When I was a freshman in college, I read Angela’s Ashes. McCourt was an expat Irishman who had come through life, quite literally, kicking and screaming. He’s endured poverty so striking and unimaginable that with every page turned, my stomach clenched tighter and tighter.
Angela, his mother, buried all but a few of her children, including a set of twins. Her husband deserted her in poverty to work and drink his wages away will she struggled to care for her children, sacrificing her body and her spirit in the process. McCourt, a clever and cunning boy, used his intelligence to swindle a ticket out of Ireland, eventually ending up as an educator in New York.
But it was McCourt’s gritty, non apologetic approach to his childhood in Ireland and the reality of endless hopelessness that had me tearing up, had me desperate for the next page. He eventually won a Pulitzer for this debut book and enjoyed the twilight of his years in the city he loved, surrounded by family.
Months after I read the book, I met McCourt when he came to my university to speak. There was a cocktail party at a beautiful, historic home afterward and I’d sweet talked my way into it. Academics and “important” writers from New Orleans drove in to meet him, professors eager for his autograph on their first edition copy of his book slipped in and out of the crowd quietly and then, there was me-mesmerized by this gentle, funny soul, taken aback by his constant smile, by his ability to bury his past and revel in his present.
That night, when McCourt talked to me, joked with me about my Irish grandfather, when he advised me about writing and publishing and why the story matters, I knew that what he had endured, what he’d conquered was what informed the man and the writer he became. He wasn’t simply a poor Irish kid who’d made it. He was a writer who conquered, who drew in all those terrible tragedies, all that grieve and shared it with the world.
I left that party with tears in my eyes, remembering his story and knowing without any hesitation what I wanted to be: a writer.