An emigrant writer: neither one thing nor the other

Camino
The Camino de Santiago passes through the region where I live. So many ways to get to the same destination.

With my two non-fiction books I have experienced wonderful support and good fortune but I’ve also come up against barriers that are particular to the emigrant writer. The problem mainly boils down to being far away from the market and the writing community, either geographically or culturally. Living in a non-English-speaking country brings additional challenges.

If I may have a little grumble …

I recently discovered that my second book, The Naked Irish: Portrait of a Nation Beyond the Clichés, had not been longlisted for an Irish non-fiction prize, the only dedicated non-fiction prize for Irish books.

The prize is for books published in Ireland that contribute to knowledge and/or the public debate. The judging panel is also looking for originality and quality of writing. The long list cast a very wide net over Irish interest books published in the last two years, so much so that my publisher Red Stag Books queried why The Naked Irish had been overlooked.

The reason was very simple. The prize is only open to authors resident in Ireland. Being a Swiss resident, I was simply not eligible and my book was not considered.

Obviously the mistake was ours for not noticing the residency requirement in the rules but it was another reminder of how difficult it is to stake a claim in the Irish writing scene when you are not on the ground.

When I was submitting The Naked Irish, two of the publishers I looked at did not accept submissions from writers based outside Ireland. At this stage of the game, there are ‘keep out’ signs everywhere you look, so I just crossed them off the (rather short) list of Irish interest publishers and moved on.

But it’s also an issue I come up against when I look into grants and writing residencies in Ireland. I understand that Irish-based writers come first and I don’t expect the situation to change. The Irish diaspora is so huge, and we have our own countries to support us. Or do we?

I’m a member of the Swiss Society of Authors and I receive their quarterly publication. Apart from that link, I have no real connection to the community. The competitions and grants listed in the publication are for authors writing in the national languages. The festivals and events are for authors who can perform well in those languages.

Whenever I search online for grants I might be eligible for, I lose hours and find nothing.

Could do better

I have done a limited number of events in French and German promoting the translations of The Naked Swiss: La Suisse mise à nu & Die wahre Schweiz. These included talks and interviews in front of an audience and once even reading to train passengers in a flash-mob style event, the most draining thing I’ve ever done.

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But I’ve hit a ceiling in fluency in both French and German and I feel I can only offer a limited part of my personality and intellect when communicating in those languages. In any case, this year is an exception. All the author events I had lined up for the first half of 2020 have been cancelled, including a library talk, school talk, university lecture and a job accompanying a tourist group.

A big part of a writer’s job is promoting their work. If a writer complains to themselves about lack of recognition, and we do, the little voice inside says, you could be doing more, hustling better. More articles, more social media, more applications to festivals, more entrepreneurship – setting up workshops, courses, organising talks.

I’ve been really lucky to have a connection with two Swiss literary festivals that have part of their programme in English, Le livre sur les quais and Bibliotopia. Once I was invited as a featured author and twice as a moderator. For every other festival I don’t take part in, whether in Switzerland or Ireland, the little voice of doubt reminds me I have not tried hard enough or not tried at all.

I’ve been a Swiss citizen since 2015 so I am a Swiss writer, just not like the others. My current work in progress is a novel set in Switzerland. It’s a story that would have a lot of resonance for Swiss readers and should really be published by a Swiss publisher. But it is in the wrong language. Still, I will do my best to find a home for it.

I’m an Irish citizen so I am an Irish writer, but, again, not like the others. I am separated from my country, more than ever in these times of grounded flights and quarantine.

If you’ve read this far, I hope you have gained a little insight into the tensions of being an emigrant writer. Instead of telling myself, ‘could do better’, I will try to remember that having my voice and perspective included to some extent is already a gift.

