Travel the World With These Place-Based Memoirs
I’ve always been as interested in places as I am in people (okay, maybe more so, if I’m being honest). There’s no denying that place matters. Where we live, where we want to live, where we grew up, where we went to school or fell in love for the first time — these places shape us. The places we come from, escape from, love, loathe, long for, go searching for, unexpectedly end up: they define our lives. Place matters, and not just in a concrete, physical way. The environments we live in are sometimes the most defining features of our lives. Places have emotional and spiritual heft. For better and worse, in beautiful and heartbreaking ways, they get under our skin.
So there’s nothing I love more than a place memoir. These books are not just about places — they are about grieving and falling in love, politics and language, family, money, art, and history. And because they’re memoirs, they’re focused, of course, on the lives of their authors. But they are also about the beating hearts of places. They’re about the messy intersections between people and place — how places affect human lives, and how humans change the places we inhabit. From Hong Kong and the Eastern Shore of Maryland to North Philly and the Alberta oil sands, these memoirs engage with place in new and surprising ways.
The Impossible City by Karen Cheung
This memoir, as the title suggests, is as much about Hong Kong as it is about Karen Cheung. What makes it great is how deeply personal it is. Cheung, a lifelong Hong Konger writes about the city’s art and underground music scene, the Umbrella Movement and the 2019 protests, the city’s housing crisis, her experiences at an international English-speaking school, and so much more. She delves into the history, culture, geography, and languages of Hong Kong, but always with an eye to how the city has shaped her own life. It’s a beautiful book about one woman’s complicated love for her complicated hometown.
Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton
Cartoonist Kate Beaton’s first graphic memoir is a work of staggering beauty and endless layers. Fresh out of college, she left her hometown of Nova Scotia for a job in the Alberta oil sands, with the goal of paying off her student loans. In this remarkable book, she recounts what it was like being one of the few women in the work camps, including the ongoing misogyny and sexual violence she and others faced. This book is unlike anything else I’ve ever read — it’s a love letter and a searing condemnation, a reminder that no place, and no person, holds only one story inside them.
Northern Light by Kazim Ali
This is such a thoughtful memoir about what it means to call a place home, about the hidden stories of the places we think we belong to, and about what true belonging actually looks like. As a child, Kazim Ali lived with his immigrant parents in the tiny town of Jenpeg, a temporary community designed to house the workers building a hydroelectric dam on the Nelson River in Manitoba. As an adult, after leaning that Jenpeg was built on treaty land, he returns to this place that shaped him, to meet with the Pimicikamak community, listen to their stories, and learn about the challenges they’ve faced since the building of the damn.
Lost & Found by Kathryn Schulz
This memoir is not as explicitly about place as some of the others on this list. It’s mostly about grieving and falling in love. With stunning gentleness and insight, Schulz writes about falling in love with her future wife while her father was dying, and thus about the ways that joy, love, grief, and loneliness are intimately linked. But her writing about her partner’s home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and about falling in love with this particular stretch of land as she falls in love with a person, is especially poignant.
Another Appalachia by Neema Avashia
I devoured this beautiful memoir in one day, partially because Avashia’s writing is so clear-sighted and engaging. The book is mostly concerned with her Appalachian childhood, and about the many ways her identity as queer Indian American woman from West Virginia has shaped her life. But though the book is focused on place and home, it’s about so much more than that — or, more accurately, it’s about the endless details that define a place: food, geography, language, neighbors, the stories that get told over and over again, religion. The streets and sounds, the stereotypes, the deep connection and the deep divides — Avashia delves into it all.
Surviving the White Gaze by Rebecca Carroll
This is a painful yet beautiful memoir about one woman’s coming into self and coming into Black womanhood. Carroll grew up in a small town in rural New Hampshire; not only was she the only Black person in her white adoptive family, she was the only Black person in her town. She writes about the confusion and loss of self she experienced in a world that refused to see her race, and about the sense of wholeness and celebration she felt when she finally found Black community. Her writing about New Hampshire, both its overwhelming whiteness and the pockets of Black culture that exist in cities like Portsmouth, is powerful and illuminating.
My Broken Language by Quiara Alegría Hudes
This memoir by Pulitzer-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes is loud and exuberant and spilling over with love: for Hudes’s big extended Puerto Rican family, for the North Philly neighborhood that raised her, for poetry and music and language, for her fellow women artists of color. She writes about her long journey to becoming both herself and an artist, and her story celebrates all of the places that impacted that journey.
Wandering in Strange Lands by Morgan Jerkins
This unique book is a blend of memoir, history, and cultural critique. Morgan Jerkins grew up in New Jersey, her grandparents having come north during the Great Migration. Hoping to learn more about her own family’s history, and the broader history of the movement of Black people throughout America, she sets off on a journey across the country that takes her from the Georgia coast deep into the heart of New Orleans. She weaves a personal and far-ranging story about how places, and movement between places, have shaped Black communities — and thus America itself — for centuries.
If you’re looking for more books that explore themes of place, check out these eye-opening memoirs about nature and the environment, many of which are about places as much as people. You might also be interested in these books set in transporting places.