The conceit behind Emma Donoghue’s short story collection, Astray, is simple and effective: find a story in the archives – perhaps a newspaper article, or a letter, or a photograph – and tell a fictional story that allows readers a way into the possible stories behind the archival remains. The stories themselves range widely, from the opening story about the relationship between Jumbo the elephant and his keeper to stories about gold prospecting in Canada’s north, the inner life of a Puritan and the lively imagination of a lonely girl in a Louisiana Creole plantation, and more. The stories themselves are beautifully crafted, each one offering a small, focused slice of insight into the motivations behind the archival stories that Donoghue collected.
But as Donoghue points out in an Afterword, the stories – as a group – are about much more than just craft and beauty. They are an attempt to get at the idea of migration and how it shapes individual lives, both the lives of those who migrate, and those of the “settled folk” (262) who must adjust to the presence of newcomers.
“In my experience,” writes Donoghue, herself an Irish immigrant to Canada, “migrants are awkward. Sometimes our self-consciousness can take the form of standoffishness. We want to be let in, yet keep our distance. We don’t want to lose our accent, nor be mocked for it. We nurse a grudge, either suspecting the new country of not welcoming us, or expecting it to compensate us for all we’ve given up to get here.” (262)
She’s right, of course. Migrants live in an in-between space that is neither here nor there. It’s somewhere in between, an uncomfortable space that nevertheless becomes home. This is where we live. In a space that acknowledges our desires to belong while also acknowledging our needs to stay separate. And the longer that we remain in this position, the more comfortable we get with our dislocation, the more that space begins to feel like home.
But Donoghue takes her arguments further. Meditating on the notion of the stray and the idea of “going astray” she muses on the moral imperatives inherent in these terms. Migration is a dangerous sport that disrupts communities, challenges perspectives, changes people. “Straying,” she observes, “has always had a moral meaning as well as a geographical one, and the two are connected. If your ethical compass is formed by the place you grow up, which way will its needle swing when you’re far from home?” (262)
Interwoven in all of this, of course, are questions of class, race, gender – after all, who is most likely to go astray? And what should we do about it?
At the same time, however, migration is part of the human condition. Most migrations have been involuntary. Slaves, refugees, deportees, displaced persons – yes – but also economic, social and political migrations. Very few of us migrate entirely of our free will. But all of us are changed in the process.
“Unease. Wonder. Melancholy. Irritation. Relief. Shame. Absentmindedness. Nostalgia. Self-righteousness. Guilt. Travelers know all the confusion of the human condition in concentrated form. Migration is mortality by another name, the itch we can’t scratch. Perhaps because moving far away to some arbitrary spot simply highlights the arbitrariness of getting born into this particular body in the first place: this contingent selfhood, this sole life.” (270-1)
Donoghue, Emma. Astray. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2012.
Background photo credit: “In het koelie depot,” 1891. (In the coolie depot). Photographer: Possibly Gomez Burke. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, NG-1994-65-4-8-2. Public Domain