Five Thoughts about Memoir & the Wider World

| Comments (0)

At #AWP14 in Seattle, I was very happy to be part of a panel organized by Sue William Silverman, "Memoir with a View:  On Bringing the Outside In."  Sue, Harrison Candelaria Fletcher, Sonya Huber, Lee Martin and I addressed the ways memoir engages the larger world, as framed here in Sue's description of the panel:

Some critics label memoirs mere navel gazing. However, the memoirists on this panel will show why it’s anything but. In memoir the “I” is a strong presence, guiding and shaping the narrative, but the broader perspective is that of someone gazing out a window rather than peering into a mirror. The “I” reflects an image in a windowpane as we superimpose ourselves upon the wider world. We will explore ways in which personal stories engage with social, cultural, and political realities.
Afterwards, to my surprise, several audience members asked me for copies of the paper I read, which gladdened me.  I thought perhaps other people might like to see it as well, so I've put it here for ease of reference and sharing.  I hope it's useful.


Based on my own limited reading, it seems plain that memoir is not the self-absorbed genre that it's sometimes accused of being.  Three books I teach, for example, are Anthony Swofford's memoir Jarhead, about Swofford's experience as a Marine in the Persian Gulf War and his subsequent questioning of codes of masculinity and heroism; Alice Sebold's Lucky, which challenges the way rape is treated by our law enforcement and judicial systems, as well as our culture's persistent, wishful misunderstanding of how trauma operates; and Peter Balakian's Black Dog of Fate, which begins with a privileged young man in New Jersey and uncovers the Armenian genocide his relatives endured.  These memoirs, like so many, use intimate experience as a crowbar to dislodge assumptions about the wider world.

So I see any accusations of memoir as a navel-gazing endeavor as simply an effort to deploy a false dichotomy—self vs. world—in order to shut discourse down, to shut a genre down, a genre that has potentially inflammatory things to disclose.

Memoir doesn't tell an either-or story; it's all about both-and.  When we write memoir, we politicize the personal.  We personalize the political.  Personal narratives—sexual narratives, family narratives—accomplish political work in the wider world. 

They are persuasive.  They have a rhetorical effect.

Because of its unique epistemological status among literary genres, memoir has, with the truth-claim it stakes, an unusual power to unsettle the status quo.  Some people fear or envy this power, and scorning and dismissing memoir as a genre is one one way they express their anxiety about who gets to speak.


In valuing the sociopolitical illumination that memoir offers us, I'm helped by the feminist-of-color concept of intersectionality.  Many social-identity categories intersect in each of us—gender, race and ethnicity, economic class, religion, sexual orientation, nation, culture, physical ability, and so on—resulting in unique combinations, sums that are larger than their parts.  For each of us, our individual experience occupies a site, a node, where multiple categories intersect, and the ways these categories layer and ignite can open themselves to our analysis.

My own work in memoir, which occurs primarily in two books, is curious about a number of issues that extend beyond the boundaries of my personal experience and into the wider world. 

Because my 2005 memoir The Truth Book stakes sociopolitical claims, a strong investment in accuracy shaped my composition process.  The book concerns being adopted at birth by a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses and running away at fourteen.  For the sake of other children suffering domestic violence or sexual trauma, for the sake of current and former Jehovah’s Witnesses, for the sake of children whose parents commit suicide, for the sake of everyone who has suffered profound identity damage (as my father did) due to cultural assimilation, I didn’t want my work to be open to attacks regarding factual accuracy that a laissez-faire writing process can engender. 

To this end, I checked maps, read newspaper accounts, examined legal documents.  Sometimes I even folded their language into my own, letting the official accounts abrade, shadow, and illuminate my personal perspective. And since this was how I learned to write memoir, I retained that fidelity to research and to deliberate intertextuality in my second book as well. 

Several of the essays in my 2012 memoir, Island of Bones, were originally invited about different topics and for different audiences, and this awareness that they were doing different kinds of literary and political work in the world expanded my concept of memoir further.  The book explores Latina ethnic identity.  It’s curious about how the aftereffects of parental suicide play out over the years that follow.  It looks at how someone raised with violence, neglect, and abuse can become a safe and loving parent, and how poverty, trauma, and being raised as a religious fundamentalist have inflected my own academic and literary ambitions.

For each essay, I selected the best possible persona to serve the material and its audience, as Vivian Gornick advises in her book The Situation and the Story:  The Art of Personal Narrative.  For example, my essay “On Becoming Educated” was first solicited by Barnard’s journal Scholar & Feminist Online for a special issue on “Polyphonic Feminisms”; I had to look up the word polyphonic to respond to the editors’ invitation.  That moment sparked my thinking, and the essay is about encountering the assumptions of the academy as a Latina, first-generation college student from a background of poverty.  I was thinking about an academic audience when I wrote it.  It now appears in the anthology Wise Latinas:  Writers on Higher Education, which comes out tomorrow [March 1] from the University of Nebraska Press.

