Thursday, May 7, 2015

We-moir vs Me-moir

Increasingly, I have been teaching to an international audience. One of the things I find interesting about this is how the understanding of what memoir is varies dramatically from culture to culture.

Even within the culture which I am the most familiar (white, middle class American), "memoir" often evokes images of what actually is autobiography: tell-alls by famous folks. Whole life stories are usually reserved for the rich, famous, and accomplished amongst us. But those are not the same as memoir.

Memoir takes a particular period or aspect of anyone's life - known or unknown - and explores it. Memoir, versus autobiography, is more a practice of language, lyricism and expression, than a rote dictation of fact and timeline. 

Once we adjust for this difference, non-Americans still have a cloudy image of what this means. James Frey? The infamous guy who lied about his life? It seems only Americans are writing memoir, and it's not laudable. It's self-absorbed and egotistical: who would care about her life, as a Dutch student told me? After all, she's not out reading others' memoirs.

A few years ago, my students and I studied a book by Kirin Narayan, a then-local anthropology professor. She referred to her book as a "we-moir" more than a "me-moir" - the title, My Family and Other Saints, shows us it is not just about her. She pointed out that she couldn't write about herself without writing about her family. For her, raised in India, there would be no "me-moir".

Reading Nobody's Son this week by Luis Alberto Urrea, I get another piece of this puzzle. I am reminded that in lots of cultures other than predominantly white middle class USA, it is abnormal to hate your parents for the whole of your life. It is less common to blame them whole-cloth for your current state of being or how you have suffered. They are not separate. They never have been.

And then I find this passage in an essay by Julia Alvarez*:
Perhaps because ours is a Latino “we” culture, I always thought of myself as the writer, not in the family, but of the family. The compulsion for writing at all was to make meaning of our experience, in the belief that the story would hold us together now that we had lost the context of our native country and culture. 

The longer I work on my first memoir, the more I realize that the single dimension stories I told about my mother, in particular, though common, were damaging and untrue. I venture a guess that if she were still alive is still be telling them. Though I am certainly still writing a memoir, some of the ethos of wemoir is starting to seep into my bones.

My memoir writing, across the board, is less about a me who does not exist, not independently, and more about a we speaking through a me at this moment of writing. We are all interdependent. I would not exist without them, nor they without me. And who is this me, but a momentary appearance, made of relationship.

* From A Story Larger Than My Own – Women Writers Look Back on Their Lives and Careers  
edited by Janet Burroway

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