Best Books Read in 2021 Part 3: Top 10 Non Fiction

Paris Hotel de Ville Christmas 2021

Sisters in Paris

I had hoped to issue Part 3 of My Top Reads of 2021 in December, however that didn’t happen. I put my books and blog aside for a month while my sister was visiting, to just enjoy each other’s company and the beauty of the local environment where I live.

Given the times we are currently living through, it has been a humbling gift to combine those two things, to re-connect and enjoy our surroundings, albeit mid-winter.

2022 Reading Plans of a Mood Reader

Today my friend Deidre at Brown Girl Reading called and it was like a sign from the book world, a reminder that this post was sitting here, as are the many piles of unread books. Before speaking to her I had no idea what I might read next, or in 2022.

Musée Carnavalet Me Marais Paris History Madame Sévigné de Seve

History of Paris, Musée Carnavalet

As a mood reader, I don’t tend to make plans, but as I stood in front of the shelves, I noticed that I have already accumulated some little piles of books by authors I want to read more of, like Buchi Emecheta, Gayl Jones, Mary Costello, Janet Frame; more books by Northern Irish authors, including a few more by Brian Moore.

There’s a French history written by women pile, inspired by a recent visit to the History of Paris, Musée Carnavalet. It seems something in my subconscious had indeed been planning!

Best NonFiction Reads of 2021

So, to complete there three part series, following on from Part 1: The Stats + One Outstanding Read of the Year and Part 2: Best Fiction Reads, here is my Part 3: Best NonFiction Books of 2021 and at the end, I’ve tagged on 4 books from my Spiritual Well-being collection that I read in 2021, each of them equally inspiring and nourishing.

In 2021 I read 28 works of nonfiction, so many of them were were excellent, below is a selection of those that I really enjoyed, that have stayed with me, in no particular order:

Autobiography/Memoir

To My Childresn Children Sindiwe Magona1. To My Children’s Children (1990) + Forced to Grow (1992) by Sindiwe Magona (South Africa) – discovering Sindiwe Magona was one of my reading highlights of 2021. Tired of her people being written about and misrepresented by others, she decided for the sake of generations to come, and especially for girls, to share her experience, of an enriching, loving childhood, of growing up under apartheid and overcoming racist and patriarchal challenges.

The first volume covers her life up to the age of 23, when she encounters the most challenging circumstance ever and then in Forced to Grow, from age 23-40 we learn how she finds a way not only to survive but to grow, develop and thrive, overcoming poverty, pursuing education, collaborating with empowered women, spending over 20 years serving in the United Nations. These two books are like nothing else I’ve ever read coming out of South Africa, more than a gift to her grandchildren, they are a treasure and a lesson in humility to all humanity. I’m hoping there is a third volume in the making.

The Cost of LIving Deborah Levy memoir2. Real Estate (2021) + The Cost of Living (2018) by Deborah Levy (Creative Nonfiction) (South Africa/UK) – An author who left South Africa at the age of 9, Levy’s life and reminiscences are a world away from her birthplace and from the life of her compatriot above, though they have left a barely discernible imprint. While Magona embraces the entirety of her experience, Levy in titling her opening memoir Things I Don’t Want to Know (2013), struggles to talk about what she doesn’t want to talk about, using humour, her observation of others and a feminist lens to deflect her existentialism.

In three volumes, as she begins a new phase, unravelling from marriage into mature, independent woman, she reflects on life, her influences, her frustrations, critiquing the roles society assigns us, the way literature and cinema perpetuate them and considers the effect of disrupting them, breaking free. She observes what is going on around her while considering the wisdom of writers who came before, liberates herself from convention, while longing still for aspects of a distorted dream. Slim volumes, entertaining to read, they both inform and obscure, a life in fragments.

autobiography memoir australia indigenous3. My Place by Sally Morgan (1987) (Australia) (Biography/Memoir) – a classic of Australian aboriginal literature, Morgan writes about her childhood when her identity was hidden from her, uncovering her Aboriginal ancestry and understanding why her grandmother was so fearful of talking about the past.

Sharing what she discovered of the life stories of her mother, grandmother and great Uncle to understand why it was deemed necessary to be protected from the knowledge of who she was, she uncovers a heritage and her place in it, in this extraordinary and valuable account. An absolute must read.

Maggie O'Farrell Memoir Near Death Experiences4. I Am, I Am, I Am, Seventeen Brushes With Death (2017) by Maggie O’Farrell (Northern Ireland/British) (memoir) – a unique memoir told through 17 encounters with death that range from the terrifying to the mundane, the memorable to the repressed.

O’Farrell finds meaning in these experiences, initially cultivating a state of fearlessness followed by the magical effect and shift in perspective that giving birth to a child brings about. A remarkable and thought provoking work using a unique structure, I thought it was brilliant.

Nature Writing

Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants5. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013) (Creative Non Fiction) (US) – In this remarkable collection of 32 essays, organised into 5 sections that follow the life cycle of sweetgrass, we learn about the philosophy of nature from the perspective of Native American Indigenous Wisdom, shared by a woman of native origin who is a scientist, botanist, teacher, mother.

Sharing scientific knowledge and going out into the forest and field, she demonstrates how close and quiet observation of plants in their habitat teach us. The most crucial lessons being learning how to give back, reciprocity and gift giving, using our imagination and intuition to reconnect with nature and understand the connection between them and us. Just stunning.

nature writing Wainwright prize6. Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty (2020) (Northern Ireland) – an inspired account of a year in the life of a 15 year old boy with a passion for nature and all forms of wildlife and how his connection to them assists him to navigate life mitigating the intensity and challenges of autism.

His observations are a pleasure to read, his use of language evocative and resonant in bringing the natural world he loves to life for the reader. A writer to watch, inspirational.

Justice/Social Science/History

The Fire Next Time James Baldwin7. The Fire Next Time James Baldwin (1963) (Letters) (Social Justice) (US) – a short book of just two letters, one written to his young nephew, a kind of preparation for what lies ahead of him as he will become a young black man in America and a tender description of who he sees in him, his heritage, his family connection and that he is loved, a beautiful literary gift to a young boy.

The second letter he writes to himself, Letter From a Region of My Mind – like a journal entry, he writes of his own development of his self-awareness, of the experiences that moulded him, of his choices to seek refuge and revenge in the same calling, his assessment of meeting Elijah Muhammed, leader of the Nation of Islam. Baldwin’s message is one of love, of standing up for one’s rights, of dignity and the health of one’s soul, of our responsibility to life. A gem of a book, as relevant now as when he wrote it.

Nurturing Humanity8. Nurturing Our Humanity, Riane Eisler, Douglas Fry (Austria/US) (Social Science/Cultural History/Anthropology) (2019) – The long awaited sequel to her brilliant The Chalice and The Blade (1987) which introduced Eisler’s theory on domination versus partnership models of society, this new book written in collaboration with Anthropologist Douglas Fry, explores how domination and partnership have shaped our brains, lives and futures.

They demonstrate through decades of research how we have been influenced by a system of domination that favours hierarchical structures, ranking of one over another, authoritarian parenting and leadership, fueled by fear, tamed by punishment, sustained by conditioning. They argue that the path to human survival and well-being hinges on our human capacities to cooperate and promote social equality, through empathy, equity, helping, caring and various other prosocial acts. A riveting, essential read on understanding human nature and where we are headed.

