Interview: The Islands, an Interview with Dionne Irving.

DIONNE IRVING is originally from Toronto, Ontario. Her work has appeared in Story, Boulevard, LitHub, Missouri Review, and New Delta Review, among other journals and magazines. Her first novel Quint came out in the fall of 2021.She currently teaches in the Creative Writing Program and the Initiative on Race and Resilience at the University of Notre Dame, and lives in Indiana with her husband and son.

Over the last two years, Dionne Irving has published her first novel, Quint (2021), and her first short story collection, The Islands: Stories (2022). I had the chance to ask about her writing journey as well as her job as a professor teaching creative writing.

Tell us a bit about your writing journey.

DI: I think that I have always been a writer. From the time I was very young telling and hearing stories has been a part of my life—maybe I was a griot in another life. I grew up working in my parents’ Caribbean grocery store and spent most of my Saturdays listening to people tell stories about the  places they came from and the things they were experiencing as immigrants was very much a part of my cultural consciousness.

As I got older that desire to hear and tell stories, to elicit feelings from another person never left me. I think that fiction is the medium in which I do that because of the intimacy that reading provides. It is the only way to delve into another person’s life and experience fully.

You’re a part of the Initiative on Race and Resilience and teach creative writing at Notre Dame. How do you juggle teaching and writing?

DI: The work I do in the classroom deeply informs the work of my writing. I am endlessly fascinated by other people and working with my students inspires me to come back to the page again and again. 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.

As a writer who works inside the confines of academia that also means that there can be several months where I am completely focused on my work as a faculty member and all that it entails. That part is the harder part of the balance, but I don’t think that work keeps me from writing. It just means it might take me a little longer. But I think that my desire both to teach writing and to write speaks to my commitment and passion for words, stories, and language.

The Islands is a short story collection about Jamaican women who have moved to different places around the world. What was your inspiration for writing these stories?

DI: The lives of all the women I know: sisters, aunties, friends, cousins, mothers, and grandmothers were stories that I felt deserved to be heard. And even though I often knew their stories and traumas, the women I knew were not always having conversations about how the events of their pasts resonated in their lives.

Secrecy is thoroughly a part of the Jamaican culture. And while every culture and country keeps secrets, there is something that seems woven into the fabric of Jamaican culture about not talking about our pain. For myself and other children of the Jamaican diasporic community, we are working to find community for ourselves in a kind of liminal space within North American culture. Part of the work of this community means telling the stories that shape us so that we can better understand ourselves.

Which story did you enjoy writing the most? Why?

DI: I am not sure if it is the story I enjoyed writing most, but the story that is probably closest to me is “Shopgirl.” The years I spent growing up in my parents’ shop have deeply informed my life. Over the years, I tried many ways to write the story, and it just never worked.

When Josh Russell was guest editing the New Flash Fiction Review, he asked me to write a submit, and that story came in a burst. I think in it you can see the DNA of stories like Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” and Lorrie Moore’s “How to be a Writer”, but both of those stories use the second person to offer instruction. My second person character is trying to process her and understand an experience.

Recently during a reading event, a Jamaican writer heard me laugh and said I had a shop laugh. It made me both happy and sad to hear that. I think that is kind of how I feel about my time working in my parents’ shop; it is both happy and sad. I think the second person POV in this allowed me the closeness I wanted to the events, but also created a little distance between me and a story that was so close.

It wasn’t too long after the story was published that my mother called me to tell me not only how much the story had moved her, but that her mother—my grandmother—had also grown up in a shop. Her parents had run a Chinese grocery story in Jamaica when she was growing up, and this wasn’t something I had ever known. I’ve also heard from people from so many cultural backgrounds who have grown up in their parents’ bodegas, or Korean groceries. There is something about working in a grocery store and the experience of the ethnic immigrant that are closely fastened together.

The Islands explores race, class, and immigration. What message do you hope readers will take away from these stories?

DI: It is hard to think about these stories in terms of message. I want my stories not so much to have a message but to make readers think deeply about the experiences of my characters. I want them to be stories that engender empathy. I believe deeply that narrative informs everything that we do. I think there is something fundamental about stories that resonates with being human, and I think reading about the struggles, traumas, joys, and triumphs both of people who are like us and who are not like us have the power to engender empathy in all of us.

You’ve now published a novel and a short story collection. Do you prefer writing a novel or a short story? Why?

DI: I am a short story writer at heart. There is something about the concision and tightness of a short story that I am drawn to. While I love reading novels and I am fully captivated by them, there is something about the emotional wreckage that a masterfully written short story can leave you with that I’ve always been dazzled by. It’s something I think I want to do. Short stories in some ways are harder than novels because they are so tight. Each move must be carefully executed so that it has the maximum effect.

You’re on the PEN/Faulkner Award Longlist for The Islands. How do you feel about that?

DI: Absolutely blown away. It is such an incredible honor. I am so proud of this book and these stories, but I never thought anyone would want to read them, and so I am deeply humbled and grateful not only that they are finding readers and resonating with people but that they have been selected to be featured so publicly.

Could you share anything about what you’re currently working on?

DI: I am currently working on a novel that considers the contemporary threat of climate change in Jamaica alongside the historical legacy of enslaved people. I want to think about how the past of the country helps us to understand the future. How can we consider how collective trauma culturally, physically, generationally, and environmentally will continue to shape the world we live in. 

The Islands

The Islands follows the lives of Jamaican women—immigrants or the descendants of immigrants—who have relocated all over the world to escape the ghosts of colonialism on what they call the Island. Set in the United States, Jamaica, and Europe, these international stories examine the lives of an uncertain and unsettled cast of characters. In one story, a woman and her husband impulsively leave San Francisco and move to Florida with wild dreams of American reinvention only to unearth the cracks in their marriage. In another, the only Jamaican mother—who is also a touring comedienne—at a prep school feels pressure to volunteer in the school’s International Day. Meanwhile, in a third story, a travel writer finally connects with the mother who once abandoned her.

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Article originally Published in the April / May 2023 Issue: Voices.

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