Actually, it’s more of a beginning than an ending – I hope! This Sunday I have my first in-person book event since Voting Day was published. The event is taking place in a fairy-tale setting, Schloss Heidegg in Canton Lucerne.
The castle, overlooking Lake Baldegg, dates back to the Middle Ages. It has a rose garden and a park and a museum. I would go there gladly anyway. But to be invited by the Seetaler Poesiesommer festival to talk about my book is amazing.
I’ll be there along with Barbara Traber, the German translator of Voting Day (Der Tag, an dem die Männer Nein sagten), who also wrote the foreword of the book. Barbara was a translating match made in heaven. Not only is she a Swiss-German author who has written and translated dozens of books, she also remembers the vote in 1959 when she was a teenager. She has given me wonderful encouragement and guidance since we met exactly a year ago.
The event in German begins at 11am and you can find more details on the castle website here. It’s organised by Ulrich Sutter and there is an Irish theme with music from Irish composers and readings from the poetry of Franz Felix Lehni who lived in Ireland.
Last month on social media I shared the news that I’ve signed a publishing deal for Voting Day in the UK. Fairlight Books came back to me with a yes at the beginning of this year and they will publish their own edition of the book in the UK and Ireland under their Fairlight Moderns novella series next April. If you like your literary fiction on the short side, check out their titles.
It just happens that next year is the centenary of Irish women gaining full and equal voting rights, and I think a book written about the Swiss experience should be of interest to everyone. Women have faced the same problems to a different degree in all patriarchal societies over time. A culture that gives men a disproportionate share of authority, ownership and power breaks the natural partnership between the sexes. We are stuck fighting the same fight over and over – for our safety and dignity, and against economic disadvantage. And I’m not sure we ever will find the lost Eden of true partnership and equality again. But I digress!
There is one more piece of book news relevant for Swiss readers. Up to the end of June, the distribution of Voting Day and the three other language versions was handled by Bergli Books in Basel. From now on, this role will pass to Zytglogge Verlag. Booksellers should still be able to find the book easily in their system and order it for you. Or, if you are a Swiss resident, you can order directly from this website anytime.
I wish all followers of this blog a great summer, hopefully without Covid clouds on the horizon. If, like me, you’re feeling guilty about being fully vaccinated while most of the world is still vulnerable, it might help to donate to this Unicef vaccination campaign.
Please feel free to contact me if you’d like to request a review copy of the book or to talk about possible book events or publicity. Email on contact page.
This day last month, the Irish Embassy in Bern hosted the launch of my debut novel Voting Day, published in four languages. Set on the day of a failed vote on women’s suffrage in Switzerland in 1959, it tells the story of four women whose lives are connected by a foster child.
The launch evening was incredibly special, hosted by the Irish Ambassador Eamon Hickey and attended by the three translators of the book – Barbara Traber, Corinne Verdan-Moser and Anna Rusconi. You can still view the event at this link (passcode 70N?6Rq@).
I’d like to share some of the news and reviews of my novel from the past month. At the time of the launch, book shops were closed but I’m delighted to say that shops have opened in Switzerland today and I paid a visit to my local shop to see the book on the shelves – as you can see!
In English, there have been two videos I’d like to mention. This report by Julie Hunt on swissinfo.ch featured Voting Day along with another new novel set in Switzerland called The Other Daughter by Caroline Bishop. The report is full of wonderful archive footage.
When the 50th anniversary of the women’s vote came around on February 7th, I wrote this piece for Global Geneva Magazine explaining why it took so long for Swiss men to do the decent thing.
As for reviews, they have been positive but small in number so far. The magazine for the Swiss abroad, Swiss Review, published a favourable review of the German edition of the book by Ruth von Gunten that was translated into French, English and Spanish. Another reviewer, Antonella Amodio, wrote a review of the Italian edition of the book for the Italian edition of the magazine.
It’s a wonderful review so I will quote, courtesy of online translation:
“A story that speaks of female solidarity, dignity, kindness, the search for independence and social redemption … I thank the author Clare O’Dea and the translator of the Italian version Anna Rusconi because it was a truly touching and enlightening read.”
A review of the French edition in the newspaper Journal du Pays d’Enhaut was also lovely. The reviewer, M.Z., describes some of the plot and then adds: “I won’t say any more because this novel is very moving and you have to appreciate its originality to the last page.”
