Séan Ó Tuathaigh’s book Outlanders (Mercier Press) is about the extraordinary stories of ordinary people fleeing from war, persecution, and violence. He was kind enough to share his own story with us about the events and interactions that led him how to document their experiences in writing. Don’t miss the opportunity to hear him speak along with Syrian national Suad Aldarra in conversation with professor Bryan Fanning. Read his story below:
Many of them had crossed the desert, swum rivers, stowed away in containers, to get to the factory, a fishery wholesalers on the Boston waterfront. Them— my colleagues. Me, I had flown there— film on a small screen, microwaved dinner, queue for luggage on arrival. A J1. The discrepancy in our voyages, the treatment on arrival, the stakes involved could not have been greater. This abrupt lesson was the tip of the iceberg; summer 2010.
I learned a lot in those balmy and decidedly fishy months; working shoulder to shoulder, not with fellow j1ers or established ‘locals’, but with Hondurans, Nicaraguans, El Salvadorans. They had fled poverty, child-soldiering, petty gang-land principalities. One had lost a friend during the desert crossing; another nameless skeleton bleached by a cruel sun. Stories such as these placed my own trifling issues in their little box. It was my first real taste of the gulf in this world, of the global south, not in some charitable ad on the television, or a toxic punching-down action flick, or sanitised through hotelier tourism, but human to human, face to face, heart to heart. To look someone in the eye as they describe saying goodbye to their friend forever… it changes you. It changed me. The injustice of it. I crossed a Rubicon of sorts in Boston, though the lesson was a slow burn.
At the end of summer 2014, I left Hanoi, Vietnam. I had been teaching English there, where the lessons of Boston had been amplified. A week later, I began a masters in creative writing in Dublin. I had been writing a long time, had always chosen creative assignments over analytical essays in school and had begun writing in earnest after finishing college. I wrote then as a form of escapism; the world is cruel, it is ‘The End of History’, ‘there is no alternative’. Recoiling from our alleged contemporary stasis, I escaped into historical fantasies—the first draft of a Napoleonic espionage thriller in particular. But after Boston and Hanoi and the guiding hand of the masters, a new motor within me propelled the writing that followed. It was no longer escapist, but instead hoped to engage in the world, to interact. Orwell was a momentous influence. Chomsky too. And Zinn. Camus slapped me across the face with the idea that: in an absurd universe, the only meaning to be found is in standing with the downtrodden…
Summer 2016. Having completed the masters, I travelled to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on a graduate visa, to work as a refugee resettlement case worker. The responsibilities of the position, the accumulated experiences of previous years and the writing all seemed to be converging. Day by day I was meeting refugees from all over the world, from Burma to Bosnia, hearing of their heart aches and their triumphs. The backdrop to this was the gathering storm of the Trump regime, the barometer of xenophobia creeping up all around me, violent incidents in the news almost daily. Could it really be that these people I had come to know so well, these mothers, grandfathers, sisters, these normal people, were the bogeymen that embittered so many? It seemed ludicrous.
Their stories, I thought. Hear their stories, read their stories, feel their stories and you can no longer fear them. And when the fear goes, the hate too will vanish. You will find that you have more in common with those you fear—feared—than those who bellow fear, than those too who quietly dug out the hole within which fear could flourish. And so, I began Outlanders.
Outlanders is a compilation of ten real-life stories from refugees and asylum seekers, whom the author met while working in the field of refugee resettlement in the US and Ireland. They are old people and young, recently arrived and well established, originating from Afghanistan, Burma, Laos, Somalia, Iraq, South Africa, Bosnia and Palestine. Outlanders is the first work of its kind to explore the subject from a creative perspective, setting it apart from previous journalistic work available on the subject. The stories are presented in a style that immerses the reader in the journey of the refugee, the sights, smells, sounds they experienced, how it felt along the way. These unique individual narratives are bound together by recurring themes: daily life, the eruption of conflict and the privations endured to escape it. Outlanders offers a glimpse into the lives of the displaced, not through screen or newsfeed, but through the very eyes of those who survived.