My Books I’ve Read journal reminds me I’ve read four memoirs since late winter, each one wonderful, each worth a 4.5 – 5 star recommendation.
Ordinary Light by Pulitzer winning poet Tracy K. Smith is a remarkable book. It’s a coming-of-age story, and an elegy for her mother, both affectionate and sharp with insight. It’s been described as “a powerful meditation on daughters and mothers.” Informed now by her own motherhood, Smith mines her memories of a 1970s Black middle-class childhood in California and looks for who her mother was before she knew her–a girl growing up in 1950s Alabama. The religious atmosphere of Smith’s childhood felt very familiar to me and I loved how she navigated between what abides for her and what she’s moved away from, into her own understanding of “mysterious presence.”
I found myself jotting quote after resonate quote in my journal. (It was a library book, but I ought to buy it, I think, re-read and mark it!) Just one example, about a child’s assumption of (or longing for) the mother’s singular devotion compared to the reality of that mother in her fuller personhood:
I had no way of knowing then, as I do now, that when a woman delivers her children to a safe place, even for just a few hours, a part of her becomes free in a way that a child cannot understand, reverting in an almost physical way to the person she was before she had children, as if she is testing to determine whether that person is still there.
Since my daughter and I had planned a trip to Ireland for May (which we postponed on account of my husband’s health), I was looking for Irish writers to read, and thus heard Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Nuala O’Faolain, and thus read Are You Somebody: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman. Written in 1996, this memoir provides a splendid and immersive portrait of a family but also, as O’Faolain suggests, Ireland itself — the deep wounds of large families, alcoholism, abuse, but also the way society changed over her lifetime. O’Faolain longs for love but doesn’t find it by book’s end, except for the outpouring of reader love to her truth-telling words.
O’Faolain is a great stylist, her writing packed with detail and lovely description. About halfway through the book I googled something about the book and discovered O’Faolain is dead. Because I’d heard her voice in the interview, I imagined her very much alive, which she certainly is in her words. But once I knew she wasn’t, the memoir seemed even sadder.
Next, Apricot Irving’s The Gospel of Trees, a well-written, well-researched account of Haiti and one rather dysfunctional family’s years there as missionaries. (Her father worked in a reforestration project.) Irving balances critique of the missionary enterprise with its paternalistic instincts and recognition of passions that motivated her parents and others. Her “return” to Haiti via memoir seems to provoke healing in her relationship with her father, a man prone to bursts of anger, and demonstrates how much Haiti has taken hold of her.
And then there’s Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road by Kate Harris, a tale of biking the trading route of Marco Polo by Harris and her companion Mel Yule. The young Canadian had dreamed of space travel as a child, specifically Mars, but, she says, “You set off for Mars and end up–marvellous error!–on the Silk Road, this conjuring of dust and light and desire between Europe and Asia.” There’s lots of information here as well as adventure in heat and cold and astonishing landscape, suffering and soaring alike, but I especially liked her meditations on borders, Earth, quest. Sentences like this: “You are getting closer when you recognize doubt as the heaviest burden on your bike and toss it aside, for when it comes to exploring, any direction will do.”