If you enjoyed Voting Day and would like other people to discover it, I’d be very glad to increase the number of reader reviews on Goodreads (EN), Lesejury.de (DE) or Lovelybooks.de (DE, FR, EN, IT). Another way to help the book fly is to ask for it in your local Swiss bookshop.
One last thing … here’s a date for the diary if you happen to have the evening free on International Women’s Day next Monday the 8th.
The Women in Film Festival, What If? will present four short films and a Q&A with the filmmakers. Voting Day will get a mention thanks to the swissinfo.ch video. The curators have chosen narratives of courage, determination and strength and I am delighted to be associated with the event. Sign up for the free 1.5-hour event here.
For Swiss readers of the blog, enjoy the freedom to browse for books again from today and stay safe out there! Congratulations to everyone who has received a vaccine. It makes me so happy to hear all the vaccination stories. We’re on the right path now.
For the past year I have been working on writing my debut novel and getting it translated and published. It’s been an intense and rewarding experience. Voting Day tells the story of four Swiss women on 1 February 1959, the day male voters said no to granting women the vote.
The four characters of my book – Vreni, Margrit, Esther and Beatrice – could be you, your mother, your grandmother. The setting of the book is distinctly Swiss but the women’s challenges and their fighting spirit are universal.
I’m delighted to announce that Bergli Books in Basel, the leading publisher of Swiss-interest books in English, is handling the sale of Voting Day. You can now order the book through their website in English, French, German or Italian.
I’d like to thank the three translators of the book – Barbara Traber, Corinne Verdan-Moser and Anna Rusconi – who have been so dedicated and encouraging since our first contact. I think they’ve all done an excellent job and I’m so pleased that Swiss readers will be able to read my book in their own languages.
Unfortunately, bookshops in Switzerland are closed until the end of February. But most are operating a click and collect service. If you’d like to support your local bookshop, why not place your order for the book with them? I recommend Books Books Books in Lausanne who do postal deliveries as well as click and collect.
Online launch 1.2.2021
It’s full steam ahead for the online launch of Voting Day in four languages next Monday, February 1st, hosted by the Irish Ambassador Eamon Hickey on the occasion of St. Brigid’s Day. During the first part of the evening (18:15 – 19:00) Ambassador Hickey and I will be chatting about the book and the upcoming 50th anniversary of the women’s vote in Switzerland. In part two (19:00 – 19:45) the discussion will continue with Barbara Traber, Corinne Verdan-Moser and Anna Rusconi, each speaking in their own language.
None of this would have been possible without the support of The Fundraising Company Fribourg who have accompanied me on every step of the publishing journey. Merci vielmal to Yvar Riedo and Stefanie Schwaller. We also got essential help from the generous crowdfunders, whose copies of the book are on the way this week.
I hope you’re all managing to stay safe and sane under whatever general restrictions and personal challenges you’re facing. The snowdrops and daffodils are not far off. Hang in there!
The freshly-dug grave in the communal plot lies ready. A tightly-packed flower arrangement in yellow, orange and red provides the only colour on this grey day on the outskirts of Zurich in Schwamendingen cemetery.
Though Zurich has historically been a stronghold of Protestantism in Switzerland, the proportion of Swiss residents who profess no religion is now greater than the share of Protestants (25 per cent to 24 per cent). Amid changing times, one tradition has endured in this city: plain is preferred over showy.
The mourners, a group of about twenty, have gathered at the cemetery gate. They are waiting to be told what to do. The burial is scheduled for 11.15 a.m. First the gravedigger comes to the grave carrying the urn in a wicker basket. He lifts the lid, removes the simple wooden urn and leaves it standing beside the freshly-dug hole.
The urn is worth CHF 550.00 but it comes free of charge as part of the basic funeral package offered by the city of Zurich to all residents. There are no private undertakers in Zurich.
No funeral service
Led by a pastor wearing a beret over her shoulder-length grey hair, the family approaches. The pastor is in conversation with an official from the municipal funeral service, Petra Paul, a kindly woman in her fifties. Her job today is to lower the urn into the grave.
The family have opted to say their farewells at the graveside. There will be no funeral service, religious or otherwise. This is not unusual any more, Petra explains later. In an increasingly secular society, there are no more certainties on how to mark the passing of a loved one.
