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Gráinne Shanley O’Toole doesn’t have data on it, but she and Fionnuala Cloke felt there was a gap in traditional Irish publishing, that ethnic minorities seemed to be failing to find a platform there.
“We noticed it from being avid readers and keeping up to date with what’s coming out,” says Shanley O’Toole.
On Saturday, they launched the first book on their new publishing label, Skein Press – a collection of short stories by writer Melatu Uche Okorie that touches on, among other areas, infantilisation and control in direct provision, and the fragility of outsiders.
Skein Press is a traditional publishing house that will consider submissions from anybody, and they’re looking at other types of fiction too – children’s books, in particular. They want “new, fresh thought-provoking writing”, says Shanley O’Toole.
But they’re putting out the word that they’re looking, especially, for works by ethnic minority writers. “So that people from groups that are traditionally underrepresented know we are targeting them,” she says.
Okorie says she sent several short stories to Skein Press when asked, and they whittled the list down to the three that make up This Hostel Life.
The interest came at a good time, says Okorie. She had taken a pause from submitting her work after being told by different publishers that her writing wasn’t what they’re looking for right now.
She had her head in her PhD – which is based around a case study of the Fighting Words writing centre for kids in Dublin, a place she has volunteered and says she loves.
“The stories that the children come up with … the way they work with people. There’s just this warmth about the place, they’re very accepting,” she says.
So she had put her short stories to one side. “That’s when the call came,” she says. “I know it’s just a little book, but for me, it’s such a huge deal for me.”
Cloke has a background in publishing, while Shanley O’Toole has an MA in creative writing and a background in community work.
“We were just interested in seeing what could we contribute in some way to something happening here,” says Shanley O’Toole.
Without research, it’s tough to say for sure why most published authors seem to be middle-class and white Irish, but anecdotes and conversations have thrown up some issues time and again.
People say they lack the supports to work on their writing and get to a stage where it is publishable, and they struggle to find people willing to read their work critically and give feedback. “It’s very hard to get to the end point,” says Shanley O’Toole.
If, time and again, a writer is told that a story isn’t the kind that the publishing industry is interested in, then it can their confidence, she says. “Of course there are opportunities there, but they can be hard to access.”
Skein Press plans to publish two books a year, which would give them time to build relationships with writers, connect people with networks, and support them towards publication.
“I know that, from being a writer myself, unless your manuscript is pitch perfect, you don’t get a look in,” she says.
Many submissions they’ve gotten so far are unfinished or rough, but have promise. So perhaps Skein Press could take on more of a role in helping people get through drafts and drafts to a publishable work, she says.
“If we see manuscripts we are interested in, we want to be able to reach out to a writer and say, ‘What do we need to get this to a stage to put this out into the world?’” she says.
“Nobody produces a book on their own. No writer produces a manuscript that doesn’t need to be edited,” she says.
Okorie is also part of the Skein Press team, and says she is there to step in and mentor or encourage others, if needed.
She hopes that the many unheard stories, from those in direct provision and elsewhere, will begin to be written. “It would be great. It would be empowering,” she says.
What to Explain
Okorie was on stage at the Smock Alley Theatre as part of the International Literature Festival Dublin on Saturday, alongside British author Nikesh Shukla.
Shukla talked about how he pressed for editors not to italicise words they might have been tempted to – dhoti, or samosa, or kya jaay che – in his new novel The One Who Wrote Destiny.
It can be an arbitrary choice after all, when a word is familiar enough, and to whom it is familiar enough, to warrant being rendered in roman like all the others – and when it needs to be marked out as foreign with italics.
There’s no glossary either. People can google words if they don’t understand them, Shukla said, indignant at how the burden of explanation can fall on a writer of colour in a way that it might not fall on a white one.
Skein Press took a similar approach, in a way, not demanding that Okorie adapt the dialogue to make it easier for a white Irish audience to understand in the title story of This Hostel Life, which illustrates the smaller tyrannies of an oppressive system as residents in a direct-provision centre queue for food.
In this story, Okorie creates a language for her main character. It’s a blend of Nigerian pidgin English and American slang, in a strong Kinsala accent – inspired by the way in which different nationalities in direct provision create new ways to talk to one another.
“I was worried about people reading it,” says Okorie. She was warned that people’s responses would be as divided as to Marmite.
“Some people would like it and some people would not, so I have to know what I’m getting in to,” she says.
Shanley O’Toole says she and Cloke loved the colloquial prose. “We’re committed to experimenting, bringing stuff out in its true form, representative of the way writers want to represent themselves,” she says.
But they did also see the book as a chance to educate people about the existence and history of the direct-provision system, and thought some wider context might be needed for that.
Hence the essay in This Hostel Life by Liam Thornton, a law lecturer at University College Dublin, which rounds off the collection – an unusual addition to a set of short stories.
Okorie says the stories are drawn from her own experiences, and the experiences of others she knows.
In “Under the Awning”, she tackles themes of belonging and wraps the story of a young black girl, who struggles with racist slights and the distrust that they breed, within the comments and criticism from her writing group.
It shows the vulnerability and fragility of outsiders, and the need to be careful with one another. “I think it’s just for people to be conscious of how little things can affect people, just things that you do almost unconsciously, or maybe consciously,” she says.
Perhaps, the main character is paranoid in some ways, she says. But “these are just things that build up over time, that you now start reading everything as a form of racism or a form of discrimination”.
While the story is of a black girl in a new country, it could as well be a white Irish girl somewhere else, she says. “There’s always that thing about being the outsider.”
Now that Skein Press have their first book out, they’re on the hunt for funding and more resources. Next, they plan to commission a series of short stories around issues of ethnic identity in Ireland.
It’s still the start of their journey for distribution and sales, and the Irish market is the first they’re looking at, says Shanley O’Toole.
But while it is rare for an Irish novel or short-story collection to break through to international markets, there may be advantages to tales with a wider world.
“I think This Hostel Life would resonate across Europe. So many migrant communities, so many people working in that area, so many people interested in that area,” says Shanley O’Toole. “I think that book could knock its own socks off.”