By Beth Kephart
Let us return to one of my favorite memoirs of all time — Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. I’ll use any excuse, but this, I think, is a particularly good one.
We’re in the first chapter, “Asia.” We’re reading the opening lines.
“What began it all was the bright bone of a dream I could hardly hold onto. I was sleeping at a friend’s house. I saw my father, chaotic, surrounded by dogs, and all of them were screaming and barking into the tropical landscape. The noises woke me. I sat on the uncomfortable sofa, and I was in a jungle, hot, sweating.”
This is the late 1970s. Ondaatje is saturated with yearning. Born in Sri Lanka, relocated to Canada, it is time, he realizes, to go home again, to “travel back to the family I had grown from — those relations from my parents’ generation who stood in my memory like frozen opera.” Ondaatje’s journey will become our journey — through time, with the assistance of maps, among the elevations and valleys of poems. A distant world will be rendered near. We will be enchanted, educated, globalized by the layering in of the foreign and familiar.
All memoirists travel across the accordion folds of synapses and time. Border-crossing memoirists additionally move back and forth across space — past signposts, over deckled landmasses, into new weather, toward the science of geomorphology. Their points of view are duality inflected. Their vocabularies are exotic and hued. Their ideas about home are perforated and embellished by contrasts, contradictions, and corporeal compromise.
Do we come to know a place better once we leave it? What is the through-line between beauty and ruin? What power do words have to resurrect that which is gone, and what of this mash of language that arises from those who have learned love in many places? Border-crossing memoirists — the best ones — wonder. They lessen geographic distance (for themselves, for their readers) by tendering juxtapositions. The remembered versus the known. The rumored versus the proven. The here versus the there.
In her National Book Critics Circle Award winning Brother, I’m Dying, Edwidge Danticat tells the story of a life lived in two countries, with two fathers — her biological father who moves from Haiti to New York City in pursuit of a better life for his family, and her second father, Uncle Joseph, who remains behind. Danticat herself will join her first family in New York City at the age of twelve. The primary action of this memoir will take place years later, when both fathers/brothers are dying and Danticat, pregnant with her first child, must reconcile the brothers’ legacies.
Brother, I’m Dying slides back and forth between the life stories of brothers and the extraordinarily distinct geographies of Haiti and Brooklyn. It is a deeply researched book, “an attempt at cohesiveness, and at re-creating a few wondrous and terrible months when their lives and mine intersected in startling ways, forcing me to look forward and back at the same time.” It is two brothers, two landscapes, one daughter in between. Danticat paints for us not just the vital, harsh, pocked chorography of each place, but the impact chorography has on character and fate. The contrasts educate us. The similarities break our hearts.
Much the same is at work in Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone. This is the story of Shadid’s return to the family home in Lebanon — the domicile of his great-grandfather Isber — and of his willing it to rise again from the dust. Shadid was, at the time, a Washington Post reporter with an American wife and daughter. He became a man obsessed with somehow making “the statement to my daughter and her generation that Isber’s house, whatever its condition, remained a home worth care.” He plants a skinny olive tree and then, in a year, returns.
This ancestral house is riddled with ghosts. This memoirist is a man with “Oklahoma-accented Arabic, sprinkled with Egyptian colloquialisms” — at least half a foreigner, in other words. He brings the full force of his multiple dualities to the fabled portrait he paints. The passage I quote below, for example, is constructed of American similes and Arabic terms. It is at once evocative and instructive. It could have only been written by a writer who has touched down in many worlds — a committed border crosser.
Once utilitarian and still inescapably elegant, its stones ascended row after symmetrical row, thirty-five in all, ending with the armid, an Arabic word borrowed from Turkish that refers to those red tile shingles of a Levantine and cosmopolitan past. The roof was shored up by wood arches shaped like a study violin’s scroll. The two balconies were girded by finely wrought but rusted iron railings perched over a burly plum tree. The larger of the balconies framed the most graceful feature of the house, the triple arches, buttressed by two marble columns. There is perhaps no feature that more forcefully evokes the notion of a traditional Lebanese house than the triple arcade, though inspiration for the design dates back nearly three millennia, to Roman antiquity.
Finally, let’s consider what happens in The Girl Who Fell to Earth, by Sophia Al-Maria. Born to an American mother and a Bedouin father, sent off to Qatar to live as a teen with her father’s family, Al-Maria takes us deep inside the private realms of desert dwellers, arranged marriages, abaya fittings, and Ladies’ saloons. The book feels, at times, like an undercover mission, as this young woman with a keen eye, an American perspective, and a surfeit of questions about belonging reports back on a veiled world — vividly.
The “saloon” was like a grown-up clubhouse and bore a large warning, “No Men Allowed.” The windows were papered over with posters of relaxing European women. It always looked kind of threatening to me. Like a meth lab with a no-trespassing sign put up my some paranoid hillbillies…. The main room was designed like a sala, with cushions lining the walls and magazines like Sayidaty and Snob al Hasna stacked in the corners. A hefty Jordanian woman sat immobile in the middle of the room, her ankles propped up on tissue boxes while she waited for elaborate trails of henna to dry.
Within a single paragraph we have encountered the mash of those Americanisms (meth lab, paranoid hillbillies) and those indigenous particulars (magazines like Snob al Hasna and the elaborate trails of henna). We have gone in deep, outfitted with helpful navigational tools—the looks like/sounds like stuff of a writer whose first language and first landscape will always afflict and affect her ways of seeing.
Committed border crossers. I look for them, when I read memoir, just as I turn toward the inherent possibilities of a more global perspective when I sit down to write. It’s just one more way that we can help ensure that memoir, as a genre, remains relevant — more generous than simple autobiography, more meaningful than one-dimensional naval gazing, more artful than pure woe-is-me. It’s one more way (though not the only way) that memoirists can broaden their engagement with the world—and leave their readers broadened, too.
Beth Kephart is the author of five memoirs, including Still Love in Strange Places, and the newly released Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Gotham). She teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania and blogs daily about books at beth-kephart.blogspot.com.