Four generations are represented today, from the sister of the 92-year-old deceased to her great-grandchildren, two tiny tots who quickly become restless and have to be led away during the 15-minute gathering.
There is a forest on the hill adjacent to the graveyard. The noticeboard at the entrance carries a warning that deer are eating the flower arrangements and asks for understanding. Foxes and badgers are regular nocturnal visitors to this quiet spot.
The minister talks about the deceased, a warm-hearted woman whose door was always open. She expands on the concept of the ‘life of life’, the divine life that binds us all. After Petra lowers the urn into the grave, some family members step forward to drop a single red rose in after it. Someone has pressed play on an unseen device, so that the instrumental of ‘Time to say goodbye’ plays softly at this moment.
The lowering of the urn is easy, it is encased in a length of netting. But family members are often too nervous or too upset to take on this task. What if they get it wrong? Petra feels it can be an important part of the grieving process. A symbolic separation.
As this is a communal grave for urns, the exact burial spot is not marked. By the following day, the bouquet will be moved to the metal platform nearby, available for the bereaved to leave their tributes. The name of the deceased will be engraved on a metal plaque with the others, along with her dates of birth and death.
As birds caw and whirl in the sky above, we withdraw, leaving the family alone. Schwamendingen is one of 19 graveyards in Zurich. Petra and I return by tram to the city centre. She tells me she likes her job because she can achieve a lot with very little. “People have the resources to deal with death. My job is to foster these resources.”
The right words
Back at the office Petra has some calls to make, searching for next-of-kin of deceased people who died without any known family. She must also be available to advise people who come to notify the authorities of a death in the family.
Her office is the Funeral and Cemetery Service of the City of Zurich, located inside the imposing neo-Gothic City Hall (Stadthaus) on the banks of the Limmat.
The office operates a walk-in service for the official registration of death announcements, an obligatory task. In a small waiting area, the bereaved may peruse the display of 12 different-coloured leaflets, with information on everything from fees for various grave planting arrangements to how to go about scattering ashes. There is also a catalogue of urns and coffins and a list of professionals who provide secular funeral services.
Without too long a wait, visitors will be ushered in to see one of three funeral advisors on duty, with urns on their bookshelves, who will help them make the necessary decisions.
For Petra, this is the most important part of her job. Formerly, she worked as a translator and, she observes, there is one point the two jobs have in common: the importance of the right word. “Finding the right words is so important. The right words mean so much to the bereaved but the wrong word stays wrong forever.”
I wrote this article earlier this year for a magazine but the story was dropped because it was felt that it might be depressing to read about death in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. My feeling is that death is never far away and we should know what to expect. Many thanks to the staff of the Funeral and Cemetery Office of the City of Zurich for making me welcome (especially Petra Paul) and allowing me to share the article here.
Of all the steps in the publishing process, seeing the cover for the first time is the most uplifting because it’s the first time that the dream seems real. I’m delighted to share the cover of my new historical novel Voting Day. Isn’t it lovely? This is the German version and the title translates as, The Day the Men Said No.
The day in question is February 1, 1959 when Swiss men voted no to granting women voting rights, by a two-thirds majority. The novel is set on that day and it tells the story of four very different women whose lives are connected by the fate of a foster child.
Voting Day will be published in four languages, including Italian and French. The plan is to publish on time for the 50th anniversary of the women’s vote in Switzerland (the men finally got the answer right in 1971).
When I realised the only way to make this project work would be to self-publish, I decided to go for it. It’s turned into an exciting and challenging journey. Fortunately, I received some advance funding to help pay for the translations. But to get the project over the finish line, I’m running a 32-day fundraising campaign, beginning today.
All the information about the campaign is given in German and English on the wemakeit website. There’s even a video I made in German – with subtitles. If you’d like to support me, now is the opportunity to put in an advance order for the book in whichever language you prefer. You can go for one of the other rewards or just contribute any amount you feel comfortable with.
Thank you very much for pitching in. It’s pretty scary putting myself out there in this way and I appreciate all your good wishes.
One day while walking my dog in the forest, I had an idea to tell the story of four women on a particular day in history. The date I had in mind was February 1st, 1959, and the setting was to be Switzerland. The result is my first novel, Voting Day, which will be published next February in the three official Swiss national languages (German, French and Italian) and English.
