In Letters to the World, a New Wave of Memoirs Draws on the Intimate

Written by
The New York Times
Dec. 12, 2019

The memoir, as we know it, was born out of an act of petty larceny. Late one night in the fourth century, a teenager plucked pears off a neighbor’s tree. He didn’t especially want them; he tasted a few and tossed the rest to the hogs. He stole them for the sake of stealing them. “It was foul, and I loved it,” he later wrote. “I loved my own undoing.”

The pleasure he took in the pointless theft haunted him. Years later, a bishop and newly respectable, Aurelius Augustinus — St. Augustine — began to plumb his past in his “Confessions.” He described, in warty detail, impressive youthful indiscretions (there are more interesting vices, he was to discover, than stealing pears) and a reluctant path to transcendence.

That spirit of self-scrutiny lingers on in autobiographical writing. But the form evolves with the fashions, and with our anxieties: about disclosure, authenticity, performance. Today memoirs might be more therapeutic in aim, or explicitly political. Some swagger; more than a few dissemble. There are subgenres with conventions and rich histories of their own (slave narratives, for example). Lately a new form has begun to cohere, or an old one to return. Call it the epistolary memoir: a life told in the form of a letter, inaugurated, perhaps, by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s National Book Award-winning “Between the World and Me” (itself inspired by James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time”).

Imani Perry’s new book, “Breathe,” is written as a letter to her sons.

<p>Imani Perry’s new book, “Breathe,” is written as a letter to her sons. Photo credit:&nbsp;Sameer Khan</p>

Some of these books address ghosts. The journalist Delphine Minoui invokes her beloved grandfather after his death in “I’m Writing You From Tehran.” In “Heartland,” her account of generations of family poverty, Sarah Smarsh writes to a child she imagines having had in her teens: “I’m glad you never ended up as a physical reality in my life. But we talked for so many years that I don’t guess I’ll ever stop talking to you.”

More often they offer benedictions over the living. “There is something wild-eyed about whiteness right now, at this moment in history,” Imani Perry writes in “Breathe,” a letter to her sons. Many of these memoirs crystallize around the killings of black men and women, of Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner. “I write you in your 15th year,” Coates addresses his son at the beginning of “Between the World and Me.” “This was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free.” In the opening scenes of “Breathe,” we find Perry and her son sitting on the sofa, listening to the news of Troy Davis’s execution. These memoirs are full of the love and frantic fear black parents feel for their children, and the fugitive hope that education or class might offer some measure of protection. But they are also rich evocations of abundance: “I cannot clip your wings,” Perry writes to her sons. She will not permit them lives of narrow circumspection: “I want your wingspan wide.” Several accounts vibrate with the exhilaration and anxiety of rupturing ancient silences. “I was the third generation of things we didn’t talk about,” Terese Marie Mailhot writes in “Heart Berries,” a series of letters to her lover, in which she delves into her childhood on the Seabird Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest, and familial legacies of abuse and addiction. In “Heavy,” an exorcism of his childhood in Mississippi, Kiese Laymon addresses his beloved mother: “Neither of us would ever, under any circumstance, be honest about yesterday. This is how we are taught to love in America,” he writes, remembering the brutal beatings she administered in an effort to make him so perfect, so unimpeachable, that he might survive America.

It’s a recurring note in several books — a parent’s cruel and desperate attempts to toughen up a child for the world. “I grew up in a house drawn between love and fear,” Coates writes. “I would hear it in Dad’s voice — ‘Either I can beat him, or the police.’ Maybe that saved me. Maybe it didn’t.” In Ocean Vuong’s essays and autofiction written as letters to his mother (a Vietnamese immigrant), he imagines something similar: “Perhaps to lay hands on your child is to prepare him for war, to say that to possess a heartbeat is not as simple as the heart’s task of saying yes yes yes to the body. I don’t know.”

Those notes of uncertainty interest me — “Maybe that saved me. Maybe it didn’t”; “I don’t know” — given the form’s history. Traditionally, the memoir addressed to one’s descendants enshrined an official family story. “Dear Son: I have ever had pleasure in obtaining any little anecdotes of my ancestors,” Ben Franklin begins his “Autobiography.” “Imagining it may be equally agreeable to you to know the circumstances of my life, many of which you are yet unacquainted with, and expecting the enjoyment of a week’s uninterrupted leisure in my present country retirement, I sit down to write them for you.” The memoir continues in this vein of purring complacency, the sweetness of a life tasted twice, first in the living, then in the telling.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book “Between the World and Me,” addressed to his son, was a direct homage to Baldwin.

<p>Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book “Between the World and Me,” addressed to his son, was a direct homage to Baldwin. Photo credit:&nbsp;Cole Wilson for The New York Times</p>

The new epistolary memoirs, however, are less interested in stitching a life into a tidy narrative shroud than in ripping it from its seams. Fittingly, many are documents of intense reluctance. Even Baldwin starts “The Fire Next Time,” writing to his nephew: “Dear James, I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times.” “I did not want to write to you,” Laymon begins “Heavy,” addressing his mother. “I did not want to write about us. I wanted to write an American memoir. I wanted to write a lie.” Perry bristles at the prospect of pity, of having strangers tell her, “it must be terrifying to raise a Black boy in America.” No, she insists to her sons: “No matter how many say so, you are not a problem. Mothering you is not a problem. It is a gift. A vast one. A breathtaking one, beautiful.”

While the scope of these books is broad, national, transhistorical, the spaces they unfold are intimate. Laymon’s memoir is dedicated to his grandmother’s porch. In “Breathe,” a book light on physical detail, the old sofa Perry and her son sat on as they waited for the news of Troy Davis comes in for sudden, affectionate description. “Indian women remember often, like me,” Mailhot writes. “But mostly it is while their hands are wrist deep in the dishes. There is always something on the floor to pick up with a rag.”

The first time I copied down that sentence, I mistyped it. “There is always something on the floor to pick up with a rage,” I wrote. Not entirely wrong, I think. The domestic, as Mailhot observes, interferes with the writer’s ability to complete the memory, jot down the thought (those soapy hands), but it is still the site, the source, of the realization, the place that paradoxically engenders and inhibits writing. It is the context; it provides the stakes. Paule Marshall wrote about her education as a writer “in the wordshop of the kitchen,” listening at the elbow of her mother and aunts.

In inviting the reader into their relationships, in allowing us to eavesdrop on them, these memoirists harness a particular power of the domestic: its language. “We live in a ‘goal-oriented’ era,” Coates writes. “Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas and grand theories of everything.” Speech between parents and children, or between lovers (as in “Heart Berries”), can be glib, manipulative, evasive, violent as these memoirs amply illustrate. But, in a moment when public language feels debased and cynical, our private languages — our intimate languages — seem suddenly unique, capable of a rare kind of sincerity and shame, willing to admit confusion: “Maybe that saved me. Maybe it didn’t.” “I don’t know.” It is language taken to the brink, “another alphabet written in the blood,” as Ocean Vuong writes, “sinew, neuron and hippocampus; ancestors charging their kin with the silent propulsion to fly south, to turn toward the place in the narrative no one was meant to outlast.”

[Via The New York Times]