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

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

A Reckoning On Race and The Asian Condition

Essays Race Asian AmericanMinor Feelings is a collection of creative nonfiction essays that invites the reader to view aspects of the life experience of artist and writer Cathy Park Hong, from a little observed and known viewpoint, that of an Asian American woman pursuing her own authentic form of expression, while looking for other role models, disrupting the silence that is expected, through a polemic on race, ethnic origins and art.

There have been a few books published in recent years, on the subject of race and intersectionality, where race intersects with other characteristics such as feminism, gender, class and civil rights.

Cathy Park Hong’s contribution moves between different subjects in seven compelling essays that begin with a memory of her own depression, anger and growing realisation at what was at the core of her disturbance.

In her essays, she deconstructs aspects of life that have contributed to a feeling of oppression and her discovery of artists, comediens and writers, who have overcome something, their example like a stepping stone to her own liberation.

It is a thought provoking exploration of both her own personal experiences and opinions and the examples of other artists, citizens, friends and family that have inspired her to delve into the subject and express a truth.

United

In the opening essay she searches for a therapist, having described what lead her to that moment and then her difficulty in being able to engage with the one she selected.

I wanted a Korean American therapist because then I wouldn’t have to explain myself so much. She’d look at me and just know where I as coming from.

connection race Minor feelings

Photo by DS stories on Pexels.com

Her inability to get what she wants or an adequate explanation, followed by a thought provoking conversation with a friend, prove to be defining moments, as she experiences a moment of equanimity, seeing herself from outside of herself, raising her awareness. Her determination and vulnerability fight it out against each other. Intelligence finally wins.

Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy. Your only defense is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death.

Her enterprising and persevering father, who studied his way successfully out of rural poverty, immigrated to the US in 1965 when the ban was lifted. The little detail of the hard working father and the frustrated mother provide a barely visible backdrop to the narrative, yet illuminate a strength, highlight contradictions and suggest future avenues not unexplored by this collection.

Stand Up

In this essay she finds inspiration listening to and watching Richard Pryor’s 1979 classic concert film Live in Concert, leading to an epiphany, a brief career in comedy and a deeper understanding of her world.

Pryor told lies – by spinning stories, ranting, boasting, and impersonating everything from a bowling pin to an orgasming hillbilly. And by telling lies, Pryor was more honest about race than most poems and novels I was reading at the time.

The transparency she finds in stand up comedy is like an apprenticeship in opening up and practicing in front of an audience. Comedians can’t pretend they don’t have an identity. They can’t hide behind words, they stand inside them.

It is here she defines for us what ‘minor feelings’ are, acknowledging a debt to cultural theorist Sianne Ngai who wrote extensively on non-cathartic  ‘ugly feelings‘ – negative emotions such as envy, irritation and boredom.

Minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance. You are told, “Things are so much better,” while you think, Things are the same. You are told, “Asian Americans are so successful,” while you feel like a failure. This optimism sets up false expectations that increase this feeling of dysphoria.

The End of White Innocence

Here Park Hong looks sideways at childhood, finding her own definition for what that means, dissecting Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, set in 1965 – a violent, landmark year for the civil rights movement, the assassination of Malcom X – yet manages to avoid everything outside the nostalgic memories it recreates.

Moonrise Kingdom is just one of countless contemporary films, works of literature, pieces of music, and lifestyle choices where wishing for innocent times means fetishizing an era when the nation was violently hostile to anyone different.

She writes of innocence and shame, of power dynamics, disobedience and indignity.

The alignment of childhood with innocence is an Anglo-American invention that wasn’t popularised until the nineteenth century. Before that in the West, children were treated like little adults who were, if they were raised Calvinist, damned to hell unless they found salvation.

Bad English

Recalling her early school education and affinity with bad English, her fascination with stationery.

It was once a source of shame, but now I say it proudly: bad English is my heritage. I share a literary lineage with writers who make the unmastering of English their rallying cry – who queer it, twerk it, Calibanize it, other it by hijacking English and and warping it to a fugitive tongue.

An Education

The final essays focus on her university years, her influential friendships and the path of being an artist and eventually moving away from painting and sketching towards poetry and narrative.

The greatest gift my parents gave me was making it possible for me to choose my education and career, which I can’t say for the kids I knew in Koreatown who felt bound to lift their parents out of debt and grueling seven-day workweeks.

