Is writing memoir a transgressive act?

I’ve just come across Lindsay Miller’s impassioned essay on the cultural and political power of women’s memoirs in this recent essay in The Atlantic. I have to say I’m impressed at her dedication to reading the sub-genre of memoirs by Iranian women. I enjoyed and learned much from Persepolis, which was on Miller’s bedside table, but for an education on Islamic women’s issues in a single volume, my vote would be for Geraldine Brooks’s Nine Parts of Desire from 1995, written after two years as a Middle East news correspondent.

Miller is adamant about memoir being an “inherently transgressive form”, although if I see another first-person narrative about a woman moving from the city to the country in search of her own navel I will surely scream. However, she has a point that women’s lives are constantly the subject of a critical meta-discourse that suggests how we should look, behave, marry, reproduce, disappear. She believes that:

Writing a memoir, writing honestly and deeply about life as we see it, is perhaps the most basic way to counter that toxic, restrictive force. By putting down on paper the words that describe how we move through the world, we act in opposition to the cultural forces that attempt to define our lives for us. We claim the role of expert on our own experience and overrule the chorus of voices coming at us from all sides, telling us who and what we should be. For women, for queers, for minorities of any kind, simply telling the truth about the way we live is powerfully subversive.

My interest as a reader and as a writer, is in first-person nonfiction that tries to go beyond the rather hackneyed and conventional storytelling structures that a lot of contemporary memoir seems to abide by. As I’ve stated elsewhere on this blog, I prefer the Elif Batuman and Geoff Dyer approach to first-person narrative nonfiction. Inevitably it’s much harder to do, but at its best, their approach to writing reflects both in its subjects and its structure the complexities and nuances of “how we move through the world.”


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. How eloquently put, “chorus of voices coming at us from all sides, telling us who and what we should be.”

    I love to read the stories of women as well who break outside of these rules and tell it like it is. Earlier this year at a college commencement, I heard the Keynote speak of women in 3rd world countries struggling to be heard rather than to be hurt. Very powerful, and your post triggered thoughts of one of these stories.

    A young woman from the Middle East had been raped in her village. Rather than allowing herself to be shamed and punished, she sought an attorney outside of her country. While I cannot recount all of the details of the story, this young woman went against society and sued for her dignity. She ended up winning a small financial award, but it was enough to start a small school in that 3rd world country to help women learn to read and write.

    I’d love to find her memoir.

    Thanks for sharing,
    Heidi Lee

  2. Thanks so much for writing, Heidi. And you raise an important point when you say that you’d love to find this woman’s memoir – because of course it does not exist. (Yet.) Her story would make a fine book, yet without the invisible but necessary infrastructure of publishing (places to publish, editors to read/curate work, distribution channels) there is no market for her own story in her own country. There are complex cultural and historical reasons for this, but I’m thrilled to know about her, and to know that she is helping other women to learn to read and write. Literacy is fundamental to sharing stories.

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