Melatu Uche Okorie isn’t afraid to speak the truth. In her debut collection of short stories This Hostel Life, she draws on both her Nigerian culture and her experience as a migrant in Ireland and the everyday racism she has encountered. This slim volume belies its impact and in these stories which are all, at core, about a loss of power, Okorie deftly reclaims ownership of her own story.
In the story which gives the book its title she writes about the ramshackle, multicultural community of a direct provision hostel brought together by arbitrary rules, enforced shared space and routine, gossip about The Real Housewives and then finally disbanded by one woman’s determination that she might be allowed one small liberty.
It is written, the introduction explains “from the point of view of a Congolese woman for whom I created a language, a mixture of Nigerian pidgin English and some American slang words which she speaks in a strong Kinsala accent”. Okorie delivers this with a technical ease and creative skill far beyond her experience. Indeed, the language in this volume, though always linked by uncompromising directness, changes for each story, perhaps also mirroring the many identities that Okorie finds herself now inhabiting: immigrant, scholar, author.
This expected multiplicity is further explored in ‘Under the Awning’, in which she frames a story about one women’s experience of endemic, systematic racism in Ireland within a writing workshop where each of her fellow students asks for something different, something less confrontational and uncomfortable from the tale.
But if this collection is anything to go by Okorie is unafraid of critics. She writes the truth unapologetically and with great courage in this vital, urgent and compelling book.
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Fighting for agency where every shred is denied is also a recurring theme in the outstanding third volume of Refugee Tales.
Where this volume diverges from the previous two – all produced with assistance from the Gatwick Detainees Support Group – is that joining the host of authors retelling the stories of the men held in immigration detention at Gatwick are first-hand accounts by the refugees themselves. In sparse language we hear with a heart-wrenching immediacy and intimacy of brutalities and injustices of refugee life in Britain but also of hope and optimism in the hardest circumstances. In both anonymised stories, ‘The Care Worker’s Tale’ and ‘The Applicants Tale’, a tenacity to live, to learn, to have a better future even when being told it is impossible, shines through.
Another particularly compelling contribution is Bernardine Evaristo’s retelling of ‘The Social Worker’s Tale’, in which a refugee from a country where “women and boys and girls and old men were being raped by soldiers” becomes a social worker in the UK so that he might save young refugees by empowering them to recount their trauma effectively in order that they might be ‘believed’ and granted asylum.
Told in refrains of “I remember”, “I know”, “I knew” and “I see”, its impact lasts long beyond the final line, “I am working with the young people I can help the most, the young people who have the disadvantage, like me, of being born in the right country at the wrong time.”
This Hostel Life by Melatu Uche Okorie (Little, Brown, £8.99)
Refugee Tales III edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus (Comma Press,£9.99)
Illustration: Omar Morgan