I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Home Uncategorized Waiting to live

Waiting to live

Dan A O’Brien
This Hostel Life, by Melatu Uche Okorie, Virago Press, 112pp, €10, ISBN: 978-0349012902 The great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe once wrote: “Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.” One can see then why the Nigerian-Irish writer Melatu Uche Okorie, who spent over eight years in the direct provision system, turned to literature. Her slim but weighty short story collection This Hostel Life tells of that experience. First published in 2018 by Skein Press, Ireland’s new platform for minority writers, the book is now being republished by the prestigious Virago Press. It is a hostile life indeed for the inhabitants of the title story’s provision centre, a Kafkaesque existence of endless waiting and enforced idleness. Those who speak up about conditions are often “randomly” transferred to other hostels. There is also deep suspicion between the various national and ethnic groups, with those of the Congo dubious of the dominant Nigerians, the Nigerians distrustful of one another, and the asylum seekers as a whole at odds with the Irish management and Eastern European staff. In her story, Okorie creates a microcosm of modern Irish society, proclaiming itself free and equal but in reality riven by economical and racial hierarchies. Yet even in a system that seems designed to prevent community formation, relationships, ephemeral and transient though they are, develop between the occupants. The Congolese protagonist is warned away from the Nigerians by compatriots, but befriends them none the less, noting perceptively: “But now, me I know no one is good complete and no one can do you bad like your own people.” Okorie has a sharp eye for the small human kindnesses that can momentarily compensate for existential cruelties; she also has a deft ear for the linguistic creativity that is the inevitable outflow from these modern towers of Babel. For instance, her heroine cannot work out the difference between “me” and “I”, and so uses both, a linguistic trait that suggests her split identity as a migrant. The star of the book is “Under the Awning”, an intricate story within a story, told from the point of view of an asylum seeker who has joined a writing class and must temper her fiction to conform with Irish people’s stereotypes of migrants, and of themselves. The narrator tells of her experiences with blunt Irish racism, and more covert, even subconscious,…

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