Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Immigrant Lives and Stories: The Ever-Present Past by Aine Greaney

Dance Lessons: A NovelAine Greaney is the author of Dance Lessons: A Novel which tells the story of an American woman who travels to Ireland following her husband's death to learn about her Irish immigrant husband - she learns much more than she ever expected. (Stop by tomorrow for my review) Aine was raised in County Mayo, Ireland and emigrated to the US in 1986.  She currently resides on Boston's North Shore.  Aine has graciously agreed to guest post on my blog about her immigrant experience in conjunction with my Immigrant Stories Challenge.

The Ever-Present Past

Most mornings, I wake up to a strange bedroom. I lie there peering into that gauzy daylight, sleepy and baffled. Where? Where am I? And then, bit by bit, things become familiar. That’s my bedroom chair against the wall. I bought it at a garage sale in upstate New York. And there’s my framed wall mirror. I brought it home from an estate sale in Gloucester, Massachusetts. And that’s my purple bath robe hanging on the back of the door. Two years ago, I unwrapped it from a package beneath our Christmas tree. So this is my bedroom. This is my life. In America.

After 24 years of living here, you would think that I would wake up to instant recognition, an instant sense of where I am. But most mornings, I wake from a dream of Ireland.

It’s not always a happy dream.

On one winter day in 1986, an Aer Lingus plane deposited me and my backpack into the intercoms and voices and smells of JFK Airport, New York. The airport was too hot. The weather outside was frightful. I was terrified. That was 24 years ago. This year, 2011, I have spent as much as my life here as I had back there. So I should be as American as I am Irish.

And I am. I order a tom-ay-to on my salad. I get pissed because I’m angry, not drunk. I have learned to be on time (mostly).

And yet, I wake up a stranger in my own house. I wake up still back there.

Photo Credit: Homeaway
In many of my night dreams, I’m in a small, thatch-roof house at the end of an old, pebbled road in County Mayo. It’s the house that was handed down in my grandmother’s family. It’s listed in the online 1901 Irish census, though the house and the farm predate that. After I was born in a Galway hospital, they brought me home there. I lived there until I was 10 years old.

At three o’clock in the morning, American eastern standard time, I am back there again, standing in that smoky little kitchen, or I’m lying in my childhood sick bed, watching the apple trees make shadows against bedroom window.

Sometimes I’m in a two-level stone house on a village street—the house we moved to when I was ten. I’m in my teenage bedroom, the bed has a pink quilt; there's blue, 1970s-style carpet on the floor. Downstairs, I hear my mother’s and my grandmother’s voices.

Or I’m standing in another bedroom, this one in the Irish midlands. It’s a furnished studio flat at the top of a decrepit house that sits on a main street in a small one-street town. From college in Dublin, I moved there for my first job. In the dream, I can smell my landing neighbor’s burnt toast through the thin apartment walls.

Most days, I commute to work in an office north of Boston. I e-mail colleagues and I have lunch and sit in meetings. On the commute home, I listen to the radio or I make dinner arrangements with my American husband or friends. In my daylight hours, the bedrooms of my past are just a quick blip of color, a drive-by sighting of memory. Even when they assume full color, they exist in a separate wing of the gallery. But at night, here they are again, in full Technicolor.

At night, I sing those other songs. I speak that other tongue, and when I wake up, there is no instant passage from one life to the other.

For immigrants, I believe that this is how it is. From New York to Hong Kong to London, we live our lives within the shadow of the life left behind. As we walk down a city street, that shadow jimmies and bounces and dances alongside us.

This is why I read immigrant writers. Not exclusively. But when I read that first scene, there is an automatic reader-writer connection. This words mirror my own dual-realities, my own splintered existence. Quite simply, the literature of displacement makes me feel less displaced.

As an author, this is why I write so much about history and why my characters’ past is ever-present on the page. Because for immigrants, there’s really no back-story and main story.

The back-story is the story. Every morning.

As part of my Immigrant Stories Challenge, I will feature a post on the last day of each month which focuses on immigrant literature or the immigrant experience.  Thank you Aine for sharing with us your immigrant experience - I think living "our lives in the shadow of the life left behind" beautifully captures the unique pain of being caught between two worlds which is so often experienced by immigrants.  And thank you for sharing your top 5 Immigrant Novels:

Aine Greaney's 5 Favorite Immigrant Books (in no particular order)
 “The Middleman and Other Stories” (Bharati Mukherjee)
 “A Distant Shore” (Caryl Phillips)  
 “The Namesake” (Jhumpa Lahiri)
 “The Road Home” (Rose Tremain)  
“Walking into the Night” (Olaf Olafsson)


  1. What a great post! Thanks so much for sharing it.

  2. Hi, Just stopping by Colleen's blog to (vainly, I admit) read my own post, and saw your comment. Thanks so much for your kind words.
    Aine Greaney

  3. Very interesting post--I loved this line:
    "The back-story is the story."

    As the child of immigrants, I still feel a disconnection--no relatives, no grandparents home to remember, no feeling of rooted to place.

  4. I loved this post! And I can relate to how the author feels. I'm no immigrant, but I stay halfway across the world from my home and I miss that place every day!

  5. Wow, what a great story about what it means to be an immigrant!

  6. Hi Everyone,
    thanks for your kind words about my post on being an immigrant in the U.S. I know that it's a fairly similar experience for many of my pals who are American-born, but who live very far away from their home place. The smallest smell will instantly transport them back there. For me, it's a freshly mown meadow of hay or freshly cut grass ...