BOOK REVIEW: Memoir is having a moment
SA is experiencing an 'aha' moment and this is reflected in the many personal stories which many people can relate to 25 years into democracy
Why these people, though, and why now? As a keen reader of memoirs, I think it could be partly down to the “aha” experience you have when you hear someone else tell a story you deeply relate to. In SA, specifically, we perhaps the need to hear our own stories 25 years into democracy. It is also surely because the novel, having wandered into a tricky postmodern territory, has lost its fan base; and partly, perhaps because we live in an age of psychotherapy, where baring the soul is considered cathartic and right.
Melinda Ferguson, who after writing her own memoirs — Smacked (2005), Hooked (2010) and Crashed (2015) — went on to become a publisher, believes the road to the memoir’s moment was paved by TV. “Memoir has definitely gained popularity in recent years with the advent of reality TV, where there has been a growing fascination, even obsession, with the drama and intimate lives of people.”
Ferguson says evidence of the memoir boom is that as a publisher of memoir she regularly hits best-selling status in SA terms — 5,000 books. An example is Drug Muled — the Vanessa Goosen Story by Joanne Joseph and Vanessa Goosen.
“The public was fascinated by the story of how this young beauty queen was jailed in a Thai prison for 16 years after being found with heroin as she tried to leave Thailand. Then, Sam Cowan’s From Whiskey to Water, about the popular broadcaster’s days as a problematic drinker to becoming a long-distance swimmer, has done very well.”
Ferguson co-wrote and published Being Chris Hani's Daughter with Lindiwe Hani in 2017. “It became a bestseller as the public was fascinated to read about how it was to grow up as a child of the great Chris Hani. Lindiwe was brutally honest about the challenges she faced, including her own struggle with cocaine and her journey into consciousness and recovery.”
In 2018, she says, Tracy Going’s Brutal Legacy was an instant hit. “I think its success lay in the fact that Tracy is still well known as the golden girl of TV and radio from the 1990s. When she was badly beaten up by a boyfriend, the story made news headlines and so her story was part of people’s consciousness. Combined with her brilliant writing, this had all the ingredients for a best seller. So it’s clear that celebrity-type memoirs do well locally, but there is a lot of room for brilliantly written memoirs by unknown people as well.
“Last year, an incredible memoir on growing up in a toxic family by a 24-year-old unknown author, Christy Chilimigras, sold exceptionally well, and I recently published a millennial memoir by 19-year-old Saskia Bailey, granddaughter of Drum magazine founder Jim Bailey, called Whatever, which has leapt into the bestseller charts.”
Ben Williams, GM: marketing, loyalty, online at Exclusive Books, agrees it is not only older people writing memoirs: “What’s newly appreciable in this category is the trend of memoirs coming from younger people, who are relatively well-known personalities. A few years ago, political memoirs dominated, but lately, the trend has favoured the memoirs of public personalities, some of whom can be quite young.
“Trevor Noah is in his mid-30s, but his memoir Born a Crime is already counted as both a bestseller and a classic. In 2017, the likes of Tumi Morake and Iman Rappetti followed suit with their own memoirs, alongside Khaya Dlanga, Mpho Dagada, Musa Ngqungwana, Haji Mohamed Dawjee and Wilbur Smith.
“Publishers are still willing to take risks on compelling personal stories from writers with low profiles, with local examples from 2018 including Like Sodium in Water by Hayden Eastwood; The Love Diary of a Zulu Boy by Bhekisisa Mncube; and Tsk-Tsk: A Memoir by Suzan Hackney,” Ferguson says.
These writers are continuing in the footsteps of other South African writers who established a long tradition of personal and engaged writing, some of it coming under the banner of journalism, says Lesley Cowling, head of Wits Journalism, citing writers such as Sol Plaatje, Noni Jabavu, Bessie Head, Es’kia Mphahlele, James Matthews and Don Mattera.
