- Reckoning with History, Form, and Sexual Violence in American MemoirThe Year in the US
The weight of history lies heavily upon this review essay. The year was marked by a presidential contest and election of profound consequence. The impact of a Trump presidency becomes clearer as challenges pile up. On a global level, warming temperatures in the Atlantic promise storms of increasing ferocity as the US backs out of the Paris climate agreement, suspends EPA regulations and wilderness protections, touts the benefits of bringing back coal, and fails in its recovery effort in Puerto Rico. At the national level, protests against racial injustice stemming from acquittals in trials of white police officers who have killed black citizens connect street actions in Baltimore and Ferguson to national scenes of NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem. Meanwhile deportation of the undocumented and a seeming declaration of war by the Republican majority on the disabled and women through its effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act are met with resistance and dismay. In this context, some memoirs this year have spoken especially loudly about the centrality of rape, sexual assault, and gender-based abuse in histories of colonialism, genocide, and American politics. Memoirs grappled not only with forces of harm and injustice, but with their scope: from family legacies to haunting histories of genocide and the persistence of racism and sexism in all facets of public and private life, this was a year in which memoir scaled up. I will offer an overview of some trends before focusing on three that grapple with structural/collective violence.
First, a sampling of life narratives that centered the personal in relation to history. From rock stars, we had an initial offering from Bruce Springsteen with Born to Run, and Patti Smith, Springsteen's cowriter on "Because the Night" and his forerunner in life writing, joined the ranks of serial [End Page 680] autobiographers by following her 2010 memoir Just Kids with the diaristic M Train and the essayistic Devotion. Life writing performed politics by narrative means in J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, a project bearing the imprimatur of controversial "tiger mom" Amy Chua and swaddling cliché in the guise of home truths. Established writers, too, turned to life writing, including established serial autobiographers like Edwidge Danticat, who continues to demonstrate that the story of one's life is anything but a single narrative unspooling in chronological order. Danticat's The Art of Dying follows Brother, I'm Dying and her recent essay collection Create Dangerously. Taken together, they comprise a trilogy of works concerned with life, death, and the sacred role of the literary witness. Danticat's profound humility suggests an ethical stance for memoirs about family that would serve well someone like J. D. Vance, who shows little of this regard for his Appalachian kin.
Formal innovation in life writing is always a rich terrain and was populated in the previous year by Sarah Manguso's Ongoingness, Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts, and Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric, among others. This year Brian Blanchfield's first-person essay collection, Proxies, stands out. Subtitled Essays Near Knowing in the US and "a memoir in twenty-four attempts" in the UK, Blanchfield's writing is of a piece with the formal innovators he identifies as his "life writing heroes: Michel Leiris, Hervé Guibert, Chris Kraus, Dodie Bellamy, Alison Bechdel" (Krull). Two enabling constraints shape Proxies: the first is Blanchfield's "total suppression of recourse to authoritative sources," which allows readers to consider anew how life writers engage with memory, and second is Blanchfield's decision to focus on vulnerability. "On Feet Washing," one of twenty-four chapters to address bodily vulnerability and shame, connects the Christian practice of foot washing to Philoctetes's chronic wound and his stepfather's own similar lesion that his mother cares for daily. It is a striking meditation on their marriage: "After twenty five years of marriage she knows this part of his body best. He hasn't ever really seen it. Often, during, feeling nothing, he watches television" (18). In this way, each chapter ("On Peripersonal Space," "On Frottage," "On Owls...