The vote in question was a referendum on female suffrage, rejected by male voters on that cold, foggy Sunday. Swiss women eventually gained voting rights 12 years later in 1971 so we’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary next year.
From early morning until last thing at night, Voting Day tells the story of four very different women whose lives are connected by the fate of a foster child. While the men go out to vote, these women have other things on their minds, mostly.
Vreni is a farmer’s wife and foster mother in her late forties whose life has shrunk to the confines of the farm and village. Her daughter Margrit seems to have found success as an office girl in Bern but her boss has put her in an impossible position.
Esther is a Yenish woman, one of the native travelling people of Switzerland. Taken from her family as a child, she now works as a hospital cleaner. When her own son Ruedi is taken into care, the future looks bleak.
Beatrice has made a good career as the hospital administrator. She dreads the prospect of a no vote after putting her heart and soul into the yes campaign. But could she hold the key to reuniting Esther with Ruedi?
It was clear to me when I started writing Voting Day that it really should reach Swiss readers, but I didn’t know how I could achieve this. How could I find one Swiss publisher willing to arrange the translation of the book, let alone three? What to do with the English version?
Luckily a sponsor came on board who was willing to pay for the translations. That brought my dream much closer to reality. With the help of a local company in Fribourg, I began to put together an ambitious self-publishing project with a simultaneous launch in the four languages planned for next February.
Publishing has become more and more challenging and often loss-making for authors. I want to find a way around that. The German translation is complete and the French and Italian are under way. The publishing costs are adding up but everything is moving in the right direction.
In November I will launch a crowdfunding campaign and continue seeking other kinds of funding. I’ve already received a lot of moral and practical support. My characters – Vreni, Margrit, Esther and Beatrice – are my inspiration.
From now on, I’ll be writing regular updates on the progress of Voting Day, and I hope you’ll enjoy hearing about it. I can already share the first interview (in German) with skippr.ch about the German version, Der Tag, an dem die Männer Nein sagten.
Book bloggers and journalists, please get in touch through my contact page if you would like to receive a review copy in one of the languages.
When I was researching and writing The Naked Irish in 2018 and 2019, I spent every spare minute feverishly gathering information, reading books and articles, listening to the radio, interviewing people, collecting notes and quotes left, right and centre.
This process came after 15 years of living outside the country. Nobody asked me to do it. Finding a publisher was a nail-biting challenge and I’ll always be grateful to Mentor Books (Red Stag) for saying yes.
Now that the book has been out for a year, I have enough distance to look back and wonder what the quest was all about. Why was it so important for me to write that particular book? It has a lot to do with being an emigrant.
When I left Ireland in 2003 to move to Switzerland, I stopped writing about Ireland but I never stopped caring. But if Ireland is a mother figure, she’s a mother who is indifferent to her absent children. She has enough mouths to feed at home!
And yet, I wanted to reclaim and rediscover Ireland, force her to take notice. I think I managed to do that through The Naked Irish, but in the process, I have become less sentimental about the people and the place. Close up, the hills are a bit muddy.
Before I wrote this book, I used to wonder how different my life might have been if I’d stayed in Ireland. At least The Naked Irish answered one aspect of that question. This is the work I would have covered as a journalist. I finally got my chance to write about the Irish economy, politics, social issues and literature.
I got to hold Ireland close and now I feel it drifting away again. The country is not really mine to keep any more. And that’s OK. It will be partly mine from now on, not fully mine, and that makes my life easier.
My next book is completely different. It’s a historical novel set in Switzerland and it could only be written by a Swiss person, the Swiss me. It has shown me how much this country means to me now. I’ll be sharing more news about this project with lots of razzmatazz very soon.
Final note: I took the picture above during a visit to the laténium museum and park on Lake Neuchâtel in June (highly recommended!). These reconstructed lake dwellings are based on a 6,000-year-old village that was discovered on the site. Amazing to see.
Final final note: I might as well stick in a picture from the book launch in Dublin last year because it was such a happy day. Credit, Ger Holland (@GHollandPhoto on Twitter), who did a wonderful job.
