This post was originally published on the blog of BookPeople, the best bookstore in Texas.
Last fall, I reported on seeing Mary Karr at our store when she came to talk to us about her latest book, The Art of Memoir. Karr’s book had me thinking deeply about the memoir form, particularly those books written by women.
In 2014, I audited a course on women’s autobiographical writing at UT. That experience set the foundation for a lifetime of thoughtful examination of women’s voices, both classic and contemporary. (If you have an opportunity to, I highly recommend you seek out a similar classroom course or reading group.)
What distinguishes a great memoir for me is a book that provides a powerful emotional experience. Adversity is at the forefront of an author’s story. There are usually strands in the author’s story that match my own. There is always a searching for things that have been lost — for absent parents, for family and community. Most of all, I find that there is an exceptional woman behind each book, one whose voice captures and compels, whose story has a greater resonance for readers, and is relevant to our national conversations.
I have compiled my picks of memoirs by women, and they are all books that I have read within the last year. These are books I hope you will look at next time that you are in our store. At the end of this post, I encourage you to share your own picks for memoirs.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
National Book Award winning novelist Jesmyn Ward has recently given us a remarkable memoir about the people she loves in her hometown in rural Mississippi. Ward lost four men in her life, including her younger brother, Joshou, within a period of four years when she was a young adult. They died by accident, violence and suicide. Ward went searching for the threads that connected their lives and deaths. In alternating chapters, she tells the story of her own growing up, and the stories of the men, and she comes to a sorrowful conclusion about what it means to be born poor and black in America. When I heard Ward give a talk at the Michener Center for Writers at UT, she revealed that some of the family members of those whom she had written about felt angry at the portrayals of their loved ones. They were uglier than what they wanted to hear. But Ward felt it would be cowardly to tell a different story. “I had to tell the truth, because I think the story can do some good, and I’m not normally an optimist,” she said. “But as far as Men We Reaped is concerned, I believe that that book can be part of the conversation that is happening right now about the value of black lives in America.”
My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
Six years ago when Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court, I was, like many Americans, enthralled by her life story. The child of first generation Puerto Rican immigrants, she grew up in the Bronx, lost her father at the age of nine, and battled juvenile diabetes. She drew from the resources of strength she found in family and in school, and went on to attend Princeton University, where she graduated summa cum laude. When President Obama announced his nomination of Sotomayor for the Court back in 2009, he remarked on her qualifications: “Experience being tested by obstacles and barriers, by hardship and misfortune; experience insisting, persisting, and ultimately overcoming those barriers. It is experience that can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion; an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live.” The experience of reading Sotomayor’s My Beloved World is to be uplifted by a remarkable woman’s American story. Beautifully written and a page-turner, it is a powerful work about self-discovery that will endure in our American literary canon.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
This is the first and most well-known in a series of autobiographies that Maya Angelou wrote over the course of her remarkable life. Angelou addresses the social conditions of poverty in the South in the 1930 and 1940s, and the perennial challenge of race in America. As she does so, Maya recounts the experience of emotional abandonment by her parents, and the bonds between siblings. Simply put, it is a story about overcoming. Of the tragedies she documents is the experience of being silenced for years, unwilling to speak, after a brutal sexual assault. There is so much depth and poignancy to each aspect of her story that I know this is a work I will be returning to. It is a book that transcends racial and social barriers, and this is one reason it continues to inspire so many readers across the world.
There are a number of recently published memoirs by women that are on my reading list, including Joyce Carol Oates’ The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age, Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, and Mary Anna King’s Bastards.
What are your picks for memoirs by women?