Emma Jane Kirby's story of an optician helped us all to see migrant crisis more clearly

Emma Jane Kirby's book recounts an amazing tale of tragedy and kindnes amidst the refugee boats off Italy, writes Marjorie Brennan

EMMA Jane Kirby is an award-winning broadcaster but she is also a consummate storyteller, touching millions of listeners with her heart-rending dispatches from the frontline of the migration crisis in the Mediterranean.

Her book The Optician of Lampedusa tells the real-life story of Carmine Menna, an optician who lives on the Italian island which is one of the main entry points for migrants from Africa. 

In October 2013, Menna was on a sailing trip with friends when they heard what they initially thought was the sounds of seagulls screeching. 

However, it was hundreds of refugees screaming for their lives as the boat they were on sank. Menna and his friends sailed to their aid, rescuing 47 people; 368 lost their lives.

Kirby, a BBC radio journalist, will read from the book on board the LÉ Samuel Beckett in Bantry Bay later this month, as part of the West Cork Literary Festival. 

The Irish navy ship completed two deployments to the Mediterranean in 2015 and 2016, rescuing more than 4,000 people.

When Kirby encountered Carmine Menna, she knew her reports on the migration crisis were already losing their impact.

“The images of overcrowded rubber boats had reached saturation point. We knew people were switching off because it was happening again and again. We desperately needed to find a new angle; I interviewed five ordinary Italians who had been affected by the crisis; a gravedigger who had the dreadful task of burying them; a hospital director who had to find space to treat them; a wonderful lady who worked in a soup kitchen; and a carpenter, a very religious man who had decided to make crosses from the driftwood washed up on the shores of Lampedusa from the wrecked boats.

“Then we had the optician, just an ordinary guy who was getting on with his own life, exactly as we all do, then one day, bang, he found himself in the middle of what was then Lampedusa’s worst shipwreck.”

There was a hugely positive response to the series from listeners and Kirby went on to win the prestigious Prix Bayeux-Calvados award for war correspondents.

“People could see themselves in those we interviewed — particularly the optician. They could imagine literally being in that same boat — what would they have done?”

The optician was reluctant to speak at first, says Kirby.

“He absolutely did not want media attention. First, he was terribly traumatised and second, he didn’t want to be a hero. I remember saying to him when he told me he had saved 47 people, ‘You are a hero’. It was the only time I ever saw a flash of anger. He replied: ‘A hero would have saved them all’.”

While Kirby was initially worried about telling him about the book, she was surprised by the encouraging response. 

“I went to see him and I showed him the photographs of being awarded the prize and he said ‘Good grief, they actually understood the importance of the story’. I told him I wanted to write this book and I thought he would explode but he said: ‘I love reading and I trust you to give the message’. He was delighted when Waterstone’s made it their book of the month and it raised £56,000 for Oxfam. He said he had been searching for meaning for three years and the fact that it has raised all this money for a charity for migrants had given his story meaning.”

Kirby doesn’t name the optician in the book: “I wanted him to remain an everyman figure, it could have been you or me. I knew I wasn’t going to write a biography or reportage. There is something in the story that lends itself to literature, the adage of the old man and the sea; the metaphor of the optician who helps us see clearly.”

She is still in regular contact with Menna and returned to Lampedusa last October to mark the third anniversary of the boat disaster.

Coffins of died migrants are lined up inside a hangar of Lampedusa’s airport, Italy.

“I went back on that same boat with him and four of his friends and three of the migrants who had been rescued. The boat is still there and they scattered hibiscus flowers onto the water, where the 368 people met their deaths. I can’t tell you how moving it was to be included.”

The response to the crisis in the Mediterranean has been less than compassionate in many quarters. Kirby believes it is hard for people to empathise with such large-scale suffering, until, like the optician, they encounter it in a human context.

“He said it wasn’t until he felt the hand of the first man he pulled from the sea in his that he realised they were names not numbers, that was his phrase. I remember we went out to dinner to talk about it. He started to sweat, and he was shaking as he was re-enacting for me pulling all these people out. He said: ‘It was like electricity going through me, knowing I was their chance for life; as I touched them I felt something like…’ and he couldn’t finish his sentence. He looked down and fiddled with his napkin…and his wife said: ‘he felt something like love’.”

Kirby says Menna, his wife and friends have come to look on the people they rescued as family.

“He takes them out fishing and tries to teach them to love the sea again because they are so frightened of it.

“One of the men they saved went to live in Sweden; when he had to say goodbye, he clung to the optician’s wife like a baby, sobbing.”

Kirby strikes me as a very strong person, to be able to bear witness to such horrific testimony and remain so calm and professional. But she argues she is no different to anyone else and is just doing her job.

“Journalists are sent to witness on behalf of other people who can’t be there. We have a duty to tell people what is happening and not shield people from horror. But I cried every single day writing this book. I was haunted by the optician’s story, I still am.”

  • The takes place from July 14-23. westcorkmusic.ie/literaryfestival

West Cork Literary Festival: Other highlights

  • Gone — A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung, is the captivating story of violinist Min Kym, whose world collapsed when her rare Stradivarius was stolen in a train station café in London. Kym will discuss her work with Evelyn Grant of Lyric FM and also play some violin pieces connected with her story. Maritime Hotel, July 17, 2.30pm, €18.
  • Sea swimming was a lifeline for Ruth Fitzmaurice in the midst of her busy family life and supporting her filmmaker husband, Simon, who has Motor Neurone disease. She talks about her book I Found My Tribe at the Bantry House Tearoom on July 18 at 10am, €10. The event will be followed by the festival swim at 11.15am.
  • John Kelly, who spent three months as artist-in-residence with the Australian Antarctic division, discusses his time spent drawing, painting and documenting the most remote place on earth. Bantry Library, July 21, 1pm, Free.
  • The joys of nature and landscape will also be discussed by Sarah Perry, writer of the acclaimed novel The Essex Serpent, and Melissa Harrison, nature writer and author of Rain. The Bantry Bay, July 21, 2.30pm, €18.


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