Memoir is one of my favorite genres of literature. It’s a vast blue pool into which writers pour their most vulnerable selves, and where readers can drink from the swirl of words. “Feeling overwhelmed by data, random information, the flotsam and jetsam of mass culture,” Scott Russell Sanders wrote, “we relish the spectacle of a single consciousness making sense of a portion of the chaos.”
This quote speaks to my whole soul. It’s the reason I read, and the reason I write.
So, because March starts with M and I have approximately 6,000* memoirs on my shelf, I decided to structure March reading around memoir -- #MemoirMarch, if you will.
Memoir is also, at its core, literature about change. And here in the upper left USA, March is actually a spring month (unlike in New England, where I’m from, where March is a winter month. And so is April). So the theme of change is pertinent. As I type this, the trees outside my window that have been brown and knobby since November are exploding into pastel pink blossoms, the sun is shining in a clear blue sky, my window is wide open. (Sorry, New England).
Beside my elbow, stacked next to my laptop, are four of the seven books I intended to read before writing this, 3 ½ of which are completed. I still count this as a win, because, I mean, I read stuff. I also listened to seven entire audiobooks, which says something about how much time I spend driving, cooking, cleaning and standing around procrastinating. But it’s safe to say I dove into the memoir pool this month. I swam around in waters of consciousness making sense of chaos.
Nothing is too ugly for this world, I think. It’s just that people pretend not to see.
Terese Marie Mailhot’s tiny bomb of a memoir has fissured its way through the literary world since its release on February 6. Mailhot is a Native woman from the Pacific Northwest whose hospitalization for PTSD and bipolar treatment was the locus of origin for the writing that became this book. In it, she chronicles the story of her activist mother, her artist alcoholic father, and her obsessive relationship with a lover named Casey; all through the fractured, flawed, and sometimes dreamlike lens of her memory.
Simultaneously, inevitably, she reckons with colonialism, racism, forgiveness, anger, and the raw, red, suffocating flesh-walls that characterize the deep insides of depression. “Many things were infinitesimal,” she writes. “Combined, there’s a whole thing I can’t bear… I had not stopped wanting to die. It was not romantic because it felt passionless –like a job. Romanticism requires bravery and risk. The obsessive thoughts ruined things.”
There it is: a single consciousness attempting to make sense of the chaos. While the unique details of a story are always crucial and compelling, sentences like this bring people in- people like me, who recognize those ulcerative brain-spaces regardless of the difference in circumstances that may have contributed to shaping them.
Heart Berries was not easy to read- it is dense, every sentence like a brick, demanding focused attention at the same time that it encourages flights of imagination. It’s not always easy to follow, and is often unsettling. This is how I would describe much of Roxane Gay’s writing: gut-wrenching, confusing, challenging in the most strangely beautiful way.
I’ve had Ariel Levy’s much-lauded memoir The Rules Do Not Apply on my shelf for months. The blurb itself would not have compelled me to read this, as it simply tells us that at one point the protagonist was married, financially secure, and pregnant, until she wasn’t any of those things. I’m not generally interested in pregnancy or marriage stories because most of them are so boringly heteronormative. But this book received an enthusiastic endorsement from Autostraddle, which put it on my queer radar. Turns out, the marriage was a gay one. This, combined with the fact that I am seeing Levy speak this year, compelled me to read this. And wow, I’m glad I did.
Levy comes from a similar privileged New York background as I do, in fact growing up in the same town where I spent 8 years of my childhood. I’m not sure if this made her more or less appealing to me. I will say that a New York upbringing is where our life path similarities pretty much end.
Levy’s career took off, as she describes it, more or less by accident. There must be a great deal of self-deprecation involved in her characterization of how she managed to land a staff writing job at the New Yorker, though I’m sure being an attractive white woman increased her advantage over other potential candidates. She was clearly driven, though, and talented.
Like most financially secure, white, cisgender, able-bodied and neurotypical people, including women, Levy trusted that the rules would be on her side. Even the ones she chose to break would still work in her favor. While she experienced some anxiety and alcohol abuse as a child, teenager, and young adult, her sense of security, coupled with her talent and drive, allowed her to fearlessly chase stories that interested her, and to more or less feel that she deserved a secure and adventurous life.
