Kevin Curran on why he wrote Irish literature's first black hero
As a teacher I saw how African students were being excluded from our national literature simply by being ignored by it. We write brilliantly about being an emigrant but don’t write at all about the immigrant
Kevin Curran with his debut novel, Beatsploitation, “only the first tiny dent in the closed door of a monotone culture of white Irish literature in conversation with itself”. Photograph: Balbriggan.info
Beatsploitation is the first novel in Ireland to deal directly with the African experience of living in this country. It is also the first novel to contain an African protagonist. The fact that it was narrated by a casually racist white male, set in a casually racist suburb and dealt with the exploitation of the young, impressionable African protagonist makes it in some ways an uncomfortable truth. The white Irish voice is the eyes and ears and mouth of the novel, but Kembo Pereira, a fifteen year old Angolan refugee, is the soul of the piece. Our hero. A black hero in a national literature which has yet to find one.
Because in 2013, when Beatsploitaiton was published, there were no black heroes in modern Irish literature. There are no black heroes in any era of Irish literature. As a teacher in Balbriggan I saw how African students were being excluded from our national literature simply by being ignored by it. In fact, all New-Irish students (whether they are African, eastern European or Asian) struggle to see Irish literature as an inclusive literature, open to new hybrid voices and experiences in this country. We write brilliantly about the challenges of being an emigrant, we don’t write at all about our obligations to the immigrant.
Yes, the Leaving Cert pays lip-service to African students’ cultural needs by offering a novel set in Africa (would a European novel – set in Germany – satisfy our literary needs if Irish people were abroad?) but this does not get to the heart of a black African/Irish teenager’s life experience. To create a space for African students’ experience in my classroom I once used Tom Murphy’s A Whistle in the Dark, and suggested the African students imagine themselves and their friends as the Irish family and change Coventry for, in our case, Balbriggan. The text suddenly made sense. Literature’s ability to embrace the outsider and give meaning and value to a seemingly unique experience became real for them. This was one of my motivations for writing Beatsploitation.
Beatsploitation offers a young African living in Ireland a character to relate to. It offers up an impressionable outsider like my students, eager to get involved and be accepted. But as much as it is a text for a young African to find a hero, it is not a fairy tale. Kembo’s ultimate failure to become part of the community speaks of the hard, cold facts for many black youngsters living in Ireland and the harsh reality of white Irish attitudes to our new black neighbours.
If Irish attitudes to Africa and its people are to be explored in 21st-century Irish literature, those who tackle it have a duty, especially white Irish writers, to document the feelings of a post-colonial nation becoming home to other more troubled post-colonial nationals of a bygone empire age. Cead Míle Failte only applies to a few mixed-race celebrities.
My wife’s father is Ethiopian and my son will be brought up proudly aware of his African heritage. Maybe it is such circumstances which enabled me to feel comfortable in tackling the issues surrounding race and African identity in Ireland head on. Maybe it is the lack of such ties which meant reviewers shied away from the underlying, and glaringly obvious themes of race and racism, forgot about Kembo and instead focused blindly on the white narrator’s other failings.
Our attitude to African people in this country is something we don’t talk about. We certainly don’t write about it, or if we do, we certainly don’t publish it. One publisher declined to even consider Beatsploitation because they were wary of being the “first ones” to put out such a book. No more needs to be said about where we are at the moment in relation to African Irish literature.
We hide away in the romantic distance of ’40s and ’50s Ireland, or in spaces hidden from suburban view and devoid of comment on our different neighbours. This probably reveals more about the demands of our larger English publishing houses (a post-colonial hangover of empire approval?) than the culture of writing in this country, but the truth is, if you are to really investigate the urban or suburban mind of an Irish person living now in Ireland, you, somewhere on your wanderings, will come across Africa and its people. And in this encounter, if a character doesn’t air some racist lines, even the typically Irish, “I’m not racist, but…” then you are not representing the truth of this experience.
For Kembo, our African character, to be the hero of the piece and for his tragedy to be all the more engaging, I had to render a villain both believable and repulsive, but true to the time we live in. Rob Lynch, our white narrator, is all of the above – much to the novel’s detriment. But Irish attitudes to Africans and Africans’ experience of Ireland can only be represented truthfully when we unflinchingly confront our racist attitudes and insecurities. As much as I wanted an African hero to take centre stage, I felt it was a step too far for a white Irish writer (at this stage in Ireland’s tentative relationship with African/Irish people) to become a cultural ventriloquist and speak for black Ireland through a first-person narrative. It would have been – since there are no other legitimate black voices to counter the lie – commandeering and appropriating the authentic African/Irish voice from those who hope to use it and be heard speaking its real vernacular in Irish literature in years to come.
The truth of the white Irish experience of our new neighbours – as uncomfortable as it may be – needed to be heard first. Rob Lynch’s voice was it. How we treated our African visitors, before 2013, with regards direct provision, waiting time for refugee status or nationalisation, reaction to racism and everyday discrimination on the streets or through our state systems, needed to be written about, discussed and highlighted from a white Irish perspective.
Beatsploitation was only the first tiny dent in the closed door of a monotone culture of white Irish literature in conversation with itself. In the years to come I look forward to hearing from Lewandoskis and Afonsos and Tokis as they light up our new emerging writer pages by shouldering open this door. Only then can a local globalised conversation within our own literary shores take place.
Kevin Curran’s debut novel, Beatsploitation, was published in 2013 by Liberties Press. His second novel, Citizens, will be published in 2016