In the forty years since the publication of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, writers, particularly in the United States, have been working to represent their lives in memoir, to bring to the cultural conversation a diversity of lived experience that is truly remarkable.
But still I meet writers who insist they don’t want to write “just a memoir.”
As the tradition enters its fifth decade, it seems important to explore how craft and consciousness of time and place assure that no memoir is “merely personal.”
Memory drives memoir, but it can take writing to realize that while we thought we were just living, history was unfolding.
Contemporary memoir has been ridiculed as ME-moir, but where would history be without the testimony of individuals, whose memories of “how it was” bring into focus, add nuance to, or even contradict received accounts? Even what seems utterly private is subject to the dynamics of political, economic, and cultural change.
Each consciousness bears the imprint of what has happened within awareness. Whether we stand at the edge of a war or fight within it, when we see on a phone video a police officer shooting someone, when we hear of an incident of racism or learn how an execution by lethal injection failed on death row in a state in the West, human compassion is awakened, and the action of that compassion is an element in the life of the narrator in any act of life writing.
Sometimes a childhood, like those of panelists Catina Bacote and Alysia Abbott, was lived in the midst of events that were changing American history: Catina during the ascendancy of the drug trade in Connecticut in the 1980s; Alysia, when the San Francisco gay community she shared with her gay poet father was first freed by gay rights activism and then destroyed by AIDS.
Sometimes a loss of innocence or a coming of age takes place in another country: Carolyn Forché, working as a human rights monitor in El Salvador in the 1980s, witnessed events that were lied about or left unreported in the United States; Garth Greenwell, teaching in Bulgaria over the last decade, lived within a tangle of lives and relationships deeply hidden but profoundly revelatory.
Sometimes what makes a story is not so dramatic. “History,” a mentor once told me, “is putting one thing next to another.”
How do we write into the world and respond to the impingement of “the world” on what is known as “private life?”
Since writing was the raison d’être for the panel, each panelist read very briefly and then spoke. I began, reading one of my poems that is also a memoir.
After five days of rain, of clouds moving, of sudden
breaks into blue and wings lifting at dawn from the marsh,
after celebration, red silk looped from the ceiling,
dusks of dahlia in a still spin of fuchsia, after
raspberry, blackberry, juice on every finger, comes
a day fire slashes a burn across my hand, night
of no moon, comes sleeplessness inexplicable, comes
a weight of ache in the back, drowse after an hour
of Hardy, a silhouette turned black by a burning
at the crown of a hill: comes you, hooded and lupine,
brazen and resolute, comes you on fire, in flames,
orange the dahlia, live the ash of burnt alder
she pokes with an iron stick. I call it sadness
by now cauterized, difficult that lifts her
toward you, exhausted, entangled, and the sky whites,
pine blackening against it, morning to bring wood
for the stove, dahlia for the glass vase, dream of a glass
door for the woman again to spin through.
I wanted your age, crooked leftover of your arms,
ghost of youth in the rise of your back,
its ghost also in the deep turquoise of your eyes.
I wanted the flourish of your glamor, the bashful
break into laughter. I wanted what you pledged vaguely
the year the war started, when I predicted one day
we’d stroll that square in the shade of centurion trees
where I drank easy coffee with friends, and talked to you
on the telephone, keeping war aside, telling you
the mountain I could see out the window, the green birds.
But until that night at the Lux I hadn’t seen you in years—
my hand in yours, a fast kiss where the burn now is,
hot water bottle here warming you from my limbs,
you whose exacting tenderness I still crave. They say
the trees went in days, cut down by the new government,
the cafés shuttered during the troubles, along with
laughter on the street, outdoor racks of skirts, lace blouses—
And the friends I once had there? They’ve moved to the islands.