Are You Somebody? Nuala O'Faolain (1940-2008)
Combing through the "Irish sports pages" (a.k.a., the obituaries) the other day, I saw that the Irish writer Nuala O'Faolain is dead of lung cancer at the age of 68.
If you're carrying baggage around, it might as well be packed, and Nuala O'Faolain's sure was. In her brilliant memoir, Are You Somebody, published when she was in her mid-fifties (yes!), O'Faolain unpacked some of her baggage and shared it around.
She was one of a large Dublin brood, and her early life contained a full measure of the sorts of incidents and characters that make for delicious reading, but a not quite so savory dish when it's your childhood. Her father was something of a local celebrity, a journalist (and philanderer). Her mother, sadly, an alcoholic.
But her real story was the truth about growing up in her time and place, with no expectations that you'd ever actually be someone, other than - at best - someone's mother. Faceless, self-effacing, the cloudy gray presence so needed in the background so that the colorful cast of wits, boyos, and charmers could stand out and be someone.
Sure, we all know the myth of the strong Irish matriarch - and behind every myth there is generally a home truth - but Ireland was no feminist paradise when Nuala was growing up there. (Nor is it now, at least according to one young friend who became a U.S. citizen in part because she felt she could have a better career as an architect here.)
Before she "became" a writer - i.e., got her first book published - Nuala worked for Irish television, and had a column in one of the Irish newspapers.
Are You Somebody, her first book, was a best-seller and made her, after all those years, into somebody. The province of the title was a question someone asked her once on the street. Finding her vaguely familiar, the person popped the question that got Nuala thinking a bit more about just who she was.
I read the book a dozen years ago - and loved it. It was gutsy, bold, honest, searing, funny....And you didn't have to grow up in Dublin in the 1940's and 1950's, with philandering and/or alcoholic parents to identify with her struggle to find out who she was and what she was good at.
We live in an age when every kid who picks up a crayon and scribbles on the wallpaper is Jackson Pollock. Every kid who hits a tee-ball is Manny Ramirez. Every kid who can warble a bit of "Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star" is the next American Idol. So it's hard to recall that there was a time and place when, for many of us, this wasn't the case.
At first, I thought that to grow up unpraised, unchallenged, unencouraged, uncredited, happened exclusively to the American Irish, or, perhaps, parochial school grads. But I quickly learned that it was wider than that - men, women, Protestants, Jews. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, too, I suppose - I just don't know all that many. I don't want to leave out atheists or agnostics here, either, but most of my friends in that category started out somethine else. (There does seem to be a real whammy point at the intersection of woman and Irish-Catholic-American, even for those of us a half a generation, and thousand of miles away, from Nuala O'Faolain's cramped and cramping Ireland.)
Long ago, my friend Peter and I decided that the dominant theme of our Catholic grade school education was "Who do you think you are?", the all purpose response you got when you made any motion, no matter how tentative and feeble, towards something other than the parochial, stick to your own kind, stay in the neighborhood life we were being groomed for.
You can't do it. "They" won't like you. "They" won't let you. The idea of you're doing something like that. Absurd! Just who do you think you are?
Who do you think you are?
Okay, all of us wonder at some point what we could have been if, if only....But it is hard for those of us who grew up in a particular way not to ask more deeply and more frequently whether we might have had a more productive, satisfying, realized, and joyful professional life if someone, somewhere along the line had uttered a brief word or two to encourage our dreams and help us develop a better sense of self, rather than asking us who we thought we were. (A question that has only one answer allowed, of course, and that's "nobody.")
Nuala O'Faolain wrote so eleoquently about her struggle to figure out just who she was.
Are you somebody, Nuala O'Faolain was asked.
News of her death was reported in papers throughout Ireland and the UK. Hundreds of people turned out for her wake and funeral. Google her name - she's in WikiPedia.
Are you somebody?
Nuala, mavourneen, you are indeed.
Here's a link to Letting Off a Little Self-Esteem, a post from last year that fits nicely with this topic.