awaiting a confirmation to his expectations. She quickly interrupts: “I don’t know much about Japanese culture” (Ge 8). This is likely because she is not Japanese, but to non-immigrants, she has been put in a melting pot of their amalgamated presuppositions for anyone they have categorized as Asian.
This is not an isolated remark, for the character has a script to deal with them: “I’m Claire. I came from China. No, my English is not really good but thank you very much” (21). This automatization showcases the change people of color self-inflict in order to fit into their new countries. To be better welcomed, Claire has to change her name. Her original Chinese name is Xiaohan, but her mother forces her to change it, since, as she says, “it’ll be easier for everybody!” (15). And so, though “that is just not [her] name” (15), Xiaohan turns into Claire, in the hopes of not being singled out. Wishful thinking. In fact, it is even met with disbelief at times, like at a pub when a stranger is startled at her first name, Claire, taking in the cultural dissonance. She then has to blurt her last name to convince him because if “it came with a surname it must be real” (14). Her name, knowledge, or interests do not matter; instead, Claire is reduced to her facial traits, leaving her in a state of alienation.
So, while Claire accepts “yet another round of applause for [her] culture” (8) or reads about Caucasian Irelanders meaning to get “REAL FOREIGN” (19) by going to, for instance, China, she cannot help but feel unseen for who she really is. Loneliness is a harsh demon to fight, but in a society where one is a poster child for the wonders of Asia before being a human being, it is all that awaits. And so, when alone in her room, she imagines a monster cowering, “(i)ts skin hairless, its breath foul.” (24) This machination of loneliness and depression she conceives with its “eyes small and vicious” (24) is born out of desolate isolation. Such sentiments of remoteness and dejection are not exclusive to immigrants, and are common to many young people, but the anxiety and self-hatred emanating from the differential treatment still speaks for itself.
Indeed, upon learning about the death of a man she had met hours prior, Claire imagines his passing as a prank pulled on her. In the scenario, friends fake it for him, meaning to get him out of any commitment to Claire. She imagines them bashing her, mocking their friend for falling for something so “other.” The self-harming farce also regards her physical features, with one fictitious friend asking, incredulously, “you call this cute?” (11). It seems Claire would be left unsure by the question as well. This is the maiming of non-stop distinction, and even if done in the name of praising diversity, the “monster, hiding in [the] bathroom, [is?] watching” (24) Claire.
Okorie’s story moves the reader out of subtle racism and into the aggressive and overt. She brings the reader to a writers’ workshop, with an author reading aloud her story within a story, one that is truly agonizing. “You” is the Black Irish girl, originating from Africa, that Okorie uses to encapsulate the nastiness and dehumanization Black Irelanders are subjected to. And encapsulate that she does. When the reader first meets “You,” she is standing under an awning, waiting for rain to stop, a rain that in her origin country would have had her continuing life as it is, would have been a sign of joy. But “You” is “desperate not to stand out” (Okorie),so she waits. Sacrifice and suppression are common to both Claire and the Black girl: attempts to be accepted, to be deemed Irish uncompromisingly. But a more visual feature is the deciding factor for white Irelanders, like “the little children who always shouted ‘Blackie!’” (Okorie) at her. To them, she is her skin colour, and she has not got the tolerable shade.
In this tale, the othering also takes legislative proportions: African children born in Ireland “do not hold the same passport as other Irish children” (Okorie). It is ingrained in Irish culture that an African child could not possibly be Irish and that scorn shall ensue any striving to be. Displays of that point are not difficult to find. One could refer to when “You” found herself in a packed bus but “the seat next to [her] remained empty” (Okorie). Or perhaps the time when photographs of children were to be put up along their country of origin, but children of non-nationals, though born in Ireland, had their parents’ country plastered on them. Upon request by an African parent to change the country to Ireland, “all the pictures were taken down” (Okorie).
