Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Scorn About Memoir, Again

What is it about memoir that prompts many intelligent and learned people (who should know better) to poo-poo it? Yes, it's true that memoir has become somewhat of a literary trend lately and often for the wrong reasons (the proliferation of not-really-indispensable remembrances by the rich and famous is my pet-peeve example); but as a genre, memoir has a legitimate place in the pantheon of literature and should not be treated with the scorn that it is subjected to by many writers and readers alike.
I saw just one more example of this when I attended a public interview with Leslie Marmon-Silko , the wonderful Native American author. She has recently published a new book, The Turquoise Ledge, whose subtitle is "a memoir". It is, as her interviewer Molly Gloss pointed out, a memoir in the style of Annie Dillard's meditative essays on nature and the environment: Marmon-Silko lives on the edge of the Sonora desert in Arizona and, when not writing, loves to take long walk; the book is a collection of the thoughts inspired by and the incidents witnessed during, these walks—interspersed with personal recollections.
Molly Gloss is an author herself, of historical novels set in the American West and fantasy books; during the interview, she displayed a considerable scorn against memoir, implying that perhaps the new Marmon-Silko book should not have been labeled such (too good, or too serious to be a memoir?)
At one point she said that when one thinks of memoir, usually this conjures images of famous people writing about their achievements, or people with "dysfunctional f". The latter was uttered with a considerable smirk on Gloss' face—the implication being that only self-indulgent, self-centered people write memoir (and especially so when it is about "dysfunctional families"): the rest, the enlightened and "serious" writers, concentrate on either the more conventional end of non-fiction (ie. the politically-worthy, such as exposé journalism, or socially relevant essays); or, better still, they just write fiction.
Now, I am the greatest lover of fiction around; and I must confess that I read a great deal more fiction than I do non-fiction; and yet, apart from the occasional short story and poem, the thought of writing anything other than non-fiction, and then again other than personal non-fiction stories, has never occurred to me.
Why? Because, as an old and old-fashioned feminist, I believe in that little dictum, "the personal is political"; and I believe that, by writing memoir, we can both satisfy our "reality hunger" (with apologies to David Shields —someone who certainly doesn't have a narrow idea of what non-fiction is) and communicate something that will be socially and culturally relevant and of interest to readers other than our family or friends. In fact, let's explode once and for all the myth that the only people who will be interested in reading our memoir are our next of kin or our closest friends: oftentimes, these are in fact the people who end up being our worst critics and least enthusiastic readers, because of the personal investment they too have in our life story—and the fact that their perception of the "facts", the "truth" may not exactly coincide with ours. Many memoir writers talk about this problem—see for instance Louise DeSalvo and Mark Doty .
As a rebuttal to all those who scorn memoir: all good writers, even when they are writing about themselves, are capable of separating their real life from their real life as it exists on the page, where it ceases to belong to them alone and becomes an artistic product, becomes public domain.
I had just one of those "dysfunctional families", but the reason I came to believe I ought to write about my mother's madness and terrible life was not therapy; I have never confused art with therapy: when I want therapy I go to the therapist, when I want to write, I go to my desk. It was instead because I realized that there was a story there, potentially interesting to other women (and men, too); a story about madness as it related to gender, as it related to a specific culture. And that I could tell that story in a voice that was both poetic and critical.
Yes, it is possible to write memoir that is utterly solipsistic and narcissistic, and indeed there are many books like that out there; but there are also many crappy works of fiction, so would this latter fact be enough to disqualify the entire genre of fiction? Should we look at books as entities within a labeled box, as part of a genre—or should we look at books as we ought to look at human beings: each one unique, each one the product of a particular culture, historical moment, the product of a creative mind inflamed with a timeless yearning: the desire to tell a story?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Haunting of Gloves: The Things I Lost

