Books: Essay

Memoirs Get a Publishing Boost

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Speak, memory

IN PUBLISHING—AS in life—nothing is predictable. No oracle or algorithm, however canny, can decide which way the winds will blow when it comes to readers’ tastes. Even so, reading the signs, one can prophesise that the memoir, which is in excellent health, has a brilliant future ahead. Publishers are hardwired to be cautious as a tribe, but they have no qualms betting on the memoir. Even the most haggard of booksellers, weary of the daily grind and their customers’ inane demands, will break into a smile when you mention the word ‘memoir’.

Memoirs flooded bookstores in 2018. Many garnered critical acclaim and endeared themselves to readers worldwide. Some are firmly ensconced on the bestseller lists. Some are headed that way. The dazzle will not be dimmed in 2019. With a long and exciting list of titles slated for release, the memoir is all set to rise and reign.

Memoirs feature prominently on the lists of titles of publishing houses in India. A sampling: When I Was a Boy: Scenes and Stories from My Childhood by India’s favourite storyteller, Ruskin Bond, The Brass Notebook by Devaki Jain, and The Body Memoir by noted theatre personality Shanta Gokhale. Activist Harish Iyer’s memoir, Son Rise; Montek Remembers by economist Montek Singh Ahluwalia, My Life in Movements by lawyer Prashant Bhushan, and Interval by filmmaker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra with Reeta Gupta. My Girlhood by Taslima Nasrin, Autumn Light : Season of Fire and Farewells by Pico Iyer, and Unfinished by Priyanka Chopra.

HarperCollins India will publish actor and cancer survivor Lisa Ray’s memoir in 2019, and Pan Macmillan is readying a new edition of India’s first female legislator, Muthulakshmi Reddi’s memoir, My Experience as a Legislator. The memoirs of high-profile politicians Sachin Pilot and Manish Tewari are also in the pipeline.

Two North American political heavyweights: former US President Barack Obama (with two riveting memoirs to his credit) and Senator Kamala Harris, rumoured to be a potential 2020 presidential candidate, have a memoir each in the works. While Harris’ book is set for release shortly, Obama is taking his time re-living his presidential years. Recently, giving hope to struggling memoirists everywhere, he tweeted about his progress. ‘It’s just brutal,’ he said. ‘I’m just sitting there. I type two words, delete them.’

No doubt Obama, master of the mot juste, will beat writers’ block before long, but the point he makes sticks. Writing a memoir is a gruelling task. President or pop star, it takes immense courage to put your most vulnerable self on display. A memoir leaves you open to the world’s judgement. You have to factor in the very real possibility that the people who appear on the pages—the parent who made your childhood years a living nightmare, the boy you dated and dumped in college, your ex-wife, your pesky neighbour, your political rivals—will read your book. Fiction writers can shrug off questions by claiming the characters they conjure up are products of a fertile imagination, but memoirists have nowhere to hide.

READERS TEND TO expect absolute honesty from memoirs, and absolute honesty is injurious to a writer’s health. Objective truth is impossible to achieve when recounting one’s own life. The best a memoirist can do is to gently, and emphatically, remind readers of the fallibility of memory, as Tara Westover does in her remarkable memoir, Educated. With skill and sensitivity, Westover traces an arduous journey, from her isolated childhood years in a Mormon family in Idaho, to her eventual escape to London where she earned a PhD from Cambridge University.

Many are the demands the memoirist must meet. To not shy away from the embarrassing or painful chapters of your life, to share the gamut of experiences—good, bad, befuddling, and gory—that shaped you, to avoid artifice and aggrandisement and allow yourself to be seen in an unflattering light.

Writing a memoir is a gruelling task. President or Pop Star, it takes immense courage to put your most vulnerable self on display

Writing skills lighten the burden to some extent. After all, what reader can resist a memoir teeming with beautifully crafted sentences? Sentences that sing? Sentences that light up the recesses of the human heart? Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, Bangladeshi writer Maria Chaudhuri’s lyrical Beloved Strangers, Ruskin Bond’s Lone Fox Dancing, Russian American writer Sophia Shalmiyev’s superbly crafted Mother Winter, legendary journalist and writer Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and British author Deborah Levy’s ‘iving memoirs’, Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living are all fine examples. But what makes the books unforgettable, what imprints them for good on the reader’s consciousness, is the warmth and humour and disarming candour with which writers trace their journeys.

This is what life sprung on me, says the memoirist. This is where I lost the plot. This is how I got back on track. This is how I found my footing in a wildly spinning world. Whatever the focus—battling addiction and walking the rugged path to recovery, grappling with a life-threatening illness or soul-numbing grief, growing up in a conflict zone or getting out of a one-horse town, coping with displacement, coping with the dilemmas of a refugee’s life, staying single, negotiating coupledom, learning or unlearning the ropes of parenting, travelling solo or travelling the world with an eccentric family in tow, beating the odds to excel at a sport, sustaining an exacting political career, living a creative life, shunning the rat race and charting your own course—the memoirist speaks directly to the reader’s heart.

Many a memoir has sprung from the author’s experiences at the work front. Journalists, who are often thrown into chaotic situations, by accident or design, have come up with winners. A House in the Sky by aspiring Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout (co-written with journalist Sara Corbett), is taut as a thriller. Kidnapped by militants in southern Somalia, Lindhout spent 15 months in captivity there. She paints a vivid picture of her ordeal, the survival tactics she dredged up, the rollercoaster ride of despair and hope. In There’s No Poetry in a Typhoon (translated by Melanie Ho), noted video journalist Agnes Bun, who has covered Asia extensively, chronicles the human stories behind the stories she captured on camera. Bun weaves together historical, political, and personal threads to tell the story of her eventful life.