Black is not only foreign to Ireland: it is seen as dangerous, risking a spread of its otherness. There is disdain here, not solely ignorance. One of the story’s characters, Aunty Muna, textualizes the relationship dynamic in one striking sentence: “the Western world [likes] Africans the way you [enjoy] animals in a zoo; you could visit them, feed them, play with them, but they must not be allowed outside their environment” (Okorie). This Western perception of Africans as subhuman is highly detrimental. When one perceives another as different from their own humanity, compassion grows paltry. Treatment becomes inhumane as well, with sexual fetishization being one of the horrors Black girls are left to grapple with, illustrated in the story within a story: “he would wave and smile, and you would wave and smile back, until the day he told you he would give you €100 if you slept with him” (Okorie). And so, the perpetual singling out has left “You” crying on her bed on certain days, wondering how on earth one could feel so lonely with “so many people around [her]” (Okorie). Thus ends the story within a story, segueing into the reactions of those who had been listening to it. Those listeners are not as moved by the tale. To them, its narrative and literary choices jump out at them. The first critic says, “I am surprised you wrote in the second person,” while a second one adds, “I think the story should have a bit of light to it” (Okorie). Perhaps these were the tale’s most conspicuous aspects. The listeners, seeing themselves, are more concerned with the girl’s “paranoia” (Okorie) than they are with the suffering she endures. They cannot quite relate to her. They have made her an other too.
Though these two protagonists demonstrate the impact of othering on cultural minorities, further evidence can be obtained upon focusing on interactions with secondary characters. One of the most unnerving passages in Yan Ge’s story is when Claire’s mother calls her only to degrade her with “advice,” one piece more shaming than the other. Seen as an isolated interaction, the mother is painted as detached, cruel, and spiteful. She might be all those things, but there is a strong possibility that she too is a victim of othering, internalizing that her culture is nothing of worth and must be disposed of. During the distressing phone call, the mother blurts out: “you are a foreigner in this country” (Ge 25). This is a loaded warning, coming from a woman who knows from experience that her country is unable to look past foreign origins. Her country cannot change; Claire has to change. In defense of this easily dismissed woman, the idea that she is a mother working in her child’s perceived best interest is not beyond reach. She has also absorbed the negative impacts of othering, and wishes for her daughter nothing but fast, tangible settling.
“Under The Awning” also offers strong insight on the pervasive nature of othering through a secondary character. The story within a story’s protagonist has a younger sister and Okorie grants us one glimpse at her perspective: “[she] thought Peaches Geldof was cool for walking around barefoot and did not want to visit Africa because Africans were poor and the African children shown on the television had no shoes” (Okorie). Comments such as these coming from an African-Irish 9-year-old could be dressed innocently but are most definitely disturbing in their naked form. For a child to denigrate the individuals who look most like her physically, one must wonder just how many negative messages—clear or subliminal—that child has absorbed regarding them. From being distinguished and secluded, this younger sister has learned that the majority acting a certain way is acceptable, but that Black individuals like her acting in the same way is crass. In other words, for Peaches Geldof, a White Irish personality, walking barefoot is admirable and sensational, but African children doing so is boorish, and a sign of their cultural inferiority.
These two stories demonstrate the intrinsic hardships of adaptation, nonetheless pointing out that it could be made simpler if immigrants didn’t have to remain wary of “nationals” at all times: wary of their stares of judgement, their perceptions of disapproval, their pursed lips somehow mouthing go away. It is the lack of will to understand the “other” like one tries to understand themselves that Okorie highlights, the same one that made her leading character a cynic, violently scribbling “on the paper she had read from ‘self-loathing and self-hatred’’’ (Okorie), following a myriad of thinly veiled attacks on her personal recounting. This is the same distancing that left Ge’s Claire “quietly crying” in front of a black and white projection of a father and daughter speaking in a “strange language,” inexplicably and uncontrollably. Insidiously, othering has damaged these characters’ psyches in indelible ways.
Ge, Yan. “How I Fell In Love With The Well-Documented Life Of Alex Whelan.” Being Various: New Irish Short Stories. Ed. Lucy Caldwell. Dublin, Faber & Faber, 2019.
Okorie, Melatu Uche. Excerpt from This Hostel Life. “We as migrants are used to being spoken for, but these are our experiences.” Irish Times, 31 July 2018, https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/we-as-migrants-are-used-to-being-spoken-for-yet-these-are-our-experiences-1.3580819. Web. Accessed 12 Nov. 2021.