Sea People In Search of Ancient Navigators of the Pacific9. Sea People Christina Thompson (2019) (Australia/US) (History)  – I loved and was fascinated by this book, a woman curious about her husband and son’s cultural heritage, looks back at what has been written by various/mostly male historians about these ancient navigators of the Pacific and according to their own paradigm and biases, their theories on how they arrived there.

What she discovers are non-instrument navigation techniques that Europeans weren’t aware of, abilities developed by these ancient mariners that are fascinating to imagine, and that a small group seek to emulate, challenging themselves to go back in time, to think and understand the sea, the stars and nature, as their ancestors did. Fascinating and insightful.

Cut From the Same Cloth Sabeena Akhtar10. Cut From the Same Cloth, Muslim Women on Life in Britain (2021) Edited Sabeena Akhtar (UK) (Essays) – this was a long awaited volume of essays, crowdfunded by many supporters, brings together the voices of 21 Muslim women of different ages, races and backgrounds, allowing them to explore their experience and spiritual perspectives, expressing them creatively.

More than mere essays, collectively, their words bust the all too common stereotypic myths of the hijab wearing woman and introduce us to a bright, humorous, passionate group of women, whose honesty and thoughts are both empowering and insightful. Though they are writing for themselves and each other, anyone interested in understanding the many diverse views of British Muslim women today, will enjoy reading this anthology.

Spiritual Well-being Reads

Finally, one of the genres I like to read is Spiritual Well-being and there is a page dedicated to those books at the top of this blog, for easy reference. They tend to be winter reads, corresponding to that time when we tend to go within and might benefit from a revisiting of inspirational words and an alternative perspective on how to co-exist with whatever it is we are dealing with in the external world.

Sensitives and Soul Purpose

The Power of Empaths in an Increasingly Harsh WorldThis year I found inspiration from two of my favourites in this field, and two new authors, all of them coming from renowned publisher Hay House.

“Every thought we think is creating our future.” Louise Hay

Anita Moorjani’s Sensitive is the New Strong (2021) (India/Hong Kong/US) is written in particular for highly sensitive empaths, with information about recognising this in oneself, learning to develop it as a strength, while understanding the importance of  how to protect your energetic body from the negative effects of the kind of world we live in today.

Rebecca Campbell What is a Soul WLetters to a Starseed (2021) by Australian intuitive and creative, now based in Glastonbury, Rebecca Campbell, who previously wrote Light is the New Black(2015) and Rise Sister Rise (2016). This latest book is for those interested in understanding more about soul purpose.

She considers the big questions that mystics and philosophers through the ages have been asking about our cosmic origins, in a much lighter way: What is the soul, where did it originate and why have we chosen to come here at this time? You’ll know if this is meant for you or not.

Archangel Guidance and Self-Worth

the female archangels Claire StoneAnother new author I picked up this year was Claire Stone and her book The Female Archangels (2021) (UK) having already read quite a few books by Kyle Gray, which I’ve found hugely beneficial in previous years to carry with me and read whenever I had to deal with stressful hospital environments, unhelpful bureaucracy, anxiety producing school meetings – an alternative to pharmaceuticals I guess!

I enjoyed reading her book, although it might be more suited to practitioners or those already in the habit of ritual, as many of her suggestions require props.

Inspirational memoir of belongingFinally, Worth by Bharti Dhir (2021) (UK/Uganda) – Bharti Dhir was abandoned as a newborn in a fruit box on the side of the road in the Uganda countryside. To this day she doesn’t know who her birth mother was, though rumours created a version of the story and the imagination of the author and reader contribute to what might have happened.

Throughout her childhood there are numerous events, situations, heath problems and challenges that Bharti and her family live through, address and overcome, some of which contribute (at the time) to diminishing her sense of self-worth. With each situation, she shares how she is able to look back with compassion and forgiveness and describe how she was able to turn all that around.

Her reflections on compassion and empathy are enlightening and model a nurturing way to embrace our humanity and practice them as acts of self-care.

 * * * * *

That’s it for 2021 nonfiction reads. Share with me your recent nonfiction favourites or thoughts on any of the above.

Happy Reading for 2022 and thank you for reading!

Claire

Real Estate by Deborah Levy

I read the three volumes that make up Deborah Levy’s Living Autobiography over the year, beginning with the slim Things I Don’t Want to Know, a writer in the cocoon stage of transformation, the threads wound tight. A confrontation with denial, it is equally enticing as it is uncomfortable, it reveals as it obscures trying to fit into George Orwell’s framework from his essay ‘Why I Write’.

In The Cost of Living, a more expansive narrative, the threads unravel and insights are plentiful, though some of the thinking that created the earlier restrictiveness remain.

Real Estate Deborah Levy Memoir AutobiographyAnd now the final volume, Real Estate, which might as easily have been called UnReal Estate, in tumeric coloured silk, Levy has shed the cocoon, ready to embrace a new decade, the nest empty.

I became obsessed with silk. I wanted to sleep in it and wear it and somehow knew it had healing properties. It started when a royalty cheque came in and I took it literally and began to sleep by royalty.

With marriage and motherhood behind her, she dreams of a home with a fountain in the garden, a mimosa tree, a place to welcome friends, unencumbered by practicalities or marital vows.

Yet in my unreal estate dreams my nest was not empty.

If anything the walls had expanded. My real estate had become bigger, there were many rooms, a breeze blew through every window, all the doors were open, the gate was unlatched. Outside in the unreal grounds, butterflies landed on bushes of purple lavender, my rowing boat was full of things people had left behind: a sandal, a hat, a book, a fishing net. I had recently added light green shutters to the window of the house.

Deborah Levy Real Estate Paris

Photo by alleksana on Pexels.com

As with the previous book, there are recurrent themes, there is a sense of humour and a search for something elusive in the idea of an appealing mature woman character. Deconstructing the stereotype of these persona, she ponders why no scripted female characters had full lives of their own.

It occurred to me that what was wrong with the scripts was that the mothers and grandmothers were always there to police the the more interesting desires of others, or to comfort them, or to be wise and dull.

Accepting a fellowship at the same time her younger daughter leaves home, she prepares to spend some months in a bare apartment in Paris, a new source of inspiration and insight, rereading and reflecting on the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras and Katherine Mansfield, researching the subject of the doppelgänger.

My empty nest in Montmartre was really a version of my two writing sheds, except I could cook and sleep in it. I worked through the night on my new novel, while the sculptor downstairs worked through the night with her electric saw.

Approaching her sixth decade, somewhat in isolation brings on a melancholic reckoning, a party and as the mimosa blooms, the mood lifts.

mimosa Paris Deborah Levy Creative nonfiction

Photo Larysa Charnakal Pexels.com

It’s not easy to describe the book, being a circular narrative that moves forward at the same time revisiting themes, turning back on itself, considering different perspectives.

The combination of grit, pearls of wisdom and humour, combine in a rollicking read of interconnected thoughts and observations, the searching for and letting go of ideas, those that promise an experience and the outdated that no longer serve the purpose of finding contentedness as a mature woman.

I loved it, finishing it in two days, and all the more for having struggled through the first volume, been both delighted and frustrated by the second and arrived here, at the evolution of an observation and examination of what it means to live, to love, let go and just be.