Cowling says a firm foundation in personal writing was set in the 1950s by the legendary writers of Drum magazine: “The Drum writers of the 1950s represented a particularly creative flowering of personal writing and experience, which is credited with the creation of a new identity for urban black South Africans. The banning of their writing and the magazine robbed the country of an important literary movement, which continued in exile through the writings of Lewis Nkosi, Njabulo Ndebele and Bloke Modisane, all of whom wrote personal accounts of their lives,” she says.
But why now the burgeoning of memoir in SA? “We have a need to develop our own perspectives. Inherent in these forms of journalism and memoir are ideas of memory, subjectivity and reconstruction,” Cowling says.
Is it taking it too far though, to imagine that our cogitations are fit entertainment for others? There has long been an antipathy to memoir.
Author Vincent Pienaar thinks life writing, as it’s also called, should be guarded against. When asked if his book Tsunamis, about an accident-prone chap called Bert, was in any way autobiographical, he replied: “As a fiction author, I do my best not to be autobiographical. The scenes I describe in my work usually exist and I have seen them — the action within the scenes I have also often witnessed. The stories themselves? Well, this is where the fiction part kicks in? In Tsunamis, I place Bert in a situation and I decide what he will do.”
He adds: “Something of myself [my soul, if you like] is always in my writing. ‘Some people hide from death, others go out to face it’ is a theme of the book. Does that come from the characters? I guess not.”
It particularly irks him that memoirists can easily portray themselves in the best light: “Do people who write memoirs ever lie, or do they simply relay their experiences and thoughts in the most beautiful prose they can conjure up? Simply put, if you want to write fiction and you end up writing your memories, you’d better get back to the drawing board real quick. Personally, I think people who can write should trust themselves with fiction a bit more.”
And yet, a memoir can make for riveting reading. If faced with the choice between reading Msimang’s book about living in Lusaka with parents in exile and a novel about it, I would choose Msimang’s book any day. Because I know it’s true. I know the characters she describes who lived in their block really existed, and the family’s experiences with some of the expats they came across, really happened. And I know that the conclusions she draws came from her own struggle with the events.
US memoirist Mary Karr says in her seminal book, The Art of Memoir, that she loves the democracy of the form, its way of being “flimsily held together by the sheer, convincing poetry of a single person trying to make sense of the past”.
It is true that memoirists can fabricate, but they are in danger of being found out.
It is said that Karr is largely responsible for the upsurge in interest in memoir in the US in the past 20 years. Her riveting books The Liars Club, Cherry and Lit, tracing her childhood with two crazy parents through her alcoholism and recovery, reached a new level of disclosure and honesty in writing.
What makes her memoirs bestsellers is that she can write; whether novel or non-fiction I suspect she would be eminently readable. Her books are page turners, from the moment her mother tries to burn down the house with her daughters inside, to the time she spent in a psychiatric institution and her subsequent miraculous academic and literary career.
It seems we need to hear our own voices, rather than those of a long tradition of fiction writers. And even though much of fiction is based on actual occurrences and the author’s life experience, we want to read about real people and real events. More than that, we want to write about it.
Dawn Garisch, a Cape Town doctor, has been running life writing courses for the past 10 years. She says the feedback from participants indicates that giving people in a facilitated group the tools to help them write about their experiences has valuable outcomes. “They grow in confidence, learn to express themselves more effectively, develop compassion, become more curious and less fearful. They reconnect with playfulness, energy and experimentation, the resources we bring to creativity and learning.
“Debriefing from trauma, revisiting the story you have been telling yourself for years, and using effective writing as advocacy, all help to improve health and wellbeing. We started the Life Righting Collective to sponsor people to come on courses,” Garisch says.
Ferguson, who also runs memoir writing courses, agrees that doing memoir work can be transformational: “Truth and authenticity are key to great writing. I work with writers to drop their pretences, to write with courage and to work through creative resistance. I see writers transform through this work, not only in their writing but in their lives.”
For many novices, a memoir is the first step on the ladder of a writing career. After all, it was Olive Schreiner who advised aspiring writers to “write about what you know”. Apart from its value for readers, a memoir is a great way to begin to grow our next crop of writers.