Women writing memoirs: Embrace the truth, let it all out. You cannot unsay memories
The experience of writing a memoir is extremely personal. Setting off on an adventure of truth, Abeer Y Hoque, Alia Malek, Amy Tan, Juliet Nicolson and Keggie Carew described the process of embracing the truth and of ensuring the engine of a story moves forward.
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Amy Tan said men and women approach the process of writing memoirs differently. The content too is completely different. “The experiences are different. Certain things that happen to women don’t really happen to men. Like trauma. Which is true of my ancestors. Like my mother went through a lot, so did my grandmother. My grandmother killed herself, my mother was suicidal. None of the trauma came from the men in my family. So my story wouldn’t have been true if I was a man,” she said.
It’s not always about being a woman on the wrong side of power as a woman. “If I’m writing about Syria, what’s relevant is not that I’m writing as a woman but as a Syrian American so I’m not entirely an outsider,” said Alia Malek.
The sense of belonging
Moderator Keggie Carew asked the writers if they were defined by place, by where they were from. Abeer Hoque, who was born in Nigeria and later moved to US and Bangladesh, said, “A different place will probably produce a different memoir.”
“I think we all have a sharper lens for the places we’ve been. A place is what you can lean against when people let you down,” said Abeer.
Amy Tan, the American daughter of Chinese immigrants, said the idea of place has more to do with where you feel you belong. “When I started writing my book, I realised I knew very little about being Chinese. Because I’m American. My Chinese heritage has to do with my parents and the values they’ve imbibed in me, not China,” she said.
The engine of a story: Damage
The memoir form requires writers to bare their souls. Since this involves recalling the past and its ghosts, it can be painful. In her writing, Amy Tan often uses defence mechanisms, such as dark humour. “I get my sense of irony from my mother. She was victimised, but the one thing she taught me is to never let people tell you who you are. But, of course, as you go through life, people look down upon you. I tried to find humour through that,” she said.
Abeer Hoque’s memoir ‘Olive Witch’ deals with mental illness among other themes. She said, ‘I wrote a chapter set in a psychiatric ward and spliced it into different parts of the book. This embodied how mental illness was a profound if episodic presence in my life.
Juliet Nicolson’s book tracks seven generations of daughters in her family. In the process, she observed the emergence of some behaviour patterns. Her mother died of alcoholism, and during the discussion, Juliet revealed her own battle with alcoholism -- something she had never expected to do on a public platform.
“I saw one pattern; that women in my family resorted to sex, drugs, and mainly alcohol when in fear or doubt. I saw my mother die of alcoholism and admitting to my own problem in my book was sort of a way to show her that I forgive her for being absent. 20 years ago today, I quit drinking,” she said.
When you embark upon a memoir, she added, you let your mind embrace the truth. You can’t unsay it. You have to let it all out,” she said.
The responsibility to tell the truth
Writing the truth in a memoir can be uncomfortable, especially if it involves other people. “It is a very big responsibility and I believe in respecting people,” Nicolson said. “So if I am writing a memoir that someone doesn’t want me to mention them in, I’ll leave them out.”
Amy Tan’s conflict is different. “Privacy that concerns me is mine. An uncle of mine had objected to my book and asked my mother why she was letting me write all this. My mother told him, ‘What I went through, no one knows. This way, the world will know.’ And then she told me, ‘Go, write it. Tell the world about it’.
“Taking your secrets and making them public in a memoir is a responsibility, but going through a life full of secrets and being lied to, and then putting it out there was much more painful,” said Tan.
Hoque added: “People want you to talk about your experiences. In south Asian countries especially, talking about mental illness is really important and that’s what I’ve tried to do through my book.”
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