My posts during April form part of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. I will be writing to a theme: book genres, largely taken from the comprehensive Goodreads list.
What is a memoir? The dictionary defines it as: 'a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge'.
"Don't let's go to the Dogs tonight" was the first of Alexandra Fuller's autobiographical writings of her early life in Africa which I read. It was some years ago now, but I remember how eloquently she described the surrealness of a life lived in extraordinary circumstances. For anyone who has lived a safe and secure life, where there is no unrest - civil or military - it is hard to explain how you can go about as normal. The only way it can be explained is because that's what everyone else you know is doing too; it's your 'normal'. She has received criticism for not commenting on the overt racism of her parents and their peers, or of their decision to doggedly pursue life in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe despite the extreme danger. But - like "To Kill a Mockingbird" before it, Fuller has written a memoir of her childhood, seen through her eyes as a child. This enabled her to simply observe and to report life as it actually was. She is not passing commentry, she is not writing a judgement, or an apology. It is simpy a story of how it was.
More recently I read her "Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness" the story of her mother's family and their history. Whilst the previous book put a personal perspective on the news reports of farms being re-possessed after a lengthy struggle with their white owners, this new memoir caused a huge emotional resonance in me. I cannot suggest that my story or experiences are in any way like hers - for they are not - but there's something about the nature of the family relationships which chimed for me like nothing else I've ever read. The casual hard drinking and occasional drug taking among ex-pats is quietly observed; the book title drew a rue smile, even though it isn't a direct reference to this aspect of ex-pat life.
Peter Godwin's "When a Crocodile eats the Sun" is a memoir of Zimbabwe, seen from his viewpoint as the adult sun of parents who have chosen to remain. This book starts out more as reportage - not entirely surprising as Godwin is a journalist by trade. However, when he becomes emotionally involved and drawn in to his parents' day-to-day life, it changes. Whilst he wishes his parents would leave for their personal safety, there is no doubting his complete empathy with their love for this country. To them, this is home. They are Zimbabwean, they are African. Clearly, there is something about this continent that generates a hugely emotional connection.
From a very different part of the world is "Red Love: the story of an East German family" by Maxim Leo. Leo is 19 when the Wall comes down. His parents are at odds - from the standpoint of political idealogy. Leo's mother is the child of a socialist war hero, someone who fought with the French communist partisans. Her childhood would be considered golden in this newly created socialist country, as she is chosen for leadership roles due to her background. But she is a journalist, she studies history ... and she is confused, then she doubts and finally she leaves the party she has loved for most of her life. Leo also meets both grandfathers and tells their individual - very differing - tales. This book which spans the Before, During and After the Wall is utterly fascinating.
History for me is brought alive when I see it through the eyes of individuals. Personally, I'm not bothered if they are notable or ordinary, I feel both bring something to the party. Generally, I don't seek knowledge of the great events and the people who shaped them, but the experience of people more like me.
Do you enjoy memoirs? Or do you prefer your history to be more historical and less personal?