This short story of mine was highly commended in the 2019 An Post Irish Books Awards in the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year category but the journal that originally published it, The Nottingham Review, is no longer online. I’m posting it here for posterity.
By Clare O’Dea
Death was not all bad. Not if you liked the business side, as Nuala did. Everyone had complimented her on the Mass. A good Mass doesn’t come together by itself and it was gratifying that people appreciated that. The hotel was a good choice too, a lovely function room all to themselves with acres of carpet, and the bathroom fittings done in gold like something from a palace. No one could say she hadn’t done Auntie Nim proud.
A week later, everything had returned to its proper order, minus the Tuesday visit to Auntie Nim in St. Catherine’s, and Nuala was ready to deal with Marty. She arranged the kitchen table in such a way that her brother would have to take her seriously. The laptop was open and beside it lay a spiral notebook and a single pen. A small stack of photo albums with frayed cardboard covers was placed to her right, out of his reach.
At the sound of wheels crunching gravel, Nuala clicked on the kettle and went into the hall to check her hair. ‘A woman’s hair is her glory,’ Auntie Nim used to say, clearly implying that her own hair was in some way remarkable. Too many compliments as a young woman no doubt. Not that Auntie Nim wasn’t generous in doling out the praise herself, especially to Nuala when she was growing up. Any excuse to look for a hug.
Marty’s bulky shape blocked the light from coming through the glass panels of the door. Why did he have to stand so close? She had a porch for goodness sake. Nuala let him in and accepted a duty kiss on the cheek. Not that awful tweed jacket again. The disheveled look went with the job in the university, apparently.
Nuala took care of serving the tea quickly, the secret being pre-boiling of the kettle, and within minutes they were ready to get to work.
“Let’s start with the dates,” Nuala began, “and you correct me if I’m wrong. Born 1919, father a merchant sailor, mother just a mother I suppose.”
“Ah,” Marty said, leaning back in his chair, “she always spoke fondly of her mother. From Cavan originally, you know, she ran a shop out of the house in Carlingford, a small affair in the front room. Nim and the girls helped out. She used to tell us about the weighing scales and the paper bags for the flour and the sugar, remember? There were barrels lined up against the wall, people always dropping in for a chat.”
“We can leave out the mother. She died young, didn’t she?”
Marty nodded. “When Nim was eleven. She stepped into her mother’s shoes. I think we should mention that.”
Nuala paused and wrote ‘1930: mother’s shoes’.
“Then she got the scholarship for secondary school. Put that down.” Marty pointed to the page, but Nuala held the pen steady.
“But she didn’t go.”
“She wasn’t free to go, but she got distinction in the exam. Go on, scholarship, write it down.”
Nuala patted the back of her hair. “This is going to get very boring if we include all the paths not taken. Did you ever read an obituary that mentioned things people didn’t do in their lives?”
“She got the scholarship.” Marty set his cup down a little too roughly on the saucer, splashing tea. Pressing her lips into a disapproving line, Nuala wrote ‘scholarship’.
“Then what?” Nuala asked, keeping her voice even.
“She looked after her sisters, kept house.”
“I’m looking for milestones.” A swirling pattern of interlocking rectangles appeared on the laptop screen, and Nuala tapped the space bar to stop the movement.
Marty was squinting, and it didn’t suit him. “Right, let me see. They would have moved to Dublin in the mid-thirties, and then she got the job doing the wages at the docks.”
“I’m surprised they employed a girl without a proper education.”
Marty straightened in his chair. “She was bright. Started filling the pay packets, soon enough she was calculating from the time sheets. They called her Miss Murtagh.”
“She must have got a lot of unwelcome attention handing out the envelopes to all those men. I’m surprised her father … ”
“Her father was half a world away on some ship most of the time. Nim was very independent, and capable.”
That aggressive tone again.
“Nuala, everything you’ve done. It’s wonderful. People appreciate it. I appreciate it. But this obituary, I mean, I’m the writer in the family. Wouldn’t it be best …”
Nuala straightened her long back. “No, no Marty. I was the one they approached at the afters, remember? I have the woman’s phone number and the email address. You don’t even live in the parish and you’ve never read a newsletter in your life. I know what to write.” She sat back, hands clasped on the table, the pen still lodged in her fingers.
Marty crossed his arms and fixed his gaze on the lamp hanging above the table. He stayed like that while Nuala got up and put a hot drop in the teapot.