“This story had everything,” she wrote of an early attempt at a feature piece about hyperandrogenous South African track star Caster Semenya. “A faraway place with its own taxonomy and atmosphere, the smell of wood smoke and dope blowing through the township, the hadeda ibises floating prehistorically through the pink sky. And at the center of it was a woman who was too strong, too powerful – too much.” I love this characterization of Semenya, who along with Dutee Chand and other athletes, has been eviscerated for her powerful body; examined, accused of cheating, her very chemistry questioned and put on display for public scrutiny, as if there was no such thing as biological diversity. As if gender defined sport. But the story of a woman who is “too much” is also foreshadowing for Levy’s own narrative, and a universal allegory that womxn everywhere can recognize. Single consciousness; sense in the chaos.
Levy goes on to chronicle the death of her father; her marriage to her wife and how it was slowly pulled apart by alcoholism; her affair with an ex who had since transitioned; the devastating loss of her baby in a hotel room in Mongolia; the evolution of her relationship with her mother as they both aged; and the affirming relationships she had with her closest friends that carried her when she could not carry herself.
Levy is an incredible writer. I love her use of language, which can be witty and biting or dreamy and loving. Of her first meeting Lucy, the woman she would marry, Levy writes,
Lucy… she was golden-skinned and green-eyed in her white shirt, and she smiled with all the openness in the world when I walked in the door. She had the radiant decency of a sunflower.
It felt as if I had conjured her out of the dark. Not just the bewitched darkness of the blackout, but all the nights that had come before then, when I went to bars and parties, searching for someone who wasn’t there. But she was here now.
Later, after Lucy has been through rehab and Levy has forgiven her but they have separated, she writes about Lucy’s childhood photographs that she kept by her bedside: “…Lucy: that smile straight from the sun. I have an excruciating wish that she would age backward, into a baby, so that I could raise her now. So I could forgive her everything, anything, and love her with all the violence in my heart, and none of the need.”
Heartbreak. Chaos, sense.
This book isn’t without its problematic moments; one particularly glaring one that grated on me was Levy’s comparison of Mike Huckabee’s belief that gayness is wrong to her trans lover Jim’s belief that he is a man. I don’t feel this is a productive parallel to draw.
In the end, though, this memoir was a beautiful and satisfying story about a person breaking apart when everything she trusted soared out of her control, and how she managed her love, grief, pain, uncertainty, loss, fear, and sense of herself. “Grief is a world you walk through skinned, unshelled,” she writes. “I would feel myself ripping apart, the membrane of normalcy I’d pulled on to leave the house coming undone.” Who can’t relate to that?
This is the story of a disabled queer femme of Sri Lankan descent, who grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. She suffered sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of her mother as a child; later, she experienced violent abuse from her husband after she ran away from home to Toronto in order to chase the WOC/Sri-Lankan diaspora activist community she craved and to escape her “home.”
Home is a major theme of this story. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s sense of home involved danger and untreated mental illness for the majority of her life. “Sometimes, we choose dangerous lovers cause they feed us something we ain’t getting from any other source,” she writes. “Sometimes, we’re attracted to them because that kind of crazy feels familiar. Not the crazy of abusive, but the crazy of us. The crazy of our own brains, except with the masculines, the crazy is some kinda… hotshot Mad Max troubadour amazement. It’s sexy. We don’t think it’s going to be a mess.”
Piepzna-Samarasinha is not a victim. She is playful in her life, relationships, and her writing; she is deeply empathetic, aware of and actively fighting systemic oppression; and she holds an incredibly strong arsenal of coping mechanisms for when she finds herself in trouble. Her voice is beautiful, and while some of her writing might be classified as experimental, it’s very accessible. (And who needs classification?)
The titular “dirty river” is a prominent theme that exquisitely snakes throughout the book. It refers to the Blackstone River in her hometown of Worcester:
No one’s really sure where the Blackstone River is. It’s a big dirty industrial river that’s underground in every single place it is, stuck in a culvert because it’s too nasty to be aboveground… It’s a secret. Secret wild place that gave birth to this town.
[The old Salem Library] had been abandoned since the 1970s but if you snuck up to where it sits, where 280 meets 495 a the overpass, and got your eye close to a gap in the boards over the windows, you could see how maple saplings shot through the floorboards. Under the marble high-domes ceilings and wrapped around the cracked novelties stand, there lived a secret forest.
