‘Where are you from originally’: The cruel optimism of the precarious Irish public sphere in Melatu Uche Okorie’s “Under the Awning”

By Dr Deirdre Flynn

In “Dual Citizenship” Denise Chaila declares that “there are some people who will spend their whole lives, looking for a definition of home.” Since the citizenship referendum of 2004, many of those born in Ireland are no longer entitled to call the country of their birth their home. Melatu Uche Okorie’s debut collection This Hostel Life (2018) gives voice to this precarious public sphere of contemporary Ireland. Focusing on the story “Under the Awning” this article will detail how Ireland’s citizenship laws have created what Sara Ahmed would call “strange encounters” in how we see the nation (3). This move to create a blood boundary between migrants and Irish has created what Ronit Lentin calls a “racial state of exception,” a state perfectly detailed by Okorie in her pointed story (440).

For the narrator of “Under the Awning,” there is a cruel optimism in her actions, as within the framed narrative she is caught in the repeated dismissal of her experiences. She is outside, unnamed and impeded by the liminality of her existence within the Irish state. She is locked out of being Irish, a fact highlighted further by the colour of her skin. The structural inequality of both her temporal space in the writing group and the fictional space of her story is unfamiliar to those outside the state of exception. Okorie details the plurality of our contemporary state, and the precarious position of those locked out of Ireland through citizenship laws.

Citizenship Referendum

In 2004, the Irish people were asked to vote on a constitutional amendment on the right to Irish citizenship. After the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, anyone born on the island of Ireland was entitled to citizenship, expanding the right to ‘membership of “the nation” to “all people born on the island of Ireland” (Lentin 618). During the period of the Celtic Tiger (approx. 1996 – 2008) economic buoyancy and high employment lead to large numbers of inward migration. This also coincided with a growing number of people seeking international protection in Ireland, leading to the foundation of the deeply appalling Direct Provision system in 2000. The neo-liberalist Celtic Tiger agenda meant that the divide between rich and poor grew, and a short-lived slowdown of the economy in 2003 created concern over inward migration. When cases came before the courts requesting leave to remain for immigrant parents of Irish-born children, citizens of the state, the Minister of Justice stepped in to re-define Irish citizenship.

The 2004 referendum focused on inward migrants, and in particular, pregnant migrants, claiming they were travelling to Ireland deliberately to get Irish citizenship for their children. No data was provided to back up this rhetoric “of ‘flooding’ and ‘pushing the system to the brink’,” and Governmental policy moved “to deport all migrant parents of Irish children citizens” including 20 children who were citizens of the state (Lentin 622)[1]. This situation continues today, with many children born in Ireland threatened with deportation. Cases such as Eric Zhi Ying Mei Xue and 10 cases in February, 2020, highlight the precarious position these children inhabit. 

The result of this referendum, which passed by 79%, left children born to migrant parents in what Giorgio Agamben would call a “state of exception”:

a zone of indistinction between outside and inside, exception and rule, licit and illicit, in which the very concepts of subjective right and juridical protection no longer made any sense. (Agamben 168)

In this indistinct space, children are made aliens in the country of their birth. This biopolitical decision discriminates against children born to immigrants, and controls who can define themselves as Irish within the nation, making, of children born in Ireland to migrant parents, “one who does not belong in a nation space, and who is already defined as such by the Law” (Ahmed 3). As such, the citizenship referendum allowed the Government to control who is included in the defining of the nation, thereby also controlling “the repertoire of images which allows the concept of the nation to come into being in the first place” (Ahmed 98). Those outside the image of the nation exist within the state of exception, a precarious public sphere.

This is what Judith Butler would call a “tactical” decision to manage the population, forcing certain bodies into precarity, by defining them as lesser than Irish citizens:

Whether explicitly stated or not, every political effort to manage populations involves a tactical distribution of precarity, more often than not articulated through an unequal distribution of precarity, one that depends on dominant norms regarding whose life is grievable and worth protecting and whose life is ungrievable, or marginally or episodically grievable and so, in that sense, already lost in part or in whole, and thus less worthy of protection and sustenance (Butler 148).

These decisions, now enshrined in our constitution, create a structure of inequality that defines certain migrants, particularly those from the global south, as “less worthy” to Ireland.