Her focus is on her friendship with two friends in particular, unapologetically ambitious artists Erin and Helen, deflecting interest in her mother. The poet Hoa Nguyen persevered:

“You have an Asian mother,” she said. “She has to be interesting.”

I must defer, at least for now. I’d rather write about my friendship with Asian women first. My mother would take over, breaching the walls of these essays, until it is only her.

Portrait of an Artist

Asian American visual artist poetA tribute to thirty one year old artist and poet Theresa Hak Kyung  Cha visual artist and poet who on the day she hand delivered an envelope of photographs of hands, for an upcoming group show at Artists Space Gallery, whose book Dictée had just been published, was raped and murdered on her way to join her husband, by a security guard, who knew her.

Cathy Park Hong comes across Dictée when it is assigned by a visiting professor, ‘a bricolage of memoir, poetry, essay, diagrams and photography.’

Published in 1982..Dictée is about mothers and martyrs, revolutionaries and uprisings. Divided into nine chapters named after the Greek muses, Dictée documents the violence of Korean history through the personal stories of Cha’s mother and the seventeen-year-old Yu Guan Soon, who led the protest against the Japanese occupation of Korea and then died from being tortured by Japanese soldiers in prison.

Struggling to find much out about her, she brings the life of this exceptional artist out of the silence she has been buried, back into focus. What she finds is extraordinary.

The problem with silence is that it can’t speak up and say why it is silent. And so silence collects, becomes amplified, takes on a life outside our intentions, in that silence can get misread as indifference, or avoidance, or even shame, and eventually this silence passes over into forgetting.

The Indebted

The final essay looks back at those to whom she is indebted and discusses this trait as a concept, the weight of it, the gift of it. The difference between indebtedness and gratitude.

Further Listening Reading

Podcast New York Times: Still Processing – The Asian-American poet wants to help women and people of color find healing — and clarity — in their rage. Culture Writers Jenna Wortham & Wesley Moram discuss Minor Feelings & talk to Cathy Park Hong, April 2021

Article The New Yorker: “Minor Feelings” and the Possibilities of Asian-American Identity – Cathy Park Hong’s book of essays bled a dormant discomfort out of me with surgical precision by Jia Tolentino

Interviews – NPR, Goop, Kirkus, NY Times, The Atlantic, Vox, The Yale Review, Medium, Glamour and more.

Cathy Park Hong, Poet, Author

Cathy Park Hong has written three books of poetry Translating Mo’um (2002), Dance, Dance, Revolution (2007) chosen by Adrienne Rich for the Barnard Women Poets Prize, Engine Empire (2012). She is the recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize and fellowships from Guggenheim, the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her writing on politics and her prose and poetry have appeared in the Village Voice, the Guardian, New Republic, Paris Review, Poetry,  Salon, Christian Science Monitor, and New York Times Magazine.

Minor Feelings was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography, and earned her recognition on TIME’s 100 Most Influential People of 2021 list.

She is the poetry editor of the New Republic and is a full professor at Rutgers-Newark University. 

“Cathy Park Hong’s brilliant, penetrating and unforgettable Minor Feelings is what was missing on our shelf of classics….To read this book is to become more human.” –Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen

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.

Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

A stunning reflection by a 15 year old boy, over the course of a year, season by season into how nature provides him with a breathing space, a remedy to his own being.

nature writing Wainwright prizeDara McAnulty is autistic, as are his mother and two siblings, a beautiful advantage, because the family seem to understand exactly how to mitigate the intensity and lived experience of this characteristic.

As a result, they often escape their suburban habitat for the slightly wilder places within reach, places where whatever constraints they might be feeling inside, that might otherwise result in some kind of behavioural impulse, can be released into the conducive expanse of a living outdoors, an ecosystem, they feel at one with.

He reflects on the influence of both parents:

“Many people attribute my love of nature on him He’s definitely contributed deeply to my knowledge and appreciation, but I also feel the connection was forged while I was in Mum’s womb the umbilical still nourishing. Nature and nurture – it’s got to be a mix of both. It may be innate, something I was born with, but without encouragement from parents and teachers and access to the wilder places, it can’t bind to everyday life.”

Dara channels his passion for wildlife and nature into a series of journal entries, written with language that is beautifully descriptive and resonant, that conjures up exactly how it might feel like to be this young man, whose five senses are so intense, who wants to understand more, to do what he can to improve the state of our planet, its nature.

