MoLI reopens this week with a new exhibition “Somebody: Nuala O’Faolain and a book that changed us”. Presented as a video installation, the exhibition is the result of hours of interviews with authors, academics, friends and family members, each discussing the social, artistic and personal impact of O’Faolain’s memoir Are You Somebody? In a GLOSS exclusive, June Caldwell, exhibition curator and author, explains how this exhibition allows us to see and hear O’Faolain once more …
Are You Somebody? was published the same month the last Magdalene laundry shut down in Ireland; October 1996. Ireland was creaking into its new form, moving ever so slowly away from the discomforts of patriarchy and the suffocating control of the church. However, for some it wasn’t moving fast enough. Nuala’s spiky and beautifully-written ‘middle-age’ memoir was, as Anne Enright maintains in the upcoming MoLi exhibition: “Somebody: Nuala O’Faolain and a Book that Changed Us”, an explosive bomb of a book in what was still a very small society. A book that woke Ireland up.
Nuala was asked to ‘contextualise’ a collection of her newspaper columns for New Island Books, by editor Anthony Glavin. She had already given us nearly a decade of the most searing and incredible social-realist columns in The Irish Times. And, if she’d never gone on to write another thing, it would’ve been service enough. The columns were often controversial, always mind-bending, and never predictable. She reminded us, over and over, that the political is personal, and the personal political. She wrote about all aspects of Irish society, on men, women, children, animals, geography, politics, relationships. Part of the pleasure of following her columns was you never knew what she was going to cover or what stance she would take. Even just taking 1996, she began writing a feature about the horrors of sex tourism and child prostitution in the Philippines, and continued with columns on the healthcare industry in Ireland, popular fiction, Drumcree, the cost of phone calls, domestic violence, apparitions and ghosts, pay for nurses, etc. Class politics, gender politics, power relations were her themes. She received the most letters-in-response at the newspaper at that time.
Yet, it was only when she stopped still to think about how she could contextualise herself within this broader apparatus of an Ireland in motion, did she realise that she would have to expose all the components of her life. The tiny facets a professional person would usually make sure to not discuss. And it would come at great risk to herself, her family, the people who knew her. Who was this highly-educated opinionated woman who seemed quite middle-class on some level, but who had also come from conditions we would now class as neglectful? How did she manage to fling herself out into the world and live how she wanted to? Where did she end up? Was she happy?
This exhibition at MoLi is an attempt to see how far along the road of Nuala’s Ireland we are now, where is her influence, and what of its reach?
Not only did Nuala reject the notion of self-censorship in Are You Somebody? she blew the lid completely. As Nora Casey notes in her interview for the exhibition, ‘It was like she opened her head and gave the utterly unedited version, it made for really uncomfortable reading, like personal testimony’. Angela Bourke writing about the reflective nature of memoir at the time says it is ‘a spiritual exercise, like meditation: a way of discovering truths not reachable in any other way.’ But Nuala’s life writing did not really follow all the usual retrospective patterns. She wrote about loneliness, masturbating in a hotel in Paris, domestic abuse, poverty and abandonment, casual sex, the pain of watching her mother destroy herself with drink, the complexity of adoring a brilliant but mostly absent father, hotchpotch career choices, mental breakdown on returning to Ireland in her forties, living with and loving another woman. We read what it’s like to grow older in a society that predominantly values the young. The damage that institutions caused. How men behaved with impunity while women lived wholesomely or were expected to. How the rich and powerful ruling the country were often morally poor hypocrites. Nuala charted with incredible skill, the great generational disappointments of all our lives. In doing so, gave permission to speak up.
And speak up they did. Thousands of letters arrived in response to the book. She would spend years answering every single one. This was a book that went viral before social media ever took off. It became a best-seller in over a dozen countries. Sifting through the archive of responses to Are You Somebody? in The National Library is haunting. People no longer open up to strangers in this way: ‘I lead a non-descript life of mother, serious Catholic, volunteer, using reading as a make-believe world. My mark will soon fade. My parents were evil’. Another writes: ‘My mother had nine of us, many miscarriages. I often remember her crying like her heart was broken. She began secret drinking. Awful rows. Cries of ‘call the priest’. She died at 49. We spent the rest of our lives trying to please our cold, handsome father’. I cannot think of another book that has had the same impact since.
Perhaps the biggest irony is that Nuala’s intricate mapping of a ‘nobody’ turned her into the biggest ‘somebody’ imaginable and life was altered for good. She moved to America, won awards, found love, wrote full-time: another memoir; two novels; a creative biography; and plenty more opinion pieces. She died of lung cancer twelve years later, leaving behind a heartbroken family and a body of work that can never be overlooked. This exhibition at MoLi is an attempt to see how far along the road of Nuala’s Ireland we are now, where is her influence, and what of its reach?
Need to Know: “SOMEBODY: Nuala O’Faolain and a book that changed us” is at MoLI, UCD Naughton Joyce Centre, Newman House, 86 St Stephen’s Green South, Dublin 2. Advance ticket bookings will open from June 22; Visits will be timed, allowing visitors ample space to enjoy the oasis that is the museum’s exhibitions, cafe and gardens in calm and safety. www.moli.ie
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