- Intersectionality and Identity:Four Recent Women's Memoirs
However solitary, memoir reading, like memoir writing, participates in an important form of collective memorialization, providing building blocks to a more fully shared national narrative.—Nancy K. Miller
In her iconic essay on the memoir genre, "But Enough about Me," scholar Nancy K. Miller makes an optimistic claim: that the form, often derided as belletristic, has an active social, even political function. It enables readers to enlarge the national picture in which their own story takes place. And so, she writes, memoir "may well be the most important narrative mode of our contemporary culture."
In the books under consideration, the American narrative expands to include women writing from biracial, bisexual, and binational points of view. The authors come from the segregated South; from a combination of East Coast locations and theocratic Salt Lake City; from a winding [End Page 177] route that starts in rural Texas and ends in Israel; and from San Francisco as it gentrifies. Their stories reveal a highly variegated way to live as an American woman. Each writer has in common with the others a desire to understand her own provenance and development and, to a degree, to decipher the meaning of her narrative within the larger picture. Race figures in three of these works and religion in a fourth; gender inequality emerges in all of them.
I have begun to consider just how many people live by crossing stereotyped boundaries. We do not exist wholly within single identities, and many of us have hyphens, not to mention contradictions, in our very genes. At one extreme, you could even be the grandchild of a German Jewish publisher as well as the child of a German soldier in World War II and somehow end up a privileged, "birthright" American, as Alexander Wolff discovered in writing his family history, Endpapers. It's a wonder that anyone thinks that they are pure anything.
Beginning to notice memoirs in many places, I feel like a victim of the frequency-illusion phenomenon, where we suddenly feel that the object of a new interest appears everywhere. But in fact the memoir genre is huge. A recent search in Amazon books resulted in a list of sixty thousand titles ranked according to sales, with each book assigned to three themes. As of the writing of this review, in the spring of 2021, sixteen of the top-selling twenty memoirs were by women, including US poet laureate Natasha Trethewey's Memorial Drive. While Amazon's classification system represents an effort to place books in recognizable niches that will be attractive to buyers, its categories show the need for Miller's "more fully shared national narrative." With respect to the real lives in these books, Amazon's pigeonholes are too broad or too narrow for border-crossing human lives.
For instance, English professor Trethewey, fifty-five, is the daughter of a Black woman and her first, white husband. The poet's memoir depicts her childhood in palpable, meticulous detail and revisits the murder of her mother when the author was nineteen. The effects of day-to-day racism and how she and other family members dealt with it are foregrounded. Nonetheless, the book is grouped by Amazon under three categories, none of which has anything to do with race: "Murder & Mayhem True Accounts," "Law Enforcement Biographies," and "Author Biographies."
Natasha Sajé, sixty-six, is an American poet and English professor who was born to displaced central Europeans in Munich and brought to the United States at the age of two. She was happily married for thirty [End Page 178] years to a Jamaican man, a chef and caterer, until his death from cancer, and is now married to a woman. A nonpracticing Catholic from Maryland, she has lived in...