American journalist Seymour Hersh’s incisive Reporter is as much the story of his rise to global fame as it is an ode to the power of the written word. Hersh’s account of a life spent speaking truth to power inspires and entertains. The book takes on added relevance in a world where free speech is under assault even in functioning democracies. Veteran Indian journalist Karan Thapar’s 2018 memoir, Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story, gives readers a ringside view of his life and work. This engaging saga of a career spanning over 25 years reveals the human face of a hard-nosed interviewer. Thapar shares rare nuggets of information about India’s political elite with his readers, and these alone make the memoir required reading for anyone interested in India and its discontents.

The hallmark of an outstanding memoir is “excellent, literary- quality writing–narrative, characterization, description, structure, language use—combined with having something interesting or thought-provoking to say,” says Peter Gordon, editor, Asian Review of Books. Memoirists use many of the tools in the fiction writer’s kit to hold the reader’s attention. They make careful choices in terms of which stories to tell. Control narrative rhythm and pace. Place personal stories in context and create richly textured narratives to ensure readers see the big picture.

Fiction writers can shrug off questions by claiming the characters they conjure up are products of a fertile imagination, but memoirists have nowhere to hide

Memoirists are also freely experimenting with form. Star Trek actor George Takei’s forthcoming memoir, They Called Us Enemy, a moving account of his childhood experiences in a Japanese American internment camp, is a graphic memoir. In Irish author Maggie O’ Farrell’s incandescent I Am, I Am, I Am, each chapter is named after an organ in the human body. Chapter by chapter, O’Farrell recounts her close brushes with death, which include a severe childhood illness and a near-drowning. Novelist Tash Aw’s The Face: Strangers on a Pier, a very short, slim memoir that could pass off as a very long essay, is packed with a lifetime of wisdom. Maria Chaudhuri’s Beloved Strangers flits between the past and the present, the memoir, dream-like, looping in and out of time. In Tara Westover’s Educated, individual chapters are structured like short stories with a story arc, conflict, and resolution of their own.

Memoirs in essay form. Memoirs written as letters or diary entries. Inspirational memoirs straddling the line between autobiography and manifesto. ‘Shared memoirs’ co-authored by two or more writers, in which multiple voices come together to tell a tale. The fact that the memoir is a shape shifter is old news. With more writers showing an interest in exploring its myriad possibilities, the future is ripe with promise for the form.

WHY DO SO many readers have a soft spot for memoirs? What keeps them coming back for more? Some find memoirs comforting in chaotic times, drawing inspiration from the stories of people who overcome hardship and emerge stronger from the storm. Some read to explore new worlds, enjoy the thrill of vicarious travel, get a taste of the private lives of public figures, revel in an insider’s take on sports, show business or politics. Others choose memoirs set in familiar and beloved places, written by people with whom they have something in common.

Dr Arunima Gopinath, associate professor, Centre for Women’s Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, was bowled over by Malayalam writer Rosy Thomas’s Ivan Ente Priya CJ when she first read it. Gopinath translated the unconventional memoir into English, published by Women Unlimited as He, My Beloved CJ. Thomas’ “irreverent yet poignant tone, the candour with which she writes about her marriage, and the cultural and political churnings of her time” make it a superb read. Gopinath’s other favourites include the diaries of Virginia Woolf, and the memoirs of activists Angela Davis and Malcolm X, which tempted her to consider turning into a “bazooka-carrying revolutionary or a dreamer in a Parisian attic.” Academic Mallarika Sinha Roy is drawn to memoirs because of their “intimacy”—the one-on-one encounters with memoirists as they describe events and emotions. Founder of the Delhi Book Club, Aakanksha Kulkarni Panigrahi enjoyed reading the memoirs of both the Obamas, especially Michelle Obama’s 2018 bestseller, Becoming. Panigrahi reaps rich rewards from memoirs. The lessons real- life stories teach her are “drilled deep and hard” into her brain.

Individual preferences may vary, but as long as memoirists continue to illuminate the workings of their inner worlds with wit and warmth, as long as readers rely on memoirs to make them feel a little less alone, a little less confused about the vagaries of life, memoirs will be read and loved.

A HOST OF CELEBRITIES have announced that they are at work on their memoirs. Goddesses of Pop–Cher and Tina Turner, rock legend Neil Young, Jimmy Choo co-founder Tamara Mellon, Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz, singer- songwriter Lucinda Williams—the list is long. Celebrity memoirs have long been a fixture on the landscape. The good news is that other voices, other chronicles by memoirists from diverse backgrounds, are making slow and steady inroads. At the 2018 London Book Fair, Marc Hamer’s How to Catch a Mole: And Find Yourself in Nature, a ‘wise and meditative’ memoir about a mole- catcher’s life made waves. British writer Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk a luminous meditation on death, family, and falconry, continues to mesmerise readers everywhere. Kiese Laymon’s 2018 memoir, Heavy is a layered and provocative exploration of racism in America. Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland tells the heartbreaking story of life among America’s working poor. Aptly subtitled ‘A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth,’ Smarsh explores class, culture, and political divides through a deeply personal lens.

Ants Among Elephants by Sujatha Gidla is a fierce interrogation of the caste system and its corrosive impact on modern India. Gidla’s personal account of growing up as an ‘untouchable’ also traces the history of Dalit movements in the country. Sudha Menon’s Feisty at Fifty and acid-attack survivor Reshma Qureshi’s Being Reshma (with Tania Singh) both tell inspiring stories of everyday people.

Even as social media continues to fuel our appetite for celebrity lives, more such stories are being told and heard, and readers are giving them a hearty welcome.