Actress, screenwriter and author Jade Jordan told David Hennessy how the death of George Floyd moved her to write her own family’s story in her award-nominated book, how far Ireland has come regarding issues like race but there is still work to do and her delight to pick up an award at the recent Irish Film London Awards.
Jade Jordan has acted in Shane Meadow’s The Virtues, Stuart Carolan’s Taken Down and RTE’s recent star-studded crime drama, Kin.
But she did not know what to say when she was honoured with the Súil Eile award at the recent Irish Film Festival London awards at the Irish Embassy.
It was a triumphant return to London, the city she lived in for nine years and where she attended drama school, but the award was not just given for her work as an actor in the short films Foxglove and Ascending Grace.
It was also a poignant acknowledgement of her self- written short film The Colour Between, which she also acts in and, which deals with the issue of racism in Ireland and comes from an episode of her own family history.
The short is a story of family and prejudice and a fictionalised retelling of a story that features in Jade’s award-nominated debut book which was released this year.
In fact, it shouldn’t be described as her debut book alone as it is her story combined with those of her mother and grandmother. Nanny, Ma and Me: An Irish Story of Family, Race and Home gives an insight into the experiences of one family of colour in Ireland from the 1970s up to today offering some thought-provoking perceptions of diversity and discrimination.
Like so many, Jade was moved by the killing of George Floyd last year and then felt more compelled to share her family history.
Jade told The Irish World: “I think the whole world kind of came to a stop and realised what had just happened there and it just kind of hit me for seven.
“People were protesting but my protest was to sit down and write my story and try and shed some light on Ireland and how we have progressed and how much more we need to do.
“That was the reason I did it.
“Race was something you didn’t really speak about all those years ago.
“You just kind of got on with it. You didn’t speak about it.
“The world needed that shake up and shift when George Floyd died last year.
“We all just needed that moment to go, ‘Okay, it’s actually a thing and it’s actually a thing that we should be speaking about as opposed to suppressing it anymore and ignoring it, ignoring the problem’.
“Because as a world we’re great at ignoring problems, aren’t we?
“That killing really changed a lot for people.”
Nanny, Ma and Me starts with the story of Jade’s grandmother Kathleen who left Ireland for England in the late 1950s to train as a nurse.
It was there that she fell in love and married a Jamaican man named Larry who was part of the Windrush generation.
Kathleen didn’t tell her own family of her marriage for a long time for fear of their reaction.
She was right to expect a harsh reaction. Although the family had had its troubles before, Kathleen’s mother would say it had endured ‘nothing as bad as this’.
Kathleen and Larry would have two sons and a daughter, Dominique, and settled in Walthamstow. The one family Kathleen remembers giving the mixed race family disapproving stares were their Irish neighbours.
But they were also not accepted by Larry’s Jamaican community who did not invite his wife to their get-togethers and referred to the children as ‘mongrels’.
But it was when Kathleen decided to bring her children back to Dublin, without Larry, that she discovered that the colour of her children’s skin really set them apart.
Walking through the streets of Dublin in the 1970s, passers-by would ask Kathleen if her kids were adopted.
“She’s so pale- her with three mixed race children- that alone drew attention.
“People just questioned her everywhere she went, ‘You’re so good. Are they adopted?’
“At one point my uncle just said, ‘Yeah, I’m adopted’. Just because it was easy.
“When my mam found out she was like, ‘Why did you say that?’
“And Mam said, ‘I kind of get it’. It was easier to just go, ‘Yeah..’
“A guy off the road we’re from said just there, ‘Oh my God, I always thought your family were adopted..’
“And we know him over 30 years. People just assume and then when my dad stayed in London, there were obviously more questions.
“It might have been a little bit more obvious if he had been beside them also. People didn’t really know.”
Dominique recalls her and the other children not being welcome at her grandmother’s home and being left to wait, sometimes for hours, on the wall outside.
When the grandmother they never knew passed away, they were similarly not invited to the funeral. It is this story that inspires The Colour Between.
While she wanted to address some unpleasant parts of her own family’s story, it was not Jade’s intention to hurt anyone.
