Book launches are carefully choreographed events, but I cannot recall any getting the kind of rock-star reception a memoir and its writer got at the Royal Festival Hall on a chilly evening in December 2018.
Over 40,000 people tried to get tickets to the hall that accommodates barely 2,700 people. The author was not a celebrated writer, but a celebrity no less: Michelle Obama, former First Lady of the United States, whose memoir Becoming was being launched in Britain.
I still remember the ever-rising chorus of cheers that greeted her as she walked on the stage, to join a conversation with noted Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There was much wit, humour and frankness about her upbringing, demons in her mind about not being good enough, her informal encounter with Queen Elizabeth, and marital problems (“trying to meld two lives together, that is hard”).
The diverse, mostly young audience could not have enough of her as she spoke of life lessons, the “art of reinvention”, insisting that she is “not here yet”, much remains to be done, which explained the title of her memoir.
Asked for advice by young black women on navigating life, her response resonated among many: “It’s still hard out there… We are demonised, we are too loud, we are too everything. I experienced that. Just having an opinion, how dare I have a voice and use it? It is a threat not just to white men but to women. Some of my first pricks came from women journalists who accused me of emasculating my husband…You have to start by getting those demons out of your head. The question I ask myself is, am I good enough? That haunts. It is set from the time we are little.”
The account of a First Lady’s experience in the White House is of keen interest in any memoir. She told the audience with rare candour: “Here’s the secret. I’ve been at every powerful table that you can think of. I have worked in non-profits. I have been in foundations, corporations, I’ve served on corporate boards, I’ve been at summits, I’ve sat in at the UN. They are not that smart. They do a lot of things to keep their seats; they do not want to share their power. And that makes you feel that you don’t belong. I am not saying that there are no talented people out there. But I am here to tell you that their ideas are no more exciting. They don’t solve problems any better. There is still a lot of brokenness in the hands of people in power who make us feel that we don’t belong. They haven’t fixed it yet because they need our voices to make that happen.”
The text of Becoming is a continuation of such frank thoughts as she reflects on the course of her life, providing another example of the riveting genre of memoirs, written from personal knowledge about lives, challenges or historical moments. The genre has a long and rich history, with millions of books in various languages; everyone has their favourite ones. Memoirs are stories that open windows: to find inspiration to face a challenge or suffering, since shared experiences are powerful motivators; to read inspiring tales of overcoming the odds and triumphing over adversity; for insight into other cultures or backgrounds; to read about how others who have made mistakes similar to ours can help us avoid them; or to read about cautionary tales based on reality.
Some of the most known memoirs are: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, by Mohandas K Gandhi, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, The Soul of a Butterfly by Muhammed Ali, Boy and Going Solo by Roald Dahl, Istanbul by Orhan Parmuk, Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall by Spike Milligan, and Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie.
Here’s a brief look at three among my favourite memoirs that also struck a chord in many readers.
Stories, in the end, as Kazuo Ishiguro told us in his Nobel Lecture after receiving the prize for literature in 2017, are about one person saying to another: “This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?” I was reminded of this when I could not put into words what daily running was doing to me when I began on the journey to overcome a health issue some years ago. The pain, fatigue and sweat were not new, but running was also having an effect on the mind that I could not explain, a sort of emptying of the mind, grounded in the moment, going pleasantly blank while running. One thing led to another, and I finally came across a memoir that perfectly described what I was going through: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami, a slim book about how running and writing mysteriously intersect that I devoured in one sitting.
He writes: “Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running everyday…No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act. As a writer then, and as a runner, I don’t find that writing and publishing a book of my own personal thoughts about running makes me stray too far off my usual path…One thing I noticed was that writing honestly about running and writing honestly about myself are nearly the same thing. So I suppose it’s all right to read this as a kind of memoir centered on the act of running…I’m often asked what I think about as I run. I always ponder this question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue…I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void…What I mean is, the kinds of thoughts and ideas that invade my emotions as I run remain subordinate to that void.” Over 180 pages, Murakami ponders and writes in a stream-of-consciousness way about running marathons and daily runs that has resonated with millions of runners and others.
Writers using one’s experiences and life situations in books dubbed as ‘novels’ is a long-established ruse, one of the best examples being One Hundred Years of Solitude, that cult classic by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It was supposed to be a novel, but the way it portrayed life of a multi-generation family in the fictional town of Macondo also reflected phases in Colombia’s history, and drew on aspects of the writer’s own life. Garcia Marquez wrote other delightful books, but so identified is he with the novel that when his memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, was published in 2003, many felt they were reading the classic again. The memoir spans the writer’s life from his birth in 1927 through the beginning of his career as a writer to the moment in the 1950s when he proposed to a woman who would become his wife.
Here is how the memoir begins, when the writer’s mother asked him to go with her to sell her house, redolent of One Hundred Years…: “She had come that morning from the distant town where the family lived, and she had no idea how to find me…She arrived at twelve sharp…Something in her had changed, and this kept me from recognizing her at first glance. She was forty-five. Adding up her eleven births, she had spent almost ten years pregnant and at least ten nursing her children. She had gone gray before her time, her eyes seemed larger and more startled before her first bifocals, and she wrote strict, somber mourning for the death of her mother, but she still preserved the Roman beauty of her wedding portrait, dignified now by an autumnal air.”
At one point, there is a line that would fit any description of life in Macondo, when he writes about a pharmacist’s wife: “The only thing about her that was still intact was the odor of valerian that drove cats mad and that I continued to recall for the rest of my life with a feeling of calamity.”
Writers hog all the limelight when books succeed, but few readers know of the editors behind the scenes who shape raw manuscripts. One such was Diana Athill, editor at Andre Deutsch publishers, who worked with several literary stars, such as VS Naipaul (she edited his 18 books and called some of his comments ‘ridiculous’), Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Simone de Beauvoir, Norman Mailer and John Updike.
A minor sensation before her retirement in 1993 after 50 years in publishing, Athill, who passed away in 2019 aged 101, later became something of a star herself with a series of memoirs, winning awards and addressing sell-out events as she advanced in age, retaining the critical outlook that helped shaped the books she edited. Some of her best memoirs are: Instead of a Letter, Stet: A Memoir, Somewhere Towards the End, Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend, and Life Class: The Selected Memoirs of Diana Athill.
She writes at the beginning of Somewhere Towards the End: “It is so obvious that life works in terms of species rather than of individuals. The individual just has to be born, to develop to the point at which it can procreate, and then to fall away into death to make way for its successors, and humans are no exception whatever they may fancy. We have, however, contrived to extent our falling away so that it is often longer than our development, so what goes on in it and how to manage it is worth considering. Book after book has been written about being young, and even more of them about the elaborate and testing experiences that cluster around procreation, but there is not much on record about falling away. Being well advanced in that process, and just by having had my nose rubbed in it by pugs and tree ferns, I say to myself, ‘Why not have a go at it?’ So, I shall.”
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