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Memoir ...'we go to the genre not so much for detail or style as for “wisdom and self-knowledge,” for what the main character, who is always the author, has learned.'
As a writer of memoir, I would say, that the above quote is at the essence of reading - or writing - memoir. I'm currently reading a book by Alison Morrison, called Dodging Elephants - I can't resist books set in Africa - they have the attraction of taking me there, to places I've been, I can 'see' and I understand. I live vicariously through the writer's experience of Africa and continually compare it to mine, maybe not the events but the sense of place and people. You see, my soul constantly calls me back to the land of my birth and when I'm there, when my plane lands, I'm too embarrassed to do it, but I want to fall on my knees and kiss the ground, like the pope. Instead, quietly and surreptitiously I bend down and touch the ground with reverence, because I'm home, the land of my birth.
The thing is, I must have a split personality when it comes to my cultural identity. Although born in Africa, we left when I was three. I grew up in Wales, love and embrace Wales and it's culture and land and generally would see myself as Welsh. I have been back though, to Africa, lived there and visited the land of my birth quite a few times.
I once went to an Amnesty International poetry evening - must have been in 2011. Four poets were on stage and each of them gave poetry readings which related to their different cultural identities, the lands where they grew up and had lived in.. I was so inspired by their poetry, that I went home and wrote two poems - one about my birthplace Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and the other about being Welsh and definitely NOT English. Which just goes to show ... the poem entitled Bulawayo was entered in an international poetry competition and, to my astonishment, won. The other poem, called Cymru am Byth (Wales for Ever) I read out recently, at the Poetry Society monthly Poetry@3 afternoon session - an open mike event where many experienced and beginner poets come together to read out 2 poems each. I was surprised to find that everyone laughed and enjoyed it and I got loud applause.
Getting back to 'Dodging Elephants' a title which reminds me of my memoir title, ' A Hippopotamus at the Table', both those fabulous beasts, bring Africa to mind. But Alison's book is about a cycle race from Cairo to Cape Town, set in a very different era (recent history), while mine was set in apartheid South Africa in 1975.
'Wisdom and self knowledge' ... gained through experience? Her book - and I'm only half way through, has themes of fantastic endurance and determination in the face of huge physical obstacles. She is part of a group and must learn to adapt, support and be supported by her team. The main themes of my story are of immersing myself in Africa, survival, while dealing with the huge obstacles of apartheid and a police state, which formed the backdrop to our lives as surely as Table Mountain, which towered above our lives.. Tragedy knocked me back and I learned how to move forward from it, to put one foot in front of the other, one day at a time. A different person left there, than the naïve one that had arrived two years before - both tougher and more fragile perhaps, with the mist a little thinner in front of my eyes. That's what those of us who read memoir wish to discover about the life of the author.
Now I teach memoir writing, having graduated from the 'memoir writing school of life' by spending so many years trying to write that story. My book was published in 2015. Yes I have learned from my experiences, that's why I love to teach memoir, because so many of you out there have a story to tell. Maya Angelou says 'There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.' That quote will start my second book.
My second book, called Memoir Writing, How to tell a Story from your Life will be out at the end of August. The third one - a second memoir, called Beyond the Bounds, set in London and Indonesia - will come out next year. Watch this space.
Oh and a new Memoir Writing course will start in September(North London) - drop me a line if you're interested at firstname.lastname@example.org