I read a lot of memoirs. It’s more personal, and often more fun, than straight autobiography. And I don’t like delineating strictly between “truth” and fiction, but I do like gleaning more about the lives of my favorite writers. I’m reading (or have already read) a lot of memoir this summer.
Sherman Alexie’s You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir
Alexie has been one of of my favorite authors since I read the Absolutely True Diary, so I knew I would pick up his new memoir You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. What I didn’t know was that I would be captivated by it. It’s large, at 464 pages, evenly split between poetry and prose. But I read it in 4 days. This is Alexie’s Eulogy to his mother. It’s also a poetic meditation on life, mental illness, the reservation, and that all familiar memoir narrative of leaving home. Alexie never claims to be writing fact: in fact at many points throughout the book he points out the flaws of his memory, the lies his family told him, and his struggles post brain surgery. But what Alexie so powerfully expresses is the difference between fact and truth, a truth born of emotion, love, and trauma, regardless of the fact. Even if you’ve never read Alexie or don’t like memoir, read this book. On paper, I have very little in common with Alexie. But Alexie’s recounting of his leaving home, escape into fiction, and struggles with mental illness made me feel, for 464 pages, that we had everything in common.
Roxane Gay’s Hunger.
Again, I already loved Roxane Gay. Her earlier works, be it Bad Feminist or essays across the internet, have been popular and important. But Hunger is emotionally raw. Memoirs are often confessional, exposing ideas that are often left unsaid. But Gay’s painful descriptions of her rape, trauma, and struggle with weight are so often unspoken it’s jarring and painful to read. But it’s important and beautiful. Gay, as only she can do, seamlessly weaves narrative memoir with cultural critiques of everything from celebrity weight loss endorsements to the difficulties of air travel. This isn’t an easy read, and I put it down often, but it’s worth every moment of discomfort.
Jesmyn Ward’s The Men We Reaped
I’m late to the program on this one, having never read National Book Award Winner Jesmyn Ward before this summer. I picked up The Fire This Time anthology after realizing there was a piece in it by Natasha Tretheway, one of my favorite poets. I was enthralled by Ward’s writng in this volume and immediately ordered The Men We Reaped and Salvage the Bones (which I dropped in a little free library in Nashville, I can’t resist them). The Men We Reaped is Ward’s memoir, delineated by the tragic death’s of important African American men in her life, closing with the young death of her brother. Interspersed between these strories are flashbacks to Ward’s childhood in Mississippi. Eventually, the flashbacks meet the present, where she recounts the story of her brother. It’s both political and personal and certainly worth a read, especially in the context of Black Lives Matter and continued police violence against African Americans.
North Toward Home by Willie Morris
Published in 1967, North Toward Home is not a new read. It’s the first in this list that I haven’t yet read. My MA advisor recommended it to me years ago and I just got around to picking it up this summer. Knowing my love of Civil Rights history, coming of age memoir, and the South it seems a perfect fit. I’m excited to read it this summer.
Okay, I’m not sure if this is a memoir in the same way (it is a diary, after all). What’s more, I am admitting that I have never read it. In middle school, when it seemed everyone I knew was reading The Diary of Anne Frank, I refused to read anything I considered “sad” (I know). So here I am, a 25 year old lover of memoirs and histories who has never read The Diary of Anne Frank. That ends this summer.
I’m just realizing how different this list is from a typical “summer reads” list. But here it does: some serious and seriously beautiful reading for that summer list.