“A lot of it wasn’t easy but I didn’t want a book where I was pointing the finger at people because I don’t think that’s fair.
“I mean, the woman’s not here to speak up for herself.
“I never wanted it to be a book where it was singling anyone out or speaking bad about them.
“I spoke about situations but I never badmouthed anybody. I never ever wanted to do that.
“My great-nanny still has family alive and I wouldn’t do that and make us victims.
“They’re just things that have happened that I wanted to speak about.
“But it wasn’t easy and you have to be careful because you want to protect. I want to protect my nanny and I want to protect my ma.
“They came on the journey with me. It was important to mind them and be careful of how you word things and not speak bad of anybody. It was never my intention.”
Jade’s mother Dominique takes over the telling of the story when she and the family move to Dublin when she is 12. She would struggle to fit in and even be bullied and targeted for looking different but come to love Dublin’s sense of community.
After first settling on Seán McDermott Street in the city centre, the family would then relocate to Blanchardstown.
When Kathleen went looking for a new school for Dominique, she would be told there were no places left.
But then she learned neighbours had just enrolled their daughter-having asked after Kathleen- without any issues.
Kathleen called the school out on their discrimination and Dominique would get her place in school but be made to feel very unwanted, being picked on relentlessly.
Jade’s uncles ended up leaving school when they were aged 12. They could handle the bullying from some students, but they couldn’t cope with the brutal treatment they received from teaching staff and school authorities.
In the book, Dominique recalls being on her way home from secondary school one day when a man in his thirties or forties told her to ‘go back to where you came from’.
Realising he was a ‘culchie’, she told him: ‘I come from Sean McDermott Street in Dublin. Why don’t you f**k off back to whatever bog you came from?’
Needless to say, he had nothing to say to that cutting comeback.
“Everybody comments on that,” Jade laughs.
“My Ma’s sharp.
“I suppose she had to be, and she’s tiny. She’s only five foot something.
“My uncles are six foot and you can see she was the one who minded them.
“She’s well able. She had to be. She had to have a thick skin.
“Nanny wasn’t aware of a lot of the stuff they went through.
“She really wasn’t, which I found really interesting.
“It just goes to show the kids just got on with it themselves and didn’t want to make a deal of it.
“You’re called a name in school, you bottle it up but it will affect you.”
Jade has been delighted to be contacted by schools who want her to talk to their students above issues such as race and racism.
“A few schools have reached out to me to go in and have chats which I think is great.
“I definitely think we need to talk about things like this in school.
“Our schools are very multicultural.
“I definitely don’t think kids are born racist.
“I think it’s something that they’re taught.
“You pick it up from a family member or family friend or whatever. Kids don’t know any different.
“They see the world through a fresh lens.
“They’re not conditioned like we are.
“I’ll have people touch in and just thank me for writing the book because they have children who are mixed race and they were able to sit down and have a conversation with them about it.
“I didn’t realize it would help so many people.
“When you do something like this, you never know what way it’s going to go.
“It’s really nice that it’s touching people and they’re able to have a conversation with their children as well. That’s amazing.”
The multi-generational memoir comes up to date with Jade’s own experiences as a black woman growing up in twenty first century Ireland.
Was she always conscious she was different to other kids? “I wasn’t. I had it a lot easier than my ma did. She was here in the 70s, I was here in the 80s. There’s only ten years in the difference but a lot has changed in those ten years.
“I always knew I was mixed race. I always knew that my mam was brown and I had different hair and a different skin colour.
“And I did have it growing up. I’m not gonna sit here and say I had it really bad like some people because I didn’t.
“If somebody said something, I would always be able to pull them up.
“Even nowadays, it would still happen.
“Things would still be said.
“I was only called a name there last week.
“But you have to think, ‘Why do people shoot to those things straight away instead of calling somebody something else, like a cow?’
“You don’t have to go straight to colour but that’s how some people are made.”
Jade was ten years old and having a spat with another child when he called her a ‘dirty P**i!’
Jade was shaken by the boy’s thoughtless words that he no doubt didn’t know the meaning of.