My Place by Sally Morgan

Originally published in 1987, this nonfiction title is both a mini biography (of Sally Morgan’s Great Uncle Arthur, her mother Gladys and her Nan, Daisy) and part memoir.

Sally Morgan, an Australian of Aboriginal descent, begins the book writing about her childhood from the perspective of not knowing her own identity. Thus the reader too, reads from this perspective as Sally recounts events in her life as they happen and as a child would, refrains from analysing or questioning them. Until she finds out.

autobiography memoir australia indigenousThe children at school ask about her skin colour and ethnic origin.

One day, I tackled Mum about it as she washed the dishes.

‘What do you mean “Where do we come from?” ‘

‘I mean what country. The kids at school want to know what country we come from. They reckon we’re not Aussies. Are we Aussies Mum?’

Mum was silent. Nan grunted in a cross sort of way, then got up from the table and walked outside.

‘Come on Mum, what are we?’

‘What do the kids at school say?’

‘Anything. Italian, Greek, Indian.’

‘Tell them you’re Indian.’

‘I got really excited then. ‘Are we really? Indian!’ It sounded so exotic.

‘When did we come here?’ I added.

‘A long time ago’, Mum replied. ‘Now no more questions. You just tell them you’re Indian.’

It was good to finally have an answer and it satisfied our playmates. They could well believe we were Indian, they just didn’t want us pretending we were Aussies when we weren’t.

At home, they live with their mother Gladys and father Bill, who is unwell and sometimes dangerous. He is a WWII war veteran of able body, suffering from what today would be diagnosed as PTSD.

Bill was a strange man, he wasn’t prejudiced against other groups, just Aboriginals. He never liked us having our people to the house. We had to cut ourselves off. I think it was his upbringing.

Bill had spent a lot of his childhood in country towns. I think that moulded his attitudes to Aboriginal people. Down South, Aboriginals were really looked down upon. Bill would have been brought up with that.

Sally Morgan My Place

Photo by Dan on Pexels.com

During those difficult years with her Dad, one of the few things Sally enjoyed about school were the Wednesday afternoon stories, listening to Winnie the Pooh, a character who lived in a world of his own and believed in magic, just like she did. While Pooh was obsessed with honey, Sally was obsessed with drawing.

My drawings were very personal. I hated anyone watching me draw. I didn’t even like people seeing my drawings when they were finished. I drew for myself, not anyone else. One day, Mum asked me why I always drew sad things. I hadn’t realised until then that my drawings were sad. I was shocked to see my feelings glaring up at me from the page. I became even more secretive about anything I drew after that.

Nan also lives with them and as Sally gets to know Nan’s brother Arthur, she learns that they are not Indian, they are of Aboriginal origin. Confronting her grandmother elicits no information at all, she refuses to speak of her past, nor of who her father was and suggests Sally forget about it.

Arthur agrees to tell his story and over a period of 3 months, in his 90’s, she records their conversations and learns about his life and a little more about his sister’s, her Nan. They are the children of an Aboriginal woman and the white stationmaster whose farm they lived and worked on.

They grew up in an era referred to as “living under the Act” when Australia had laws that not only dispossessed Aboriginal people of their land, culture and traditions, but forcibly removed their children from them, did not allow them to raise their children, in effect owned them and treated them similar to slaves. People like Nan grew up under this Act and lived their lives under the effect of the trauma it brought about. The only way they could see to protect their children was to lie about who they were and withhold their heritage from their children and grandchildren.

My Place Indigenous Voices Australia Aboriginal Heritage

Heritage by Sally Morgan (1990)

This story is Sally’s persistent endeavour to find that lineage, those lost family members and that heritage and to find out the story of her grandmother who was too scared to tell it and said she would take her secrets to the grave. To understand what it meant to belong to a heritage.

What did it really mean to be Aboriginal? I’d never lived off the land and been a hunter or gatherer. I’ve never participated in corroborees or heard stories of the Dreamtime. I’d lived all my life in suburbia  and told everyone I was Indian. I hardly knew any Aboriginal people. What did it mean for someone like me?

I absolutely loved every word of it, the way it is told, the close connection this family has to each other, the evidence of a spiritual connection to their ancestry and the spirits, even though they have not been raised with this knowledge.

The real life characters are vividly drawn, the dialogue authentic and the story’s of Arthur, Gladys and Daisy (Nan) beautifully recollected. Though it tells of a terrible time in Australia’s past, of children taken from their mothers, of slavery, abuse, fear and judgement because of skin colour, it is also a legacy for this family, a gift to the Australian nation and the world at large, to be given the opportunity to gain insight into a period of history, little known or heard from this important perspective.

Highly Recommended.

Sally Morgan, Author, Painter

Sally Morgan Indigenous Aboriginal AuthorSally Morgan is one of Australia’s best-known Aboriginal artists and writers.

For as long as she can remember, Sally wanted to paint and write but at school she was discouraged from expressing herself through her art because her teachers failed to see the promise in her individual style. It was not until she researched her family history and discovered her Aboriginal identity that she found meaning in her images and gained the confidence to pick up her paints again.

Sally’s widely-acclaimed first book, My Place, has sold over half a million copies in Australia. Sally Morgan’s second book, Wanamurraganya, was a biography of her grandfather.

My Place won the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission humanitarian award in 1987, the Western Australia Week literary award for non-fiction in 1988, and the 1990 Order of Australia Book Prize.

In 1993, international art historians selected Morgan’s print Outback, as one of 30 paintings and sculptures for reproduction on a stamp, celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Her children’s picture story books include Little Piggies and Hurry Up Oscar. She has collaborated with artist and illustrator Bronwyn Bancroft on several picture books including Dan’s Grampa. Curly and the Fent was written by Sally in collaboration with her children Ambelin, Blaze and Ezekiel.

Sally is the Director at the Centre for Indigenous History and the Arts at the University of Western Australia and lives in Perth.

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

This second volume of Deborah Levy’s Living Autobiography trilogy has a completely different feel to the first Things I Don’t Want to Know, stuck as that first volume was, between the parameters of George Orwell’s four motivations in Why I Write and Levy’s own resistance to engaging with aspects of her subject that were rearing up to confront her.

Things I Didn’t Want to Know But Have Discovered

The Cost of LIving Deborah Levy memoirSo we now know a little of her motivation, however now comes the struggle, as she must balance writing with the cost of living; her circumstances have changed and we are going to learn how she manages as a single, independent mother.

This time she creates her own structure, using a series of 14 interlinked vignettes, episodes within the journey of releasing herself from a life lived within what were once deemed the acceptable parameters of a societal construct “marriage”, into the undoing of and reconstruction of something like “the pursuit of” but not quite, freedom.

In the opening, a 19 year old woman character is being chatted up by a man referred to as ‘Big Silver’, he is the wrong audience for the young woman’s story, however Levy decides she is the right reader for this one:

“To speak our life as we feel it is a freedom we mostly choose not to take”.

The young woman has the audacity to interrupt the man’s narrative sharing her own poignant story, as Levy introduces us to one of the recurring themes of her book, minor and major characters.

It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be a minor character and him the major character. In this sense she had unsettled a boundary, collapsed a social hierarchy, broken with usual rituals.

