The My America blog series introduces you to one of the writers featured in our special exhibit My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today, which can now be explored virtually. The exhibit is designed to elicit thoughtful dialogue on a wide array of issues with contemporary immigrant and refugee writers delving into questions about writing influences, being multilingual, community, family, duality, otherness and what it means to be American. Check back to learn more about these writers and their thoughts on these themes, as we highlight select quotes from the exhibit as well as reading recommendations. This week, get to know Joseph O’Neill, an award-winning writer of Irish and Turkish descent.
What happened to the Irish-Turkish lawyer from Holland who moved to New York? He became a novelist!
No, this isn’t a poorly written lawyer joke. Instead, this is the story of Joseph O’Neill, a former lawyer who is now an award-winning writer. And while the language of the law is no longer his currency, he still uses skills developed during his law career in his current writing career. “The logic of litigation — of writing a case out, and of making your arguments, and of living and dying by the accuracy of and coherence of what you’re saying — is a very valuable intellectual training.”
Growing up, O’Neill lived in a very diverse household with a range of traditions and heritages. This led to him feeling deracinated, or perhaps never racinated in the first place. As he describes it, “I was born in Ireland, and my mother is Turkish. And I grew up mainly in Holland. And there was a lot of French spoken in the house. And then I was in England for a while, and then I came here, so I’m very confused.”
O’Neill and his family moved from London to New York City in 1998 when his wife got a job there. The plan was to stay for a short while then return to London once O’Neill finished the book he was writing. They never left. “One of the gifts of coming to America has been to enable me to write in the tradition of the immigrant, which is a very important tradition in American literature.”
We, of course, wholeheartedly agree, which is why O’Neill is one of more than 30 writers featured in My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today. Read excerpts from his video interviews below, and explore more at my-america.org. You can also watch O’Neill discuss writing, Irish literature, process and more with fellow Irish-American writer Alice McDermott and Irish Ambassador to the United States Daniel Mulhall. Watch the full program here.
Selected Quotes from My America
On Coming to America
“It’s impossible for me to participate in any sort of national conversation in Ireland, or in Turkey, or in Holland. But when I came to America, I felt kind of liberated and permitted. I felt sort of authorized to take an interest in my situation as an immigrant and in the perspectives that are produced by that situation, and the situation of other immigrants.”
On Finding Writing Time
“I don’t have an office, and it’s because I have family. So it’s the New York thing: coffee shops and snatches of time. And also getting away. Even if we all go to another place, just the act of transplantation enables me to think more about writing, enter that dream world of writing rather than the world of errands and parenting.”
On What “American” Means
“I feel like the term ‘American’ is a sort of code word for a kind of white, Christian, provincial specimen of the citizenry rather than the people who live in New York, say, who are much more varied, much less conservative, much more ethnically mixed…I feel like a lot of the problems we’re having at the moment have to do with a sense that there are two tiers of Americans, one who are ‘real’ Americans and the others who are merely citizens.”
“I laugh at duality. I’m a ‘quadrality’ guy. The standard thing for an immigrant is to belong securely to one tradition and then to negotiate the boundary between that tradition and the tradition of the so-called host community. I wish my life was that clear-cut. I wish I could just have two traditions to manage but I’ve got all these things.”
On Writing Influences
“The thing that alerted me to the fact that there was a world of words, a world of language that was sort of magical was reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when I must have been about 16…it just jolted me. It really was a moment of transition into this other world and that’s when I started writing for my own pleasure, I suppose.”
Selected Works by Joseph O’Neill
MY AMERICA: IMMIGRANT AND REFUGEE WRITERS TODAY