Reflections on Otherwhere

Author: Denis Sampson


1. Words

When I migrated to Montreal in 1970, the only words I knew to allow me to think of what was happening were emigrate and emigrant, but I didn’t allow myself to believe that I was joining the millions of Irishmen and Irishwomen who had left and settled elsewhere, who formed the “Irish diaspora.” I was young, and I was going to return after a year or two. I had had a good job in Dublin, permanent and pensionable, but I had made a choice: I left it to return to university, and then more studies followed in Montreal. Everything was open, everything was possible, and I left alone. In all these ways, I was not really comparable to those real emigrants who had to leave because of starvation and poverty, nor was I like the tens of millions around the world, refugees fleeing extermination, genocide, or war. Nor was I an “illegal.”

My literary studies had given me another word: exile; it had an attractive Joycean resonance, especially with Stephen’s empowering flourish at the end of Portrait. That was more my style, I wanted to think. I had demonstrated on the streets of Dublin against the Vietnam War, against apartheid, against many things, but I knew that the conservative state and the conservative church and the conservative culture that enveloped everything were going to win in all local conflicts. The seventies were not going to be socialist, as the Labour Party had promised, and then a new phase of demonstrations had started in sympathy with Republicans in the North; I had marched for civil rights, but suddenly a replay of dark historical destinies had taken over. I had been an unhappy adolescent, disaffected and angry, and so in some self-dramatizing way, I thought going into exile would free me from my private gloom and from the fates that seemed to determine things. It would be a new beginning.

The clichés were everywhere, on the surface and under the surface. Most of all, I did not want to sink into anything that felt like a permanent state at home or abroad. I said goodbye many times, never once thinking it might be farewell. Already I was preparing myself for the balancing act of loss and opportunity.

Forty years later, I’m struck by how many words and ways of thinking about change were absent from our vocabulary in the Ireland of my youth—for the unimaginable, complementary word I needed was immigrate. When I arrived in Canada, I was welcomed as a “landed immigrant,” but I had little sense of what that might actually mean, although it did feel friendlier than an American term I soon heard, a resident alien. The space between those two prefixes to the word migrant is actually the space I have lived in all these years, a space whose contours have always been shifting. 

It is a space that can only be known through experience, and each person’s experience of it is different because even if the reasons for leaving may be common, the manner of each person’s settling is different, as is the relationship to the first home, in fact and in memory. More important still is time, the length of time it takes to accept that what is happening is a movement from em- to im-, and only time allows for all the inner adjustments that have to be made until the unthinkable becomes the fact and is then recognized and accepted in whatever way that is possible. 

Many people may stay in that transitional state for a generation or more—sad, grieving, dreaming of returning, perhaps convinced that they will, and I believe this transitional experience is central to an understanding of migration. But when I say it is anchored in time, I mean that in spite of the daily living of work circumstances and family life, and the progressive nature of our changing contexts, the transitional experience is more Proustian, more circular and layered, as much a sifting of the retrospective impressions of all the earlier stages as a seizing of the day. Days may be seized, jobs found, intimate relationships formed, careers or businesses built, houses bought, pension plans filled up, but it is the inner adjustments that allow for all of this that interest me here.           

And, of course, it is as transitions and adjustments are happening that the words which anchor us are also migrating—and for many people it is not only vocabulary or accent but mother tongue, first language, and native language that are being displaced from their defining status as the guarantees of distinctive identity. To simplify greatly, to simply stay with the shifting vocabulary words, so many of the obvious ones—home, country, citizenship, here, there, us, we, them—shift and slip into states of transitional meaning between em- and im-, so that the larger words, like I and self and identity, unveil themselves in all their complexity and interest.


2. People

I came to the French-speaking city of Montreal to study at McGill, an English university situated in the “golden square mile” of Anglo-Scots wealth when, fifty or a hundred years earlier, this was a primarily anglophone city. A fortnight after I arrived, the October Crisis began just a few blocks away from the university. The British Trade Commissioner was kidnapped and held hostage for eight weeks by members of the Front de Libération du Québec. Their manifesto demanding the independence of Quebec from the rest of Canada was broadcast; the army patrolled the streets and many nationalist sympathisants were detained; another FLQ cell kidnapped a government minister and murdered him.  

The extraordinary thing is that I do not have a single memory of these unique and cataclysmic events or of how I responded to them. The nature of Canada as a peaceful, federal country was unraveling just as I arrived, and I hardly paid attention. I think an explanation for my amnesia is that I had come from Ireland, where the savagery of the Troubles was so intensely present in the media that this smaller-scale savagery was hardly worth my attention. Or it may be that I thought I “understood” the language in which the FLQ framed its thinking, its version of nationalism, that in some way the Québecois people were like the Catholic Irish. Yet it is most likely that my amnesia about these public and communal events reflects the fact that I didn’t know where I was, or if I belonged to any political entity, or what bearing the history of Canada or of Quebec, or of their relationship, might have on these events. I was in no position to say where it was I had arrived or what I might think of what was happening in this place. Nor did I spend any time imagining what it might mean to become Québecois or Canadian, or if these terms might ever refer to me.

