It’s a strange and sometimes wonderful thing to be neither here nor there.
My father is from Goa, my mother was from Dublin. Colonised and catholic on both sides, I don’t look Irish.
When I lived in Pakistan I didn’t convince anyone as a local either. I stand out like a sore thumb in “blond countries”, but can be taken for Spanish, Italian or Greek without much of a stretch.
As a kid I went “home” to Ireland many times, marvelling at how many people I was related to in places I had never heard of. My mother was a Dubliner from Chapelizod and we have family in Laois. I also marvelled at how friendly shopkeepers would just hand out ice creams to us for free.
I loved how my mother’s shoulders relaxed and her accent slipped back to where she came from, how happy she seemed with a cuppa or a hot whiskey on the go and when she was called on to sing.
My parents met in London in the 1950s where a glamorous mixed couple was protected by the diverse city. They moved to Coventry in the English midlands, like so many others, for the work and because family outliers had already settled.
It wasn’t easy. I grew up with Go Home Paki scrawled on walls and yelled across the playground. My ma told me she had once been stopped and clucked at sympathetically for adopting so many brown babies.
Still, they put their heads down and worked and worked – him as an engineer, her as a nurse.
The marriage failed and exploring her freedom meant she learned to drive and joined the Coventry Irish Players. One constant was the trips back home squashed into her ramshackle mini up to Fishguard to cross on the ferry. On the sad trip back, we’d attack the home-made soda bread before we lost sight of Dún Laoghaire.
Everything changed when dementia turned up.
The upheaval of travel was impossible. A mad, too late dash to fulfil her dream to see Santiago de Compostela almost ended in disaster when she wanted out in the middle of a motorway. So I went home from Paris to her, trying to share the burden of care before it became too much.
Eurostar became my best friend and I travelled so often in one year they promoted me to Carte Blanche with access to the posh lounge – a tiny moment of care and calm either side of the channel.
When things got really bad and everyone looked to her like an enemy, we could still come together to belt out Fields of Athenry in the garden. She had taught English in Spain as a young woman and snippets of Spanish would return to her too. When she was really angry, the accent would slip straight back to Dublin.
I have drawn on all of that for my young adult novel, The Halfie-Halfie Girl, where a young girl slips back magically into her parents’ childhoods in India and Ireland to solve the mystery behind the family’s unhappiness and find peace with her identity.
Of course it’s so much easier now. We’re everywhere (Thanks Mr Varadkar).
As kids we would have been all over that news, given that we were thrilled by rumours of Engelbert Humperdinck and maybe Cliff Richard having Indian links. Val Doonicans were two-a-penny, so not quite so exciting. A mix like Mr Varadkar would have sent us through the roof.
Like Zen Fernandes, the main character in my novel, for most of my childhood I longed to be one single thing. I don’t any more. I am the sum of my cliches and more. I love to sing and dance and support the green shirts in the rugby. There is no other comfort food more pleasing than chicken biriani. I love borders and crossing them.
And there is something else.
Children of immigrants come pre-loaded with their losses, but they also have skills. In an increasingly partisan world, I am hard-wired to see both sides of everything.
- Mary de Sousa is a half-Irish, half-Indian ex-journalist living and working in Paris as a freelance English editor and writer. She grew up in Coventry in Britain and has lived and worked in Cyprus, Spain, Pakistan and Cuba, before settling in Paris. She recently won a short story competition run by Cercle Littéraire Irlandais for The Blue Starts at the Feet, a fictionalised account of a weekend spent with her Dublin mother near the end of her dementia journey. It is from her short story collection Mother. She has completed a children’s novel, The Halfie-Halfie Girl, about a mixed-race child who magically visits her parents’ past lives in India and Ireland. She is seeking a publisher.
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