Ce Leis Tu? Queering Irish Migrant Literature

By O'Toole, Tina | Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies, Spring-Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Ce Leis Tu? Queering Irish Migrant Literature


O'Toole, Tina, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies


Abstract

Irish lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) writers have almost all had personal experience of migration, and register the profound effect of those migrant experiences in their literary writing. Yet, to date, these voices have been silent in dominant accounts of the Irish diaspora. Focusing on queer subjects in migrant literature by women writers, this essay sets out to examine the links between LGBT and diasporic identities, and to explore the ways in which kinship and migrant affinities unsettle the fixities of family and place in the culture. Reading across the diasporic literary space carved out by Kate O'Brien, Emma Donoghue, and Shani Mootoo, the essay shows how their work resists, rejects, and questions the dominant culture, whether 'at home' or in the diaspora. Queer kinship, which intentionally appropriates relationships and values from the bio/genetic sphere but introduces elements of choice and agency to these connections, provides a useful framework within which we might read this literature. By the end of the twentieth century, queer kinship networks were in evidence across the Irish diaspora. In Ireland, ensuing transnational exchanges had a profound impact on grassroots social activism and theory. For instance, I argue that feminist theory and literature, often transmitted along axes of queer kinship, was key to the shaping of the women's and LGBT movements in Ireland. While we have yet to see the wide-scale effect of emerging immigrant writers on existing cultural forms in Ireland, it is only a matter of time before LGBT writers from immigrant communities begin to have an impact on the culture. While anticipating such work, we must continue to question how the space of Irish literature, and indeed of the Irish diaspora, has been constituted--and resisted--thus far.

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Ties between colonizer and colonized have frequently been figured in Irish culture as heteronormative unions; a foundational example of this is the marriage between Horatio and Glorvina in Sydney Owenson's The Wild Irish Girl (1806). (1) More than a century later, following the hard-won achievement of political independence in the southern state, the 1937 Free State Constitution's promise to 'cherish all of the children of the nation equally' likewise inscribed a heteronormative family unit at the heart of the democratic Irish republic. (2) The persistent link between gendered heteronormative social institutions and national stability went unchallenged, with what Breda Gray terms the 'mapping of heterosexual desire onto a patriotic desire for national families and, through them, the reproduction of the nation'. (3) Concomitantly, sexuality has often been pathologized in periods of constitutional crisis, and national discourses continued to be imbricated with heteronormative concerns throughout twentieth-century Ireland. (4) This tendency is evident in the controversies surrounding the Roger Casement diaries, for instance, as Lucy McDiarmid and others have demonstrated; Casement's patriotism could not be reconciled with his homosexuality, to the extent that generations of Irish historians continued to disseminate preposterous explanations for the contents of his private papers, which attest to his sexual identity and desires. (5) These ley lines beneath the nation-building projects of Irish culture account for the rigid enforcement of literary and other censorship in the early days of the Free State, which specifically targeted cultural representations of sexual desire. Given these constraints, it is hardly surprising then that migration is central to the Irish 'coming out story', or that same-sex desire in Irish literature is almost always represented as occurring abroad. (6) Such literary migrancies reflect the diasporic displacement of Irish lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people (LGBTs). Queer Irish sexuality, as Ed Madden argues, thus constitutes a diasporic project. (7) Focusing on queer subjects in migrant literature by women writers, this essay sets out to examine the links between LGBT and diasporic identities, and to explore the ways in which queer kinship and migrant affinities unsettle the fixities of family and place in Irish culture.

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