A relative once scolded my mother, “Why do you tell your daughter these useless stories? She can’t change the past.” And my mother replied, “It can be changed. I tell her, so she can tell everyone, tell the whole world, so they know what my mother suffered. That’s how it can be changed.” (103)And there it is—the power of writing, the meaning of words, the story behind storytelling. We tell these stories not to remember our personal histories but to change them. How is this possible when there are so many memoirs out there in which horrific stories of abusive childhoods are shared? How can I say that the stories are changed when I know that I’ve read a memoir by someone who didn’t change the details, who went to a great deal of trouble to prove that the “story” of her life was the truth? When I open a memoir written by a person whose life has been so painful as to merit being witnessed in words, when I share in that process of healing by reading another person’s pain, I do so knowing that I hold in my hands evidence of survival. No matter how fractured or broken the story teller may seem to be in the midst of the story, I know that somewhere along the person’s life they started finding themselves again, pulling those pieces back into a new wholeness, and, above all else, they found their voice. Even if the book doesn’t say a word about how the person got strong enough to share their story, I know it happened because the book is the evidence. So the story is changed even as I am reading it, even if every detail is item for item the truth, because I know that this person survived. Reading Anne Frank’s diary has a sweetness and a poignancy that comes from knowing she did not survive. Otherwise, in many ways, wouldn’t she have come off as a bit whiney and even pathetically naïve about the reality of their situation? Her diary would have lost some of its relevance although it might still have been published. Who knows? The question is moot. She did not survive and everyone knows this from the very minute they hold the book. With Tan’s memoir now finished, I have added it to the pile of things that I shall give to my daughter when she comes home for her next visit (probably on Thanksgiving). Maybe she’ll find some healing in the words, read herself into Tan’s struggles with learning how to love a mother who was often depressed and irrational. At least she’ll know one thing—Tan survived her mother’s craziness. Maybe my daughter will realize that she can do the same.
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
In Which I Finish Another Memoir I grabbed Amy Tan’s The Opposite of Fate: A Memoir About Writing because it offered me the perfect reading material for while I was working out on my bike. This collection of random short essays, speeches, and articles is gathered together in this one book, a fragmented memoir about Tan’s experiences, how her life has influenced her art, and how being an author has influenced her life. Life begets art begets new life begets, one can only hope, new art. Most people are probably most familiar with Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. I had started reading it on a flight home from New Jersey but, when I got home, the book disappeared. It reappeared later and I always meant to start it over and read it cover to cover. Then my daughter read it for school and the book disappeared again. I still haven’t found it. After reading this memoir, however, I know I want to go back and read all of her books but not in the order in which she published them. I think I’ll start with The Kitchen God’s Wife. Something about her memoir made it sound as if this, her sophomore novel, was not her favorite. Perhaps it was the experience of writing it that made it difficult for her. However, the memoir quotes from the book often and I think I would prefer to read a book for which Tan feels a certain delicacy than one in which she seemed to have more confidence. Something that struck me while reading this memoir is a story she shares about her mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s towards the end of her life. Tan talks about how her writing is very much influenced by the stories her mother told with a suggestion that perhaps these stories are meant not to be a retelling of the stories her mother told but rather the stories that fill in the many gaps that mothers naturally create when sharing themselves with their children. I don’t share my darkest experiences with my children because I want to protect them. So I’m sure I have left huge gaps in my own story-telling, holes my children will have to fill in with their own meaning. I know I have done this with my mother, coming to my own decisions about what experiences she still carries in her choices and body today. Having me rather than an abortion. The profession she chose and for which she went to school. And even how she relates to my children, her grandchildren, and how her parents have influenced that through her. Early in the book, there is the suggestion of a theme which is beautifully woven throughout the memoir and I need to quote it here: