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.

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

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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

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

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage, Reflections on Creative Nonfiction

I have had this memoir on my bookshelf for a long time and recall first becoming aware of it when I wrote an article for our a newsletter about a genre in literature I wasn’t familiar with called Creative Nonfiction, sometimes referred to as Literary Nonfiction and here in France as essais or belles-lettres.

It had emerged as an evolving and respected genre, encouraged in the US by Lee Gutkind who founded the creative nonfiction MFA at the University of Pittsburgh in 1973, slower to develop in the UK, the first Masters programme in Creative Non-Fiction offered in 2005 at Imperial College London.

In some ways, creative nonfiction is like jazz—it’s a rich mix of flavors, ideas, and techniques, some of which are newly invented and others as old as writing itself. Creative nonfiction can be an essay, a journal article, a research paper, a memoir, or a poem; it can be personal or not, or it can be all of these. Lee Gutkind

It is distinguished from ‘nonfiction’ by its use of language to impart more than just information or facts, it presents observations, history, stories in ways that are compelling, sustaining the attention of the reader. It’s not by accident that a work becomes one of creative nonfiction, it is an art, achieved with practice.

The words “creative” and “nonfiction” describe the form. The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonfiction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy. Lee Gutkind

Lorna Sage’s memoir, published in 2001, is an excellent example of literary nonfiction, by the time she wrote it, she had been practicing her ‘creative literary art’ for some time as a literary critic, reviewer, and essay writer, publishing widely on women writers and their work. She wrote books on Angela Carter, Doris Lessing, twelve 20th century women writers, Edwardian writers Violet Trefusis & Alice Keppel and a collection of her journalistic pieces Good As Her Word was compiled posthumously.

Though she went into academe, was a lecturer, professor of English literature and Dean of the School of English and American Studies at the University of East Anglia, she resisted its embrace as a writer,

“I always wanted to write like a writer, not an academic,” she said, “to show there’s someone behind the words, someone from a specific place.”

Bad Blood centers around her childhood years in Wales. Her first memories are of living in the vicarage with her grandparents, Part 1 is the story of their marriage, creating the environment that she grew up in, one where her grandmother rarely left the house.

So it is meandering along the church yard path, tugging at her grandfather’s skirt flapping in the wind that forms the opening line and a clue to her influences; followed by further proof of the loveless union he was escaping.

“The church was at least safe. My grandmother never went near it – except feet first in her coffin, but that was years later, when she was buried in the same grave with him. Rotting together for eternity, one flesh at the last after a lifetime’s mutual loathing.”

She barely recalls the presence of her mother during those years, she was there, but the daughter’s recollection of her own mother was of,

“a shy, slender wraith kneeling on the stairs with a brush and dustpan, or washing things in the scullery. They’d made her into a domestic drudge after her marriage – my father was away in the army and she had no separate life.”

She sums up her grandmother’s sufferance in marriage with the observation:

“What made their marriage more than a run-of the-mill case of domestic estrangement was her refusal to accept her lot. She stayed furious all the days of her life – so sure of her ground, so successfully spoiled, that she was impervious to the social pressures and propaganda that made most women settle down to play the part of good wife.”

She gains even greater insight into their marriage and family life thanks to the confiscated diaries of her grandfather that have fallen into her father’s possession and help her reconstruct events of the time and life in the family household. She comes to the conclusion that the family was falling apart because nobody wanted to play the part of parent.

“There is no doubt that Grandma preserved Grandpa’s diaries for 1933 and 1934 as evidence against him. Indeed, the 1933 diary has a couple of scathing marginal comments in her hand – Here the fun begins (Friday, 25 August) and Love begins (fool) exactly a week later.”

Life becomes quieter after the death of her grandfather and they move to a new council house, taking recently evicted Grandma with them. Lorna develops an interest in the neighbouring farm and spends much of her free time helping out, watching nature in her various forms.

“I’d turned into a tomboy travesty of my mother’s little shepherdess, orphaned and anonymous, and utterly absorbed in the world outside. The repetition of farm days made them seem a backwater of time where the future was safely accounted for.”

Though her grandfather had died when she was nine, his presence was not forgotten, his bad influence often mentioned, though in Lorna ‘s memory he hadn’t let her down like he had the other women in his life, he continued on in her mind as a kind of flawed mentor who had ‘vanished into the dark with his mystique intact.’

“When, in my teens, I quarrelled with my mother, she would say in despair and disgust, “You’re just like your grandfather,” meaning that I was promiscuous, sex-obsessed, that the bad blood was coming out. My bookishness was part of that inheritance too, and though she and my father approved in theory of my love of reading, and my coming top in exams, we all knew that books had a sinister, Grandpa side to them. You could always tell which were his books because he had had the bright idea of inking out their titles and authors’ names in case visitors to his study asked to borrow a Dickens or a Marie Corelli.” Lorna Sage

Though childhood takes up much of the book, her teenage years are intriguing, for here the family rises above convention and supports Lorna at a time of great need, in an era when many young women in her position would have been shamed and treated in an inhuman manner, giving rise to more problems and heartache. That she gets through this challenging period in her life, supported by her family and goes on to complete a university education virtually without hindrance, is astounding.

Indeed, marriage, and its changing nature over the years, became one of the book’s themes, and so did secrets and lies. He represents for me now the glamour of the past, and its sinister pull, like the force of gravity inside your life. He refuses to die. When Grandma was packing up to move out of the vicarage I called by on my way from school and she told me that she had met him on the stairs.

Lorna Sage

Further evidence of what can come about when families support each other through a crisis can be observed in the reflections of her daughter, shared on the tenth anniversary of Lorna Sage’s death, at a time when she could better acknowledge and celebrate her mother’s literary success and the choices she made, which sadly wasn’t the case when this memoir won a literary award.

Lorna Sage Source : Wikipedia

I expected it to be more of a ‘misery memoir’ than it was, and hadn’t realised it would be quite as comical as it was, for although the family inflict wounds upon each other, she observes them with a wry wit, that doesn’t make the reader suffer as can be the case with some childhood memoirs.

While she makes family life transparent and shares certain parts in detail, there remains a sense of something preserved  and held back, she tends to put others centre stage rather than focus too much of the narrative on herself, and never allows any of the family characters to be portrayed as the victim.

As another reader commented, it’s a pity that she wasn’t able to write a sequel, as her life after the events of this book, as a working woman and mother,

would have been equally interesting, though even in her professional life, she seemed to prefer to analyse the lives and writings of other women than turn the literary gaze onto her own experience.

Bad Blood won the Whitbread Book Award (now Costa Book Awards) for Biography just seven days before she died from emphysema, two days before her 58th birthday.

Have you read Bad Blood? Do you have a favourite book in the Creative Nonfiction genre?

Buy a Copy of Bad Blood via Book Depository

Further Reading

Lorna Sage – Brilliant teacher and critic who expanded the horizons of English literature and women’s writing

Past Imperfect – Lorna Sage writing about her grandfather, Guardian

Sharon Sage – talks about her brilliant ‘lioness’ of a mother, 10 years on – Guardian

On Creative NonFiction

Lee Gutkind – What is Creative Nonfiction?

Tim Bascom – Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide

Book Riot – Kim Ukura – 50 Great Narrative Nonfiction Books  that highlight strong research/reporting along with narrative voice

Maria Popova – Brainpickings – Essays – ideas of a timeless nature – one woman’s search for meaning across literature, science, art, philosophy, and the various other tentacles of human thought

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan tr. George Miller #WITMonth

Nothing Holds Back the Night is the book Delphine de Vigan avoided writing  until she could no longer resist its call. It is a book about her mother Lucile, who she introduces to us on the first page as she enters her apartment and discovers her sleeping, the long, cold, hard sleep of death. Her mother was 61-years-old.

De Vigan collects old documents, stored boxes, talks to members of her family, the many Aunts and Uncles and creates a snapshot of Lucile’s childhood, a large family of nine children living in Paris and then Versailles, holidaying at a ramshackle country house Pierremont, where they would all come together for summers throughout childhood and for many years to come.

Part One strings together the many anecdotes of memories of her mother’s past, and even in their telling, though the purpose is to reveal Lucile’s childhood, she is like a shadow, the one voice that is missing, whose presence is inferred but rarely at the forefront of the drama. She is a beautiful middle child, her beauty quickly capitalised on by her parents, who turn her into a pliable child model.

Her reticence and fear of being alone, is visible when their parents announce they are going to London for a weekend, leaving the children alone to take care of themselves:

Lucile greeted the news like the announcement of an imminent earthquake. A whole weekend! That seemed to her like an eternity, and the idea that a serious accident might happen when Liane and Georges were away made her breathless. For several minutes, Lucile stared into space, absorbed by the horrible visions she could not banish – shocks, falls, burns affecting each of her brothers and sisters in turn, and then she saw herself slip under a metro train. Suddenly she realised how vulnerable they were, how their lives ultimately might hang by a thread, turn on a careless step, one second more or one second less. Anything – especially something bad – could happen. The apartment, the street, the city contained an infinite number of dangers, of possible accidents, of irreparable dramas. Liane and Georges had no right to do this. She felt the tears run down her cheeks and took a step back to hide behind Lisbeth, who was listening attentively to her father.

Though Lucile isn’t given a voice (unless the author imagines it) in the section about her family and upbringing, the events depicted show her reactions and create a vision of the fragile woman she would become; lost, finding it difficult to cope alone, struggling to raise two daughters when she could barely take care of her own needs.

De Vigan goes through the family history, though only one generation, she isn’t as interested in inter-generational patterns, she searches the near past for clues:

The fact is that they run all the way through families like pitiless curses, leaving imprints which resist time and denial.

She asks what happened, what caused the turning point, the change in a family that appeared to be happy and thriving, that then was subject to trauma, cracks in its foundation, broken parts.

And so I asked her brothers and sisters to talk to me about her, to tell their stories I recorded them, along with others, who had known Lucile and our joyful but ravaged family.

She is particular about who she interviews, deciding early on not to speak to any of the men who temporarily came into her mother’s life, including her father. It’s as if she wishes to remove the possibility of judgement, by those who saw something of the effect on a life and not the life in its entirety.

This is her mother’s story and the daughter is fiercely protective, while being very open and honest about what she and her sister experienced. She is also an experienced investigative journalist and is practised in presenting her findings to meet a preconceived aim. She doesn’t wish to harm the family and yet she wants to present a truth, exorcise certain demons that keep her awake at night. Thus the first part reads a little like a novel as she immerses herself into the characters and lives she wishes to portray bringing them alive by imagining their thoughts and dialogue.

A daughter arrives part way through a mother’s life and so she goes back to fill in the gaps, to see her as a child, a sister, a daughter and for the rest, she narrates her story, as the daughter of this fragile woman, whose early life contributed to a deterioration in her mental health, who struggled to continue regardless, even though part of her yearned for an escape. Part Two therefore reads more like a memoir as she no longer has to step into the shoes of others and imagine a time when she wasn’t there, from now on she selectively recalls her own experience and that of her sister.

De Vigan shows her mother’s perseverance alongside her inability to cope, her periods of stability alongside events that trigger her periods of instability, her creativity alongside the terrible hallucinations and paranoia, no one knowing how long either of those states will endure and whether either one will persist.

I read this book in a day, it’s one of those narratives that once you start you want to continue reading, it’s described as autofiction, a kind of autobiography and fiction, though there is little doubt it is the story of the author’s mother, as she constructs thoughts and dialogue inspired by the information provided by family members, acknowledging that for many of the events, some often have a different memory which she even shares.

Manon and I had become adults, stronger for Lucile’s love, but fragile as a result of having learned too young that life could collapse without warning and that nothing around us was completely stable.

With the end of summer holidays approaching, I was in one of the local French bookshops buying a new French dictionary for my son, when I spotted this next book from Delphine de Vigan and in a moment of spontaneity, decided I would try reading it in French. Not straight away, but watch this space, for a review in English of a novel read in French.

Have you read any of Delphine de Vigan’s works?

Further Reading

Guardian Review – Ursula Le Guin is fascinated by a dark yet luminous memoir that straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction.

New York Times Review – A Mother in Absentia by Nancy Kline

 

The Spiral Staircase, A Memoir by Karen Armstrong

Before I went to visit and spend two months in Bethlehem, Palestine some years ago, I wanted to read something about the history of the area, not a religious book, but something historical that went beyond the recent familiar history since the British abandoned those residing in these lands to their fate. I wanted to understand the wider context of how people came to be living here and what they’d had to endure to survive.

I chose to read Karen Armstrong’s A History of Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths and read it while in situ. It was a history of multitudes of power shifts and massacres and when I finished it, I said to my husband (born in Bethlehem), somewhat in awe, “Congratulations, you survived,” and I wondered who these people really were, who had survived such a long, brutal history and come to be living in these towns of Jerusalem and Bethlehem today. One thing was for sure, they were survivors and most likely had traces of every people who had ever passed along the pilgrim trail within them.

Recently I was recommended a couple more Karen Armstrong books A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and The Great Transformation as background to the conditioning that underpins much of humanity’s belief system of the past millenia, however I decided to add to this collection by first reading her memoir The Spiral Staircase, about her life after leaving the convent, where she spent seven years leading up to her becoming the well renowned author she is today.

I wasn’t interested in her life as a nun, or the details of her leaving the convent, I was interested in how she had used what she learned in rejecting her faith to inspire her towards immersing herself in the history and identifying that catalyst of humanity’s desire to embrace organised religion.

This memoir thus starts as she is trying to finish her university education and doctoral thesis, then her foray into becoming the partial carer of an autistic child, her teaching, her involvement with Channel 4 and the BBC in producing a series of programs on St Paul and then the crusades, and finally launching herself into a writing career when it appeared all other options were closed to her.

Every venture she went into, except the writing career, followed a similar trajectory, where she did the thing she’d convinced herself was what she should be doing, only to eventually lose hope, which became the turning point, or the spiral in the staircase, where she changed direction, it always seemed dramatic and quite often was, however my perspective on those turning points is that they were a course correction, she went along a path for as long at it had something to teach her and then she’d be literally thrown out of it – this kind of thing usually happens when we know we need to change a circumstance but we do nothing, and seven years in the convent had conditioned her to ignore any kind of inner guidance or intuition, making these changes when they did occur seem more dramatic than they might have been, had she transitioned earlier.

Boarding School

I loved reading about her journey and couldn’t help but remember the nuns from my secondary school education, apart from a couple who taught they were elusive figures on the periphery of our lives, we lived on the same premises, for us a boarding school, for them in a separate wing, it was more like a retirement home, they were very, very old and the only time we saw them was in the chapel on Sundays.

They were shadows of whoever they had been and we had no real interaction with them, except the ancient, tough 90 something Sister Conway who still worked in the scullery plunging her gnarled, arthritic hands into boiling hot water as if it were tepid, while we waited for the cutlery to cool before lifting it to dry.

Karen Armstrong took years to undo the conditioning of seven years in the convent and even then likely will never do so completely. An intellectual unsuited to academia, she eventually finds her place studying the great religious and spiritual practices looking for common threads, she’s less interested in differences than in commonalities.

As she researches and learns how to use empathy and compassion to inhabit the minds of those she seeks to understands, she comes closer to a spiritual experience than anything she experienced as a Christian. She has let go of God as objective fact and of belief as being a necessity, discovering instead ‘practice’ and compassion to be the one significant practice of all the faiths that succeeds in managing the ego sufficiently to create peace and harmony.

I enjoyed her honest, though often self deprecating account of this period in her life and particularly loved what she experienced when she visited Jerusalem, the cross cultural encounters and being told to drop the small talk and niceties:

“Karen! You are not in England now. There is no need to be a polite English lady here in Israel. We are not formal people. There is no point to speak if there is nothing to say.”

It becomes even more humorous when she is invited to do the same:

“Do not be a polite English lady. If you think I am unreasonable, tell me to get lost, to shut up- whatever you like!”

at which she surprises herself in doing after a particularly charged day when tensions were high and Joel had snapped at her rudely. His response is excellent, he is proud of her!

The other amusing experience in reading my second hand copy of this book, was the presence of the previous reader in the margins, who not happy to have merely marked up the pages, shared her thoughts more vociferously, clearly not nearly as impressed as I was with the work, deciding to rant and share snippets of her own experiences, which were mostly entertaining, often annoying, and ultimately unwelcome! Here are some of them, since no one else will have had this reading experience!

page 123 After speaking about how her years as a nun had broken something in her, and affected her eating habits, Karen Armstrong writes:

“And I did not want to nourish myself. What was the point of feeding my body, when my mind and heart had been irreparably broken?”

And my interlocutor writes:

“as I was after the divorce”

Armstrong mentions that she isn’t going to write about her failed love relationships, seeing no reason to dwell on episodes that didn’t develop into anything significant and writes:

“Just as I was prevented from becoming an academic, so too I have never been able to achieve a normal domestic existence, and this, like my epilepsy, had also ensured that I remained an outsider in a society in which coupledom is the norm”

to which my interlocutor responds:

“oh do stop feeling sorry for yourself!”

and even adds later on

“perhaps you are just unloveable”

which is a mild example of the kind of comportment (at different levels of societal power clearly) that nevertheless can lead to disharmony, conflict, war even, for if there is a conclusion to what Karen Armstrong has learned, it is a lesson she gifts to her readers, known as Hillel’s Golden Rule that all great leaders have taught, Confucius proclaimed it 500 years before him, Buddha and Jesus taught it, it is the bedrock of the Koran:

“Do not do to others as you would not have done unto you”

As one of her advisors Hyam Maccoby said

“It takes more discipline to refrain from doing/saying harm to others than to be a do-gooder and project your needs and desires onto other people.”

Jo Malone, My Story #JoLoves

Although I lived in London through much of the period when the Jo Malone brand was being created and built, I can’t say I was really aware of it in its early days, not until it hit its tipping point and her trademark bags and candles started to become the beautiful gifts others in the know would offer those who didn’t shop in the more exclusive shopping areas of Chelsea and Belgravia where you often find luxury hip and boutique brands.

my-storyBut Jo Malone the girl, wasn’t born into luxury. She was an ordinary girl raised in a family that struggled a bit on the good days, and a lot on the bad days, which were often brought on by her doting father’s gambling inclinations, her mother’s over-spending habit and the pressure to work long hours to keep the family afloat.

Her mother returned to the workforce as a manicurist until she was lured away by the eccentric Madame Lubatti, who would become an influential figure in Jo’s early life, an Empress of scent, whose origins we never really discover, just that she spent time in Hong Kong gathering her knowledge.

She would introduce her protegé (mother and daughter) to her laboratory of elixirs and magic ingredients and taught Jo to develop her nose and instinct allowing her to experiment and discover how to create  face mask and cream blends, until they were just right – texture, aroma, perfection – inspiring confidence in her while she was young enough not to doubt her ability to make fragrant, creamy magic.

Madame Lubatti coaxed out my love of fragrance and essentially trained my instincts…She would bring over three unlabelled bottles of different rose oils, remove the stoppers, place each one under my nose and ask:

‘What do you think that smells of?’

I’d close my eyes and sniff; ‘Tea-rose?’

It impressed her that I could tell the difference between the woody muskiness of a garden rose, the clean apple-green notes of a tea rose, and the rich, regal scent of a Bulgarian rose.

She would learn other secrets of scent, of the importance of the whiteness of the room, and allowed her access to the biggest secret of her unrivalled success, a precious, well-thumbed, black leather ledger, filled with four decades if recipes. The elderly Madame Lubatti not only exposed to the secrets of her clinic and laboratory, she also took her on her visits to the homeopathic chemist for pills, powders and oils, the herbalist for herbs, waxes and dried flowers and to Marylebone High Street for chocolate marzipan at the Viennese coffee shop. She imparted to Jo her high standards, stressing ‘If you can’t do something perfectly, don’t do it at all. You must do it brilliantly!’

While she was competent in the home and at the salon where her mother worked and even accompanied her father to sell his paintings in the market during a prolonged period of unemployment, school was not any kind of refuge for Jo. Her undiagnosed dyslexia contributed to her difficulty and she would leave school without any qualifications, but quickly found one job after another through her mother’s contacts, until eventually joining up to work with her mother giving facials to clients and making home-made product to sell to them.

She would go on to attract her own clients and after a series of falling outs with her mother, would go it alone, working from a room in their small apartment, making product from her kitchen. By this time she had married Gary, a young man she met in a period when she joined a bible study class. He was the grounding stability she needed, the strategic businessman to her creative inspiration. From this point on, she rarely mentions her family, though one incident reveals something of the bitterness that existed among those who were close to them. Malone’s response to the incident is to share a little of her life philosophy:

…human nature is divided between those who thrive on, and get easily distracted by, gossip and they tend to go nowhere; and those people who know their purpose, know what they want, and won’t give weight to the chirpings of misinformed tittle-tattle because they know that such things are a waste of focus and energy.

lime-basilWhen she really began to play around with fragrance, demand began to rise more than she could cope with, and Gary suggested they embrace the business, move it to its own premise and open a shop. Her business was beginning to overwhelm their living condition, he recognised the potential and offered to commit himself wholeheartedly it. That would be the beginning of Jo Malone, her signature brand.

post-itFrom there, a whirlwind of events follow and she will partner up with a perfume house in Paris, turning her instinct into a viable, enduring product. She tried to put into words her creative process and it is fascinating when she does, for it is something that can’t be copied or cloned, it is an insight into the pure magic of creativity, of how she uses image, colour and experience to create a scent.

Those descriptions of her creative process are some of the most exciting and inspirational passages in the book; when she begins to flourish her creativity sings and reading her descriptions of being in the creative zone, of creating a scent, playing with the notes of fragrance my post-it notes were flying. I had to refrain from dog-earring pages and scribbling in the margins as the book was lent to me.

Having become interested in and immersed in the study of aromas and the energetic and therapeutic qualities of essential oils 20 years ago, I too am someone who creates aromatic oils and creams and loves nothing more than to experiment with and create a personalised magic blend for a client or friend, so I totally relate to the bliss Jo Malone felt when she’s doing her thing in a creative sense. (Me with some of my magic potions below).

Though she had her share of fears and trepidation at entering into the unknown, her life has been scattered with signs and synchronicities that propelled her forward, to meet those who would show her the way, encourage her to take the next step, work through the challenges, admit the mistakes, learn from them and move on where possible.

pomeloI absolutely loved this book, from it’s at times heartbreaking accounts of struggle in childhood, to the discovery of her passion, the development of her creativity and the strong work ethic that carried her forward, to finding the perfect mate and the journey they would go on together.

And though she is no longer part of Jo Malone, she is where she ought to be, doing what she loves and still thinking outside the box, creating new scents and new experiences. This one, her new signature fragrance and brand was included in the front of the book, it smells divine!

P A S S I O N  * R E S I L I E N C E   * C R E A T I V I T Y

Highly Recommended!