In her essay “The Site of Memory,” Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison said that truth is random, while fiction is not. She reflects that in the process of writing the interior life of others, facts further narrowed the truth. However, images Morrison recalled allowed her to reconstruct the others’ worlds and access a “kind of truth” they’d left unwritten, such that “the act of imagination is bound up with memory.”
Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, which the California Book Club will discuss at its October 21 gathering, exemplifies Morrison’s notion that imagination and memory fuse to create truth. Written in five chapters that focus on the stories of five women, including Kingston, The Woman Warrior shatters the traditional confines of memoir from its first chapter. By imagining stories around events in her family’s past that are never fully elucidated to her, Kingston generates her identity as a second-generation immigrant on the page. Her culture is out of reach. This isolates her from both of the realities she exists within: her home and the outside world. She reclaims her own history and composes a self made of many fragments by blending memory, truth, and imagination.
Below are five other books whose authors experiment with form and the genre of memoir itself to reconcile disparate facets of self.
Be sure to sign up for our free, monthly California Book Club, which will discuss The Woman Warrior with Maxine Hong Kingston on October 21 at 5 p.m. Pacific. To join the California Book Club, click here. Join us in the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book and which of the foregoing memoirs is your favorite or that you might read when you’re done with Kingston’s.
Bechdel crafts her memoir as a graphic novel, using images to tell of the relationship between her and her father. They are both gay, although her father is married to her mother and Bechdel doesn’t know about his sexuality until she comes out in college, but as she grows up they fight constantly. Each wants that to which they believe the other has access. Within the illustrations are drawings of real books Bechdel and her father (an English teacher) would discuss, which take different forms: there are pages containing the exact text of other writers as well as less explicit nods to theorists like Proust and Roland Barthes. These are collected fragments of Bechdel’s past that she uses to create herself on the page, taking Morrison’s maxim (to follow image to memory in the pursuit of truth) to new heights.
While Kingston shifts storylines, bell hooks shifts points of view in her memoir. By moving between first- and third-person narration, she asks readers to reckon with the complexities of different versions of self. hooks converges dreams, fantasies, and her own history. She tells the story of how she became a writer: using books to survive a girlhood in which she dealt with racism and erasure. What can be glimpsed in Bone Black and The Woman Warrior is a sharp attention toward absence. By keeping her chapters focused, three pages each, bell hooks draws readers’ attention to what is left off the page. Within the space between these snippets, readers witness the process of writing the self as one of collection and creation.
While not strictly a memoir, Minh-ha’s book Woman, Native, Other is a prodigious analysis of the individual, authenticity, and what it means for a woman to write. Minh-ha argues for the multiplicity of self. She uses the construction “s/he” to generate a break in what might be a single representation of an individual body on the page, allowing her to undertake a project she calls “writing the body.” Like Kingston’s and Cha’s, her book is one of assemblage. She gathers stories of her life; phrases from other texts; quotes and theory from other scholars (some of which she plays with, repeating them in different constructions); stills and photographs; and her own feminist critiques. In this way, the structure of the book itself (broken into sections with no narrative arc) enacts Minh-ha’s argument that within the self lie many selves.
In this collection of essays and poems, Anzaldúa calls into question the concept of a border. She brings the different facets of herself (as Chicana, writer, lesbian) into a discussion that ultimately argues for the border as a sociological concept within us and one that surrounds our bodies as we move through our world. Anzaldúa describes herself as a “border woman” with a language made of other languages. She examines the “inner life of the Self” as something that exists as a confluence, making a point that is true for all of these memoirs: by “living on borders and in margins...there is an exhilaration in being a participant in the further evolution of humankind, in being ‘worked’ on.”
Korean American author and artist Cha entwines the stories of several women, all of whom have undergone great suffering, to tell her own story. Dictee uses photographs, letters, drawings, other academic texts, French translations, documents, Korean calligraphy, blank space, pages of handwriting, and English narrative to demonstrate that we are each made up of fragments that constitute a “self.” Cha’s approach emphasizes the collective within the individual by recognizing that much of what forms us comes from others. This is made all the more visceral for her, because like Kingston, as an immigrant, Cha must confront her fragments and imagine her own truths from them