Using the Master’s Tools

Levy’s observations are astute, comical and laced with self-irony, questioning the role and discovering the tenacity of the woman writer, though her verse is peppered with an abundance of references hailing from the tradition of well documented and taught, dead white men.

In the opening sentence she reminds us that Orson Welles once said, if we want a happy ending, it depends on where we stop the story. His words will frame the book and are thought provoking sure, but he was also known for saying there were three intolerable things in life, cold coffee, lukewarm champagne and overexcited women.

Was this irony ?

Or was it the result of a slanted education of a certain era/affiliation. It speaks to what is being read and consumed and to an old monopoly on ideas, that rendered a canon of white men the originators of knowledge.

louise_bourgeois_maman

Louise Bourgeois ‘Maman’

For this reader, it was taken too far when redecorating her bedroom, upon rejecting the bright yellow, embraced too soon (overexcited), she repainted the walls white and chose to hang a portrait of Oscar Wilde, while on the same page, looked at photos of British sculptor Barbara Hepworth and French artist Louise Bourgeois that graced her fridge and wrote of them “the forms they were inventing gave them beauty without measure,” additionally sharing that the moths seem to like landing on those two.

Bourgeois had unfashionably declared that she made art because her emotions were bigger than herself.

Unable to relate to the women, it is towards Proust she inclined, when he said:

Ideas come to us as the successors to griefs, and griefs at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some part of their power to injure the heart.

Sister Outsider Speaks to Me

As I let this frustration percolate, trying to understand it, I wondered about the difference between gender politics and feminism. I admit that my annoyance has much to do with a decision to address an imbalance in my own reading when I started counting and analysing what I read and discovered too much of the same thing by the same type of people. So forgive me for projecting.

Sister OutsiderA voice repeated in my mind, ‘the master’s tools, the master’s house’ – you know when you recall a fragment of a quote but can’t quite remember it. It was the passionate sage wisdom of Audre Lorde reminding me of her essay, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House in Sister Outsider (1984). Four pages of thought provoking, mind opening courageous speech.

“For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered. It is this real connection that is feared by the patriarchal world.”

Audre Lorde speaks too of those standing outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women and suggests that it is learning how to stand alone, unpopular, sometimes reviled, and to make common cause with others identified as outside the structures, that we can create a world in which we can all flourish.

“It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

Freedom Hurts

Freedom is not to be pursued lightly, as she discovers when she exits her marriage and Victorian home as she enters her 50’s and a 6th floor apartment with her two daughters, soon developing the physical and energetic strength to endure it.

Freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.

Each vignette explores this struggle to cope and live with this new freedom, through a series of anecdotes that allow certain themes to repeat and by the time we read Gravity, she has been loaned a shed in the bottom of a garden in which to write and is kept to task by random apples that fall on the roof.

As I begin to read The Body Electric the writing energy and pace picks up a notch, we are out of the apartment and the shed, out of her head and on the road and what a hazardous place it is, but what energy and humour it brings to the narrative. Cycling became an obsession and kept her rage off the page.

I cursed and shouted at drivers when they opened their front doors in a way that toppled me on to the road. I had road rage. Yes, I had graduated to road rage on my electric bicycle. That is to say, I had a lot of rage from my old life and it expressed itself on the road.

There is the tiresome neighbour who waits for her to arrive to tell her off about temporary parking, intent on making her life more difficult, a situation various friends are keen to advise her on. But Jean is essential to the narrative, her ability to irritate prompts the author to ponder on what a woman is, on what she should be, or not be, a question she has no time to ask Jean.

It was possible that femininity, as I had been taught it was coming to an end. Femininity as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the twenty-first century. What would it cost to step out of character and stop the story?

yellow flowers in brown woven basket on bicycle

Photo by Valeriia Miller on Pexels.com

And in the middle of The Black and Bluish Darkness as she is riding up the hill in the rain, comes the most tender and humorous moment, we can afford to laugh reading in the comfort of home, but imagining the scene (no spoilers) and the reminder of the underlying reality, feels a little heart-breaking – except we know she does not indulge in self-pity, and has wonderful friends to call on. She recovers well, reaching out to one of them, who arrives with a box of strawberries and runs a bath for her. There it is, that redemptive power, those good, reliable female friends that no woman can do without.

Levy further explores the lives of other role models and how they managed to write, love, being woman and further reflects on her own role model, her mother, who even after she has passed, whose loss results in Levy sometimes literally getting lost, severed from her origins, somehow manages to remain present, symbolically.

It is certainly the case that there are fewer references and tomes written by women in previous centuries that analyse the sacrifices they make to pursue their art and ideas. That freer life a writer desires comes with a cost of living and women have long been making it easier for others to manifest their dreams while either sacrificing their own, or sacrificing something else in their determination to attain them.

Making her lived experience the lens through which she observes the role of the woman writer, Levy provokes us all to think more about the choices and sacrifices we make and the balancing act required to pursue our creativity and passions.

Next Up : Real Estate!

Further Reading

Guardian Review: The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy review – a memoir and feminist manifesto

Article: Why Not Ask a Powerful Man What He’s Doing to Help Women? By Stella Bugbee

Article France Culture: Louise Bourgeois, “une femme enragée et agrippée” (1911-2010)

Review: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

There are two ways of reading Deborah Levy’s slim memoir, the first in her Living Autobiography trilogy:

things-i-dont-want-to-know-deborah-levy1. just open it and start reading taking in what is actually shared at face value, a woman on the cusp of a life change, whose suppressed emotions will no longer stay down, who leaves town to try and figure them out, looks back at her childhood and adolescence for inspiration, then decides to look forward instead and begins to write (on the last page);

or,

2. consider the framework within which she writes; a response to the essay ‘Why I write’ by George Orwell, who claimed 4 chief motivations, in this order:
i. sheer egoism
ii. aesthetic enthusiasm
iii. historical impulse
iv. political purpose

which Levy moves around, addressing but not – in the following rearranged order.

i. political purpose – her feminist awakening opening, as she ponders her role and her desire, supported by poignant quotes from Simone de Beauvoir, Margurite Duras and others, culminating in a brief getaway, escape to Palma, Mallorca, reading her journal ‘Poland 1988‘ in which she witnesses a soldier’s farewell to his mother, sister, girlfriend.

What interests me (in my sheriff’s notebook) is the act of kissing in the middle of a political catastrophe.

ii. historical impulse – her white South African childhood in which her father is imprisoned and her mother sends her to stay with relatives whose political leanings are opposite to her father’s. Everywhere there are signs, reminding them of their privilege.

There was something I was beginning to understand at seven years old. It was to do with not feeling safe with people who were supposed to be safe.

iii. sheer egoism – the sadness of exile, adolescence and separation in London, England, writing on paper serviettes in a greasy spoon cafe, avoiding home life. The first tentative steps towards becoming a writer.

I was born in one country and grew up in another, but I was not sure which one I belonged to. And another thing. I did not want to know this thing, but I did know all the same.

iv. aesthetic enthusiasm – in which she has dinner with the Chinese shopkeeper, a continuation of the story  begun in the opening section – and there it is, the reflection of that kiss in the middle of a catastrophe.  I skipped forward after i. to read this section second, it being clear from the beginning that this was a framing device, I was immediately drawn to read it whole, not in parts. It’s not like other books, it doesn’t spoil the story to read the end before the middle.

