I'd be disinvited from a sleepover when people found out I didn't go to church
Erin Fornoff arrived from the United States in 2009 after working on Barack Obama's campaign and growing up non-religious on the buckle of America's Bible Belt
Erin Fornoff at the Iveagh Gardens, Dublin. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Two weeks before Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008, campaign staffer Erin Fornoff received a phone call from an Irish journalist. The journalist asked Fornoff if he and his video team could follow her around for the final fortnight of canvassing.
“I knew one Irish person in Ireland and emailed him to ask who are these RTÉ people? Are they legitimate? I should have just googled his name instead of looking like an idiot. But I didn’t know who he was or what Prime Time was. So Mark Little and two cameramen followed me as I knocked on doors in North Carolina.”
Fornoff spent four months working on the Obama campaign as a field organiser after a friend recommended she get involved straight away. “It was the opposite of the last election which was based on how they could profit from dividing people. This was about building connections. It was history in the making and Obama was the real deal.”
Georgia is extremely white, extremely rural and it was sort of like throwing me to the lions
While Fornoff spent her initial campaign weeks in north-western Georgia, she was sent to her home state of North Carolina for the final run-up to the election. “Georgia is extremely white, extremely rural and it was sort of like throwing me to the lions. They were like ‘okay, you’re a white Appalachian girl, you go in’.”
Fornoff was born and grew up in the town of Asheville, nestled in the Appalachian mountains in North Carolina, a place she describes as “like Galway in the mountains”.
While Asheville attracted many left-wing, creative types, it was also home to a large conservative, religious community. “It was like this counter culture town sitting in the middle of the Bible belt. As a kid I went to a school called the Rainbow Mountain Children’s School where you could make up how you wanted words to be spelled. That was alongside people who would be strongly religious, people who would save themselves for marriage. I’ve been to weddings where the first kiss was at the altar.”
Fornoff’s family was not religious and did not attend church. However, she often worried that the fact she was never baptised made her stand out in school. “Religion can be really ugly and sometimes in my own neighbourhood it was made clear that we were the ones who didn’t go to church. I’d be disinvited from a sleepover when people found out I didn’t go to church.”
Despite these occasional rejections, Fornoff is glad she grew up in a community with such disparate political and religious beliefs. “I’m glad to have had that combination because you understand people more. I see people here and in cities in America who genuinely are not comfortable around people with a strong faith. It almost feels like another form of xenophobia.”
Fornoff stayed in North Carolina for university where she studied anthropology in Chapel Hill. However, halfway through the course she took a break and moved to southern Spain where she worked on an olive farm. Rather than return to college after her time abroad, she began emailing the United Nations office in New York looking for an internship. “They told me the work was only for people with graduate degrees but I just emailed them once a week for about four months. I haunted them until they were like okay, you can come.”
She spent four months working in the “fascinating and totally dysfunctional” UN offices in New York. She then moved to Washington DC to work with Ashoka, a global NGO for social entrepreneurs, and remained in the city until she received a call from a friend encouraging her to join the Obama campaign.
You have to be kind of shameless when you don’t know anybody and as an American people kind of forgive that level of shamelessness
Working on the campaign taught her that “if you’re really well organised you can achieve so much. It taught me not to listen to the voices implanted in your head that something is impossible. It was such an exciting and hopeful time.” After the election, Fornoff decided to move to Ireland to work in the Dublin office of Ashoka while she waited to hear about a job in the new Obama administration. She had just come out of a relationship and was eager to keep busy after the energy and exhilaration of the previous months.
“I was really lonely when I moved here. You’re just walking around this town in the middle of winter with a cellphone with no numbers on it. So I started writing and ended up going to a Spoken Word poetry event.” Fornoff also posted on Facebook asking if anyone had contacts in Dublin. “You have to be kind of shameless when you don’t know anybody and as an American people kind of forgive that level of shamelessness.”
As the months turned into years, Fornoff began to focus full-time on her writing. She performed her work at events and festivals and was awarded an Arts Council bursary to write a novel. Earlier this year she found out that her application for Irish citizenship had been accepted.
“I’d always taken the future as it came as I was on a year-to-year visa. When I got the citizenship letter it took about three weeks before I told my parents. I know it’s not like giving up American citizenship and in the very long term I can’t imagine not moving home but it does feel like that’s going to be my choice now. It’s not going to be an external one that will force me to leave.”
Fornoff’s first book of poetry, Hymn to the Reckless, was published last month and she says her parents are happy to see their daughter succeed in Ireland. However, she knows they miss her. She has also struggled being so far from home since the election of Donald Trump.
“It’s hard to see my country stumbling so much without being there to try and help. I had a very naive idea of how change happens. I thought if you do something positive, if you break a barrier, then that barrier is broken. It’s heartbreaking to think things can be undone so quickly. I always consider going back. The question of my torment is whether to stay or go.”
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