Anseo by Úna-Minh Kavanagh is a beautiful book. It is beautiful in its conception, execution and, most importantly, in its effect.
It tells the story of the author’s life as a Hanoi-born, Irish adoptee raised from the first weeks of her young life in Tralee, Co Kerry, by a single mother and an Irish-speaking grandfather during the 1990s.
Part autobiography, part social commentary and part advocacy for the Irish language, Anseo is one of those books that is hard to put down. It is modest and unassuming, with the story, rather than the story’s writer, taking centre stage. No mean feat for a work of autobiography by a first-time author.
Throughout each of the 13 chapters four themes – family, race, Gaeilge and social media – are interwoven into a narrative that takes the reader through the author’s childhood, teens and early adulthood.
Family, and in particular her close relationship with her mother Noreen and her grandfather Paddy, form the book’s – and, indeed, the author’s – foundation.
Úna-Minh’s account of her young mother’s brave decision to travel to Vietnam to adopt and to return home to Ireland to raise her young child is quite moving. The book starts and ends with Paddy, from the cover photograph to the appreciation appendix, underscoring the key role her grandfather had in her personal formation and her grá for Gaeilge
Yet life in Tralee was not idyllic, and the politics of race and racial ignorance and prejudice are never far from the surface of Anseo.
From the perpetual questioning of the author’s identity and origins – Does she speak English? Where are you really from? – to racial abuse and attacks on Dublin’s streets, Úna-Minh’s experience of Irish intolerance to difference is a reminder of our own narrowness of vision.
However, with a bravery that she clearly learned from her mother, the author recounts how she turned these negatives into positive action through the use of social media to challenge and broaden our understanding of Irishness.
Armed with a Dublin City University (DCU) degree in Irish and journalism, Úna-Minh combined her love of Gaeilge and social media skills to promote a fresh and vibrant use of the language.
Her successful #FrásaAnLae (phrase of the day) sought to give people an accessible handle on the language. Whether questions such as Cé hé an stail asail sin? (Who’s that asshole?) or judgements like Is tóin tur tráite í! (She’s an absolute dry shite) #FrásaAnlae was there to give you the words to express your everyday feelings
Indeed, throughout Anseo Úna-Minh provides a whole host of phrases that run parallel to her narrative, whether dealing with death and grieving, anger and frustration, fear and anxiety or joy and love.
In doing so she reminds us that languages are not artefacts to be preserved but lived, everyday forms of expression that must remain dynamic and flexible to meet our ever-changing needs.
In 2017 Úna-Minh launched a Twitter campaign titled #WeAreIrish #IsÉireannaighMuid with a graphic of mixed race, adopted and non-white Irish people. The purpose of the project was to challenge the assumption that Irishness and whiteness were exclusively interchangeable. The hashtag received a significant response and prompted an important though not always comfortable conversation.
#WeAreIrish and indeed Anseo are timely reminders that Irishness is not a matter of biology or race. And while national identity is rooted in history it can never be constrained by the past. Cultural identities are open and dynamic. They require change to survive.
At a time when fear of difference is, in part, motivating people to protest against the housing of asylum applicants in their communities, and where that fear is being cynically manipulated by alt-right keyboard warriors and desperate politicians without integrity, Úna-Minh’s Anseo reminds us of what it means to be Irish.
We are a nation of migrants and immigrants, a hybrid, bilingual people with a proud but troubled past and vibrant but contradictory present.
Anseo also signposts two possible futures for our country. One is based on love, compassion, respect and equality. The other is based on ignorance, fear, exploitation and inequality.
The time has come for us to choose. Do we want an Ireland that cherishes all of the children of the nation equally? Or do we give in to those who seek to separate, divide and discriminate against children on the grounds of their skin colour, race or religion?
In one of the phrases peppered through Anseo, Úna-Minh says: “Is deacair a rá cad is Éireannachas ann (It’s hard to define Irishness).” I don’t agree. Is sinne ar fad atá anseo (We are everyone who is here). Everyone born here, everyone reared here and everyone who comes here and who together are shaping our uncertain and contradictory but indelibly Irish future. Thank you, Úna-Minh Kavanagh, for your brave and beautiful book.
Eoin Ó Broin is a Sinn Féin TD for Dublin Mid-West and a writer. His latest book is Home: Why Public Housing is the Answer