Q&A With The Islands Author Dionne Irving

The Islands author Dionne Irving
Dionne Irving

THE ISLANDS, the new short-story collection by Dionne Irving, places Jamaican women all over the map: London, France, Panama, Florida, and Jamaica itself, to name a few of the stories’ settings. In this follow-up to her novel, Quint, Irving navigates immigration, colonialism, issues of race and discrimination, and nuanced family relationships. Originally from Toronto, Irving teaches in the Creative Writing Program and the Initiative on Race and Resilience at the University of Notre Dame. Though the subject matter of these 10 stories is serious, humor and humanness shine through.

The Islands book cover has sand, surf, tropical plants, and metal wall imageryWhen did you start writing the stories in The Islands?

Some of the stories are 20 years old, to be honest. And there’s one that I wrote last summer. It’s the range of my career, but I think it’s also indicative of the fact that like any writer, I keep going back to the same obsessions, and the same ideas, the same kinds of things that are in each of us.

Tourism, race, and class conflict are major elements of these stories. At the same time, they focus closely on relationships in crisis. What draws you to these subjects?

I think that a lot of my characters are living in liminal spaces. In many ways they are without a home, whether that’s being divorced from country or culture. All of these characters are searching for home in some way. They’re trying to figure out how another person might be home for them. That’s sometimes what we do: seek home out in other people.

Do you have a favorite story or character in the collection? Why?

In terms of a character that I feel closest to, probably the character in “Shopgirl.” That very much mirrors my own life. My parents owned a Caribbean grocery store in Toronto, and I grew up working there every weekend. I don’t know if she’s my favorite, but I think maybe she’s the one that feels closest to me.

How did you decide the order of the stories in the collection?

My editor, Leigh Newman, is absolutely brilliant, and I feel like she was able to see things that I couldn’t see as the writer. She really thought about the movement of the stories, and what it means to look forward. The act of immigrating is that idea of thinking about a different or better life for those who come after you. Because lives of immigrants are often really hard and really difficult, and in some ways that act of migration is not about you. It’s about your kids and your kids’ kids.

What was your path to publication?

It’s been 10 years now since I finished my Ph.D. in academia, and I had not had a chance to give my creative work the same energy or concentration. And so, funnily enough, being able to have some time during the pandemic, I was able to think about my work in a different way. Because the structure of our lives was so different, that was really the key for getting both books out into the world. It provided me some physical and mental space to think about how to get those manuscripts ready to send out.

You were born in Toronto, relocated with your family to Florida as a child, and now live and teach in the Midwest. How does place influence your fiction and essays?

In some ways, it’s very hard to write about a place when you are in a place. I think sometimes it’s too close. I have at this point just moved around so very much, I often find myself writing about the places of my past and that those places come to me much more quickly than the places where I’m living. Other than growing up in Toronto, I have never lived anywhere more than five years. That’s very much been a part of part of my life: movement and moving. And it’s really interesting because my husband grew up in the Midwest, in the same town where his parents went to high school and his grandparents lived and went to high school. We have these really different backgrounds.

What are you working on now?

I am working on two books: a novel about climate change and magic and the Caribbean, and an essay collection that deals with Black women through different lenses, in part inspired by Zora Neale Hurston’s idea that the Black woman is in the middle of the world, and the trouble of the world is often piled on us.

You teach at Notre Dame and are part of the university’s Initiative on Race and Resilience, which puts an emphasis on the arts. What do you see as the role of the arts in examining race?

All writing is political. It might not feel overtly political. But it is quietly political. And I think that writers are quiet activists. It might not be marching in the street, but words have so much power to change the status quo, and to allow us to think about the lived experience of other human beings on the planet. It allows us access to this kind of empathy that we don’t have through hearing statistics and numbers. When we hear a person’s story, we can understand their world and their experience and their life so much better. I think that story is the agent for change, and the way to think through ideas of race. We have to reach people’s souls, not just their logical minds.