It’s publication day for Sheena Wilkinson’s new novel Name upon Name. Set in Belfast in 1916, Name upon Name deals with cultural identity. Here Sheena writes about her own experiences of being caught between two separate identities while growing up in Belfast in the 1980s. This article is part of Sheena’s Name upon Name blog tour, where she has also written posts for Writing.ie, Gobblefunked, The History Girls, Girls Heart Books and Author Allsorts.
I don’t know where the news team came from: Australia, perhaps, or America. It wasn’t unusual for overseas reporters to be out on the streets of Belfast in the 1980s, eager for local reactions to the latest atrocity/peace initiative/ political development. What was unusual was my reaction when they asked me for a vox pop.
‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘It’s nothing to do with me.’
I was sixteen. I’d debated competitively for my school, and represented Northern Ireland at the UK final of a public speaking competition. I was bright and politically engaged. I was a member of CND and had tried to join the Labour Party Young Socialists only to discover that membership wasn’t extended to Northern Ireland. I was a committed feminist. I never didn’t have an opinion to voice.
The news team was incredulous. ‘But you live here?’ they insisted. ‘You can’t say it’s none of your business.’
I shrugged, and they let me go, thinking, I suppose, that I was just an airhead schoolgirl.
I couldn’t tell the truth. That this was the one subject I was scared to speak out on, and that if they knew what I was – or wasn’t – they wouldn’t want my opinion, because I’d learned that it didn’t count. Easier just to shrug and walk away.
Because all the rhetoric I ever heard growing up in Belfast was about two communities, two religions, two points of view, two identities. Opposed and at war. I come from what in Northern Ireland is still quaintly termed a mixed marriage. My parents were married in a Catholic church, but without the blessing of my father’s family, who didn’t even attend. When I was born, his family insisted on my being christened and brought up in their church, while my mum went alone to mass and my dad – an atheist, anyway – went nowhere. (You won’t be surprised that the marriage didn’t survive.) I got rosary beads and holy pictures from one granny; gospel choruses and bibles from the other. I instinctively pronounced the letter H as ‘aitch’ in some company, and ‘haitch’ in other. I was as adaptable as a chameleon.
But I didn’t know how to answer the inevitable question from other kids: What are you? My parents advised me, ‘Tell them you’re nothing – neither one nor the other – and they’ll leave you alone.’
It was kindly-meant. Clearly they thought it safer than saying, ‘I’m both.’ And it would have been too complicated to say, ‘I come from two traditions and there are things I like about both of them. And much that I don’t. I feel sort of Irish but not entirely. And sort of British but not entirely.’ I knew this wasn’t allowed. You had to be one or the other: you had to choose. But you can’t choose the identity you’re born into. You can reject it; you can choose other beliefs and follow other traditions, but you can’t deny where you come from.
Unless, of course, you’ve been taught to describe yourself as nothing.
When Little Island asked me to write a novel dealing with The Easter Rising, at first I felt the same instinct to shrug and walk away that I had that day on the Belfast street. Even though I love writing historical fiction and the early twentieth century is my favourite period. The old fear came back – that someone from my mixed-up background didn’t have a right to write about Irish affairs. That people in the south would think, Who the hell does she think she is? That people in the north would think, Who the hell does she think she is?
And I then I realised – that’s the story I needed to tell. That’s the story that would have helped me realise, as a child, that I wasn’t nothing; I was both. And that was a fine thing to be.
Helen, the main character in Name upon Name, has rural, Catholic Irish influences from her mother’s family, and urban, Protestant Ulster ones from her father. Just as I did. And Belfast 1916 is no easier a place than Belfast in the seventies and eighties to deal with that kind of confusion. Like me, the teenage Helen struggles to find out what exactly she’s allowed to be, determined not to be nothing. And though the book is set 99 years ago, in many ways it’s my most autobiographical novel so far, though unlike me Helen is forced into action. She doesn’t shrug and walk away.
I’ve never before told anyone about the day I shrugged and walked away from the foreign news team on the streets of Belfast in 1985. I was so ashamed of myself, because deep down I knew I had something to say. I just didn’t think I’d be allowed to say it.
But I’ve said it now.
Name upon Name is now available in bookshops and here on the Little Island website.