At first I found it annoying, that the framework of Orwell had been used and quoted on the back of the book, while the contributions from the feminist writer’s in her opening section had so much more to contribute to her reasoning. I asked, Why not create your own framework? Then later, thought, perhaps she does, disguised as it is, within the infamous outline of the other. Making the reader try and read between the lines.

Levy places the life of a woman writer (herself) into this construct created by a male writer, his opinion on  the motives of writing – already an act of rebellion, and though it doesn’t work entirely, perhaps it was never intended to, though it may have lured some otherwise reluctant readers in.

Joan Didion Writer Essayist

Joan Didion, Author

Joan Didion also wrote an essay Why I Write in 1976, prompted by the same source. Ignoring Orwell’s framework she delved immediately into sharing her flaws and inability to conform, out of which grew her own singular way of seeing, observing and recording answers to her own curious questions, the flexing of imagination.

I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was. Joan Didion

When Levy writes, there is an absence, a reluctance. It is admitted in the title, it stems from a childhood, continues into an adolescence and confronts her in middle age as she rides the escalator and can no longer keep it down. It threatens to overflow and engulf her.  Those things she does not want to know. That she laughs off.

It occurred to me that both Maria and I were on the run in the twenty-first century, just like George Sand whose name was also Amantine was on the run in the nineteenth century, and Maria whose name was also Zama was looking for somewhere to recover and rest in the twentieth. We were on the run from the lies concealed in the language of politics from myths about our character and our purpose in life. We were on the run from our own desires too probably, whatever they were. It was best to laugh it off.

She is left with her question. What do we do with the things we do not want to know?
She realises she can not accept her own question. She will continue to write and perhaps find the answer in the next book. I will read it and find out whether she has the courage.

In the meantime Didion persevered with hers:

Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Joan Didion

Further Reading

NY Times Review: Serrated Edges by Lisa Zeidner

Guardian Review: Kate KellawayDeborah Levy’s rich response to George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay “Why I Write” is unmissable

Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy On Writing and Living

Deborah Levy, Author

Deborah Levy is the author of seven novels: including Swimming Home, Hot Milk and The Man Who Saw Everything and a short story collection Black Vodka. She has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize and the Man Booker Prize.

She has also written for The Royal Shakespeare Company and her pioneering theatre writing is collected in Levy: Plays 1.  She has written a trilogy of memoirs, referred to as a living autobiography on writing, gender politics and philosophy. The first two volumes, Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living, won the Prix Femina Etranger 2020. The final volume, Real Estate, was  published in 2021.

Forced to Grow by Sindiwe Magona (1992)

A Second Autobiography, From Disempowered to Empowered

After reading the first volume of her autobiography To My Children’s Children, this second volume covers South African writer, teacher and facilitator Sindiwe Magona’s life, from the age of 23 to 40, from the lowest point in her life, to one of the highest. The last chapter of the first volume Forced to Grow, becomes the title of this wonderful book.

Sindiwe MagonaFinding herself unemployed and pregnant with her third child after being pushed out of a teaching job – her husband’s parting shot as he abandons his young family, to inform her employer of his disapproval (a husband’s approval was required for a married (black) woman to be eligible to work) – she reinvents herself, creating her own work (selling sheep heads (cooked) she’d bought on credit) initially to survive, determined to reinstate herself back into the teaching profession, to extend and elevate her education and move beyond surviving to thriving.

From poverty and struggle to a job offer with the UN in New York, this second volume of autobiography was hard to put down.

Overcoming Fear Through Perseverance and Self-Belief

Though she had a legal certificate to teach, she would spend four years working as a domestic servant in white women’s homes, because she was not a “breadwinner”, she had a husband. Unmarried, childless women enjoyed preferential hiring, as long as they retained that status. Ironically, she would find a way back into teaching when two unmarried teachers were forced to resign their posts, due to being “in the family way”.

I have this fear that if I ever believe that others wield power over my destiny, that I am so vulnerable, I might as well abdicate control of my life. For if I accept that, what is to stop me attributing to others all the setbacks I encounter? And once that happens, why would I do anything to get back on my own two feet? I would be virtually saying that it was beyond me to reclaim myself. I would be accepting absolute lack of control. And the Good Lord knows, I had very little control over my life as it was.

This fear, this need to go on believing I am in the driver’s seat, may be the one ingredient in my make-up I will not find easy to relinquish.

Therefore, with everything I cherished taken, broken or out of reach, I resolved I would become self-sufficient. I would work hard. I would study. I would pull myself up by my bootstraps. Yes, even though I had still to acquire the boots.

wp-1621263406986..jpgPursuing a higher level of education to offset so much else that set her back, fed into Magona’s ambition; as she achieved, her self belief grew and she pushed herself further, while assuming the role of both parents.

Moving from teaching into administration she witnessed how the country’s racist policies affect families, joining SACHED (South African committee for Higher Education) widened her circle of contact, connection, perspective & confidence.

What an inspiration Sindiwe is and what a gift to have witnessed her journey through reading; her perseverance and determination to make something more of herself, while trying to raise her children in a way to overcome the societally perceived disadvantage of being without the support or presence of the children’s father.

She sees the gift inherent in his abandonment, which is an example of how strong her mind is, she rewrites the narrative of her own life and how it will be. An errant husband is one thing, trying to create a career and attain a higher education while living within a system of apartheid and not being recognised as a citizen of your own country is impossible to imagine.

We are all the more fortunate to have been given such an insight into this personal and collective struggle and one courageous woman’s ability to work through and overcome it, in defiance of what the govt of the time wanted for the local African population.

Women Cooperating in Partnership

This volume too is an affirmation of the power and support made possible when women work in partnership, in collaboration, in community for a higher good.

The various groups she becomes part of that bring women together from different races, social classes and backgrounds and the facilitated discussions they have, both bring out her natural ability as a facilitator and leader and create a safe place for all them to develop empathy, to know each other, hear differing perspectives, challenge them, look for ways to resolve problems and how to put pressure where things need to change.

Invited to attend a meeting of a group of women who wanted change, it would create a pivotal turning point in her career.

As might be surmised, CWC (Church Women Concerned) was multi-racial, multi-denominational, inclusive of all faiths. It had members from the Christian faith, the Islamic faith and the Jewish faith. The primary objective was to build bridges, to effect reconciliation, to attempt to live lives that projected well into the future, to a time when the laws that separated us according to skin colour would be no more.

It was a fond dream put forward as a testimony of faith. We truly believed the possibility existed for apartheid to be dismantled. Therefore, it behoved us to hasten the process by living the future now.

How domination and partnership shape our brains lives and futureI was reminded of my recent read of Riane Eisler and Douglas Fry’s Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future, and the pockets of a Partnership System approach to living and being they promote and suggest already exist; something women are naturally capable of creating if given a chance, or are bold enough to go ahead and create these circles of connection and support anyway, as Sindiwe Magona and others did, despite the risks.

“Humans are capable of living in egalitarian social systems where neither dominates the other, where violence is minimized, and where prosocial cooperation and caring typify social life. This image is not a utopian fantasy but rather a set of potentials, if not inclinations, stemming from our evolutionary heritage.” Riane Eisler

A Third Volume of Autobiography Please

Oh I wish there was a third volume, I do hope she might be writing one, covering the last 30 years. However I also understand why since her retirement she has been writing children’s books, creating a necessary resource for children in her country and around the world, to learn, be entertained and create understanding, hope and belief in the ability for situations to change.

