In a world caught between increasing connectivity and increasing individual isolation, memoirs provide a living bridge to reality, helping to forge new connections, revise worldviews, and provide useful perspectives for dealing with challenges based on lived experiences.
Book launches are carefully choreographed events, but I can’t remember receiving the kind of rock star reception that a memoir and its writer got at the Royal Festival Hall on a chilly December 2018 evening.
More than 40,000 people tried to obtain tickets for the hall, which barely accommodates 2,700 people. The author was not a famous writer, but a celebrity no less: Michelle Obama, former First Lady of the United States, whose memoir Becoming was being launched in Britain.
I still remember the ever-growing chorus of cheers that greeted her as she took the stage, to join in a conversation with renowned Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There was a lot of wit, humor and candor in his upbringing, demons in his mind of not being good enough, his informal meeting with Queen Elizabeth and marital problems (“trying to merge two lives together, it’s difficult”).
The motley, mostly young audience couldn’t get enough of her as she spoke of life lessons, ‘the art of reinventing yourself’, insisting she’s ‘not there yet. », a lot remains to be done, which explains the title of his memoirs.
Asked by young black women for advice on navigating life, her response resonated with many others: “It’s still hard out there… We are demonized, we are too loud, we are too everything. . I lived that. Just have an opinion, how dare I have a voice and use it? It is a threat not only to white men but also to women. Some of my first stings came from female journalists who accused me of emasculating my husband… You have to start by getting those demons out of your head. The question I ask myself is, am I good enough? It haunts. It’s been fixed since we were little.
The account of a First Lady’s experience in the White House is of keen interest in any memoir. She told the audience with rare candor, “Here is the secret. I’ve been to every powerful table you can think of. I worked in non-profit associations. I have been in foundations, companies, I have sat on boards of directors, I have participated in summits, I have served on the UN. They are not that smart. They do a lot of things to keep their seats; they don’t want to share their power. And it makes you feel like you don’t belong. I’m not saying there aren’t talented people. But I’m here to tell you that their ideas don’t get any more exciting. They don’t solve problems any better. There is still a lot of brokenness at the hands of those in power that make us feel like we don’t belong. They haven’t fixed it yet because they need our voices to make it happen.
The magic of memories
The text of Becoming is a continuation of such candid thoughts as she reflects on the course of her life, providing another example of the captivating genre of memoirs, written from personal insights into lives, challenges or historical moments. The genre has a long and rich history, with millions of books in different languages; everyone has their favourites. Memoirs are stories that open windows: to find inspiration to face a challenge or suffering, because shared experiences are powerful motivators; read inspiring stories about overcoming obstacles and triumphing over adversity; for insight into other cultures or backgrounds; read how others who have made mistakes similar to ours can help us avoid them; or to read cautionary tales based on reality.
Some of the best known memoirs are: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, by Mohandas K Gandhi, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou , The Soul of a Butterfly by Muhammed Ali, Boy and Going Solo by Roald Dahl, Istanbul by Orhan Parmuk, Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall by Spike Milligan and Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie.
Here’s a quick rundown of three of my favorite memoirs that also struck a chord with many readers.
write and run
Stories, ultimately, as Kazuo Ishiguro told us in his Nobel lecture after receiving the Literature Prize in 2017, are about one person saying to another, “This is how I feel. Can you understand what I’m saying? Is that how you feel too? I remembered this when I couldn’t put into words what daily running was doing to me when I started the journey to overcome a health issue a few years ago. The pain, fatigue and sweat were nothing new, but running also had an effect on the mind that I couldn’t explain, a kind of emptyness of the mind, anchored in the moment, becoming pleasantly empty in running. One thing leading to another, I finally came across a memoir that perfectly described what I was going through: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami, a little book about the mysterious intersection of running and writing which I devoured in one sitting.
He writes: “Most of what I know about writing I learned by running every day… No matter how trivial an action may seem, keep going long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act. . So as a writer, and as a runner, I don’t find that writing and publishing a book of my personal thoughts on running makes me stray too far from my usual path… One thing I’ve noticed, it’s that writing honestly about running and writing honestly about myself are almost the same thing. So I guess it’s okay to read this as some sort of running-centric memoir… I’m often asked what I think about when I’m running. I’m still thinking about this question. What exactly do I think about when I run? I have no idea… I just run. I run in the void. Or maybe I should put it another way: I run to acquire an emptiness… What I mean is that the types of thoughts and ideas that invade my emotions while I run remain subordinate to this emptiness. At over 180 pages, Murakami thinks and writes in a conscious way about running marathons and daily errands that has resonated with millions of runners and others.
Reality, fiction: blurred lines?
Writers using their experiences and life situations in books labeled as “novels” is a long-established trick, one of the best examples being One Hundred Years of Solitude, that cult classic by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It was meant to be a novel, but the way it depicted the life of a multi-generational family in the fictional town of Macondo also reflected phases of Colombian history and drew on aspects of his own life. the writer. Garcia Marquez wrote other delightful books, but he identified so much with the novel that when his memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, was published in 2003, many felt like they were re-reading the classic. The memoir spans the writer’s life from his birth in 1927 through the start of his writing career to the time in the 1950s when he proposed to a woman who would become his wife.
This is how the memoir begins, when the writer’s mother asks him to accompany her to sell her hundred-year-old scented house…: “She had come that morning from the distant town where the family lived, and she didn’t know how to find me… She arrived sharp at noon… Something in her had changed, and that prevented me from recognizing her at first glance. She was forty-five. Adding up her eleven births, she had spent almost ten years pregnant and at least ten breastfeeding her children. She had turned gray before her time, her eyes seemed larger and more startled before her first bifocals, and she wrote a strict and somber mourning for the death of her mother, but she still retained the Roman beauty of her portrayal. of marriage, honored now by an air of autumn.
At one point there is a verse that would fit any description of life in Macondo, when he writes of a pharmacist’s wife: remember for the rest of my life with a sense of calamity .
Inside the mind of an editor
Writers monopolize all the limelight when books succeed, but few readers know about the behind-the-scenes editors who shape the raw manuscripts. One of them was Diana Athill, editor at Andre Deutsch, who has worked with several literary stars, such as VS Naipaul (she edited his 18 books and called some of his comments “ridiculous”) , Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Simone de Beauvoir, Norman Mailer and John Updike.
A minor sensation before retiring in 1993 after 50 years in publishing, Athill, who died in 2019 aged 101, later became something of a star herself with a series of memoirs, winning awards and tackling sold-out events as she grew older, retaining the critical eye that helped shape the books she edited. Some of her best memoirs are: Instead of a Letter, Stet: A Memoir, Somewhere Towards the End, Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend, and Life Class: The Selected Memoirs of Diana Athill.
She writes at the beginning of Somewhere Towards the End: “It is so obvious that life functions in terms of species rather than in terms of individuals. The individual has only to be born, develop to the point where they can procreate, then die to make way for their successors, and humans are no exception no matter what. We’ve managed to extend our drop so that it’s often longer than our development though, so what’s going on there and how to deal with it is worth considering. Book after book has been written about being young, and even more about the elaborate and harrowing experiences that cluster around procreation, but there isn’t much recorded of the fall. Being well into this process, and just after getting my nose rubbed by pugs and tree ferns, I’m like, “Why not give it a try?” So I will.