The challenge of memoir

I’ve been working on my family history this week, sifting through my notes to try to cobble together basic timelines and family trees, figuring out the gaps in my knowledge. It has been fun and surprisingly efficient. With my new 45/15 work technique, I’ve gotten a lot more done, and faster, than I ever expected was possible.

Working through so much material at once, and returning to the project after several months’ hiatus, has given me a different perspective on it. Before, my feeling was,”My family’s history is so unusual, I have to share it!” That’s still true, but I’ve realized I no longer feel that this is enough. As far as the Cultural Revolution goes, I don’t know that my family suffered more than most; as far as immigration, they’ve had a lot of support and they started out with better resources than many. So the story alone, while definitely compelling, is not going to change the world. Which on some level is fine. But, given the chance, yes — I would like a chance to change the world.

I have a theory about memoirs, and especially memoirs of challenging periods in history: they all come across the same. It sounds terribly callous, but I think it’s true. Unless you already have some personal connection to the people or the setting, every Holocaust memoir you read sounds the same; every slave tale or immigration story sounds the same. In a very real sense, once you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. I know this is a terrible thing to say, and please say so if you think I’m wrong. But I think that unless the material already resonates deep within you and your history, all the names are just names and all the places are just places you’ve never been. The reading experience goes like this: you read the first memoir of that period or of that people. If it’s the Holocaust, it’s probably Anne Frank’s diary (which I love) in middle school. It’s all new to you and you think, “Oh my god! This is horrible! I can’t believe this happened!” It rocks your worldview for a while, as it should. But then the next book you read about the same topic, or maybe the one after that, you stop seeing the atrocities and the miracles and the beauty as unique, and you start thinking, “Oh, yeah, I already knew that they did that. In that other book, the bad stuff was worse.” And before you know it, you’re numb to the stories and they all sound the same. You can pick up a different memoir about a different era, and go through it all again. You start off, “Oh my god, Rwanda?! That’s awful!” and pretty soon you’re secretly sick of hearing about Rwanda. It’s because you are receiving these stories as representations — “this is another story of something that happened in the past to people I don’t know” — and not really connecting with the characters as individuals. Tell me, please: Is this true for you?

The memoirs I have read that have stuck in my mind have been ones that somehow transcended “this crazy stuff happened and we overcame it (or didn’t).” I will probably never forget Viktor Frankl’s Holocaust book, Man’s Search for Meaning, because he interprets his memories through his trained psychotherapist’s eye. Maus is ostensibly a story about Art Spiegelman’s parents, but what resonated most strongly with me was Spiegelman’s own reactions to their stories. Persepolis is similar; both these graphic novels are chronicles of turbulent times, but they’re also explorations of how you live with knowledge of your (or your family’s) painful history. In Jill Ker Conway’s The Road from Coorain, she describes rural Australia in the 1930s with such clarity of detail, it’s impossible for me to simply file it away as “stuff that happened to other people way back when.” Her book reads like fiction, meaning that it sucks me into its world and characters just the way novels do.

I’ve been thinking about all this in relation to my own project, and I’ve realized I have three motives in writing my family’s story:

  1. Record this story so it won’t be lost.
  2. Use this story to make one family’s Cultural Revolution and immigration experience known to others, either for historical, social, cultural, or personal value.
  3. Use this story to affect people and make them think (change the world).

These motives have different consequences and different requirements.

  1. Record this story so it won’t be lost. I can achieve this very easily, by writing a straightforward narrative of events, saving it on the computer, and backing it up. As long as the story is preserved, publication is not required. When my relatives pass on, their story will still be here.
  2. Use this story to make one family’s Cultural Revolution and immigration experience known to others, either for historical, social, cultural, or personal value. If I want the story to reach an audience, I need it to be published, ideally with a wide distribution. But it can still take the form of the straightforward narrative I mentioned in #1. The point is just to get the story out there where people can access it.
  3. Use this story to affect people and make them think (change the world). This is the toughie. By the time I finish my current stage of work, I’ll be very close to finishing #1, and could then move on to #2 if I chose. But I won’t, because I want to try for #3. How do I make my story resonate with large numbers of people? I don’t want it to just be people’s gateway Chinese-immigration story (which maybe Amy Tan has already done anyway), I want people to remember and think about it the way they do with their favorite works of fiction. I want it to be real to them, not foreign, not symbolic, but as living and tangible as a book can be. I don’t know if I can do this and I’m not sure how, but it’s worth the attempt. At worst, it’ll just be #2, and as long as I’ve done my best, I can live with that.