Two of the essays in Island of Bones originally appeared in collections that focus on the intersection of gender and class:  Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class from Seal Press, and An Angle of Vision:  Women Writers on Their Poor and Working-Class Roots from University of Michigan.  A piece about my family’s history in the Cuban enclave in Key West since the 1870s originally appeared in the collection The Other Latin@:  Writing Against a Singular Identity, from the University of Arizona Press.  An essay on being an “apostate,” as Jehovah’s Witnesses call someone who leaves, and on being shunned by my mother because of it, was fine-tuned for the audience of The New York Times Magazine

Two of the essays are specifically about motherhood.  Two are about marriage.  One is about writing and teaching.  One began as an academic keynote for a Latino studies conference and grew into something more personal.

In each case, I used some aspect of the self, or some intersection of aspects, as a lens through which to make an argument, implicit or explicit, about the wider world and my experience in it.  Island of Bones, like The Truth Book, explores issues of social justice and voice.  Both books engage with current sociopolitical concerns.


But to double back and play my own devil’s advocate, I would also question any insistence that the presence of the “wider world” in memoir is the thing that matters most.  Such a formulation can seem to dismiss the domestic sphere, diminishing the value of the experience of many children and women, whose lives in various cultures, including our own, are still fenced around by prohibitions, and to deride the life-narratives of anyone whose sphere is limited due to disability, age, or other factors.  It thus partakes of an exclusionary vision of whose experiences matter. 

It also dismisses many of the experiences of the poor. 

I have been very poor.  I know how poverty can circumscribe one’s life to the apartment, the bus route, the workplace, the laundromat—how it can narrow one’s social life to 15-minute stints in the break-room with other minimum-wage workers.  Such lives, filled with burdens and routine humiliations, do not include the lively benefits of world travel or leisurely intellectual discourse.  They produce no narratives of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or revamping houses in Tuscany. 

Yet not all artists are conveniently born to the privileged classes, and there are people living lives circumscribed by poverty who have profound, upsetting, and beautiful things to tell us.  I would not want to have missed, for example, Rigoberto González’s Butterfly Boy, or Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican, or Luis Rodriguez’s Always Running:  La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A., or a host of other memoirs.

Restricting our own sense of what is valuable and important in literature to some constructed “wider world” might be a mistake—or rather, believing that the “wider world” does not infuse these more tightly focused texts perpetuates, itself, a false dichotomy:  the notion that national and global political and economic systems and racial prejudice are not precisely structuring those experiences of harshly limited opportunities, of heartbreaking choices that well-to-do people never have to make.

There are fledgling writers out there right now, people who couldn’t make it to this conference, who are struggling to find time between minimum-wage jobs and urgent family pressures in order to write down the stories of their lives.  I would not want to discourage them by valorizing some “wider world” they cannot access as being the true subject of literature.


Anecdotally, I’ve noticed in daily life that people who brandish the accusation of “navel-gazing” often seem to lack much capacity for self-reflection and contemplation.  To defend against their charge is to tacitly accept their terms of engagement. 

I’d like to resist doing so. 

We live in a cultural moment that privileges celebrity, performance, and spectacle over interiority, privacy, and introspection.  As an artist and an intellectual, I would not want inadvertently to collude with such a formulation. 

I would not want it to influence the work I write, or choose to read.


To abjure writers for self-absorption is a fine pastime, but it’s plainly illogical to attach self-absorption to any one genre. 

There can be solipsistic poetry, narcissistic fiction, and so on. 

Moreover, the genre of memoir itself is no guarantee against the relentless refusal to reflect, as Mark Danner’s recent review essay in The New York Review of Books about Dick Cheney’s three books of memoir amply demonstrates. 

The focus, the emphasis—a work’s preponderance of self or world—comes not from its genre, a set of formal conventions and claims about epistemological status developed over centuries, but rather, from the author herself or himself. 

The way he or she sees.  The view.

As Joan Didion observes in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, “however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’” 

It’s that implacability I would have us hold onto:  that shamelessness.  That refusal to be shamed, or placated, or silenced.


Excited about AWP

| Comments (0)

If you're going to AWP in Seattle this year, you're probably not reading this:  you're packing, or you're boarding a bus or train or plane as I type.  (Me, I've left all practicalities until the last possible minute.)

There are so many incredible events at AWP, and--with approximately twelve thousand writers in attendance--it's a great opportunity to learn a lot, make new friends, and reconnect with old ones.  (Even though I remain afflicted by qualms about the carbon emissions that conferences generate, I will always recommend AWP as a great experience for writers.)

