Identity Politics and the English Language: Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times

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In Naoise Dolan’s debut novel, Exciting Times, twenty-two-year-old Irish expat Ava gets a job at a TEFL school in Hong Kong, where she is encouraged to correct children who use common features of Hong Kong English—like adding “lah” for emphasis (“no lah”) the way that Irish people add “sure.” In reality, she’s been hired to teach British English, something that she’s no more qualified to do than a local English speaker—except that she’s white, and works at an institution that “only hired white people but made sure not to put that in writing.” It was here that I began to grow suspicious—in a book filled with such terse and intelligent writing, I feared this type of off-the-cuff virtue signaling would characterize the entirety of Dolan’s novel.

Indeed, the book is populated by similar quips meant to signal the protagonist’s own self-awareness. In an effort to capture millennial ennui, Dolan frequently takes a disaffected tone, holding her protagonist, and her leftist politics, at a distance. These performative one-liners notwithstanding, Dolan is at her best when she chooses to closely engage with questions of language, and the ways one’s linguistic identity is transformed when living as an expatriate. For example: what makes one variety of English correct or incorrect? There’s no precise answer, but one’s response reveals multitudes about one’s own relationship to class, race, and empire.

The novel probes these questions through the lens of Ava’s romantic relationships: in Hong Kong, Ava’s loneliness draws her to stolid Julian, a British Eton- and Oxford-educated banker, and they establish an intimate but undefined relationship. Ava keeps Julian company and moves into the spare bedroom of his expensive apartment; all the while, she silently wonders about his feelings toward her. The imbalance of power in their relationship is not only interpersonal: he asks whether her accent is “posh” where she comes from, and balks when she says she has never been to London, despite having never traveled to Dublin himself. After they have sex, Ava tells him about Ireland post-2008, when she shared a room with her brother so as to rent out the second bedroom. It’s not that her family is especially poor, she reminds him. These were largely average circumstances for many Irish citizens during the recession, certainly in part because of the actions of banks like his own.

In pursuing a relationship with Julian, Ava also becomes a reluctant participant in the social life of his friends, a group of cantankerous British expatriates. Despite the authority she is granted as a white native English speaker in the classroom, among these class-obsessed Brits, she remains subject to hibernophobic derision. At a party one evening, she overhears them drunkenly imitating an Irish accent: “Beggin’ yer pardon for any offense, […] but you can tell she grew up in a small house.” Their comments soon turn sexual, and Julian fails to speak up on her behalf.

Against the backdrop of Brexit and the 2017 Hong Kong elections, Ava reflects on the enduring influence of the British upon English language use internationally. She recalls, for example, that her parents continue to pronounce “what” as “hwot,” which had been permissible during the time of Churchill but is considered “hokey” under Cameron. She goes on:

“Tings” was incorrect, you needed to breathe and say “things,” but if you breathed for “what” then that was quaint. If the Irish didn’t aspirate and the English did then they were right, but if we did and the English didn’t then they were still right. The English taught us English to teach us they were right.

Who “owns” the English language? The answer, as Ava observes, is relative: wealth and history grant authority to the British over the Irish, but white privilege favors the Irish over Hongkongers. French, however, is up for grabs: in one memorable scene, Ava visits a French tea room with Victoria, a Celine-bag-toting St. Andrews alumna with eyes for Julian. Victoria orders “thé au citron,” her mild mispronunciation presenting a predicament for Ava:

I could order it, too, and say it properly. I wouldn’t if she’d really butchered it, since that would be crass—but a slight difference would prickle her without letting her feel cathartically wronged. Alternatively, I could ask for lemon tea and make her feel gaudy for having used French in the first place. I would read out the English, then meet her eye: my niveau de français is between me and God.

Ultimately, Ava chooses to order lemon tea, pauses in anticipation of the waiter’s confusion, and then clarifies: “—sorry, the thé au citron.” There are many moments, startling in their specificity, where Dolan intelligently taps into the particularities of millennial social etiquette. On more than one Taco Tuesday I’ve wondered: will everyone hate me for correctly pronouncing “carnitas”? Snarky exchanges like this one offer a wonderful, and necessary, respite from the neutral tone Ava often assumes.