On dandelions:

yellow dandelion flower

Photo by Daniel Absi on Pexels.com

“…I love dandelions. They make me feel like sunshine itself, and you will always see some creature resting on an open bloom, if you have a little patience to wait. This vital source for all emerging pollinators is a blast of uplifting yellow to brighten even the  greyest of days. It stands tall and proud, unlike all  the others opening and swaying in the breeze. The odd one out.”

Spring ends with the announcement that the family will move to another village to be closer to a different school and for their father to be in closer proximity to Belfast. At first disillusioned, Dara soon learns there is a forest nearby and a whole new ecosystem to explore and learn. The move marks a significant change in his experience of the school system, he begins to thrive.

“Many people accuse me of ‘not looking autistic’. I have no idea what that means. I know lots of ‘autistics’ and we all look different. We’re not some recognisable breed. We are human beings. If we’re not out of the ordinary, it’s because we’re fighting to mask our real selves. We’re holding back and holding in. It’s a lot of effort. What’s a lot more effort, though, is the work Mum did and does still, so light-heartedly. She tells us it’s because she knows. She knows the confusion. That’s why she and Dad will be doing the worrying about moving, and why Mum will be doing all the planning and mind-mapping, and will somehow know how everything fits together. I’m lucky, very lucky.”

He asks himself constantly, is this enough; to observe, to spend time in nature, to speak, to write?

If this was all he ever did, it is already enough, but it is clear he is destined to do more.

Silverbar, the Sanderling

A sanderling shore bird

Observing the sanderling, I am reminded of Rachel Carson’s excellent Under the Sea-Wind, where she too brings this bird to life:

I reach for my binoculars and see them: sanderlings, about thirty, moving erratically yet with powerful purpose. Blurred black legs. A flash of beak prodding the sand. Sand ploughman. They whirl with the waves, never stopping. Scurrying. Rushing. Every movement too fast for me to focus on. Dazzlers of the shore.

Sanderling plumage is snow-white and pewter-black, the crown darted with linear black-among-white. They come to winter in Ireland from the high Arctic, travelling nonstop for over 3,000 miles. Their movements are completely hypnotic, especially as I focus in one bird and observe how it moves relentlessly at speed between the waves and shoreline, sandpeckering as it goes, and repeating it all over again as the waves recede, over and over, over and over. What tenacity. I’m not sure how productive it all is, as they never stop for a second and must spend so much energy making each tack from wave to shoreline.

When he begins to doubt himself or feel overwhelmed by what he understands is happening to the environment, his ever patient, wise, knowing mother is there:

She also tells me that I need to hold on to grace and gratitude. ‘Hold them close’ she says. ‘And remember by writing down all the good things in life.’ She’s right of course, but it takes every muscle to agree.

A wonderful, inspirational book and journey to a few of the wildish places of Northern Ireland.

Loved it.

Worth by Bharti Dhir

An Inspiring true story of abandonment, exile, inner strength and belonging

Diverse Wisdom Initiative

This book came into being due to the Diverse Wisdom Initiative at Hay House, a proactive measure inspired by the work of Jessica Huie to find writers from outside the typical mould of who their published authors have tended to be. It doesn’t require me to describe what that looked like, being a well-known universal problem in many publishing houses.

Authors like Kyle GrayRebecca Campbell and others were given a group of potential authors to mentor from those who applied to the initiative.

Perseverance

Inspirational memoir of belongingBharti Dhir was a late applicant, encouraged by her niece to submit, she resisted until the last minute of the last day, one finger typing her submission. Tentatively accepted she became a mentee of Kyle Gray, however when all the draft manuscripts were submitted, and they were told which had been accepted, hers wasn’t there. Kyle Gray sent a one word reply. Devastated. And then did what an empowered, loyal supporter he is, would do, not give up until they’d changed their mind!

And what a wonderful book she has co-written as a result.

Review

As a baby, Bharti Dhir was abandoned 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. Fortunately, she was found safe and taken to a nearby hospital.

Bharti Dhir Worth Hay House Diverse WisdomMeanwhile, her future adoptive mother, seven months pregnant with her first child had a kind of vision or strong premonition, in association with the Hindu Goddess Lakshimi, that there a baby girl coming to her, and insisted it wasn’t the baby she was carrying.