‘Under The Awning’

Okorie’s story was first published in her 2018 collection This Hostel Life. “Under the Awning” is one of three stories in the volume, and also features in Sinéad Gleeson’s anthology The Art of the Glimpse (2020). This framed narrative focuses on a young female writer who is presenting her work to her writing group. The narrator is unnamed, but the story she presents to the group provides hints that it may be based on her own personal experience of being a black woman in Ireland. Her use of a second person narrator for her story, as well as her response to the group’s complete dismissal of the racism experienced by the narrator, suggests the truth in the narrative. In both the story she presents, and the frame, the girl experiences the double denial of this racism.

From the very beginning of the story, the girl is situated in opposition to the writing group. When she arrives, the last remaining seat is “directly opposite the leader,” who then, along with the group, pass judgement on her and the story she presents. Much like those seeking international protection in Ireland, her story must be believable to them, deemed worthy. Moreover, once shared, her story enters the public sphere. The story specifically focuses on the racist experiences of a black woman in Ireland and exposes her body “to its precariousness” within Ireland (Butler 141). Her body, like her story of Didi, is at once hers and not hers as the gatekeepers of nation tell her that there is something in the way her story is presented that “that prevents [them] from caring about the character” (38). Her experience must align with the racial hierarchies that exist in Ireland, as Ebun Joseph explains through her own story:

From the day I arrived in Ireland, I became a social construct. I became my race and my intersectionality. I became my skin colour, the gross domestic product (GDP) of my nationality of descent. I became a Black woman. No one sought my consent. As I arrived at the state’s borders, these categories were already existent and I was expected to fit into them. They would go on to mark my experiences, rights and access to resources (Joseph 26–27).

The group suggests she “temper the racism she experienced with examples of kind behaviour too” (38). They advise that the issue is actually with the young black girl’s “paranoia” rather than with the racist behaviour, adding that they cannot “understand why the girl feels such self-loathing and self-hatred” (38).

Didi, the girl in the framed story, details a range of incidents of racist behaviour that is then dismissed by a white charity worker who also accuses her of paranoia in the face of microaggressions. Didi is “desperate not to stand out” as she waits at a bus stop. She has “observed” that the best way to behave in public was to make herself as invisible as possible so that “people were not made to feel uncomfortable” by the presence of her black body in the nation (26). Thus, the precarious nature of her non-citizenship impacts her ability to engage fully in the public sphere, becoming what Lauren Berlant would call “structural” as it “permeates the affective environment” (192). Despite her desire to become invisible, Didi is very aware of her body and how it impacts her engagement with the public sphere. People don’t sit beside her on the bus, and she runs past the balcony “with the little children who always shouted ‘Blackie!’” (27). She runs to hide within the private sphere of her home, where Didi and her family draw the curtains in the afternoon, hiding their existence from the ‘legitimate’ citizens of the state.

In the house, the family are free to speak of their experiences without facing repercussions for being ‘unthankful’ for the liminal space they occupy in Ireland. Aunty Muna compares the irony of Irish people claiming Barack Obama as Irish, when “African children born in this same country were not even accepted as Irish and do not hold the same passport as other Irish children” (30). This structural inequality permeates all interactions with the public sphere, including at school. At Aunty Muna’s daughter’s school, the countries of origin for each child was placed on the wall. However, the children in limbo “had their parents’ countries of origin” because of the differentiation between Irish children and what the teacher calls “migrant children or children of non-nationals,” demonstrating how Irishness depends “on who their parents were”, not place of birth (30). This biopolitical hierarchy creates a structural inequality when it comes to access to citizenship. The gatekeepers of membership to the nation, Aunty Muna feels: “liked Africans the way you enjoyed animals in a zoo; you could visit them, feed them, play with them, they must not be allowed outside their environment” (30).

Didi’s interaction with Dermot, an Irish charity worker, illustrates how these structures of inequality even infiltrate the charity industry. The structure of relationships between migrants and the state creates a culture of dependency. For inward migrants, locked out of the full opportunities of the state, “precarity is a condition of dependency” in the legal sense, as it “describes the situation wherein your tenancy on your land is in someone else’s hands” (Berlant 192). Dermot acts as an agent of gatekeeping, structuring the “opportunities for people to integrate” in ways that highlight difference — for instance the football team he starts pits migrants against citizens.

Gaining Didi’s trust, she tells Dermot about her experiences of racism in Ireland. Starting with “the small things first,” she mentions how a man followed her home from school, offering her €100 for sex, and how the children on the street call her racist names. She reveals how the girls in college tell “each other to mind their bags,” but Dermot dismisses her experiences saying the girls did not mean “anything by it” (36).  She then lists other experiences that she could not share with him: “[She] wanted to tell him all these things but […] didn’t. [She] cried for a long time on [her] bed after he left, confused at how alone [she] felt with so many people around [her]” (37).