“Where were we?” Nuala asked after refilling the cups. “Oh yes. The job in the shipping office, the house in East Wall. The younger sisters grew up, the father died, and then she came to us.”
“When she was thirty-five.”
“Nice for her to move to a better area.”
“Can you pass me one of those albums?” Marty asked, cutting her off. While Marty leafed through the pages, Nuala started to type the first few lines of the obituary. She had just three hundred words, and she had to mention Nim’s duties in the church, and all the trouble after the stroke. Marty really had no idea. Nuala could see the black pages of the photo album turning out of the corner of her eye. There were glimpses of picnic scenes, beaches, people standing in front of castles. As if life were one long Sunday jaunt.
The day Nim came to live with them the house was in a terrible mess. Their mother had been gone for almost a week, and their father, who had started coming home later and later, had taken to spending the evenings in his chair staring at the wall, too furious to speak. Nuala had taken the five shillings her mother had left on the table and was using it to buy bread and cheese for sandwiches. The big pot of beef stew had run out.
Every day that week when she arrived home from school, she hoped Mammy had changed her mind and come back. She would keep her eyes almost closed when she came in the back door, praying that the house had returned to its neat and ordered state. But through her fluttering eyelashes, she saw the breakfast things still sitting by the sink exactly as she had left them, and she had to send more uncried tears down into the centre of herself. The kitchen was cold and gloomy from a day without activity. Marty would push past her and check all the rooms before returning to sit at the table, waiting for her to take charge. On the sixth day, there was no money left and no telling when their father would be home. Nuala crouched down to light the gas fire, and the doorbell rang just as she clicked the pilot light, making her jump. It was Auntie Nim.
That was the end of the struggle to keep them both fed and washed and dressed. But it was also the end of the hope that it had all been a horrible mistake, and the real beginning of their new life without Mammy.
“Nim’s fiancé.” Marty was holding up the album, pointing to a studio photograph of a young man with pale eyes who was smiling tightly, as if to cover bad teeth.
“Well, yes. Another path not taken.” Nuala knew the image well from her regular searches of Auntie Nim’s bedside table in their old house. It was natural for a child to be curious. The photograph was never on display but there it was face-up in the drawer whenever Nuala checked. She hadn’t seen the portrait for years until it turned up in the small box of personal possessions handed over by the nursing home.
“She used to take us to the memorial service for the lost seamen, don’t you remember? That church down on the quays. We should mention him.” Marty’s eyes shone.
Nuala stopped typing and rubbed her temples. “Whatever makes you think we should drag up ancient history? We don’t know anything about that person. So she did a line with a sailor once upon a time. That was long forgotten.”
Nuala liked to see Marty unsure, his mouth hanging open and eyes blinking. It reminded her of the time when she knew better than him, about everything. When he was small he accepted her word without question. She told him Mammy would not like him sitting on Auntie Nim’s lap so he stopped accepting hugs and kisses from her. Auntie Nim was too jolly for them, that was the problem. She even made their father laugh. She made him do more than that. Nuala was a child, but she was not blind. The two of them waiting for her to go to bed so they could have the front room to themselves. That atmosphere.
Marty closed the album and brought his hands together as if in prayer. “There’s something you should know about Nim, Nuala. Not for the obituary but for yourself.”
Nuala sat back and crossed her arms.
“I know about her and Daddy.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about, though why it still bothers you that they were close is a mystery to me.”
“Close,” Nuala snorted. “That’s a good one.”
“As I said, that’s not what this is about. After Dad died, Nim and I spent a lot of time together. I’d come home late from my restaurant jobs and she used to wait up for me. You were in London.”
“Nuala, listen please. We talked about you a lot, and the past, all the people who were gone. She made me promise not to tell.”
Nuala did not show Marty out. She sat in the kitchen without raising her eyes from his treacherous teacup until the last of the evening light stole out of the room. By concentrating on that small thing, she was able to find the invisible way back to the kitchen of her childhood, and begin her search. Once again, she roamed the house from room to room, and found it empty. Once again, she did not cry.
Later, when everything was back in its place, Nuala went upstairs with the box from the nursing home. She sat down heavily on her bed and took a hard look at Auntie Nim’s last few possessions. The photograph slipped free and she placed it on her lap. She moved the other objects around – the rosary beads, brooches, a compact mirror – until she found what she was looking for.
