'Flight': a snapshot of Ireland a decade before its time

Eight years after she wrote ‘Flight’, Oonagh Frawley’s novel about international Ireland has found a brave new publisher

Immigrant experience: Oona Frawley. Photograph: Graham Keogh

Immigrant experience: Oona Frawley. Photograph: Graham Keogh

Sat, Apr 5, 2014, 01:00

When I meet Oona Frawley at a Starbucks, we are both a little disappointed to find ourselves in a chain coffee shop. Then again, given the topics she deals with in her debut novel, Flight , perhaps the location is fitting. The novel is about modern Ireland in all its complexities and contradictions, set in a south Dublin seaside suburb and drawing together many of the disparate threads that constitute this country now. Written eight years ago, Flight is now seeing the light of day thanks to Tramp Press, a new publishing house based in Dublin.

Frawley admits it feels a little strange to think about the novel now, almost a decade after she finished writing it, but the open-minded, passionate approach of her publisher has energised the experience.

“There was a lot of interest at the time,” she says. “Publishers were very positive about it – they liked the language, they liked the writing – but how were they going to sell it?” The book’s main protagonist is a black Zimbabwean woman: this proved something of a stretch for some publishers at that time. “It was like asking somebody to solve a murder mystery. They just couldn’t figure out how to package it. Two people asked me to take the character out. Another suggested I should write her as a Polish character.”

Tramp Press had no such worries, and Sandrine, the pregnant Zimbabwean teacher who leaves her home and family to move to Ireland alone, stayed in the book. Her thoughts provide its most important perspective; Frawley uses Sandrine’s observations to discuss memory, identity, racism and postcolonial politics. This might sound heavy, but Frawley embeds these ideas deep in her characters, so it reads as a deftly woven series of narratives, with concerns about the wider world bubbling beneath.

Another central strand is the dementia of Tom and Clare, the elderly Irish couple in whose home Sandrine works as a carer. Sandrine and the couple’s daughter Elizabeth watch them go downhill; recollections of their lives in New York, Connecticut and Vietnam fill out the family’s backstories as the novel progresses.

Writing these characters through their mental decline was a testing process. “It was difficult at times, because it’s so emotional,” says Frawley. “To think of the things that matter most to a person being unavailable over time. I think there’s also a stage in forms of dementia where there’s an awareness of that. I wanted to try to explore that, but it was hard.”

The daughter of Irish actors who moved to the US, Frawley grew up in New York. She moved back to Ireland in 1999 and now lectures in English at NUI Maynooth. As an immigrant, Frawley is well placed to elucidate the Irish attitude to “foreigners” or “the new Irish”, a tension that peaked around the referendum on Irish citizenship in 2004. This event motivated Frawley to write Flight .

“To see that racism in the culture was horrifying, and I was so taken aback,” she says. “I was so tired of seeing in the newspapers, even in The Irish Times , the stereotypes about Nigerians in Ireland, or about Polish people in Ireland, or Russian people. I wanted to look at one person who was here and had a life and had thoughts and sensitivities and played a really significant role in Irish people’s lives.”

Flight is noticeably different in tone and setting from most Irish literary fiction. Lisa Coen, one of the founders of Tramp Press, says publishers tend to take a conservative approach to what constitutes an Irish book and what Irish people will read.

This is one reason there aren’t more books like Flight , dealing with the diverse personal realities of multicultural urban Ireland. Coen says Irish audiences want to read fiction about the country’s economic and social situation.

She points to the success of Donal Ryan’s Booker-nominated The Spinning Heart, which was plucked from obscurity by her partner at Tramp, Sarah Davis-Goff, when she worked at Lilliput Press.

“Saying Irish people aren’t going to read about ghost estates or . . . the citizenship referendum or the crash, it’s foolish,” says Coen. “It’ll underestimate people.”

Frawley also suggests that society has changed since she wrote the book, meaning there is now a wider interest in characters such as Sandrine and cosmopolitan, international Irish like Tom, Clare and Elizabeth.

“The cultural context has changed drastically, so now I think it actually is much more multicultural,” she says. “Maybe that’s also why this is a much better moment for a book like this. I hope there will be others, to come out with those voices, containing those stories that, 10 years ago, we weren’t ready for.”

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