Emily Hourican: 'Our family simply didn't fit in anywhere that we went'
As her fourth novel, The Outsider, is published, Emily Hourican reflects on what it means to always feel like you don't quite belong
I have a whole heap of stories from my childhood that I can tell to great effect. There's the one about going to birthday parties with my own sandwiches because my mother wouldn't let us eat sugar - "Emily can have a slice of birthday cake, but nothing else" went her pre-phoned-in instructions to the birthday mother. There's the one about having to try and glean vital information - what was number one on Top of the Pops? Who did what in EastEnders? - on the 20-minute school bus ride every morning because we weren't allowed to watch TV, and so had no access to these bedrocks of social networking. The one about the boy who, baffled by the array of wholesome food in front of him at my brother's 10th birthday, said hopefully, "Can you pass me one of those chocolate biscuits?" only to be told, "Those are dried figs".
I love these stories - they paint a vivid picture of growing up in a family that very much did its own thing. I love the fact that we did our own thing - actually, scrap that, we did our mother's thing. She was the beating heart of eccentricity that drove us.
I tell the stories for laughs, and they are funny. I'm so used, by now, to my oddball childhood, that often, I only recall the hilarious side of it. The way we simply didn't fit. Not anywhere. We were too many - six kids; too wild; too Irish in Belgium, where we grew up; too foreign when we came 'home' for summer holidays; too much ourselves, and too unlike anyone else. We worked very well within our own domestic sphere, and within the circle of like-minded, or at least tolerant, family friends; but everywhere else, we stuck out.
We were outsiders in the city in which we lived - set apart by language and culture; instantly, visibly 'different' in a society that greatly valued 'same'. The unashamed curiosity - the barefaced stares - of many Belgians as we went about our daily business in shops and parks and restaurants was an early exercise in being under scrutiny.
We were part of an expat community, but odd even within that community. My dad, born and brought up in Roscommon, not so much (although scratch the surface...), but my mother - no chance was she ever going to 'pass'. Or even try. Born in Jerusalem to a Palestinian mother and English father; brought up in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, the Congo; moving constantly from one isolated colonial spot to another, before coming to study at UCD, she hadn't a hope of fitting in. She was also - is still - beautiful. Maybe that brings its own isolations, too?
But remembering only the funny side of those years means missing a bit: the very real misery of being eight, or nine, or seven, and sitting on the opposite side of a room to my friends, alone, with a home-made brown bread and cheese sandwich, while they all stuffed in as many cakes and sweets as they could.
The hot feeling of knowing that the birthday mother was telling the friend helping her, who wanted to know why I wasn't coming to the table, "Her mother doesn't let her have sugar". And the absolute certainty that this was said, not with indulgence, but with some hostility. The mortification of being 13 and having to admit, "We're not allowed to watch Top of The Pops", unable to bring myself to answer, "Because my mother says it rots the brain", when asked, "Why ever not?" And even though I am proud of my mother now, of the strength of her conviction and force of personality, at the time, I was embarrassed. I felt different at an age when no one likes feeling different. I felt odd at a time when normal is desirable. I felt a distance between me and everybody else, and, at the time, that distance could be painful.
I felt bad not just for myself, but for her, too (utterly wasted, I might add). A complicated mix of love and pride and protectiveness and squirming mortification that was hard to process at the age of eight. Not to mention the apprehension of wondering what she would do next. Ask one of my friends to wipe the table with a cloth made from an old T-shirt (yes, really)? Offer them a handful of almonds "for selenium"? Come tearing into a room demanding to know who was wearing "that horrible cheap perfume" when my best friend had just given me a present of a can of Impulse? Yes, all that and more. She was magnificently impervious to embarrassment, indifferent to the slightly craven wish to fit in that I had in abundance.
I remember taking a ferry with my family when I was about 14, coming back to Ireland for summer holidays. I snuck into the ferry's Shamrock Lounge or wherever we had based ourselves, and watched, hidden, from the other side of the room, as they laid out the picnic my mother had packed: a whole roast chicken, wrapped in layers of newspaper to keep it hot; steak sandwiches that were essentially an entire fillet stuck between two bloody pieces of bread; a huge bowl of salad complete with spring onions and tomatoes and oily dressing; bottles of water wrapped in more newspaper to keep them cool.
"Couldn't they even try?" I thought, as they passed things back and forth, loudly rejoicing that the chicken was indeed still hot, and at the deliciousness of the steak sandwiches, watched curiously - I swear - by the entire Shamrock Lounge. "Couldn't they, just for once, have a thin ham sandwich made from pre-sliced white bread and a can of Coke?"
Even though I was starving - and indeed the still-hot chicken looked very good - I pretended I didn't know them.
But at the same time as I cringed, there was a part of me that admired them, too, for their utter obliviousness. And wished - dearly wished - that I had some of it. But I didn't. I was all too aware of other people and what they thought or might think.
And that, I think, is where feeling like an outsider comes in. It's not just the gap, it's the consciousness of the gap.
I don't think it's a bad thing - being an outsider is not the same as being an outcast. It isn't, for me, a feeling of isolation or loneliness. It's just an awareness of a slight distance, a hair's breadth, between me and whatever situation, mostly social, I am in.
