I have always been very aware that literature is subject to categorization by nationality, partly because none of the resultant categories easily includes me or, indeed, my writing. I was born in Ireland, as befits an O’Neill, but what followed was a hotchpotch in which even the question of a native tongue was unclear. My Turkish mother spoke French to me, my Irish father English. At preschools in Mozambique and Turkey, I picked up and forgot infantile Portuguese and Turkish (and never understood the Arabic in which my maternal family chattered). When I was 5, in Iran (where apparently I involuntarily learned some Persian), an American family friend taught me how to read and write in English. Then came the Netherlands, where I went to British and French international schools and equipped myself with memories of a marginally Dutch childhood. Then, after a decade as a Londoner, I spent a decade in New York, where I added a U.S. passport to my Irish one.
As a writer, I have found all of this somewhat oppressive. Practically every writer can make unself-conscious use of autobiographical cultural stuff in the knowledge that it will ring a bell with a communal, very often national, audience, which then may become the writer’s core readership. As for multicultural or multiethnic novelists, most can choose to occupy territory complicated by merely a single hyphen (African-American, Korean-American) and settle there, at least for the purposes of handy professional identification. I haven’t had this option: there are few Irish-Francophone- Turkish-Dutch-Londoner-American lots out there. True, it’s always been open to me to do a Conrad or a Kafka and elevate myself by genius into a universal stratosphere. But that requirement seems a little unfair, not to mention tricky.