Dionne Irving-Bremyer: Immigration as a liminal space

Author: Claire Kieffer

Dionne Irving-Bremyer

A member of the University of Notre Dame faculty since 2021, Dionne Irving-Bremyer followed up her first novel, Quint with a collection of short stories published in 2022. The collection, titled The Islands, won well-deserved accolades across the board, including a shortlist nomination for the Giller-Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award.

The author immerses us, seemingly effortlessly, into the lives of Jamaican women. Between mordant observations revealing what we all knew but never said out loud (“Colonialism by another name. Tourism. Where servants could never be slaves because you tipped them, because they smiled”) and laugh-out-loud lines (“The communist has a soft smile that would make anyone give up capitalism”), Bremyer nails it.

Writing The Islands
It is stunning that a collection so unified in tone and themes spans many years of writing practice. Weaving, the first story to be written, was drafted during the author’s time in college, and went through many iterations before the collection was picked up in 2021. The newest story was written that same year. There is a strong sense that through this collection of experiences, Bremyer is getting to the heart of something that needed to be told, something unchanged, universal. “I didn’t think people would want to read stories about Jamaican immigrants,” the author says when asked about her intention. And yet, Bremyer felt compelled to continue writing: “those were stories that lived inside my body, and I felt the need to make sure that they got told,” she says. A professor once asked why all this writing about Black people - now, as a professor herself, Bremyer works on reversing this dynamic and gets her students to write about what truly matters to them. Bremyer’s perseverance and her success will hopefully encourage more diverse voices.

How does one write a Giller shortlistee? Bremyer advises her students to find their people while they are studying. Her own first reader is her husband, to whom she is grateful for reading some of her pieces hundreds of times. Bremyer’s dating advice? “Marry your ideal reader!” In addition, the author delivers this useful recommendation to wannabe broody Baudelaires: “There is a romantic idea that what a writer really needs is tons of time alone, but I think that most writers need to balance periods of intense isolation with periods of being out in the world.”

Bremyer speaks about experimenting with form. As she grew as a writer and a person, over the course of the years it took for the collection to be complete, she says she approached certain stories differently from her initial drafts. “I think Shopgirl would probably be the best example of that. It was a story that was somewhat autobiographical, and I kept trying to tell it as a longer story but it really wasn’t working, and it really wasn’t until I wrote it as a flash piece that the story came together.”

Rather than rituals, “it’s always been catch-as-catch-can writing, when I can as much as I can,” she says. “Life gets in the way.”

Living in a liminal space
From the first line to the closing story, the reader is immersed in the sensation of unbelonging, of “neither here nor there.” Bremyer sums it up: “You can never go home again (...) and yet the new place might not be home either.” There is the couple moving from San Francisco to Florida, only to find a different flavor of the same outsiderness. There is the young girl working in her parent’s shop, wishing she was watching cartoons instead, like other girls her age (“Will they remember who did the selling? Or will they only remember buying? You will just remember the work.”). And, most poignantly, there is the young woman on holiday on “The Island” with her lover, basking in the luxury of a resort, being served by people who might be her cousins: “She could see then that he has seen her for a fake or a fraud. That the recognition was fleeting. She was a simulacrum. She wasn’t Jamaican. But she was never sure how they could see it on her.” And further: “They all felt like home, tasted like home, but were not home. She was a tourist too.”

The theme of fraud, an uneasy feeling of performance, runs through the book. In the
opening story, the narrator speculates that in Florida, “we could live like the bougie frauds we always wanted to be.” The author speaks to the experience of repackaging and retelling your own story: reframing who you are for others, the use of masks such as bleaching cream, are part of “learning techniques for survival.” Like the husband in the opening story: “Their plan - as I understood it - meant a life that would bring them close to white,” says the light-skinned wife, brought in “to inject some good hair into their family’s genetic pool,” as per the mother-in-law's wishes.

Moving through the collection - different eras, different individuals, but a wonderful unity in tone - we gradually come to an understanding of how the trauma of colonialism is passed down through generations. The story Some people, set in a well-to-do suburb of Montclair, has an eerie “the-call-came-from-inside-the-house” feeling, when the white guest child eats up the traditional goat curry, but the narrator’s own daughter doesn’t. “Parent-child relationships are often really fraught, but I think the immigration dynamic adds a different level to it,” the author explains.

A new book linking colonialism and climate change
Bremyer is working on an ambitious new novel. In it, she will explore how the current increasing climate turmoil will change not only landscape, but also culture - and as we know, the global South will be, and already is, disproportionately affected by climate events. These events are caused mainly by emissions of the global North, which is the injustice we all know about. But Bremyer takes it further, arguing that colonialism not only laid the foundation for inequality, but also is also the root cause for the climate disruption we are experiencing today: the sheer number of bodies moved across the Atlantic made climate change an inevitability, says Bremyer.

“I don’t think my new book is either hopeful or fatalistic,” the author says. “I think it’s just thinking about how we’re all going to react in this situation that is absolutely coming.” We haven’t thought about all the ramifications, she points out. While we are a very resilient species, we will have to figure out what that resilience looks like on a planet that we have destroyed: “What that new world is going to look like is part of what my speculation involves.” Bremyer is not interested in a post-apocalyptic view of the future as much as in the impact on ordinary aspects of life.

Writing at Kylemore in the West of Ireland
For the past couple of years, Bremyer has been teaching Notre Dame students in the unique setting of the Global Centre in Kylemore Abbey, Connemara, in the West of Ireland. “I love being at Kylemore, it's so very meditative and peaceful. I think the experience of being there really encourages me to write because there is something about the place that allows for kind of quietness of mind, and I think that that’s why the experience is very powerful for students and allows them to maybe tap into things that maybe they wouldn’t, without the
distractions of the world.”

More than a mere building for education, the nature of the place allows one to connect with an inner creative force. “We forget how so much of human history prior to now really allowed for a kind of meditation and contemplation and I think a lot of times we keep ourselves endlessly entertained, and one of the downsides of that is that it doesn’t give our minds the space to wander and be creative, and I think that Kylemore is really exciting as a space where that's allowed to happen.”

Originally published by Claire Kieffer at diversity.nd.edu on February 29, 2024.