There is another explanation for my amnesia which has nothing to do with local politics or national identity. One of the first people I met at the university was the professor I would be assisting, Bharati Blaise—her original name, Bharati Mukherjee, was only revealed to me a year later when she published her first novel. My challenge was to discover how to work with this brilliant woman in sari and gold jewelry who was teaching “Great Writings of Europe, 1850-1950”; and for next week I had to prepare Swann’s Way. I was at the deep end of a very deep pool. I thought I knew it all at UCD, but nothing in Dublin had prepared me for this, not even Denis Donoghue. She was a young Bengali who had studied in Europe and at Iowa, where she had met her husband, Clark Blaise, a Canadian-American, his father originally Québecois. She was, at this time, in her “expatriate” phase, as she would later write of it, but in a long career of writing fiction and short stories she has charted her own willing transformation from an Indian into an American. And when her husband’s first book of stories was published that year, A North American Education, I realized he was really exploring the lives of his own migrant parents and his experience growing up in many different regions of the United States. My discovery of migration as the literary theme of our time would come gradually, but I do think that my amnesia about the October Crisis was because I knew already there was a larger picture beyond the local or the national, or, as I now heard of it, the ethnic; it was that picture I wanted to bring into focus.

A few months after my arrival I met the DP. Iztok had to explain: displaced person. We were going to be colleagues in a new college the following year. As a child, he had actually avoided the displaced persons camp in Austria, when his mother refused to cross the border from Slovenia and they returned home. It was their home for some more years, until he was nine, and then they joined his father in Canada, for he had fled as Tito consolidated his power. Iztok’s great talent for learning languages may be his major inheritance from those years, although, of course, he has a musical ear, and he went on to complete a doctorate in contemporary American poetry.  His mother never learned English, although she continued to live in Canada for more than fifty years and did not return when Slovenia became independent. When I met Iztok he wrote columns in English for The Canadian Forum in Toronto, and for the past decade and more, he has written columns in Slovenian for a newspaper in Maribor.

And soon after meeting Iztok, I became friends with an Estonian who had actually spent his childhood years in a displaced persons camp in Germany while his father was in Canada planning the reception of refugees and their settlement in various Canadian cities. Most of these refugees believed that they would be returning when the Russians left, but in fact, following the break-up of the Soviet Empire, they did not return. Their children continued to speak Estonian to them, but my friend, Enn, speaks English to his Canadian children. Like Iztok, he made communication his business, became a journalist, completed a doctorate in English, and has spent his working life as a professor of Journalism.

These friends are among the many mirrors I have found in this city that is a cultural crossroads of the world, a capital city of migration. I did not consciously join the Irish community here, nor did I consciously join the largest community of all, les Québécois, who hold the political power. But I feel at home here and in the larger world which has been given to me through these friendships and through my students, so many of whom came from around the world, so many of them determined to belong. The people I came into contact with in my daily life were moving away from their earlier cultural origin, some slowly and reluctantly, others eagerly, all becoming hybrids. And as hybrid became a normal condition, it became easy to accept that I was a landed immigrant, for within five years I became a Canadian citizen. The bicultural Pierre Trudeau had made a multicultural Canada the centerpiece of his political vision, and the transitional state became a state of exciting enrichment. Most of all I have come to belong because of the raising of my Canadian children, and now, in the next stage, because of my grandchildren. They speak French to me and to each other, and it all feels right: home and foreignness have dissolved, and nothing vital has been lost.


3. Chameleon

My first effort to bring migration into focus in my own way was to write a biography, Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist. “My life in exile forced me to become a literary chameleon,” Moore wrote, but long before this, I had become interested in Moore’s fiction. In Ireland I had been unaware of his early work, yet when I taught a course on Irish literature a year after I arrived, I included his first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. It was a very odd choice, and I can only understand it now as a gesture of some sort for the novel had been written in Montreal! In that first year, I must have discovered how popular Moore’s novel The Luck of Ginger Coffey was in Canada: an award-winning novel set in the city, with a recent Irish emigrant as protagonist, filmed soon after its publication, and widely studied in Montreal high schools. And so, at some level, I wanted to teach and explore novels that connected this Irishman to Montreal because I thought that he would read the city for me and maybe I would read myself in the city. 