It was a Russian lacquer box, familiar to Nuala from her childhood home. On the lid was a hand-painted image of two swans flying high above a village where tiny figures and houses could be made out below. Anywhere Auntie Nim had ever lived, this black box had been on her bedside table. It was a present from the famous fiancée, Michael; Nuala remembered her saying he bought it in Archangelsk many years ago. Nuala had even made up some adventure stories about him when she was small, impressed by Auntie Nim’s tales of high seas and strange ports in the north. She peered closely at the photograph. His eyes were so pale. They must have been the lightest blue. Gently, she set the picture aside.
Nuala lifted the lid of the lacquer box she had last opened with the hands of a child. Inside, something she hadn’t seen in more than fifty years. She had taken it for Michael’s hair then, a thought that had vaguely disgusted her. Willing her hands not to tremble, Nuala took the lock of fine blonde hair tied with a faded ribbon and held it closer to the light. A baby curl for sure, her own.
It’s been a horrific week of American racism showing its ugly face to the world – again. Nobody could watch the sickening video of George Floyd being crushed and choked to death without concluding that the society is broken. Law enforcement in a normal, functioning democracy does not look like this.
We’ve seen it again and again in these videos of police killings over the years. A black man who does not immediately obey sparks a dangerous white rage. It’s an old rage, hatred of the oppressor for the oppressed.
In the midst of all the grief and anger being expressed, I try to listen and learn, and interpret what’s happening behind the headlines. I hear George Floyd’s brother Terrence appeal for peace and justice. ‘Let’s stop thinking that our voice don’t matter, and vote!’
I hear young black women begging white protesters to stop spraying slogans. I hear black Irish women speak about their experience of racism. I hear three generations of black American men pouring out their pain to each other on the street.
And I hear Human Rights Watch with the statistics. In recent years, US police have killed around 1,000 people per year. This is NOT normal. A quarter of those killed are black, although black people make up only 13 per cent of the population. But it’s even worse in killings of unarmed people. In those cases, 36.8 per cent of victims are black. This is NOT normal.
I listen to Musa Okongwa, a black British writer living in Berlin who would like to talk about his speciality, football, but ends up having to comment on race all the time. In his latest podcast, Musa asks white people to speak out. ‘Try and talk about this in your most intimate settings, the dinner table, your family WhatsApp group. Just start it.’
I usually have no trouble starting this conversation because I feel very strongly about racism. I remember hearing jokes about the Ethiopian famine as a schoolgirl and calling people out. I challenged a Swiss man sitting in front of me in a football stadium who made monkey noises when a black Irish player touched the ball.
But I did, to my shame, once find myself in a social situation where I did not speak out. It was at a gathering in someone else’s house where I was a bit of an outsider. There was a family there with a boy of about 13 and at some point in the evening, his parents asked him to tell everyone the joke he had told them recently.
He was clearly reluctant but the parents encouraged him and he told the joke. It was a man-walks-into-a-bar joke, in this case a black man with a parrot on his shoulder. The punchline of the joke is that the man belongs to the parrot, not the other way around. In other words, a slavery joke, in Switzerland in the 21st century.
My disgust showed on my face and I looked around in vain for an ally. But I did not speak out and neither did anyone else. There was enough laughter for the moment to pass without incident. I’m no longer in contact with that family, thankfully, but I regret my cowardice on that day, which really amounted to complicity.
Anti-black racism is alive and deep-rooted in Europe too, make no mistake about that. I’ve heard it from black people in all the countries I’ve lived in: Russia, France, Switzerland and Ireland. I’ve seen and heard it displayed by white people too.
I covered the topic in The Naked Irish, including an interview with an Irish citizen of Zimbabwean origin who nearly had her spirit broken by the racism she has endured in Ireland. And, as I say in the book, hers is not a triumph-over-adversity story. The adversity is not over; it may never be. Now she worries about her children’s future.
I have no words of hope or consolation. America looks more and more like a failed state under the worst leadership imaginable. Trump can wave around the bible as a prop but America does not protect its innocents from guns, not does it care for the sick or love black neighbours.
These are dark days. May some good come out of this pain.