An Post Irish Book of the Year Nominees 2023: Poverty and Choice with Katriona O’Sullivan

In the running for this year's An Post Irish Book of the Year are six outstanding and unique books from a selection of incredibly gifted authors, editors, and an illustrator. We caught up with Katriona O'Sullivan, nominated for her phenomenal memoir Poor, in light of her double win at this year's awards for both Bookselling Ireland Biography of the Year and The Last Word Listeners' Choice Award.

 

Incredibly moving, inspiring and educational, Poor is a reframing of the narrative around poverty, a deconstruction of our social system, and a call for urgently needed change in ensuring young people aren't neglected, based on Katriona's own success story, educational journey, and making it against the odds. As the middle of five kids growing up in dire poverty, the odds were low on Katriona O’Sullivan making anything of her life. She became a mother at 15 and ended up homeless. Five rackety years followed – barely coping, drinking to escape – until Katriona, now living in her father’s native Dublin, hit rock bottom. Poor is the extraordinary story – moving, funny, brave, and sometimes startling – of how Katriona turned her life around.

 


 

As a memoir that has moved and inspired so many readers, what was the main motivation behind writing this book?

I really wanted the world to know what it is like to be Poor. Sometimes we judge people for making bad choices, for failing; I wrote Poor in the hope that people would understand that sometimes you have no choice in life. 

 

What was the process like of digging so deep into your past - was it cathartic, traumatic, or somewhere in between?

The process was hard at times, and wonderful at other times. I got to see my mam again, to remember the love in my life, to see everyone in a different light, and to embrace myself - warts and all. I feel really lucky that I have been able to trace myself all the way back, and to have come out of the process liking myself! I have learned some great things about myself- I am really strong and I have always been worthy of love!

 

Did writing Poor allow you to negotiate your relationship with your younger self in any way?

Yes, I really felt disappointed in 15-year-old me for getting pregnant. I judged myself. Going back and writing Poor made me see that girl differently- she really had no choice! I like her now. Even with her dodgy fashion choices!

 

What was the single most important reason behind the change in the trajectory of your life, if that question can be answered?

Two things. Having my son John changed everything. He gave me drive - a want to be better. I had never experienced this before. Going to Trinity was the second thing. The experience of growing and achieving was amazing, I loved being good at studying. I felt like someone for the first time in my life. 

 

How has education changed your life?

It made me see the world differently. It made me feel the world differently. I can hold information in my mind in a different way now, I understand concepts and ideas, and I can feel where I belong in the world. I love being able to understand life like this; education made me realise so much about poverty and my history. It helped me to forgive myself and my family. Education also helped me earn more money! I have a career now, not a job - there is a difference! 

 

Why do you think patterns of behaviour often repeat themselves across generations?

It is not behaviour that repeats itself, it is misery, trauma, loss and hurt. These are the things that repeat - these things often manifest themselves in 'bad' behaviours. They often become addiction or low self-esteem or anger or crime or violence. There are the odd few who experience trauma, poverty, loss, or hurt who do not have the bad behaviours. But these people are the rare. We are the norm - those of us who have kids young, who drink and eat excessively, who try to escape. Poor people inherit misery, and repeat it, while rich people inherit happiness, and repeat it! 

 

What do you view as the most unjust thing about the way the system behaved towards yourself and your family?

Hard question. It was the lack of belief in our potential which spanned across all the supports and services. We were viewed as vermin, or the children of vermin. I was only ever expected to finish school. I was only ever expected to work in a manual trade - at best. I was only ever expected to live a life like my mam. These expectations came from the people in the system. 

 

And how do you think the system can really be changed to look out for struggling people? What do you think is the most important policy change that needs to happen?

We need to have more supports and systems that provide people with pathways to and through education. I would adjust who and how we teach. I would change the focus on the Leaving Certificate. It teaches kids that they are not good enough, or that one child has more potential than another. 

 

How did it feel to win two awards at this year’s An Post Irish Book Awards? And with so many people voting for your book, how does it feel to now be nominated for the overall An Post Irish Book of the Year?

I am so happy that I won a book award, or two awards! I feel so proud of my book, but also really humbled by it. I am so grateful for the support from people who have read my book. To be shortlisted for Book of the Year is unreal. I am just so delighted. 

 

As someone who has done such a brilliant job at changing the narrative around poverty and addiction, would you be able to recommend any other books that you feel have done the same?

Educated by Tara Westover is excellent. 

 

Poor

Explore the 6 titles in the running for An Post Irish Book of the Year 2023 here.

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