Not everyone can tell a story well. It becomes harder still when it is about yourself. How much of the self do you share? How do you find your voice? Would the reader find your personal experiences — so intense for you — engaging?
This and more was discussed at a session on Writing the Self: The Art of Memoir at the Mughal Tent at Diggi Palace on day three of JLF 2017. The session which was moderated by journalist-author Samanth Subramanian was a testimony to the flexibility of the genre with subjects as varied as travel (Bee Rowlatt), volunteering in a war-riven country (Emma Sky), escaping a dictatorship (Hyeonseo Lee) and erotic experiences (Rosalyn D’Mello) being explored in memoirs.
North Korean writer Hyeonseo Lee, who wrote The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story (2014) said initially she did not want to relive the painful experiences that beset her struggle to escape from North Korea to China and finally to safety in Seoul. She later had to go back to smuggle her mother and brother out of the country. “Had I been caught,” she said, “I would have been executed.”
But the realisation that this wasn’t just her story but that of the suffering of her people impelled her to tell her story.
British political expert Emma Sky, who left her job with the British Council, to volunteer in Iraq later became the governor of a province and political advisor to an American general. Moved by the idea that lessons should be learnt from the war where so many Iraqi, American and British soldiers had lost their lives, she decided to document her experiences in The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (2015) despite having no prior experience as a writer. “Finding my voice was a trial-and-error process. When I first showed a draft of my book to a friend, she said it was boring. Five drafts later, I found my voice,” she said.
In case of British journalist Bee Rowlatt, it was a desire for adventure that led her to follow the journey of her hero, the 17th century feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, to Norway and Paris and put it down in her book In Search of Mary (2015).
Journalist Rosalyn D’Mello said she wrote her erotic memoir A Handbook for My Lover (2015) as a series of letters to her lover sharing her sexual and emotional experiences. “It takes a lot of vulnerability to write a memoir,” she said. “Initially I told myself I would publish it as fiction and then I wrote freely. There is a chapter on masturbation, menstruation and the sleep patterns as bodies move in the bed,” she says. “I realised that a woman’s desire and writing about her body was a political act and finally I decided to publish it as a non-fiction memoir.”
A memoir may be intensely personal but it does affect those who feature in it. D’Mello said her partner is still to read the complete book as reading it made him uncomfortable. While Lee’s challenge was to narrate her story without revealing the identity of her relatives still stuck in North Korea, Sky had to get it vetted by the US and UK governments who wanted to ensure she did not reveal any state secrets. “It is a position of power and responsibility,” Sky said. “The restrictions are self imposed and also to do with people you write about. You don’t want to lose friends over a book.”
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