So many people are removed from their natural community for different reasons. And the challenges of self-promotion are not unique to writers or to emigrants. Does this post resonate with you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

8 thoughts on “An emigrant writer: neither one thing nor the other

  1. Dear Clare, I really enjoyed this post, “ neither one nor the other”. While I am not a writer I am an immigrant. I’ve lived in Switzerland for 2 and a half years now and probably because I listen to irish radio constantly I can identify with what you are saying, when Ireland began the fight with Covid all I wanted to do was volunteer , listening to all the lovely things people were doing for each other , there was plenty of whinging too of course but I felt almost marooned here . I’ve never wanted to fly home as much . I was one of those kids in the 80’s whose parents fled to England for work and to escape the hardship of the dole que so I had a lesson early in life about being part of the diaspora and what a strange place it is to inhabit because you are as you said neither one nor the other . Being Irish in England though was layered with many complicated feelings and emotions that living here doesn’t bring. We can’t vote from abroad like the french can so I suppose your cultural heart is torn trying to fit in here and keep your identity to a courtly who sometimes I think is only interested in the diaspora if they are stood at an international awards podium , then they claim ya! I have to admit I haven’t read your book but I have heard of it ( possibly a radio interview?) and if anything today I’m thinking we need to lay claim to our irish artists, particularly writers who are not living in the country in a Kind of international solitary movement, we. Oils hater them up and create a new box on a form. I look forward to reading your book and I enjoy the posts.

    Is mise le meas Gráinne

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    1. Thanks for writing, Gráinne. I’m sure it was a completely different experience being an Irish immigrant in Britain in the 1980s compared to Switzerland now. The Swiss are big fans of the Irish which is nice.
      I’m the same listening to Irish radio almost daily and I don’t think I’m doing myself any favours because you cannot live in both places. I wrote a blog post called ‘A guide to the six stages of the immigrant experience’ a while back. Should be easily findable. You might relate to that too. One of your sentences got ambushed by autocorrect but I really appreciate the sentiment.
      Le gach dea-ghuí, Clare

  2. Hi Claire. I hear you. But that I’ve ever expected any recognition as an independent Irish writer, living in Germany. I keep thinking when my second novel is out, I might make a little bit of noise. There are so many writers, so many books to read too. It’s the luck of the draw really, isn’t it. Don’t give up. Sometimes it’s part of our unique story, I think. I grew up in Ireland to a Protestant English mother and a Catholic Irish father. I never really felt a pull one way or the other. Life happened. I met my German husband when I was twenty. We’ve lived in the US and now in Germany. I’ve lived in Germany longer than in Ireland. But the strong connection to Ireland still exists. I guess it’s the same for most of us. People say why can’t I read your book in German? I’ve made half-hearted attempts to translate it myself. It would make it easier. But you know, we’re very lucky because people on the continent, especially the younger generation, speak such excellent English. At least I recognise your name. That’s something. We’re straddled between two lands, torn between two lovers, feeling like fools. Well, not quite …

    1. Hi Barbara, I really couldn’t blame you if you turned and walked away 🙂
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. It’s so true that life happens and there is never really much of a map along the way. The bottom line is that we don’t live in Ireland so we won’t have the all the same benefits and drawbacks of writers based there. But I still feel more connected to the Irish writing community than the Swiss community and I will continue to make the best of that. Maybe a translation exchange would work for your book. You translate a German writer’s book and they do yours. Looking forward to hearing more about it …

      1. That’s a good idea, Clare. Do you have any idea where I’d find such an exchange site? I’ll keep you posted. Just trying to edit my second novel at the moment.

      2. I don’t know of any website matching writers and translators but it would be a great service for everyone. I’d say an email to a writers’ association might be passed on to their members. There must be German writers who’d love to have an English version of their manuscript. Do keep me posted.

  3. It’s so true, of immigrant (or emigrant) writers and of anyone trying to find a place outside their home country. And it’s also true that writers, and probably many others, have that little voice of that great monster, Should. I should be this, or should be doing that, or should better at language. Should is a huge mental trap of negative judgment and I keep trying lately to see it for what it is and move past it and be in the moment where life really is. We also can look at our work as what it is, a unique voice in both worlds–for the homeland audience, we have lived a life with roots in one place and experiences somewhere else. In our new homes, we see their home through a unique lens. None of it guarantees us fans and awards but we can’t change certain rules or clubs, but it’s where we are, and the honesty in those perspectives will hopefully gather around us a small group of people who respect the work, relate to our voice, find something within our work that’s interesting and honest and fresh. Hopefully!

    1. You definitely know this territory, Tara. Thanks very much for commenting and understanding! The niggling voice is very destructive. Some days I conquer it and some days I don’t. Writing this post definitely helped. That’s one of the nice things about blogging, no gatekeeper.

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