At that stage I failed to see that the two novels are very similar, in spite of the careful rendering of settings in Belfast and Montreal. In the opening chapter, Judith Hearne arrives at a new boarding house in Belfast, spends her days wandering the familiar city, her fragile attachments gradually breaking, however, and dreams of new attachments failing, until at the end, when she is expelled from the boarding house and ends in an institution. The new Canadian, Coffey, also has housing problems: he fails to pay his rent, becomes homeless and ends up for a time living at the Y, his marriage failing, and yet he is “lucky” and at the end of the novel he appears to have learned a great deal about himself and developed attitudes which will enable him to settle. While The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is an “Irish novel” since it explores with great precision the cultural contexts which have rendered this aging single woman a victim of her own character and attitudes, it can also be seen as a fiction which reflects Moore’s own condition as a migrant. He includes a returned “yank” and takes much care delineating the attitudes of the locals towards him and to his own difficulties as an emigrant in New York. The tentative steps he and Hearne take towards a relationship reveal the desperate hopes and delusions which envelop them. Coffey too is an emigrant with great delusions and vain hopes, but his buoyant character and his willingness to face harsh home truths reveal him to be a potentially successful immigrant.  It is this upbeat ending, no doubt, that endeared the novel to so many Canadian readers, and its comic tone anticipates, perhaps, the more well-known memoirs of Frank McCourt, which appealed greatly to immigrant readers worldwide. But Moore’s work never had such success, and his long career of fiction writing reveals a lifelong preoccupation with the transitional conditions first treated in these realistic novels.   

In the final years of World War II, Moore left Belfast and became a clerk in the British Army in North Africa. Although not a soldier, he traveled behind the advancing Allied lines, sometimes close enough to hear the guns and smell the destruction, north through Italy, to France and into Germany. He saw collaborators shot on the street in Marseille. He was one of the first to enter Auschwitz in 1945, and then spent two years in Poland with a United Nations Relief organization, as the occupying Soviet army and the Communists established the post-war regime. He returned briefly to Belfast, but by 1948, he was in Canada and began a career as a journalist on the Montreal Gazette in 1949. It was in Montreal that he became a novelist. He settled in the city for a decade, until a Guggenheim Fellowship brought him to New York City for a year, and a process of uprooting began again. A few years later, he moved to California to work in Hollywood with Hitchcock and settled there for the rest of his life. 

Over the next decades, the constantly restless novelist spent lengthy periods in Ireland, Montreal and France, making almost annual visits to these locations of his earlier life, and indeed his novels are set variously in these places or in combinations of them. But if Moore’s sense of geographical displacement permeates his fiction, it is equally permeated by a radical doubt about religious and political systems, about the dangers of sectarian and ethnic convictions. In addition, many of the novels reveal deep-seated doubts about the “reality” created by the media and especially television, and even about the evidence of an individual’s subjective observations. An Answer from Limbo, an early novel set in New York, and including a harsh examination of an exiled Irish writer, prefigures much of what followed, and its title is prophetic. Growing up with the sectarian violence of Belfast, wishing to escape into the historical reality of the larger sphere of Europe at war, the young man grew into a “man of no identity,” yet the restlessness of constant experimentation with fictional styles and genres and narrative voices reflects a lasting commitment to probing the experience of migration.

From the time of my first discovery of Moore’s connection to Montreal, I began to read everything he had written and then followed his career as new novels appeared through the seventies and eighties and into the nineties. I taught the two “Montreal” novels, both written in a Joycean realism and echoing Dubliners, and then moved into his more experimental stream-of-consciousness fiction, like I am Mary Dunne, and into the magic realism of The Great Victorian Collection and the historical fiction, such as Black Robe. These novels draw on Montreal or Canadian material, but it was the intriguing shifts of style, the lack of a distinctive Moore voice, the various settings, the unevenness and incoherence in his characterizations that led me to want to discover a center to Moore’s “chameleon” state. I realized that the way to do this diagnostic and speculative work would be to ground it in biography and archival research, and so in the early nineties, I set about discovering something of what lay behind the novels and their composition.


4.  Returning

My grandfather was born in New Zealand, in 1867, in the new town of Dunedin. His father, my namesake, had left Ireland for Australia—Melbourne, I believe—fourteen years earlier. He emigrated, although I think he must have been a black sheep or had some special, personal reason for going so far away from home. He did not leave because of the Famine, nor was he deported to a prison colony, nor did he disappear altogether. He was the second son, and so would not inherit the entailed farm on the shores of Lough Derg on the Shannon. He was sixteen when he left home, and when I think of the hardships of the journey, the uncertainty of communication and with such a time-lapse, I have to think that he was of a very adventurous and risk-taking nature—so daring to invent his own life, in fact, that he could face an unscripted future. I am inclined to think of my great-grandfather in this way for early in the 1860s, he moved on to the South Island of New Zealand, a much more isolated and unsettled place. His reason for going there was the gold rush to Otago province, although he did not become a gold-digger in the hinterland: he set up a business with another man in the fast-growing town of Dunedin. They were “Men’s Outfitters” on the main street, and he and Elizabeth Rourke, the young woman he married after a few years in Dunedin, and their son might well have stayed there, had the unexpected not happened: his older brother died unmarried, and so he became the legal heir to the farm in Clare. This man who had migrated to the other side of the world, almost certainly with the expectation of never returning—he had bought or built a house in Dunedin—now once more spent many months at sea and migrated back to Ireland. 

