JUN/JUL 2003 / VOL. 4 ISSUE 1
More Homesick Than Seasick

By Adam Friedrich

Hugo Hamilton was not allowed to speak English growing up. This served as an inspiration and motivation for one of Ireland's most acclaimed fiction writers to begin writing.

"I began to write to establishing an identity. As a writer, it's always a challenge to write English," the author recalls. Hamilton, now 50, demonstrates his writing talents and his solid grasp of the English language in his new novel, The Speckled People (Fourth Estate, 2003, $24.95). This narrative biography documents Hamilton's challenging childhood growing up in post-war Dublin as a product of a half-German, half-Irish upbringing. 

It also details his struggles to find a common language growing up on streets where survival and acceptance is relied on the ability to speak English, but living in a household that speaks only German and Irish.

The Speckled People (whose working title was More Homesick Than Seasick, taken from the last postcard one of his grandfathers sent from the navy before his death) isn't just another retelling of a troubled and despaired childhood in Ireland. But rather, it is a poetic, comical, and horrific reflection on Hamilton's formative years told through a child's narration, with an underlying of adult analysis and perception.

"It was essential to the story to find the child's voice," says Hamilton, who indicates that finding this particular style was both fortunate and the biggest challenge of the book. "I had to view childhood, and myself as a child as a character. I had to pull myself away and view him as a separate person. That was a huge step for me personally and as a writer."

Hamilton had to dig deep into some old wounds and relive some difficult times in his childhood when he was mocked and taunted due the cultural differences he endured. He had to "join his tormentors" so that he could keep the novel in a non-judgmental voice and be an objective observer and storyteller instead of a victim.

 "I didn't want it to turn into an adult's analysis of a childhood. When I first started writing the book, it had too much analysis, so I had to find that way of writing (as a child). It was a fortunate position to be in as a writer. I couldn't repeat it." 

He also enrolled the help of his siblings, who are themselves essential characters throughout the novel. "This is very much our collective story. It's as much theirs as it is mine. I was given the responsibility to write it down," says Hamilton, who explains that this book and the undertaking of writing it was a therapeutic process for the family. 

"My family can finally talk about it. That's one of the biggest triumphs of the book. That it is out in the open. That I turned our childhood, which was always associated with shame and embarrassment, and have turned it into a virtue," he says. Hamilton's Irish dad is tyrannical and delusional, an extreme nationalistic advocate who is hunkered down in the past. His German mother escaped the Nazis horror by fleeing to France. 

It seems as if this were the only time in Hamilton's life when he could have written about his life and his parents in such an intimate way. "I needed to achieve a necessary distance to tell the story." Hamilton claims that anger at his father would have clouded any attempt to write this story any earlier in his career.

"My father did everything for family and for his country. He made a lot of sacrifices, but he included us in those sacrifices. He didn't do that deliberately or wasn't malicious with his intent, but his crusade injured us, and that was his mistake. He realized later in life, and apologized for it. At that point, it was almost too late." 

Hamilton developed this project out of a short story entitled, "Nazi Christmas," (which is based on an anecdote included in The Speckled People) that he wrote years ago. So although the present is the appropriate time for Hamilton to handle all of this personal material, the premise that this was a very important story to tell has been with him for quite some time.

Hamilton stepped away from writing after the completion of The Speckled People, but is currently working on another fiction piece. He is also developing a screenplay for a London-based film company. Asked what his response would be if a film company optioned the rights to The Speckled People due to the success and popularity of fellow memoir writer Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes Hamilton responds, "I wouldn't be opposed to it. The book has a great deal of subtleties and echoes. The director must catch those echoes and be very subtle."

Would Hamilton like to read about his life as a father if one of his three children also wrote a memoir? He chuckled, "No I would not. I hope I have a clean slate. I hope I get off lightly, and they only remember the happy times. From my past, I have tried to give my children all that they have wanted and to hear what they have to say." Hamilton adds, "Memoirs have become such a prominent art form, that it really instructs parents to behave themselves and to consider the impact on what they're doing to their children."

With a rapidly growing global culture blurring the distinction between cultural lines, it is unlikely that Hamilton's children would have to face the same struggle of finding an identity. Hamilton himself has been liberated from cultural and language barriers as he writes, "I'm not afraid any more of being German or Irish, or anywhere in between. Maybe your country is only a place you make up in your own mind. I'm not afraid of being homesick and having no language to live in. I don't have to be like anyone else."
 
 

 

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