Suffice to say, there is a wonderful narrative built around how she came to be the first daughter of this family and how they overcome a lot of negative feeling, prejudice and racism about their decision as a Punjabi-Sikh family to adopt an Asian-African baby of unknown heritage.

At times she begged family members for details about what they knew of her background, however everyone was tight-lipped, those that knew anything having promised never to speak of it.

Left with no other choice, given no one would speak to me, I resolved to live with my imagination.

Overcoming Adversity

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.

It was these daydreams that helped to build my sense of worth, making me believe that I’d get there one day.

Memoir Worth Adoption Abandonment Exile Belonging

Author Bharti Dhir

The situations are often tense and frightening, the heath problems she endures and the witch doctor remedies they seek out, having exhausted all conventional options are alarming and torturous to read of.

However, this is no misery memoir, here is an empowered woman, writing her early life story for her own daughter, acknowledging that there will be times in one’s life when all seems to be against you, that every situation is temporary, that finding and nurturing that core of self belief will carry you through even the worst situations.

Curses and witchcraft were the given explanation for so many ills in Uganda – from businesses failing to sickness, and from childlessness to death. In Uganda, you couldn’t pretend that the belief in magic didn’t exist. It was soaked into the fabric of our lives. To survive in society, you needed to both fear and respect it.

Her father both took her to witch doctors and tried to take a stand against superstition by promoting education, including paying for the education of many who came to work in his garage and ensuring that all his daughters received an education.

Empowering Girls

Understanding why for example girls were treated as ‘less than’ boys, and how a society judges those of mixed race, or different religions, or a multitude of differences, enabled her to either become a victim, turn to anger, resentment, bitterness, self-hatred, or to choose another way.

Girls were given lectures on many occasions as to how they could and couldn’t behave and I felt a real sense of injustice about these rules as a child. This was my sense of worth rising to the surface. It comes with anger, and it comes from injustice. As girls, that was another thing we weren’t supposed to show, either: anger. But I felt it nonetheless and came to recognise it as my worth letting me know when a situation wasn’t right. That feeling of worth always began with an emotion, not a thought. I’d feel it first in the pit of my stomach and then it would rise into my heart.

A New Beginning

When the Ugandan President Idi Amin in 1972 decreed that all Asians must leave Uganda, everyone in their town had already had their cars confiscated, sue to their proximity to the border. Escaping, wasn’t easy, finding a car to take them and getting through roadblocks, where any small reason could result in trigger happy soldiers punishing defiance. One of the most tense moments in the books happens when Bharti’s mother is confronted over her mixed race daughter.

In England, they would encounter fresh challenges, in school, in the neighbourhood, another country where they were perceived as unwelcome foreigners. At 15, Bharti announced she intended to change her name, having had enough of the teasing. Her mother explained the cultural significance of her name and she earned another truth.

I realise now, it was because I felt the need to project a certain image, or to say or do things, just to fit in or not lose friends. But when we do that, we’re accepting others’ definition of our value, rather than our own.
People who know your worth accept you just as you are. If you have to change anything about yourself to get others to love you, then you’re denying your sense of worth, thereby crushing the strength that comes from self-belief and self-love.

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.

Being able to see from the forgiveness perspective creates distance between you – you become the observer rather than the victim. When you’re stuck in a place of anger, hatred and rejection, I believe your self-esteem cannot grow.

By the end of the book, her life will have come full circle as she too becomes a mother and a protector of children in her role as a social worker and shares 15 affirmation to boost self-worth.

It’s so refreshing to begin to read uplifting books like this coming from cross cultural life experiences and being shared through the more traditional publishing platforms. Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi – excellent novel by another Ugandan author now living in the UK

Raise Your Vibration by Kyle Gray

More Spiritual Well Being Reads I’ve Reviewed

The Soul of a Woman by Isabelle Allende

This was a short read and as the author herself says, it’s more of “an informal chat” than any other label one might put against it.

A Conversation With Isabelle Allende

The Soul of A Woman memoir feminism reviewIsabelle Allende looks back over her life from the viewpoint of her gender, as a woman and looks at how the family she was born into, and their circumstances contributed to her own growth and development and attitudes.

Her mother Panchita was abandoned by her husband in Peru with two toddlers and newborn (Isabel), forcing her to return to her family in Chile. It is this circumstance she ascribes her rebellion against male authority to.