Highly Recommended.

To My Children’s Children by Sindiwe Magona (1990)

“Until the lioness can tell its own story the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” African Proverb

This first of two autobiographies by South African author Sindiwe Magona was initially published in 1990, and the second volume in 1997.

A Lioness Shares Her Story

Frustrated like many, at seeing her country and people portrayed as backward and uncivilised by colonisers, she decided to rectify the balance, a literary scholar, sharing her life and experience first hand, an important and insightful narrative for a wider audience, dedicated to her own children and grandchildren, and perhaps especially for girls, on their path to womanhood.

In a conversation with anthropologist and activist Elaine Salo, Magona said:

I experienced incredible anger about others writing about us, I asked myself, ‘How dare they write about you?’ I told myself that shouldn’t stop me from writing about myself … There is value in those like me writing about our experiences, who did not study apartheid but lived it.

It is authentic experiences like this, that offer a richness in understanding other cultures from the inside, reading the personal experience of one women in her struggle to raise and support her children, understanding how her childhood and upbringing shaped and supported her, enabling her to cope when other societal support structures let her down.

Review

Autobiography South Africa WomenThe slim autobiography shares stories from her childhood up to the age of 23, all of it taking place in South Africa. In her early years, as was customary among amaXhosa people, she lived with her grandparents. It was often the case while parents were trying to earn a living in starting a new life, that the extended family and home community was the safest, most caring environment for young children to be. There was always someone to look after children, they had food, shelter, company and they thrived.

As she explains, looking back it may have been poverty, but that wasn’t something they were aware of; they belonged, were loved and felt secure. There was no awareness of the link between the colour of one’s skin and a difference in lifestyle, until much later, their paths never crossed, outsiders had no impact on their very young lives.

In such a people-world, filled with a real, immediate, and tangible sense of belongingness, did I spend the earliest years of my life. I was not only wanted, I was loved. I was cherished.
The adults in my world, no doubt, had their cares and their sorrows. But childhood, by its very nature, is a magic-filled world, egocentric, wonderfully carefree, and innocent. Mine was all these things and more.

Generations of Storytellers

Not only did they learn and grow from being socialised in these large families, they listened to stories, passed down the generations. There was always one or two in the family, renowned for their storytelling ability, masters in this art and the children revelled in those evenings when they became the audience to them.

Central to the stories in which people featured, was the bond of love with the concomitants: duty, obedience, responsibility, honour, and orderliness; always orderliness. Like the seasons of the year, life was depicted full of cause and effect, predictability and order; connectedness and oneness.

grayscale photo of woman kissing child

Photo TUBARONES on Pexels.com

In this warm, human environment she spent her first five years, immersed in a group where her place was defined, accepted, giving her all she required and more.

Far from the distant world where white people lived and ruled, busy formulating policies that would soon impact them all, policies that invited in certain immigrants, offering them privileged rights, while denying them of the local black population, restricting their ability to move from one area to another, fracturing families, keeping them in poverty.

Everything changed when her mother left to join her father due to illness, to be near medical support and soon after, her grandmother died, requiring them all to leave and join their parents.

A New Era, Fractured Families and Apartheid

It would be fortuitous timing as a year later, in 1948, the Boers came into power and laws were formulated restricting the movement of Africans. Had her grandmother died later, they may not have legally been able to rejoin them.

The move to live with their parents introduced them to a less harmonious world, one where police raids occurred and crime existed. Within the law or outside the law, there was reason to be more careful and fearful. The importance of attaining an education was the focus, to rise above.

The year I left primary school was the year that education became racially segregated. Hitherto, white pupils, African pupils coloured pupils, and Indian pupils could, theoretically, attend the same school. After 1955, the law forbade that practice. There would be different Departments of Education for the different race groups.

Her years of education were dependent on her attitude, some years she did well, others she lapsed, eventually her focus concentrated on becoming a teacher, though in her initial attempts to secure a position, she would initially be thwarted. Her real life lessons were only just beginning.

Lessons from the Real World

Father began hinting at what might at the root of my problem: I had omitted to offer the Secretary of the School Board “something” and people were telling him it would be donkey’s years before I would get a post if we did not oil  this gentleman’s palm.

Though she had done well in her classes, they were inadequate and wholly misleading as to how to prepare to teach children from poor homes, without textbooks, without exercise books, without materials. Trained to teach children from homes where there was a father and a mother, most of her pupils came from women-headed homes. And those women stayed in at their places of employment: busy being smiling servants minding white babies.

Not having books is one of the misdemeanors punishable by corporal punishment. The beatings and probably the sheer embarrassment that must surely accompany the daily proclamation of one’s poverty, prompted a lot of the pupils to pilfer. The very young do not always understand that poverty is supposed to ennobling…

The first class she would teach would have 72 pupils and had all been well, they should have been aged 11 or 12. All was not well however, the children ranged in age from 9 to 19 and the variation in skills just as wide.

Due to her principled stance, that first job would take a while in coming. Unemployed, but desperate to work, she accepted a job at the local fisheries.

Eventually she is offered a teaching job, experiencing the few joys and many disappointments inherent in an unfair, overstretched, oppressive system.

All along, I had known the agony for which some were destined. Such is the design of the government. And such is the abetting by even those of us who regard ourselves as oppressed.  Which we are. But we are also called upon to help in that oppression and unwittingly become instruments of it.

A Woman’s Lot

And then comes the intersection of youth with a newly developing career and as a woman, the added risk of pregnancy. Magona’s challenges are only just beginning and her teaching jobs will become continuously thwarted by how society expects women to behave. The arrival of her own children will force her from her role and into domestic service herself, and really open her eyes to how the other live.

What I had not known was that their perception of people like us did not quite coincide with our perception of who we were and what we were about.

More than anything, however, being a domestic servant did more to me than it did for me. It introduced me to the fundamentals of racism.

The different families she would work for, each provide key insights that broaden her understanding and perception of the other groups living within the country and how the system aimed to maintain and strengthen the situation in favour of white people.

As this volume comes to an end, Sindiwe’s situation seems dire, however, she delivers some of the most inspiring passages of the book, in the low place she has arrived at, she suddenly sees all that she is grateful for, all that she has, even the abandonment of a husband who had never supported them, she recognises as a freedom and a significant contribution to her own growth.

It is a wonderful and frank autobiography and introduction to an inspiring woman. I’m looking forward to the sequel, Forced to Grow, the same title as the last chapter in this volume, in which she shares how determination and resourcefulness lead her through and out of those challenges we end with here.

Sindiwe Magona

My Childrens Children Memoir Autobiography South AfricaMagona was born in 1943 in the small town of Gungululu near Mthatha, in what was then known as the homeland of Transkei, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

She was born five years before colonial Britain handed over power to the Afrikaners. Apartheid was officially introduced in 1948 and with it a series of oppressive and racist laws such as separate living areas and the Bantu education system. It was within this context that Magona grew up.

She is an accomplished poet, dramatist, storyteller, actress and motivational speaker. She spent two decades working for the UN in New York retiring in 2003. Her previously published works include thirty children’s books (in all eleven South African languages), two autobiographies, short story collections and novels.

