THE first time that Black American Kimberly Reyes walked down Cork’s Patrick Street, she “was shocked”. She recalled: “I saw more black people that day than I had seen in San Francisco in four years.”
Kimberly, 42, is a Fulbright scholar doing a Masters degree at UCC on post colonialism and identity. Originally from New York, she had been living in San Francisco before coming here.
“I wasn’t expecting the kind of diversity that is here,” she said. “But living here for a while, you realise it’s not exactly Utopian in terms of race relations.
“Being a Black American is unusual in Cork. People assume that I’m probably Nigerian. When I start talking with my American accent, people ask me where I’m from and why am I here. Quite frankly, I love it. It’s good to have representation of Black culture in Cork.
“Black culture and Irish culture have so much in common. If you think of how tiny Ireland is, it’s amazing it has had such an impact on world culture.
“I personally think that art comes from a culture of oppression. The same can be said of Black culture in the U.S. When you think of our numbers compared to a country like Nigeria, there’s not that many of us.”
Despite this, Kimberly points to the wide-ranging influence of Black music, including “jazz, Motown, country and hip hop. There’s our literature with writers such as Toni Morrison and my favourite journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates.”
Growing up, Kimberly was “obsessed” with Irish music.
“I love U2 and Sinead O’Connor is probably my biggest hero. I got to see her in the Cork Opera House.”
Kimberly’s book of poetry, Running To Stand Still, is called after a U2 song. On the literary front, she loves the work of Oscar Wilde.
“I’ve written a lot about him. I talk about him in the U.S in prisons. People really respond to The Ballad Of Reading Gaol. The best art comes from oppression. A lot of our great artists were mentally ill, not necessarily Irish but the Picassos of the world. Unfortunately for artists, a lot of great art comes from not the best places.”
When Kimberly told people in America that she was moving to Ireland, they were surprised. She says that many Americans think in terms of the Irish Americans in Boston, a city viewed by some in the U.S as very racist. “People were asking me what was I setting myself up for? Did I think I’d be received well?
“I had been in Ireland before and didn’t feel uncomfortable in any way and when I travelled around the world. Whether in Australia or London, I always found myself navigating towards Irish people. Not Irish Americans but Irish people from Ireland. Maybe it’s the banter.”
Asked if she finds Cork a racist city, Kimberly says: “It’s nothing different to what I experienced in the U.S. My body is safer here because the cops don’t carry guns. I’m dealing with the normal BS here.”
Alarmingly, Kimberly was in a cab recently in Cork when the Thai driver asked her about racism.
“I said that I hadn’t experienced any violence or people yelling at me. The driver said he knows of a Black woman who carries a hammer because of things that have happened to her, threatening incidents. That shocked me.
“I walk home from the Crane Lane at night by myself. Men can come on to you but that’s what happens everywhere in the world at 2am.”
However, Kimberly says that she knows of a Black American woman, living in Cork who has had more negative experiences than her.
“She had an impossible time trying to get housing. Landlords didn’t want to rent to her. But at the same time, she said to me that she is having the time of her life here. She loves exploring the country at weekends. I’m having the experience of a lifetime. The Masters programme is 12 months including the thesis. I’d like to stay longer. I’m desperately looking for fellowships that I could do and stay here longer.”
What does Kimberly particularly like about living here?
“I’m someone who likes a drink so it’s fantastic for me. The food is very good also. In the States, people think Irish people eat boiled potatoes all the time. But the food here is way better than the States. It’s like one big farm whereas in the States, everything has to have chemicals in it. When I’m shopping in Aldi, I feel like I’m shopping in a gourmet store.”
Kimberly also likes the fact Cork is small and manageable.
“And there’s a great arts scene. Every night, there’s something on. I go to the Triskel. The Crawford Art Gallery is tiny, yet it’s one of my favourite art museums in the world and I’ve been to MOMA in New York. I like the vibe in the Crawford and the cafe.”
Like most renters in Cork, Kimberly says that finding affordable accommodation in the city is almost impossible.
“When I came here in August, I first lived in Montenotte. I don’t have a car and it’s a bit out of the way. But I thought it was pretty. However, I didn’t feel it was the heart of what Cork is. I’m able to go out as much as I want to now because I’m living in Barrack Street.”
Having owned an apartment in New York, which she sold before moving to San Francisco, Kimberly says it is way harder to find a decent place to live in Cork than it is in San Francisco.
“And forget about living by yourself. On an academic stipend, it’s not possible. Cork is the hardest place to find accommodation. I’ve also lived in Chicago and Paris.”
Kimberly was studying journalism but it was while attending Colombia University that she decided poetry was what excited her. Her thesis at UCC is focusing on Steve McQueen’s films, Hunger and Twelve Years A Slave.
“McQueen works with post-colonial pain which I find fascinating. My degree is in the English department at UCC and also takes in the film department.”
Kimberly’s undergraduate degree in journalism is from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. After her masters in journalism at Colombia, she attended San Francisco State University where she did a masters in fine arts, specialising in poetry.
Poetry has changed Kimberly’s life. In Running To Stand Still, she uses pop lyrics in her striking poems and has been described as “a chronicler of migration in all its meanings.” In her essay collection, Life During Wartime, she writes about the “myriad ways in which U.S American society limits the freedom of the Black female body,” according to writer, Irene Mathieu.
Kimberly is currently working on her second book that will feature poems about Cork and its twin city, San Francisco. She is enthusiastic about UCC.
“It’s the best education in Irish writing and film and culture that I could never have received in the States.”