A fear and darkness in childhood, a pre-verbal trauma and conscious frustration as she aged, that ensured she would do everything in her power not to inhabit that vulnerable space women so easily fall into.

An Epiphany in India

An Epiphany in India Isabel Allende Foundation

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

Thwarted by her own passion(s) she marries a number of times, becomes obsessed with justice, develops a visceral reaction to male chauvinism and is so shocked by an experience she had in India, a random roadside breakdown event, that she creates a foundation for vulnerable girls, today run by her daughter in law.

At times the commentary seemed superficial, almost as if written too quickly, there were gaps, assertions without the facts, anecdotes, generalisations etc about women, men, feminism, the patriarchy, but then there were the silver linings, the moments of truth when she’d strike a chord that vibrated and made one pause.

On Ageing, Life in Later Years

Isabel Allende The Soul of A Woman MemoirBeing in the later years of her life, she also reflects on that era, on the post retirement years and her attitude towards them, how she sees that she has changed, what she is and isn’t prepared to compromise on.

It’s provocative, insightful and an invitation to join the conversation and the action, to continue the work towards empowerment of women on their own terms and not as defined by the other. An optimist who drives a hard bargain, she also is one who says yes to life, prepared to take risks and then manage the consequences.

Though it was a galley e-book and I shouldn’t quote from it, I end with thoughts inspired by her reading of Jampolsky on forgiveness, which she appears to follow as guidance in her own life to satisfy the soul of a woman.

More energy is needed to sustain ill feelings than to forgive. The key to contentment is forgiveness of others and ourselves.

After which she asks “What kind of world do we want?”

Further Reading

Geographic Expeditions: An Epiphany In India, February 8, 2013 by Isabel Allende

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell

This memoir is told using the unique narrative structure of seventeen brushes with death, each chapter heading shows an anatomical sketch of an organ of the body and the year it was affronted, a pattern that isn’t chronological, more like a jigsaw puzzle, that as we read, begins to reveal more of itself as each experience is understood.

Warnings and Wake Up Calls

Maggie O'Farrell Memoir Near Death ExperiencesI thought it was brilliant and I Am as much in awe of how it’s been put together, as I Am of the insights she shares as each brush has its impact and adds to her knowledge of the body, mind and her own purpose in being here.

The first encounter is thriller-like and anyone who’s ever felt their inner warning system go off when in the presence of a would-be predator, will recognise the signs and shake their heads at the response she gets when trying to report the event to the police.

That going over the conversation afterwards thing, wondering what else she could have said for there to have been a different outcome.

How could I have articulated to this policeman that I could sense the urge for violence radiating off the man, like heat off a stone?

It occurs to me that we humans have more lives than cats, these brushes with death can occur without us even realising. It will make you pause and think back to some of those near misses you too might have had.

Others, like the first one she shares are pushed down so deep, never again mentioned, except that one time, when it was necessary to make someone understand, to accept a necessary attitude and behaviour change.

It is a story difficult to put into words, this. I never tell it, in fact, or never have before. I told no one at the time, not my friends, not my family: there seemed no way to translate what had happened into grammar and syntax.

Some stories/brushes forewarn of another that is still to come in the narrative, so that in this way, there is an invisible thread connecting them, we come to an encounter later in the text, having already been made aware of some of the underlying facts that have formed this life.

Drowning In Life, Travel An Escape

Drowning Maggie O'Farrell Memoir I Am I Am

Photo by Hernan Pauccara on Pexels.com

A near drowning at sixteen is as much about the inclinations, boredom and despondency of adolescence, as it is about the consequence of having lost a sense of direction underwater.

It is all these things and more that propel me to my feet. At sixteen you can be so restless, so frustrated, so disgusted by everything that surrounds you that you are willing to leap off what is probably a fifteen-metre drop, in the dark, into a turning tide.

A Latin class school trip to Rome and Pompeii at seventeen was a turning point O’Farrell describes as being like receiving a blood transfusion, the assault on all the senses of the sights, sounds, tastes, the contrast to what was familiar so great, it was painful to consider leaving.

It was the beginning of a love affair with travel and gave a focus to her innate restlessness, a way to satisfy it, the only thing besides writing that can meet and relieve it.

