I sometimes use little green stick-its to mark passages I particularly want to return to or quote in the books I read, and the three books below are FULL of green. They are all memoirs of one sort or another, looking at motherhood, being a woman in the modern world, moving between cultures and countries, how to be creative and fulfilled. And they are all poetic, funny, sad, and don’t beat you around the head at all with preachy ‘self-improvement’ tips.
Elif Shafak: Black Milk (transl. Hande Zapsu)
After the birth of her first child, the highly successful Turkish author experienced a severe case of post-partum depression, which puzzled her and crippled her creativity. She describes how she overcame it and found salvation through writing. So far, so dry a blurb, but this is Shafak we are talking about. So, in the storytelling tradition of Shehrazat, with typical scorn for conventionalities, we embark upon a stormy tale of how the author came to terms with all the warring women inside her. Miss Highbrowed Cynic, Milady Ambitious Chekhovian, Little Miss Practical, Mama Rice Pudding, Dame Dervish and Blue Belle Bovary are at times suppressed or neglected, at other times they come to the fore and attempt to install a military dictatorship. It’s a witty way of talking about inner turmoil and life in general – and woven in we find Shafak’s usual candour, erudite cross-cultural references and self-deprecatory humour. Here’s a quote from the end of the book, chosen not because it is typical of her style, but because it seems to me to speak about so much more than just inner peace.
That is not to say that they [the 6 women] agree on every issue. But by listening, not just talking, they are learning the art of coexistence. They now know that to exist freely and equally, they need one another, and that where even one voice is enslaved none can be free. Together we are learning how to live, write and love to the fullest by simply being all of who we are. Sometimes we manage this beautifully and artlessly, sometimes we fail ridiculously. When we fail, we remember the moments of harmony and grace, and try again.
Elizabeth Smart: The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals
Nowadays if you do a Google search for the name, you will find a former kidnap victim talking about her experiences, but before that, Elizabeth Smart was a Canadian writer best known for her fragmented, personal, prose-poetry work By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, a barely fictionalised account of her tumultuous love story with English poet George Baker. This volume is a continuation of the first one, in which Smart is a single mother of four trying to make a living as a copywriter in post-war London, in equal measure addicted to and annoyed by a feckless lover.
It surprised me, upon looking at Smart’s biographical details more closely, to discover she was very successful and made lots of money in her profession… and that she found ways to be a prolific writer (although it was mostly published posthumously). The way she presents herself in this book (and in its predecessor) is very much ‘woe me’, with an anger and ferocity of spirit, an openness about love and sex and feeling unfulfilled, which must have been very fresh and scandalous at the time. Yet the observations are not just personal: there are excellent descriptions of austere, grey London after the war; of the centuries old division of labour- a proto-feminist too; a champion of ‘our hard-working deserving poor’.
Everyone must work; nobody must loaf. ‘Pull your own weight,’ my mother repeats… ‘Keep clean, bear fruit, and wait.’ This seems to cover housework, childbirth, sainthood. But money must come into it… I am reluctant, until we know more, to see the future so drearily laid out like an allotment garden, with each to his patch of work.
There is little continuity in a narrative of this type: it is made up of glimmers of brilliance, highly quotable passages, and then we’re off on a new tangent, a new jumble of thoughts and impressions. The author acknowledges she may not be to everyone’s taste.
I am the obsessional type. Which type are you? If you are the butterfly type you will never forgive my intensity…. An obsessional fog, even if it is made of a flock of holy ghosts, is not the sort of thing we can put before the members of Parliament… too fleshy too flighty too messy for debating floors?
Before you can start shifting uncomfortably in your chair, however, and complain that she is dripping in self-pity, she points out precisely that, proving that awareness of privilege is not a new thing:
O stop the caterwauling! Women with gusty voices pound pianos in pubs, impossibly happy against great odds. More ravaged and more successful by far than you, they know how to back-slap life with a greeting of gratitude. I am old enough to know that nothing I want will ever happen. I might get a faded facsimile. If I were lucky a man I want might happen to find comfort in my simple meals, or warmth from a fire always burning at the right moment. This isn’t at all enough, but I see I must make it do. I must. I see I must.
‘Miss Smart, you are not the first woman to have had four children.’
Smart thinks and writes like a poet, so there is no story arc here to speak of. Instead, you have diverse approaches to the same body of a problem, like birds coming to peck at a cadaver from all different angles. You have repetition, strong rhythmical patterns which need to be chanted out loud, clusters of images exploding under their own weight at times. While it hasn’t got the raw power and coherence of her more famous book, it is brittle and smouldering and shrill. An acquired taste, perhaps, best read in instalments, a cry of real pain, with added burrs of satire and wit, and much compassion for frailty, drunkenness, despair. I can see myself liking it more and more after several rereadings.
Isabel Huggan: Belonging
By contrast, Huggan’s style is not at all convoluted: it is limpid-clear like a mountain spring, occasionally mischievous, and warm and welcoming like a bowl of soup. Huggan makes us feel one with the world and humanity in general. Although it’s a very personal story of (yet another) Canadian writer who lived in Kenya, the Philippines, France, and finally renovating a house in the south of France, it is in fact a mix of memoir and fiction (to show just how permeable the line between the two is), and something to which many readers will be able to relate. Above all, there is that generous, humble, self-aware spirit which makes me love the work and its author. Modesty, I suppose, is the word I am looking for: gentle curiosity, wisdom, openness, empathy for others, willingness to learn. Something which is often lacking from the ‘me, me, me’ shouty, selfie-touting discourse on social media nowadays.
I know all about homesickness – sipping maple syrup from a spoon while listening to a tape cassette of loon calls, endlessly writing letters to friends asking for news, sifting through old photographs, weeping on the telephone. I’ve been there, that strange and dangerous place where longing can blind you to everything else. And so you learn to live with mal de pays as with chronic illness or disability, you salt your days with nostalgie. Then finally you wake up and compare yourself to the millions of displaced people in the world who will never see their homes again, and you feel ashamed, and you stop.
She gives us the most succinct and true picture of what it really means to be moving abroad, that you will never be the same again:
… neither of us suspects how changing countries, even temporarily, is going to change us. He hopes that this job will open doors for him in the future, but we do not yet know the windows and doors in our hearts that will be opened – be wrenched open and torn from their hinges, never to be shut again. We do not know that we have begun a long journey with no return.
I used to be somewhat suspicious of memoirs, seeing them as ego-driven exercises, for what could average people possibly have to teach to others? A strange attitude for an anthropologist, who loves listening to other people’s stories. However, after reading the unusual approaches to memoir-writing taken by these three women writers, I am converted. Memoir is really about sharing stories around the camp-fire, about sharing memories, finding the universals in human experience. I end this very, very long post (well done if you’ve made it this far!) with another wonderful quote from Isabel Huggan:
Since my earliest days I have been a merchant for Nostalgia, setting up my souvenir stall on the road to the wharf on the River Styx. I do not hoard memories and I am willing – even eager to part with them.
‘Here now, sir, here’s something to take in the boat with you as you pass on to the other side. A line of poetry smooth as a pebble, a phrase bright as an insect’s wing, a clause transparent as snake-skin shed in the grass. Take these souvenirs, if you wish, you who travel forward, and keep them close to your heart as you move into the darkness. You cannot take your gold and jewels, you cannot take your fossils. But you can take your stories across the water.’