The hidden dirtiness and the secret forest are gorgeous emblems of Piepzna-Samarasinha’s journey through life. Of her hair, she writes:
I didn’t know I had curly hair
and my curly hair was always a mark of something wild and dark and out of control and dirty and painful and hard to clean or make look beautiful.
Just like the river.
I was a crazy girl-bomb old young woman, but no way in hell was I young in any way that meant vulnerable
I was happiest when I didn’t have a body. I had been all body, all gender for a while. I needed some time off from having a body in order to figure out what kind of relationship I would have with one when I got back to it.
You can live a whole life not looking at what you don’t know how to deal with.
And then, the magical forest she built for herself:
This house is where I can fall in love with someone who can meet me, touch me, who is not afraid to claim me as their lover in public. This is why I am prettier than I was two years ago, with some white hair and the beginning of brown girl, what-the-fuck lines between my eyebrows. I am lovely. I made my way home. I made this home… [Sometimes I] send all these pictures of my life back to the kid I was, who is still back there, trying to survive.
Making sense of the chaos.
Ursula K. LeGuin’s No Time to Spare is the book I haven’t finished yet. This is the first of LeGuin’s work I’ve ever read, but I’m not sure it’s the best place to start. I think if I had read some of her fiction first, I’d be more compelled by this memoir.
It’s not that I don’t like it. I find LeGuin’s voice to be very engaging, dry and funny at the same time that it is contemplative. No Time to Spare is the last work she published before her death this past January, and it is a collection of posts from her years of blogging. One of my favorite parts of this book is the unrestricted way in which LeGuin, a woman over eighty, approached this medium. So much of blogging is about SEO, listicles, click-bait headlines. Not to fully knock those things, but to write organically, following one’s own thoughts as opposed to the internet’s demands, is refreshing.
There are some really thought-provoking and beautiful passages tucked into these pages. I find myself particularly stirred by her musings on age. For example, on being told that age is just a state of mind, she writes, “Encouragement by denial, however well-meaning, backfires. Fear is seldom wise and never kind. Who is it you’re cheering up, anyhow? Is it really the geezer? To tell me my old age doesn’t exist is to tell me I don’t exist. Erase my age, you erase my life – me.”
I also love her take on the fallacy behind the concept of the Great American Novel: “Art is not a horse race. Literature is not the Olympics. The hell with The Great American Novel. We have all the great novels we need right now – and right now some man or woman is writing a new one we won’t know we needed till we read it.”
I’ll definitely finish this memoir, but of the four print books I’ve read so far this month, this one isn’t my favorite. Maybe I’ll appreciate it more when I read some of her novels.
This post is already a million miles long, so here’s a brief list of the audiobook memoirs I’ve listened to so far this month, all of them read by the author, and 1-sentence reviews:
A Beautiful Work in Progress by Mirna Valerio
Plus-size ultrarunner and truly badass athlete Mirna Valerio is one of my running sheros; the structure is a little all over the place but overall I was totally gripped by this book.
When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams
Williams’ mother dies, leaving her all of her journals, which turn out to be all blank; poetic musings on life and womanhood ensue, which are pretty good.
Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
OMG I LOVE THIS SO MUCH I LOVE JEANETTE WINTERSON
Bonus points for accent and total lack of fucks this woman has for useless things.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Part memoir, part pep talk for writers, this is a pretty good listen.
The End of Eve by Ariel Gore
OMG I LOVE THIS SO MUCH I LOVE ARIEL GORE
Bonus points for everything because Ariel Gore is my writing and life goddess
I was seriously blown away by how much I loved this very niche memoir of Doughty’s life as a crematorium operator and mortician. She released another book in 2017 which I will be picking up ASAP.
Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan
The opening chapter about this middle-class white lady’s relationship with her teenage daughters was well-written, but the content wasn’t really my wheelhouse; but then she got into her best friend’s cancer journey and I cried my freaking eyes out. That made me like this book a lot more, because it made me feel some very deep feelings, even though they were painful.
That’s it for #MemoirMarch this year; if you made it this far, you must also be a dedicated reader, for which I commend you and ask of you: what are your favorite memoirs, the ones that flowed into your consciousness and helped you make sense of the chaos? Please share in the comments!