In the book, she writes about how she would then go into the shower and try to scrub herself of her colour.
Unfortunately, this was far from the last time she would be racially abused. She details in the book a more recent occasion when she was called a ‘n****r’ when she and another man got in each other’s way slightly on the footpath.
While Jade says the response to the book has been amazing, it has also come with some degree of negativity.
“Some stuff that I’ve had on Twitter and stuff, people say, ‘Oh, another brown person telling another black story. We’re bored of it. It’s not a thing, what about the white people?’
“You’re going to get that everywhere. It’s not just in Ireland, it’s worldwide.
“I definitely think things change but I think there’s always going to be racism.
“It’s obvious some people just aren’t willing to push forward and listen or learn or educate themselves. That’s just the reality of it, I think.”
Despite being born and raised in Dublin, Jade has work all the time convincing people she is Irish.
“It just throws people because they don’t expect it.
“They can’t fathom how I look.
“My question always comes back to, ‘What does an Irish person look like?’
“We don’t all have red hair and are pale with freckles.”
Jade was filling out a form at drama school when a confused teacher asked her why she had ticked the ‘white Irish’ ethnicity box.
Jade had always struggled with these ethnicity boxes in Ireland because while she was not white, she was certainly Irish and there was no ‘mixed race’ or ‘black Irish’ options.
“That was mad because I’m so proud to be Irish.
“But I think there are a lot more boxes now because there is so much culture here now, I guess.
Accepting her award at the recent Irish Film Festival London awards, Jade said, “It just feels great to be a voice of a diverse Ireland and talking about subjects that we should be talking about.”
While Jade was the only mixed race kid in her primary school, she has now found out there were many more like her due to the Black and Irish Facebook page.
“Even the other day, Black and Irish had a gala awards.
“I’ve never been in such a diverse room in my life, and I’m 33.
“Me and my sister just stood there going, ‘Wow, we’ve never experienced this’.
“I never had anyone who looked like me on our screens, never.
“The only person I had was Samantha Mumba and then later on, Ruth Negga.
“And obviously Paul McGrath and Phil Lynott.
“There’s representation on our screens now which is wonderful.
“There’s so many mixed race and black actors in Kin and it was just really great to see, really great to see.”
Introducing the award, Head of Irish Film London Gerry Maguire described it as the organisation’s ‘contribution to Irish film award’.
He said Jade was, ‘Someone who we think exemplifies the power of Irish storytelling and shows us what’s possible as part of a mature industry that can tell stories about who we are’.
This meant a lot for Jade to be acknowledged for her self-written short The Colour Between as well as the two other films she was involved with, Foxglove and Ascending Grace.
“That was phenomenal. It feels kind of mad that I did that.
“I never wrote before, ever.
“It’s kind of mad to see it taking off and going to festivals and for it being such a poignant theme.
“I fictionalised it, a story within the book: My nanny not being able to bring them to the funeral.
“The response has been absolutely mind blowing.
“That festival alone had such great work. Super, super work.
“It’s great when your work is acknowledged. That’s really special.
“I was so lucky to have three short films in there that I was a part of, one being my own piece of writing.
“I still don’t know what to say.
“I think Gerry said when he got up, ‘A new voice pushing to do really good work and interesting work’.
“That’s my aim, to speak about things that we don’t often speak about and do it to the best that I can and do the material justice.
“So yeah, I’m so overwhelmed and so thankful for that.”
It wasn’t her only awards recognition as, along with Sally Rooney, Maureen Gaffney and Fintan O’Toole, Jade’s book was shortlisted for an An Post Irish Book Award.
“I never dreamed of these things so I’m delighted to be nominated with those people.
“The calibre of the An Post Awards this year was unbelievable.
“I remember getting the phone call and I nearly had a heart attack.
“I was like, ‘What? My book? No way’.
“It’s been amazing. I’m very lucky at the moment.”
Nanny, Ma and Me: An Irish Story of Family, Race and Home by Kathleen, Dominique and Jade Jordan is out now on Hachette Ireland.