Ava’s reflections on linguistic power are further complicated by the emergence of Edith, a Hong Kong-born and Cambridge-educated lawyer and Ava’s second love interest. When Julian tells Ava he is being sent on business to London, Ava stays in his apartment and continues using his credit card. During his months-long absence, Ava and Edith’s relationship flourishes: they attend Chekhov performances and trendy cafes, reflect on their mutual reluctance to come out to their families, and evaluate Britain’s misguided attempts to age with grace. Many people in Hong Kong, Edith explains, possess “a misplaced nostalgia for the British Empire because at least it [is]n’t China.” Hong Kong, the two observe, is a place where Britain’s attempt to rebrand has worked, where their image has become one of “flaccid tea-loving Hugh Grantish butterfingery.” Dolan is careful, however, not to veer into a simplistic reading of Hong Kong and Ireland’s parallel, but not shared, histories. In one scene, Ava tells Edith she doesn’t wish to engage in “colonial-oppression Olympics.” “That’s wise,” Edith responds, “because white people generally lose.”

It is difficult to remark on Dolan’s debut without noting the comparisons she has received to Sally Rooney. The book’s jacket copy mentions Rooney no fewer than three times, in part because an excerpt was originally published by The Stinging Fly, the Irish literary magazine for which Rooney served as editor in 2018. Publishers often make wildly inaccurate comparisons between Rooney and emerging women authors, and I am reluctant to entertain those comparisons on principle. But the works of Dolan and Rooney do share this: protagonists whose failure to live up to their political ideals operate as an expression of depth and self-awareness. Rooney has received criticism for writing novels that pose questions of class and power at the same time that they remain true to (mostly) heteronormative literary conventions. In this regard, Dolan is a bit more adventurous, leading her characters toward an ambiguous ending that sheds the cynicism of the rest of the novel.

Yet do Ava’s pithy, political one-liners ever inspire action? Rarely. In reference to the works of Dolan and Rooney, the New Yorker’s Katy Waldman writes that “these books, so reluctant to engage with change, agency, and suffering, turn instead to awareness, which they frame as atonement.” The contradiction between Ava’s Marxist leanings and her aspirational attraction to Julian and Edith, who are upper-class, educated, and professionally successful, is excused only by the protagonist’s acknowledgement that these are features inherently at odds with each other. This isn’t to suggest that the books we read must always be morally and politically upright, nor that the characters we encounter must behave in ways that align with the values they’ve expressed. But Dolan’s work could benefit from a commitment to more intentionally exploring the ideological conflicts that make millennial relationships so messy and complex. Frequently, for example, I wished that Dolan would interrogate the question of Ava’s racial privilege, especially relative to Edith, with the same depth that she applies to the study of language; meanwhile, I never quite understood Julian and Ava’s relationship, which delivers only as a plot device, and rarely yields to the feelings of longing or heartbreak that would make the novel’s contradictions, including the ideological ones, feel human rather than contrived.

Dolan’s greatest strength is her ability to capture the loneliness and perplexity of living as an expatriate. Reading Exciting Times, I frequently experienced flashes of my own recent stint teaching English in Europe, a period where I often observed my own understanding of my ethnic and linguistic identity thrown into question. Despite the differences in our backgrounds—Ava a white Irishwoman and myself an Asian American Latina—I frequently saw my own story teaching English abroad replicated on the page. Certainly, to be a native English speaker is to hold outsize and undeserved power: in the instances where my race made me more vulnerable to public scrutiny in Europe, my status as an American and a native English speaker protected me. I found it difficult to articulate this conflict to others; Dolan has come very close, capturing the strange mix of power and marginalization that accompanies such endeavors. Her debut provides a promising, if imperfect, update on the expat novel and quietly reminds us of everything this genre can be.

C.M. Mesquita is a writer from Phoenix, Arizona. She is a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and currently serves as a reader for the Offing. Her writing has previously appeared in Literary Hub. More from this author →