In writing the memoir of my mother, I've been thinking a lot about material things—things she gave me, things I gave her, things that were in her apartment in Naples and I lost when I got rid of them in a haste. At the time, I had such an urge to get the place cleaned up and could not deal with it myself: my mother had died there. She had been found dead. After quite a while. Not the kind of scenario anybody wants to deal with when it's time to "clean out the closets". Just being a couple of hours alone in the apartment was agony for me, so I took a perhaps too-swift decision and called for the local equivalent of "1-800-Got Junk"—a couple of guys with a rickety truck who came and took everything away.
Later, I realized not only that I'd given away things that were potentially precious from the monetary standpoint, but also things that I really should have kept as mementos.
One entire fragment (I prefer to call them that, rather than chapters) of my memoir deals with the "biography" of these lost things. Objects are such potent repositories of memory, of memories; and often the things we miss the most are not those that ought to be most valuable or important to us, either in financial or emotional terms. 
Instead of bemoaning the loss of the Persian rug that I could have probably sold; or the wall clock that chimed Big Ben's tune (though my father had long stopped its mechanism, claiming he couldn't sleep; and after his death my mother had never restored the clock to its song); or the 1960s and 1970s furniture that I personally found horrid but in America sells as "vintage modern"—instead of missing any of these things, today, nearly five years after my mother's death, I still find myself obsessing about a pair of gloves. 
A pair of gloves I'd bought for her in London, where I lived for 15 years prior to moving to North America. They were, as English fashion often is—a compensation for, as that Pink Floyd song had it, "hanging on in quiet desperation"?—a little eccentric, a little baroque (Vivienne Westwood's lesson): in a fake velvety material that was in fact synthetic yet still plush to the touch; of a color there are no exact words for, best described as a sort of burnt amber with a deep golden glow. 
My mother, not usually given to eccentric outfits even in the throws of her most manic and absurd behaviors, fell in love with these gloves, and took to wearing them even around the house sometimes, to cover her mildly arthritic hands, their skin chapped by too many years of dishwashing.
She loved those gloves. 
And I got rid of them. 
Afraid that keeping anything too personal of hers would jinx me with some evil eye; my scarlet letter of guilt, the guilt of having abandoned her because there was nothing else I could do, nothing I could do for her, short of allowing myself to slowly die next to her. 
Or, in a more rational version of this story, afraid of contamination because the gloves were in the room where she died and was found. 
I kept them separate from all the stuff I had the Sri Lankan house cleaner who worked for one of my best friends stuff in big black trash bags; this was in the first few days of my stay in Naples, when I still believed some manner of sorting out of my mother's apartment was possible. 
Later, having learned from my mother's nosy neighbors how she had died, the cleaner was spooked and disappeared, leaving all the trash bags sitting in the room. He would not come back to help any longer, didn't even ask for his wages, would not meet me; I ended up giving the money I owed him to my friend to give to him. 
I was alone, help-less in the most literal sense, overwhelmed by the dirt in the apartment, the mess of useless things my mother had accumulated in the nearly 20 years since my father's death. She was not exactly a hoarder—rather, had always been a reluctant housewife; my father's stern military command had forced her into a housekeeping duty she did not embrace, a daily requirement that she cook, clean, be a dutiful wife. When he died, she saw no reason to maintain the place tidy, or even clean. She let it go, let herself go.

I stayed in Naples for a while, sleeping at a friend's house and going to the apartment every day, trying to sort things out, always leaving without having accomplished anything much other than feeling miserable, overpowered, wrecked, haunted. 
All this time, the gloves sat on a green metal trunk covered with a mauve cloth bearing a design of nineteenth-century ladies on horseback, in the room where my mother had died. I meant to keep them; yet, on my last day of visiting the apartment, I did not take them with me, and did not leave them in what had been my teenager room, the contents of which were the only things I decided to salvage and have shipped over to North America. 
Instead, I threw the gloves onto the pile of trash bags still filling the room, walking out on them, consigning them to the fate of all the other things in the apartment.

I recently came across a lovely post on writer/teacher Paul Lisicky's blog . You know that old, over-abused dictum —(that many theoretical essays on photography have sought to disprove)—"a photograph is worth a thousand words"? Well, the title alone of this post was worth a million photographs: "The Museum of My Mother" .
Lisicky's post was not dark; rather, it was a lyrical, nostalgic remembrance of his mother through the odd objects she left behind in the vacation house he inherited from her. 
In his post, Lisicky says that the house is "ghosted with her presence"; my mind is ghosted with my mother's presence, and at the same time her absence. In my urgency to run away from her place of unhappy life and horrible death, I lost a great deal of objects, mementos; but their vivid images are forever burnt into the retina of my mind, haunting me all the same. 
You can take your life out of the place of memories, but you can't take the place of memories out of your life.

Friday, October 8, 2010

On Being From Another Language

This post was stimulated by another, on Maria Clara Paulino's blog which is full of wonderful reflections on estrangement and being "in-between" two languages, two places, two cultures. She is Portuguese and I am Italian, but I can relate to her musings in a familiar way. In the post, she writes on the use and abuse of the word "love" across cultures—how in her native Portuguese language it is taken very seriously and it means a very specific kind of affection (as it does in my native Italian); while in America, it is often just thrown there at the end of a letter just to mean a slightly more intimate form of  salutation.
I have often wondered how it felt for Joseph Conrad (with whom I curiously share a last name, though mine was acquired through marriage) to write in a language other than his native Polish. According to the Wikipedia entry for him, Conrad "brought a distinctly non-English tragic sensibility into English literature." I think there is something to be said for being a bilingual, bicultural writer; it certainly gives us a different perspective on the language we write in, and also on ourselves. When I was living in Canada, the linguistic slippage between the English and French that were the official languages, and the Italian in the back of my mind, often created some interesting occurrences. Below are some musings written during one of those occurrences, one day that I was listening to the French CBC radio channel:

'... a sudden jolt to my system: words in Italian coming out of the radio, like an alien lingo, dissociated from any source, context, culture, discourse, dialectic, amorous or hateful speech; the politeness of formal encounters or the cutting language of intimate insults; words in Italian coming out of the blue, like sobriquets inserted into a strange electronic music part-psychedelic part-contemporary/classical—words foreign to anybody else listening to this Espace Musique station I often put on because the Quebecois accent, when it's not too gratingly nasal, is soothing to my ears and I don't have to pay too much attention to a language I don't understand very well, I can let it wash over me like ripples in a calm sea, it doesn't jump at me with the same heavy burden of meanings, associations, memories and images like English... 
But today, it was Italian, oh, the incongrousness of it! All of a sudden a strange string of Dove posso trovare un albergo? Mi puo' indicare la direzione del museo? Come si chiama questo? — conventional phrases from travel books, those that never really help you because you always invariably misuse or mispronunce them or they are hopelessly out of date in the continuously evolving universe that is a living language shared and spoken by millions; silly phrases for tourists, made even more ridiculous by the strong Anglo accent, and in the suddeness of it I was moved and shocked and surprised by the intensity with which it moved and it shocked me, that such words all of a sudden should come out of my radio, and fall there in the otherwise silence of my morning alone preparing breakfast, feeding my cats; words so foreign and exotic to others in their incomprehensibleness, but to me, all too familiar, arresting...
Like the Surrealist list recounted by Michael Foucault at the beginning of "The Order of Things", these words belong to a taxonomy strange, almost disquieting, exotic in its foreigness, remote, incomprehensible to most listeners, who can be amused by them, irritated by them, pleased by them, but not find them normal. And yet, and this is the mark of my displacement, my permanent damnation to stranger status, I cannot find them normal either, because they are transplanted away from their context, deracinated from any meaning I can recognise, any soil I could walk on, any speech I could utter or hear uttered by others.
 Words. Just words. Foreign. Exotic.
 I am exotic to myself, for a moment, and yet at the same moment my brain, my heart recognize these words: they are part of the milk imbued at my mother's breasts, part of the sounds heard when I was growing up; they are the sounds and tastes and feelings and smells I was socialized into as a child. They are part of my landscape, but my landscape at some point suffered an earthquake and collapsed and went under the ground. My landscape is all interior and nothing in these mountains, these trees, this sea, these smells and voices and colours and sounds and clothes and demeanours and vibrations surrounding me here, today, call up any tree, any mountain, any sea, any sounds, any smells any voices any clothes any demeanours and vibrations I can recognise from my interior landscape.
To live in the crack where my landscape fell into; to inhabit an Atlantis of the memory, swimming in its amniotic waters day after day, and no one, no one knows where I really live when I say I live "just around the corner", nobody really knows where I am when I smile to them, when I talk to them in their language, when I reply with or without attention, when I shop and pay in the exact change and I make a joke at the checkout counter and I am more often than not misunderstood not because of my imprecise use of English but because of the slippage between my English and their English - a slippage not linguistic but cultural.

Some weeks ago an acquaintance told me, eyes ablaze and amused with the discovery she had just made: "I've just realised why your way of talking is so lively, so distinct, so wonderful! You use English as if it was Italian—it's not the grammar, it's something else. Your intonation, an inflection, certain peculiar words you use, you make it come so much more alive!"
She is a storyteller and translator from the Yiddish, speaks three languages and grew up in a Jewish area of Montreal in the 1950s. She understands the mystery of languages. Even though her passport says "Canadian", even though English appears to most to be her first tongue, she, like me, lives in several different linguistic universes at once, making comparisons and shifting from one to the other restlessly. It's a good but hard exercise for the mind, and sometimes you can get stuck, you can become confused, caught in the limbo between languages, and then you don't quite know where you are anymore.
Which language is this now? What am I speaking now? Which language am I supposed to use now?
Even today, after 24 years of having made English my daily language, 24 years of no longer speaking my mother tongue from rising to bedtime, I can become caught in that gap. Sometimes, a little shortcircuit in the brain, some crossing of wires, and an Italian word or even a whole, brief sentence may slip into my English conversation, and suddenly the gap opens up into a deep and almost threatening abyss, the abyss of my mother's madness I have tried to keep at bay all my life.
Her madness had nothing to do with language, her madness had all to do with language. In different cultural contexts, my mother's frequent ranting and raving, apparently without any sense or order, some of her speech patterns, could have been those of glossolalia, the phenomenon of "speaking in tongues" praised and encouraged within some Christian practices. And, in yet other cultural or historical places, her delusions could have been seen, praised or feared but never ridiculed, as manifestations of the power of witchcraft or shamanism...
I come from a culture that still believes in the power of the evil eye, and the evil eye is not really much to do with a gaze but rather with an incantation that needs to be verbalized, requires an utterance to come alive, to become effective, powerful and dangerous. But I have come to see that there is another form of the evil eye: it is that question I have learned to recognize as not necessarily innocent, not always just the sign of a curiosity about others:
"Where are you from?"
Language as the marker of identity and otherness, and once  you open your mouth, even if your facial traits, your body language, your clothing style, had not already given you away as a foreign, anOther, your accent does.
Where are you from?
From another language, one far, far away, eons removed from this one."