My own events all take place on Friday: a panel about Family Trouble with four of the contributors, a panel about memoir organized by Sue William Silverman, and an off-site reading from Madeline Wiseman's edited poetry collection Women Write Resistance

But I'll also be working at the Prairie Schooner booth (#1606) on Thursday and Saturday, and doing a signing for the super new anthology The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre at the Michigan State University Press booth (#1201) from 2 to 3 p.m. on Thursday.  And then there are the receptions, the parties, the Con Tinta pachanga, the dinners...

Truth be told, I'll no doubt spend several hours wandering in a fugue state through the Bookfair, and a couple more hours utterly lost, trying to find the next session in a labyrinth of identical-looking hallways and rooms.  I also hope to trek down the hill and find the "anti-authoritarian, anarchist, independent, radical" Left Bank Books, which I'm assured by a reliable source is excellent. 

Mostly, though, I hope to drink good wine with old friends.  To everyone who's going:  safe travels!


Encouragement & Advice for Writers

| Comments (0)

At Ohio State last week, folks were asking about how to organize the material in a memoir, and I recalled a piece that could help them, "The Memoir as Psychological Thriller." While I mistakenly said that it was no longer available on the website where it had originally been published, #amwriting, I later searched the archives and found it after all. 

Here it is, together with a few other short pieces I've written recently on craft, the writing life, and so on.  I hope they're helpful.

"The Memoir as Psychological Thriller" (on finding the questions that will draw you through your work, in #amwriting)

"The Dangerous Myth of A Room of One's Own" (on not needing fancy equipment or a lot of space to write, in #amwriting)

"How to Talk About Your Work" (especially for the shy & tongue-tied, in #amwriting)

"On Length in Literature" (and why bigger isn't necessarily better, in Brevity)

"Margery Latimer's 'The New Freedom':  A Manifesto of the Modernist as a Young Woman" (on a little-known feminist essay from 1924, in Essay Daily)


Where Is the Great American Novel by a Woman?

| Comments (0)

The October 15th issue of the New York Times asks, "Where Is the Great American Novel by a Woman?" and invites two writers, Jennifer Szalai and Mohsin Hamid, to respond--which they very ably do.

The Times piece opens:  "Each week in Bookends, two writers take on pressing and provocative questions about the world of books." 

Women and the Great American Novel:  provocative?  Sure.  Pressing?  Hardly.

Women have already written the Great American Novel.  Many women, many times.  The field of American literature is flush with candidates.  Contemporary novels that come immediately to mind are The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones, and Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward.  Szalai mentions Morrison's Beloved and Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.  Hamid asks, "What else are those mind-blowing late-20th-century works by such American women as, among others, Kingston and Kingsolver, Morrison and Robinson, L’Engle and Le Guin, if not great novels?"  Reaching farther back in time, I think of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Willa Cather's The Professor's House, Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Szalai reaches back farther still, to Harriet Beecher Stowe.  I'm sure you can suggest others. 

Perhaps the thinking that would fail to consider these authors, these novels, depends upon whose America one thinks this is.

It's true that the concept of the Great American Novel can be seen as problematic.  One may certainly question the nationalism inherent in the term, interrogate its assumptions about the criteria for greatness, or question the privileging of one genre over all others.  (One may also accept the concept on its own terms and ask, "Why aren't there more Great American Novels by women?", which seems a more legitimate question and has a variety of entirely valid answers that have to do with the material conditions of most women's lives throughout U.S. history.) 

But to keep asking the question, "Where is the Great American Novel by a woman?" is either rooted in willed ignorance of U.S. women's literature or a deliberately disingenuous act--an attempt to delegitimize and erase.  To continue asking the question is to perpetuate a myth of absence.  Women have written Great American Novels.  Brilliantly.

This conversation is over.  Stop asking the question.

What's New

| Comments (1)

I'm very grateful to my colleague and friend Dr. Amelia Montes for this lovely interview with me about Nearer Home on La Bloga

Hell or High Water, my debut thriller about a Latina in New Orleans, has won the 2013 Nebraska Book Award for fiction!  I sort of feel like a real Nebraskan now.  It's friendly to be in there with colleagues Ted Kooser and Tom Lynch, graduate of UNL's creative writing program emily danforth, and fellow crime novelist Sean Doolittle.  (Kind of surprising and cool that the two honored books for adult fiction are both crime novels...) 

The producers who optioned it for film or TV have just renewed the option for another year, so fingers crossed!

Many thanks to Grinnell College, Metropolitan Community College, and three book clubs in Kearney, Nebraska for hosting me recently.  I had a wonderful time.  I'm looking forward to a bunch of travel in October, too:  Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Washington College in Chestertown, and the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. 

Family Trouble:  Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family launches on October 1st.  Publishers Weekly calls it "a must-read" for memoirists, and people seem to be loving the essays in the anthology, which couldn't make me happier.  I wanted it to be, above all, a useful book.  Writing about family is never easy, but the authors in Family Trouble have found ways to do so with grace, tact, and insight.