A Cure For Prejudice, Bigotry and Narrow-Mindedness

Maggie O'Farrell Feather Death Angels

Photo by Erik Mclean on Pexels.com

She quotes Mark Twain, who after travelling around the Mediterranean said that travel was ‘fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness’ and tells us that neuroscientists have for years been trying to understand what it is about travel that alters us, effects mental change.

Professor Adam Galinsky, an American social psychologist who has studied the connection between creativity and international travel, says that ‘Foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integrativeness of thought, the ability to make deep connections between disparate forms.

One of the most gripping chapters for me was the second to last, CEREBELLUM 1980, when a headache that becomes a significant marker on her life path, a period of hospitalisation and subsequent rehabilitation and re-education as she recovers from encephalitis, a debilitating inflammation of the brain probably caused by a virus resulting in muscular atrophy, a long period of immobility and several ongoing, invisible side-effects.

Apart from the more obvious physical issues, enduring a chronic condition also had a kind of mystical quality. The way she writes of convalescence, where weeks slide by without your participation, ironically, has some resonance with what we are experiencing with lockdowns/confinement.

Fever, pain, medicine, immobility: all these things give you both clarity and also distance, depending on which is riding in the ascendant.

A Fear Of Fearlessness

Near death experience fearless recklessness Maggie O'Farrell Memoir

Photo by Christopher Moon on Pexels.com

The insight that really stood out though, was the development of, and her living in a state, of fearlessness.

Coming so close to death as a young child, only to resurface again into your life, imbued in me for a long time a brand of recklessness, a cavalier or even crazed attitude to risk. It could, I can see, have gone the other way, and made me into a person hindered by fear, hobbled by caution. Instead, I leapt off harbour walls. I walked alone in remote mountains. I took night trains through Europe on my own, arriving in capital cities in the middle of the night with nowhere to stay.

These insights were so remarkable and familiar to me, when I reflect on the way my daughter lived her life, that they help me understand something I was so fearful of myself, her fearlessness and familiarity with death, and her artistic conversation with it.

It was not so much that I didn’t value my existence but more that I had an insatiable desire to push myself to embrace all that it could offer. Nearly losing my life at the age of eight made me sanguine – perhaps to a fault – about death. I knew it would happen, at some point, and the idea didn’t scare me; its proximity felt instead almost familiar. The knowledge that I was lucky to be alive, that it so easily could have been otherwise, skewed my thinking.

Fortunately for us Maggie O’Farrell lived far enough into her life for this thinking to change, the birth of a child is magical in so many ways, her indifference stopped the minute she became a mother. And then even greater challenges would arrive, situations that the life she had lived until then, unwittingly had been preparing her for.

If you are aware of these moments, they will alter you. You can try to forget them, to turn away from them, to shrug them off, but they will have infiltrated you, whether you like it or not.

A work of incredible merit, highly recommended.

And then there is Hamnet.

 

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

A Memoir of Adoption

Nicole Chung All You Can Ever KnowWhile every adoptee’s experience is different, there are so many aspects to the experience and responses to them that resonate with other adoptees, that reading a memoir like this can be very helpful, sharing experiences helps us understand.

And the more there are like this, the more anyone thinking of participating in this practice, might do well to be informed of those varying responses, and to check not just their own motivations, but to do an empathy check; to ask themselves, how might it feel to be the shoes of a child as they become a teenager and an adult, when they come to realise they are not the person you tried to mould.

It’s common for some adoptees to grow up believing they haven’t been affected by the pre-verbal trauma of post-birth separation. At the time the author was born, it was still widely believed, in many western countries at least, that babies were a blank slate, you could mould them into the child you wished for.

Family lore given to us as children has such a hold over us, such staying power. It can form the bedrock of another kind of faith, one to rival any religion, informing our beliefs about ourselves, and our families, and our place in the world. When tiny, traitorous doubts arose, when I felt lost or alone, or confused about all the things I couldn’t know, I told myself that something as noble as my birth parent’s sacrifice demanded my trust. My loyalty.

Love is Colourblind

Her family did have a question, in that they were white Americans of European extraction and their child Korean, though she was born in America. That said, when asked, they were advised by various professionals that race wasn’t an issue. And when it was, she kept it to herself.

I didn’t have the background and the language to call it racism. I’d been led to believe racism was something in the past. Even teachers at school presented racism as a thing we had conquered. It was very well intentioned and wrong. I don’t think I gained perspective on that until I moved away from home and lived in pretty diverse areas on the East Coast.