My writing, on the whole, is my response to current social ills, injustice, misrepresentation, deception – the whole catastrophe that is the human existence. Sindiwe Magona

Further Reading

The Conversation Article: Learning From the Story of Pioneering South African Writer Sindiwe Magona, 5 March, 2021

Far Away and Long Ago by William H Hudson

Nature Writing, Argentina & Serendipitous Connections

Following my Top Five Nature-Inspired Reads, in the comments, Julia Hones recommended the naturalist William Henry Hudson (1841-1922). She grew up close to his childhood home in the Pampas (fertile South American lowlands), which have their own climate, wildlife and vegetation.

Julia mentioned enjoying Far Away and Long Ago, a mix of childhood escapades, keen observations of nature, wildlife and neighbours, set against a somewhat turbulent history, as various war skirmishes were waged not far away.

Curious, because of the unique Argentinian setting, I looked it up, and because it was published in 1918, over 100 years ago, I was able to download it from Project Gutenburg (a library of free ebooks).

International Booker Prize 2020

I hadn’t planned to read it straight away, but when the International Booker Prize Shortlist 2020 was announced, I had read two of the books and had a third on the shelf, The Adventures of China Iron by Argentinian author Gabriela Cabezón Cámara.

I began to read it becoming completely hooked, then part through I skipped to the translator’s note where they mentioned the epic gaucho poem Martín Fierro by José Hernández and the influence of William Henry Hudson. I read a couple of chapters of Far Away and Long Ago, to get a flavour of what that meant and immediately sensed the connection.

Review

At the opening of each chapter are a series of mini titles or references to everything that will be covered, Cámara sticks to using one of these in her chapter titles, while Hudson lists about 12 for each chapter.

Chapter 1 EARLIEST MEMORIES – Preamble – The house where I was born -The singular ombu tree – A tree without a name – The plain – The ghost of a murdered slave – Our playmate, the old sheepdog – A first riding lesson – The cattle: an evening scene, My mother – Captain Scott – The hermit and his awful penance.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

William Hudson wrote this book during a period of illness and six weeks of confinement, while living in London.  His fever brought back many of his childhood memories in startling clarity, providing a clear vision of the past.

Though he is often referred to as British, his parents were American, he was born in Argentina and lived there until the age of 33 and is proudly known locally as Guillermo Enrique Hudson.

The house where he was born was named Los Viente-cinco Ombues, (the twenty-five Ombu Trees), an indigenous tree that grew in a long row near the house and was a gigantic landmark to any travellers on the great plains, there being little else of tree-vegetation natural to the area. Today his home is part of a 133-acre ecological reserve and park, with a small museum.

Being on the main route south of the capital Buenos Aires, there were often itinerant beggars, weary travellers or gauchos (cowboys) passing by, looking for rest or a meal, some of these characters making an impression on him, that he shares. A succession of teachers, who often don’t last, the family not being well enough off to send the children away to school.

He is one of six children, though he has very little to say about his siblings and even less about his parents, apart from a brief mention of his father and a beautiful lament for his mother in the final chapter.

Photo by Adriaan Greyling on Pexels.com

He has much to say about their neighbours and their devotions and passions. Most of the estancieros were cattle breeders but some had passionate side interests, of interest to a young boy. The English neighbour Mr George Royd, whom he refers to as being different to other neighbours, being an educated man who loved to meet with others of like mind, was a sheep farmer with ambitious dreams, another had a tame ostrich, or rhea that followed them around.

One of his pet notions was that cheeses made with sheep’s milk would be worth any price he liked to put on them, and he accordingly began to make them under very great difficulties, since the sheep had to be broken to it and they yielded but a  small quantity compared with the sheep of certain districts in France where they have been milked for many generations and have enlarged their udders.

There was Gandara, completely obsessed with breeding piebald horses and Don Anastacio, devoted to a wild-pig descended from a breed introduced by Spanish colonists that had adapted after three centuries of feral life. He makes excuses for one patriarch Don Evaristo, indicating he was esteemed and beloved above most other men.

It may be added that Don Evaristo, like Henry VIII, who also had six wives, was a strictly virtuous man. The only difference was that when he desired a fresh wife he did not barbarously execute or put away the one, or the others, he already possessed.

It is a unique childhood, inevitably though, despite an appreciation of nature and the wild, there is the clear presence of prejudice and assumed superiority. If it is possible to see past that fact, it provides a unique glimpse into life in another era, living in a naturalists paradise on the path of many migrating birds, a freedom that came from the remove of a strict education, an entire childhood spent outside the constraints of any kind of institutional environment or influence.

The final chapter is a beautiful lament to his mother and makes me wish he was able to write more about his family and how they came to be living out there in the first place, perhaps it was childish adoration, but they seemed unsuited to the harshness of that environment and there is no sense of actual farming in his recollections, perhaps because they employed people to do the actual work, as was often the way.

Ultimately Hudson comes across as a boy who never grows out of his love of nature and eventually develops a kind of mystical relationship to it, despite indulging in many of the cruel things young boys do growing up in rural isolation with older brothers.

An enjoyable read.

Further Reading

Smithsonian Magazine – The Naturalist Who Inspired Ernest Hemingway and Many Others to Love the Wilderness

Top Five Memoirs

Non Fiction Memoir

Continuing with reading lists, next are my Top Five Memoirs.

It was hard to whittle this list down to five, I could easily have included many others I’ve read and reviewed such as Jeanette Winterson’s gut-punching, exploration of an ill-fitted adoption Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, Helen MacDonald’s grief-laden obsession to train a goshawk H is for Hawk, Jacqueline Woodson’s charming, free verse of childhood and old family stories Brown Girl Dreaming, and Tove Jansson’s Finnish island tales and escapades The Summer Book & A Winter Book.

I’ve chosen five lesser known, equally brilliant memoirs, all books that when I look at the titles and covers, take me straight back to the remembered joy of their individual reading experience.

In pondering what it is that elevates some memoirs to that level of something universally understood, I recall one of Vivian Gornick’s insights from The Situation and The Story: The Art of the Personal Narrative

Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that, the power of the writing imagination is required. As V.S. Pritchett once said of the genre, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”

Top Five Memoirs

1.Tales From the Heart, True Stories of My Childhood by Marsye Condé tr. Richard Philcox (Guadeloupe/Paris)

Memoirs that succeed record a steadily changing idea of the emergent self, “a flash of insight illuminating the idea grows out of the struggle to clarify one’s own formative experience” and I can think of no better place to start than with Maryse Condé, one of my favourite authors.

The youngest of eight children, by the time she was born her mother was 43, her father 63, thus there were many family stories and life experiences she wasn’t present for, tales she would rely on oral retellings of her siblings and extended family to fill in. In these stories are planted the seeds of her future works, the lack of knowledge of her cultural history and her subsequent research into it, will manifest in her future historical masterpiece Segu, her desire to understand her mother and know her deceased grandmother will inspire Victoire, My Mother’s Mother, her first visit to Africa leads to her debut novel Heremakhonon about a young West Indian woman’s quest for roots.

This short collection of short tales is a beautiful introduction to the life and inspiration of an extraordinary woman and author who has given us so much through her stories and her persistent research and desire to understand what lies behind the lives we lead.

