Lafcadio Hearn, a profoundly homeless world-class writer

Last October I was asked by UCD’s Japan Group to give a presentation on the writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), who was born in Greece and died in Japan. I suggested a tongue-in-cheek title: We Need to Talk about Patrick Lafcadio Hearn. It’s an interesting fact that, even though there was no obvious clash with another notable event on campus that evening, just three people attended – not counting the organisers or the respondent (Paul Murray, Hearn’s most important biographer). Thanks to the enthusiasm of all those present, there was a compelling conversation. Still, this tiny turnout suggests that not too many people, in Ireland or UCD at least, think that Hearn is, in fact, worth talking about. In this, though, we are out of sync with the rest of the world, more especially with all of Japan and parts of the USA, the Caribbean and France, places where Hearn’s work is recognised as mattering… a lot.

Hearn’s life was lived on a global scale, as illustrated by his two marriages – first to an African American, a former Kentucky slave, then to a Japanese woman with samurai connections. As for his work, it engaged deeply not just with multilingualism, but with intercontinentalism, creolisation, transnationalism and transculturalism. This Dublin-raised, Durham-educated, multiply abandoned, doubly orphaned son of an Anglo-Irish surgeon in the British army and an unstable Greek mother, was above all a profoundly homeless “non-national”. He lived as a writer in Cincinnati, New Orleans and Martinique before moving to Japan, where he died about fourteen years later of a worn-out heart.

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