Nicole Chung shares her experience of being an only child in a caring and loving family, but an over-protective one none the less, holding a subconscious resistance to the idea of their child reconnecting with her biological family.

Empathy Nicole Chung Adoption Adoptee

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

It’s an attitude that isn’t about actively preventing them, but about never doing anything to support or facilitate that contact, or conversation, or having sufficient self-awareness to look at defensive responses to the idea and recognise them as unresolved issues.

A classic problem, where the one person you might turn to for support, instead of sympathising, feels threatened and therefore may act in ways that undermine the process, creating trust issues.

An awkward, near impossible dilemma of a child needing an empathetic understanding ear about a subject that is at the core of their being, intersecting with a parent pierced with the reminder of a wound or vulnerability (infertility) making it an unbearable thought, that a child they thought was their own (as if a possession) wants to do something they fear may risk their bond with them.

This may be all you will ever know, I was told. It wasn’t a joyful story through and through, but it was their story, and mine too. The only thing we had ever shared. And as my adoptive parents saw it, the story could have ended no other way.

The Search for Biological Family

Nicole Chung follows the clues she has, and discovers she has a family and siblings, but also discovers information that prevents her from having a complete reunion. The timing of when contact happens coincides with the birth of her first child, an upcoming event that provided a strong motive for searching. Emboldened by the request for medical information, given she was an ailing premature baby herself, the two events move closer and almost collide, becoming  too much for her, the roller coaster of setting off down a path of no return.

The contact she does make is ultimately positive, in particular with one of her sisters, she gains a special and close friend, whom she dedicates the book to (and their children). In an interview she talks about the privilege of telling both their stories.

It was honestly a gift. One of the best things I think that’s come out of this book is the chance to talk even more with my sister about it. I just feel really lucky both to have her in my life, and the fact that she really let me — not just let me, but encouraged me to write our story and has been so supportive of it and feels honored by it. – extract from podcast interview, Medium

transracial adoption Nicole Chung All You Can Ever Know

Photo by Alex Green on Pexels.com

The birth of her daughter also awakens the desire for her to connect with a language and culture that is completely foreign to her. It is a reminder that the next generation born, is not born having been separated and conditioned by the families involved, children are able embrace all, from their perspective it is simple to love family in any shape, form, colour, nationality.

There’s a tendency in adoption still to think that the differences are unimportant compared to the love. And I guess I would just say I think both of those things are really important. And I think if you’re going to look at it realistically — you know — look at the child for the whole person that they are and think about what their experience is going to be. You know, these are conversations that you have to have before you adopt and then, obviously, after, as they age in age-appropriate ways. – extract from podcast interview, Medium

Adoptee memoir transracial adoptionIt is a very personal account and kudos to the author for having the courage to share it and inviting readers to go along on the emotional roller coaster of a journey it must have been.

There is a profound sadness in her story though, those aspects of the human story that can’t always be navigated or confronted, understood or forgiven. And so they are judged. And that is the risk and potential source of pain, that taking such a journey involves. Ongoing. The potential for healing.

Since the early 1950s, parents in the United States have adopted more than a half-million children from other countries, with the vast majority of them coming from orphanages in Asia, South America, and, more recently, Africa. South Koreans are the largest group of transracial adoptees in the U.S., and by some estimates, make up 10 percent of the nation’s Korean American population. – Victoria Namkung

Further Reading/Listening

An Extract : Just assimilate Her Into Your Family and You’ll Be Fine by Nicole Chung

Interview with Nicole Chung : ‘I Didn’t Have the Language to Call It Racism’ by Victoria Namkung

No, You Go – A Podcast : Getting Personal with Nicole Chung

Adoption Memoirs Reviewed Here

An Affair With My Mother by Catriona Palmer (Ireland) (2016) (Adoptee)

You Don’t Look Adopted by Anne Heffron (US) (2016) (Adoptee)

Never Stop Walking, A Memoir of Finding Home Across the World by Christina Rickardsson (Sweden/Brazil) (2016) (Adoptee)

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (UK) (2011) (Adoptee)

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay (Scotland/Nigeria) (2010) (Adoptee)

A Long Way Home (Lion) by Saroo Brierley (Australia/India) (2013) (Adoptee)

Blue Nights by Joan Didion (US) (2011) (Adoptive Parent)