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Opinion: 'In my everyday reality, self-love doesn’t protect me from racial harassment, sexism and ableism'

An Post Irish Book Awards nominee Rosaleen McDonagh has written a searing book of essays – here, she writes about their genesis.

Rosaleen McDonagh

UNSETTLED IS A love letter. An apology. A whispered forgiveness. The title came from someone who was once very dear to me. He would say, You’re so intense, it’s unsettling.

The cover art, by Mo Kelly, was chosen long before the essays were written. Her painting was my first and only choice.

My intention was to write a book of fiction. Short stories to echo my favourite writers, Alice Munro and Elizabeth Strout. It was never intended to be a memoir but my imagination had its own plan. First there had to be a clearing out, an excavation of the rubble scattered in and around my life. The book is held together by all that debris.

Unsettled

After Unsettled was published, disabled women I met let me know they had read and understood the book. An embrace, a handshake, a smile, a silence. They know. They understand the compromises that come with being a female with an impairment. The shame. It often takes up too much space.

Over the last two years, during the course of drafting, redrafting, editing and working towards a finished book, all kinds of emotions and fears have twisted my heart and mind.

This collection is a celebration of not having succeeded in taking my own life. Writing is a gift that has saved me from myself. Practising and redoing, searching for the essence, is often like fishing, searching for the salmon but finding a nest of eels. Patience is the best attribute that any writer can hope to cultivate. Not every piece of writing is cathartic nor should it be. My gauzy ghosts are the people that have harmed me. On the street, in the theatre, in libraries, innocent figures frighten me; a certain walk, a voice, can bring me back. As humans we embody our memories which stay strong and vivid even when they’re written down.

My public persona, my politics, give expression to a notional self-love and pride. These tools of survival and empowerment are elusive. You offer them to others but rarely take time to use them yourself. In my everyday reality, that self-love doesn’t protect me from racial harassment, sexism and ableism. You don’t forgive yourself when you are called a Knacker, a cunt, a useless cripple. That self-love is ever-evolving. It’s not always at the ready when needed.

Often, it’s said that Travellers are very hard to reach, that we’re a closed community.

Unsettled by Rosaleen McDonagh Unsettled by Rosaleen McDonagh

Artists, writers and researchers have tried to present and misappropriate Traveller identity and culture. Some people may be disappointed that I haven’t written about feuding and criminality. Some may accuse me of sanitising Traveller identity while embellishing violence from settled people. That projected stereotyping and racism doesn’t interest me. The appetite for that trajectory comes from outside the community.

My interest in Traveller culture is about family, loyalty, love, confusion and a discerning sense of humanity. Our community continues to be expected to absorb otherness. As a writer from the Traveller community, my job is not to perpetuate longstanding unbalanced notions of who and what we are.

Writing like a Traveller feminist

Nobody showed me how to write like a feminist. The Traveller lens and the Traveller genre in its written form are fairly new, but I’m not the first. To write like a Traveller feminist means holding this space on the page, extending the paragraph, subtly explaining the nuances of simultaneous discrimination.

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It’s about honouring your place, where you come from, the women around you, the women in your family. It’s not about diminishing Traveller male identity; Traveller feminism is never about emasculating the men we know and love. Traveller feminists’ writing pays dividends to the generations of women and men who never got the opportunity to go to school. It’s about respecting our ancestors who were told to be oral is good enough.

It’s about recognising we can be more than just the romanticised downtrodden women, tending to our men and children. The written Traveller feminist approach is about coming out of that barrel-top wagon and refusing to be marketed in a trite, victim role.

The essays in Unsettled are not by an inspirational person. The essays are not by a supercrip. They don’t pathologise my Traveller ethnicity or my gender. There was no triumphant moment of overcoming the violence inflicted on me. Instead, the essays embody a diverse experience of what it is to be Irish.

There is no room for wanting to deny or overcome my impairment. There is no hiding my Traveller ethnicity. The opposite. This book finally allows me to take ownership of my fractured heart. There is satisfaction and joy in knowing every word in this text is from me, a Traveller woman with a significant impairment.

Page after page, the details will hopefully motivate other Travellers to document aspects of their lives. We may not be formally recognised in Irish history, but we are here.

Dr Rosaleen McDonagh is the author of Unsettled, which is nominated in TheJournal.ie’s Best Irish Published Book of the Year category of the An Post Irish  Book Awards. The awards take place on 23 November this year – you can find out more and look at the full shortlist on the website.

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Rosaleen McDonagh

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