The history of centuries has been written mostly by men. But for centuries, women have been recording their lives every day. Lives coded into letters, in diaries, in stories told on porches or across kitchen tables. These stories, once passed down orally or tightly locked in diaries, now find permanent home in memoir. Subtly framing autobiography with storytelling, memoir at its best offers models of how to reimagine our lives. Great memoirs are emblems of moral courage.
As the excerpts here suggest, whether it's overcoming challenges of poverty, racism, or isolation, memoir is often finally about redemption. Whether it's Helen Keller making speech her own, or Maxine Hong Kingston listening to her mother's "talk stories," we learn of an individual's refusal to capitulate to the world's obstacles. We witness the resourcefulness of a life finding the creativity to tell its story.
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Helen Keller's "The Story of My Life" (1903) is itself a heroic achievement. With the help of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, Keller not only overcame severe speech impairments, but mastered language to inspire generations of readers.
When I had made speech my own, I could not wait to go home. At last the happiest of happy moments arrived. I had made my homeward journey, talking constantly to Miss Sullivan, not for the sake of talking, but determined to improve to the last minute. Almost before I knew it, the train stopped at the Tuscumbia station, and there on the platform stood the whole family. My eyes fill with tears now as I think how my mother pressed me close to her, speechless and trembling with delight, taking in every syllable that I spoke, while little Mildred seized my free hand and kissed it and danced, and my father expressed his pride and affection in a big silence. It was as if Isaiah's prophecy had been fulfilled in me. "The mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands!"
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Maya Angelou, like Zora Neale Hurston before her, pioneered the memoir of social ideas. In "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" (1970), the first volume of her ongoing memoir, she chronicles a childhood in which dignity and pride are forged amid poverty and racism.
When I was three and Bailey four, we had arrived in the musty little town, wearing tags on our wrists which instructed - "To Whom It May Concern" - that we were Marguerite and Bailey Johnson Jr., from Long Beach, California, en route to Stamps, Arkansas, c/o Mrs. Annie Henderson.
Our parents had decided to put an end to their calamitous marriage, and Father shipped us home to his mother. A porter had been charged with our welfare - he got off the train the next day in Arizona - and our tickets were pinned to my brother's inside coat pocket.
I don't remember much of the trip, but after we reached the segregated southern part of the journey, things must have looked up. Negro passengers, who always traveled with loaded lunch boxes, felt sorry for "the poor little motherless darlings" and plied us with cold fried chicken and potato salad....
During these years in Stamps, I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare. He was my first white love. Although I enjoyed and respected Kipling, Poe, Butler, Thackeray and Henley, I saved my young and loyal passions for Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Du Bois' "Litany at Atlanta." But it was Shakespeare who said, "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes." It was a state with which I felt myself most familiar. I pacified myself about his whiteness by saying that after all he had been dead so long it couldn't matter to anyone any more....
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"The Woman Warrior," Maxine Hong Kingston's memoir about the divided legacy of her parents' immigrant world, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. Exploring how the women in her family struggled with identity, Kingston paved the way not only for other Chinese-American writers, but also for memoirists exploring mother-daughter ties.
When we Chinese girls listened to the adults talking-story, we learned that we failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves. We could be heroines, swordswomen. Even if she had to rage across all China, a swordswoman got even with anybody who hurt her family. Perhaps women were once so dangerous that they had to have their feet bound. It was a woman who invented white crane boxing only 200 years ago. She was already an expert pole fighter, daughter of a teacher trained at the Shao-lin temple, where there lived an order of fighting monks. She was combing her hair one morning when a white crane alighted outside her window. She teased it with her pole, which it pushed aside with a soft brush of its wing. Amazed, she dashed outside and tried to knock the crane off its perch. It snapped her pole in two. Recognizing the presence of great power, she asked the spirit of the white crane if it would teach her to fight. It answered with a cry that white crane boxers imitate today. Later the bird returned as an old man, and he guided her boxing for many years. Thus she gave the world a new martial art....
At last I saw that I too had been in the presence of great power, my mother talking-story. After I grew up, I heard the chant of Fa Mu Lan, the girl who took her father's place in battle. Instantly I remembered that as a child I had followed my mother about the house, the two of us singing about how Fa Mu Lan fought gloriously and returned alive from war to settle in the village. I had forgotten this chant that was once mine, given me by my mother, who may not have known its power to remind. She said I would grow up a wife and a slave, but she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan. I would have to grow up a warrior woman.
Maxine Hong Kingston
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Eva Hoffman, born in Poland, emigrated to Canada in 1959. Her memoir, "Lost in Translation" (1989), is a meditation on what parts of identity survive a new culture.
Every day I learn new words, new expressions. I pick them up from school exercises, from conversations, from the books I take out of Vancouver's well-lit, cheerful public library. There are some turns of phrase to which I develop strange allergies. "You're welcome," for example, strikes me as a gaucherie, and I can hardly bring myself to say it - I suppose because it implies that there's something to be thanked for, which in Polish would be impolite. The very places where language is at its most conventional, where it should be most taken for granted, are the places where I feel the prick of artifice.
Then there are words to which I take an equally irrational liking, for their sound, or just because I'm pleased to have deduced their meaning. Mainly they're words I learn from books, like "enigmatic" or "insolent" - words that have only a literary value, that exist only as signs on the page....
For my birthday, Penny gives me a diary, complete with a little lock and key to keep what I write from the eyes of all intruders. It is that little lock - the visible symbol of the privacy in which the diary is meant to exist - that creates my dilemma. If I am indeed to write something entirely for myself, in what language do I write?... I can't decide. Writing in Polish at this point would be a little like resorting to Latin or ancient Greek - an eccentric thing to do in a diary, in which you're supposed to set down your most immediate experiences and unpremeditated thoughts in the most unmediated language. Polish is becoming a dead language, the language of the untranslatable past. But writing for nobody's eyes in English? That's like doing a school exercise, or performing in front of yourself....
* Alexandra Johnson lectures on memoir at Wellesley College. Excerpts were used by permission. "Lost in Translation," by Eva Hoffman, copyright Eva Hoffman, 1989, is reprinted by arrangement with Dutton Signet, a division of Penguin Books USA, Inc.