A classroom, a birthday party, a barbecue - the feeling that I am, somehow, slightly apart from what is happening around me. It doesn't mean that I'm not enjoying the party or barbecue or whatever it is, just that I feel that I have space to observe, to notice, to consider and analyse.
I assume all writers know this feeling. It's not so much that you couldn't write if you didn't, as that you probably wouldn't bother. Without that little gap to peer across, and the heightened degree of interest in what other people are doing and saying and perhaps thinking, on the other side of it, there isn't much to write about. Not in novels, anyway.
Feeling like an outsider makes you sensitive to what you see and hear; even more so to what you don't see and hear - the unspoken, un-acted-upon impulses. You watch and wonder. You get good at decoding and discerning: what does someone really mean when they say, or do, or even wear a particular thing?
And it doesn't, by the way, stop me from being a terrific joiner of community things, whether it's the football club or parish events. "Sit on your hands," my husband tells me. "For God's sake, stop volunteering…"
And now that I have gone all out on presenting myself as someone unique and oh-so-sensitive, it's time to point out that, of course, I'm nothing of the sort.
I'll bet that if you asked a room of 20 people do they feel like outsiders, 16 of them, at least, would say yes.
So if the majority of us feel that, how can there be any such thing as an 'inside'? Is it simply an illusion? A construct that we put together to explain the fundamental isolation of the human condition?
After all, on an existential, and indeed even practical level, we are all alone.
We are all outsiders. But the existence of societies is based on a denial of that fact - it has to be - and therefore on the notion that there is an 'inside': a sacred place to which we will gain entry if we are lucky. And good. That's the ultimate carrot of the social game: a sense of togetherness.
The dream of belonging is a powerful one. So powerful, that it significantly affects our health and well-being. We humans are sociable animals - after all, straying or being ejected from the herd meant certain death back in the old days
The modern incarnation of that is that there is plenty of hard evidence to show that our mental and physical health both suffer if we fear or experience isolation or rejection.
The brain's reward system has been shown to respond as strongly to social rewards (meaning social recognition) as it does to money. The promise of inclusion is just as powerful as cold, hard cash in motivating our actions. Living on the fringes of society, without a strong network, has been shown to shorten lives, and increase the incidence of dementia, viruses and other health problems. In order to thrive, humans need to feel they belong.
And so, there is clearly, very clearly, a big difference between the feeling of being an outsider and the social reality of being an outcast. The first can be an attitude, a temporary, even self-indulgent, assumption, and it can also be, in its own way, perfectly collective. "We are all individuals," shouts the mob in Monty Python's Life of Brian. "We are all outcasts," intone a bunch of black-polo-neck-clad teenagers. That is the kind of 'outsiderness' that ends well - usually, in the forging of deep friendships with a group of other people who may, themselves, have felt a bit odd growing up (a category so very large that there are plenty to choose from).
Certainly for me, that's how it worked out.
Sometime in my early teens, impelled by the spirit of can't-beat-em-join-em, I stopped trying so hard to fit in. I took to dressing as much like Madonna or a punk as I could. Which wasn't at all original in any broad context, but, to me, in a sea of swishy-haired, preppy-jeans-wearing Eurobrats, felt like open rebellion. It was a move to side-step the norm, quickly, before it side-stepped me; an adolescent, clothes-based version of the Groucho Marx quote, "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member".
Those years were all about celebrating, even fetishising, the gap: you don't understand me; you can't understand me. There were more than enough like-minded souls - determined to be different, to be misunderstood - to keep me company.
In my hedonistic 20s, the gap bothered me all over again. The way I couldn't throw myself into whatever absurd antics everyone else was knee-deep in; the way I was conscious of how silly it all was, when they weren't. Drink, and sometimes drugs, helped to close the gap during those years, erasing the distance, or at least masking it. Luckily, I didn't hate the gap enough for this to become a problem.
Gradually, I stopped caring. Or, probably, minding is a better word. The need to fit in dwindled, as did any painful awareness of distance. Certainly by the time I finished college, I had worked out that a gang is something you create, rather than join. You make it up and gather it around you, rather than finding it ready-made and trying to slot in. That way, it is stronger, more elemental; like the tenner you earn meaning more than the tenner you find.
That understanding has lasted through having my own kids and entering the wonderfully elastic period known as middle age.
The feeling of being odd, somehow obtrusive, disappeared - not because I changed, or not more than is normal - but because I stopped looking for it, clocking it.
My new novel, called The Outsider, is the story of two girls and the families they drag into close connection via their childhood friendship. One girl, Jamie, has never given a moment's thought to her place in the world.
She is assured and certain, anticipating welcome wherever she goes.
The other girl, Sarah, is shy and quiet and watchful. An only child, she hangs back and observes. And when she gets pulled into Jamie's world, Jamie's family, she falls in love, with all of them
But maybe most of all with herself as she is when she is with them. She is intoxicated by the feeling of belonging and, because she can't let it go, does some pretty troubling things.
I'm not Sarah, but I have sympathy with her. I understand her fascination with Jamie; her envy of Jamie's sense of herself. And I pity her sense of urgency - the feeling she has that acceptance is a life-or-death matter. After all, I remember what that felt like.
The Outsiders by Emily Hourican is out now and is published by Hachette Books Ireland, £13.99