When he returned, his father was still alive and living in the childhood home, but it appears that the small family from New Zealand was not warmly welcomed. The father, formerly the local medical officer, and his third son, now the medical officer, moved away to another house, but when the father died some years later, and my great-grandfather was about to gain possession of the farm, he also died. The father’s will had not been probated, and so my grandfather and his mother fell into a legal limbo until he would be old enough to claim his inheritance. The well-connected medical officer claimed the use of the farm, and when Elizabeth Rourke tried to remain in the house, she was expelled and later, having regained entry, she was sentenced for contempt of court and spent a year in Galway gaol. She and my grandfather eventually lived in this house where I spent my childhood.

This story of migration and return has so many extraordinary dimensions to it that I felt I had to write a novel about it. My father had the bones of the story, a few facts, most of them inaccurate, and had little sense of the meanings that might be found in it. I was drawn in by Elizabeth Rourke’s story of being an outsider in Ireland, trapped in the complex familial and historical circumstances of that time of the Land War; I was moved by her stateless condition, her apparent lack of status in law, the cruelty she was subjected to, her background in Australia as, presumably, an Irish emancipist’s daughter, and so a homeless person who came to Ireland to claim a future for her son. I saw her as an outsider, a victim, in a world that mirrored the fatalistic machinery of a Thomas Hardy novel.

The researching of this story was endlessly fascinating, but talent as a writer of fiction was in short supply, and so The Other Side of the World did not see the light of day. But when I think of it now, I feel that if I knew I was writing a book about migration rather than the world of Victorian Ireland, it might have come to me in a different shape. The characters and their circumstances have unique aspects and are in no sense illustrative of broader patterns of communal migrations as presented in historical studies. These are individuals struggling to orient themselves in changing worlds, with vast distances separating alternative potential homes. My young namesake has an aura of Robinson Crusoe about him, and the moral universes of colonial adventurism and the balancing acts of striving Catholic professional and landed classes are fascinating.

Obviously it could be told as a great adventure story, it could almost be a Hollywood movie, there is high drama in every episode, but how should it be told so that allegories of migration, which I now believe are hidden in it, might be suggested? I would want to understand how individuals find confidence and courage to move through the transitional phase, that phase which remains at the heart of Brian Moore’s many fictional universes. What are the costs of settling? And the rewards of getting a life in a new place?

It may be that for many people the Hollywood answers are the answers they need, the surfaces of success provide the answers, the dream is real, but with Brian Moore in my imagination, I am driven to find more and more migrants who tell the story differently. They are the books of my own settling: V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, Eva Hoffmann’s Lost in Translation, Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory, Andre Aciman’s compilation Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language and Loss, and many others. My title here is taken from Eamon Grennan’s poem “Dublin-Poughkeepsie: Bread Knife in Exile”: “and I settle a migrant heart again in this otherwhere.” The poem is included in his latest collection, But the Body, and this latest collection adds further eloquent notations to a record of a long life of leaving, settling, returning, and leaving again.

His life and mine have moved in parallel in recent years because both of us are lucky: as teachers, we have always been able to spend long summer holidays back in Ireland, and now a later stage allows us to spend even longer and to have an integrated life there for a part of each year. I have done this now for quite a few years, and so in a sense I have reversed my migration so that I have two lives in two places. Having settled so well in Montreal over the decades, I was free to return to recover friends and family members, and to find new friends and new experiences in Ireland. It is no longer the place I left, of course—that only exists in memory and interpretation—and the reasons for leaving in the beginning have lost all their urgency. It is almost like migrating again with new reasons and new means of settling. 

But what strikes me most is that the meaning of migration for people such as me and, I believe, so many much younger than me, has been transformed in my lifetime. The easy availability of air travel, of telephone communication, of instant familiarization with what is happening over there via the internet, the streaming of radio and television images which collapses time zones and geographical separations, and the global nature of much work: all these transformations make staying in immediate contact with the important people in our lives so real that borders and boundaries and geographical distances no longer have the definitive force they once had. This is as true of those Irishmen and Irishwomen who are part of the new migrations, and often return, as it is of the many people from around the world who have migrated to Ireland in the past decade.