The story ends with Didi buying a diary to write down the stories that she cannot tell Dermot. The narrative then returns to the frame of the writing group, where the dismissal of the racist experiences is mirrored and repeated in their sharing. Missing the positive opportunity in Didi’s purchase of the diary, the group tell her the story is “all bleak and negative” and suggest changes (38). In an interview with The Irish Times, Okorie explained that writing and creativity is “a coping mechanism and form of escapism” and, for the narrator in “Under the Awning,” it offers a place to reflect on her experience.  As “Under the Awning” illustrates, the writers’ group in the story cannot identify with the second person narration because it is not their experience.

In response to the group’s comments, the narrator rewrites elements of the story that evening, choosing to include the name of her protagonist in the story she shares. The choice of the name “Didi” calls to mind Vladimir in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, destined to repeat his experience in perpetuity. The suggestion here is that it is impossible to escape the precarious public sphere, even through writing. In every realm, she remains liminal and outside, and must twist herself into the social constructs and accept her position of precarity within the nation. As Berlant states, under the condition of precarity there are “no guarantees that the life one intends can or will be built” (192). Instead, Didi, and the narrator, must adapt her story and her body to the structures; escaping from these hierarchies is impossible.

The changes she makes further highlight her position in the hierarchy, by making Dermot, the white man, right:

You felt an ache around your heart as you remembered the reasons you were mad at him, so you tried to reason out his point of view in your head. Your classmates who asked their friends to mind their bags were actually not doing anything wrong; the bus driver who dropped you two stops away from your bus stop could have done so due to road works; the man in the supermarket who asked your mother for a BJ is just sick; and the children who called out ‘Blackie’ at you whenever they saw you passing could just be what they were, children. (40)

Despite some of the comments, Didi chooses to keep the second person narration, which only illustrates the group’s preference for stories they can identify with. The group’s response to her changes only serves to prove their lack of understanding and denial of the racism so obvious in Ireland, so tied to the legal exclusion of certain bodies to membership of the nation. B’s comments are unintentionally astute to the reality of this precarious public sphere:

I’m happy you kept the you voice, which really highlighted her anonymity. Please don’t change it. I did think it could be useful to still temper the racism she experienced with examples of kind behaviour too. In places there is so much bias, so much prejudice, that it almost swallows itself. (42)

“Under the Awning” highlights how policies of migration and citizenship create a precarious public sphere for those who are at the mercy of the economic, social and legal apparatuses of the biopolitical state. Okorie’s protagonist is forced into a “repetition of actions that might be either building a foundation for staying or staving off defeat” (Berlant 178), and her precarious position exposes what Butler would call “the fragile and necessary dimensions of our interdependency” (148). As a result, “certain ethical obligations emerge” which Dermot and Didi’s writing group more generally fail to see and refuse to address (Butler 150). Through Okorie’s text, it becomes clear that we have “a global obligation imposed upon us to find political and economic forms that minimize precarity and establish economic political equality” (Butler 150).

[1] See Ronit Lentin on this. Lentin details the erroneous information referred to by Government, that was not backed up by the actual data.


Deirdre Flynn, “‘Where are you from originally’: The cruel optimism of the precarious Irish public sphere in Melatu Uche Okorie’s ‘Under the Awning’,” Alluvium, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2021): n.pag. Web 8 March 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.1.09

About the Author

Dr Deirdre Flynn is a lecturer in 21st century literature at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick. She has published widely on Contemporary literature, Irish Studies, Dystopian Literature, Haruki Murakami, and Literary Urban studies. She recently co-edited two collections on Irish Literature with Palgrave Macmillan Irish Urban Fictions and Representations of Loss in Irish Literature. She is a member of the COST action Network Writing Urban Spaces, the Association for Literary Urban Studies and the blog editor for the Irish Women’s Writing Network.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Ahmed, Sara. Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. London: Routledge, 2000.

Berlant, Lauren Gail. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011,

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2004.

Joseph, Ebun. “Race.” Critical Race Theory and Inequality in the Labour Market. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020, 26–51.

Lentin, Ronit. “Illegal in Ireland, Irish Illegals: Diaspora Nation as Racial State.” Irish Political Studies, 22:4 (2007), 433–53: doi 10.1080/07907180701699182

—. “Ireland: Racial State and Crisis Racism.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. 30:4 (2007), 610–27: doi 10.1080/01419870701356023

Okorie, Melatu Uche, and Liam Thornton. This Hostel Life. Dublin: Skein Press, 2018,

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