2. Brother I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti/USA)

After reading her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory I became aware of this memoir and I was particularly intrigued because of it’s focus on the author’s father and Uncle. I have an affinity for books written by women born in or having a strong connection to the Caribbean, I love their storytelling tradition, their connection to a sometimes magical matriarchal force and nature.

This book was unique because it was the first time I’d read something that delved into the masculine. It straddles both a traditional life in Haiti and a new life in America, a unique story of a family trying to improve the lives of their loved ones, narrated by a woman who successfully straddles both, witness to a love between brothers. As Cristina García, author of Dreaming in Cuban (one of my Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2015) put it:

“Edwidge Danticat’s moving tale of two remarkable brothers – her own father  and her beloved Uncle Joseph, separated for thirty years – is as compelling and richly told as her fiction. Politically charged and sadly unforgettable, their stories will lodge themselves in your heart.”

3. Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay (Scotland/Nigeria)

Jackie Kay is a wonderful Scottish poet and has written a heart-warming story of her connection to her adoptive Scottish family and to her slow-burning desire to uncover the mystery behind her existence. That journey begins at the University in Aberdeen, taking her to a suburb in Milton Keynes and a village in Nigeria, a place she has dreamed of and imagined but had no connection with until she arrives there and walks the red, dust road that will awaken something deep inside her.

It’s a unique cross cultural story, exciting in its revelations and profound in it’s understanding as she learns what family and belonging really mean to her, expressed with the beautiful incantation of a poet.

4. The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund De Waal (Vienna/Tokyo/Paris/London)

Remember this? What an incredible family memoir the artist, ceramic potter Edmund De Waal put together here, telling part of the story of his extended family though the voyage of a stunning collection of netsuke (miniature Japanese sculptures) and a family history that begins in Odessa, grows and is almost destroyed in Vienna, takes side journeys to Tokyo via that netsuke collection, now sitting in London.

It’s hard to describe the experience of reading this book, except that it’s a lot more interesting to read the history through the eyes of a hare with amber eyes than one man looking only at himself. In this way we learn something about the art, culture and society of the places these sculptures have inhabited as well as the family history over a tumultuous century. Truly unique, engaging, educational, and a deserving winner of a number of literature prizes.

5. Unbowed One Woman’s Story by Wangari Maathai (Kenya)

I finish with the story of a remarkable woman who I wish had stayed around longer and become more well-known, though reading her story shows us how much of a difference she did make to other woman’s lives in her native country Kenya. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and passed away in 2011.

Wangari Maathai was one of a group of young people from East Africa given scholarships and brought to the US in the ‘Kennedy Airlift’ of 1950 & 1960, who gained a degree in the US then returned to Kenya for her PhD. A scientist, initially she worked a veterinarian but her desire to do something practical and far-reaching moved her to found The Green Belt Movement and become involved in sustainable development. She would empower many women to create sustainable enterprises and won many battles to preserve public parks from being given over to urban development. An amazing, inspiring woman and a role model for our times.

Have you read any inspiring memoirs recently?

Further Reading

Top 5 on the TBR (To Be Read)

Top 5 Nature-Inspired Reads

Top 5 Spiritual Well-being Reads

Top 5 Translated Fiction

Top 5 Uplifting Fiction

Without a Map, a Memoir by Meredith Hall

In 1965, in a New Hampshire town, Meredy, the 16-year-old daughter of a family raised by a mother trying to keep up appearances after her self-obsessed husband abandons them, (and later berates them for not being happy at his subsequent new marriage) discovers she is pregnant.

It is a threshold era, both locally, (Hampton Beach riots) in the US, (war in Vietnam) and in her life, it is a time when everyone in her family is moving on, leaving her open and vulnerable to the events that lead to her predicament.

I feel the swelling energy, the inexplicable, restless hunger, rising in my own innocent life. I don’t care at all about the music or the drinking or the gathering together of teenagers for fun and the thrill of belonging. But my father is gone. He has a new life, a new wife and daughter, and never calls or visits. I miss him badly. My mother is inaccessible. My older brother and sister have moved on to their own lives, leaving me alone at home and on the beach while my mother works and plays with Peter.

Immediately removed from everything familiar, home, school, church and community, she is sent in disgrace to her father’s new household and ordered to never go outside or if there was company, to remain in silence upstairs.

It is true that my shunning was a message from our community to my mother. Her rejection of me was a measure of the humiliation she felt. She believed until her death that I caused her to lose her friends and her stature in the town.

Passing the long weeks of her pregnancy confined in this way, she eventually gives birth, her baby boy is removed from her, adopted out and she is sent to a boarding school for young people perceived as misfits (where she is forbidden to speak of the reason she has been sent there) to finish her education.

“We must protect the girls,” Mrs. Kroehne said. “You understand.” I do understand. I am a contaminant and must be kept silent. It has been three months since my baby was born, three months since I walked away from my baby with milk dripping from my breasts. I will not say this to any of these young people during my time among them. I will construct careful lies and memorize them to explain myself, my dark inward life, my hunger for love, my tough resistance to trust.

Meredith goes through the many stages of grief, for the loss of her baby, her adolescence and so much more, initially doing what is expected, then rejecting everyone, traumatized by the experience to the point of becoming reckless with her own life.

Mourning with no end, and a sense that I had lost everything – my child, my mother’s love and protection, my father’s love and protection, the life I had once imagined for myself – hollowed me out. I floated every day alone and disconnected, and could not find comfort or release. I understood clearly that my history had harmed me, had cut me off from the normal connections between people. Every day for five years I had been afraid of this disconnection, feeling the possibility of perfect detachment within my reach, like a river running alongside, inviting me to step into its current.

Incredibly, if not quite overcoming it, she does survive her own casting out to return and among other things pen this moving, honest, brave memoir.  It is an important story and chance to be heard, of a young mother forced to abandon her baby, like so many who are rarely given any kind of emotional support, who have been shunned, shamed and silenced.

Meredith Hall will eventually rise up out of her own misery, gift herself the development of her creative writing skills, ultimately to be able to help others write their stories and to publish this important one, her own.

This is the first time I’ve read an account of a birth mother’s story, so many of these stories never get told due to the shame they have endured and the distance they have put between their past, their attempt to live a new life which buried those experiences deep and the fear of confronting any of it.

It is courageous that Meredith Hall has pushed through that to share the reality of this traumatic experience from her perspective. There are gaps in the story, there are those who have been spared the lens of scrutiny, but there is enough here to to allow readers to feel empathy for the situation and understand the fear some have in overcoming the same, the conditions under which they must live out their entire lives, often never revealing the secret, never able to connect with the innocent child who grows up understanding nothing of the loss they too feel, until an age when they’re often told to be grateful for what they’ve been supposedly gifted.

It has just been discovered that women carry fetal cells from all the babies they have carried. Crossing the defensive boundaries of our immune system and mixing with our own cells, the fetal cells circulate in the mother’s bloodstream for decades after each birth. The body does not tolerate foreign cells, which trigger illness and rejection. But a mother’s body incorporates into her own the cells of her children as if they recognize each other, belong to each other. This fantastic melding of two selves, mother and child, is called human microchimerism. My three children are carried in my bloodstream still….

How did we not know this? How can this be a surprise?

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