Posted on June 19, 2020 at 6:00 am
Right now, many of us are spending most of our time at home, continuing to social distance under Phase 2 of Washington state’s Safe Start plan.
It can be isolating, this feeling of being stuck and apart from those you love for an indeterminate amount of time. As a balm, I offer to you a different way to connect with others: through memoirs.
While you may not be able to connect with the friends and family you normally would, I bet there’s a memoir in the library’s collection written by someone you can relate to. (And maybe you have a friend or family member in our collection: there are several memoirs by local authors in the Inland Northwest Collection).
More personal than biographies, good memoirs offer us a close, over-the-shoulder look into the experiences of the writers. The memoirs I’ve chosen are all available in audiobook as well, so you can hear their voices to find some comfort.
June is Pride Month, so in this post, I’m highlighting some recent memoirs from LGBTQ writers. Maybe you want to read and learn about an experience vastly different from your own. Maybe you want to find somebody who really gets what you’ve been through. Or maybe you’re just looking for an author who has bared their soul, creating a space so that you might better look at your own.
If you are feeling the need to feel connected to another person, here are memoirs that do just that.
How We Fight for Our Lives, by Saeed Jones
Starting with his first memory of associating the word “gay” with “AIDs” as a young child and culminating in the death of his mother in his adulthood, Saeed Jones chronicles coming into himself as a black gay man. Early in the memoir, Jones has a revelation:
“People don’t just happen. We sacrifice former versions of ourselves. We sacrifice the people who dared to raise us. The ‘I’ it seems doesn’t exist until we are able to say, ‘I am no longer yours.’”
Jones’ memoir is haunted by his relationship with his mother, including her old friend of whom she will only say “he died of AIDs,” Saeed’s staunch defense of her goodness when his grandmother condemns her, and the weekly phone calls he makes to her as he lives a life she knows nothing about after college. Though he seems to yearn for her acceptance and wisdom, she never makes a statement on his sexuality, and he seems unable to bring himself to ask.
How We Fight for Our Lives takes a hard look at race and queerness and the ability to be both nakedly honest about who we are and yet utterly, comfortlessly secretive. Jones seems expected to know the rules of dating men without having ever been allowed to ask or even explicitly reveal his attractions. His liaisons are haunted by murky, unspoken power dynamics which he must suss out quickly and accurately or risk violence that can, and sometimes does, threaten his life.
Sissy, by Jacob Tobia
In Sissy, Tobia sets out to deconstruct the transgender narrative. Picking up any given published trans memoir, Tobia reflects, is liable to get you a story of an individual assigned one gender at birth, who then transitions and eventually comes to fit into another gender. Not so for the non-binary Tobia, who uses they/them pronouns. Tobia wants the reader to interrogate gender. “Why mustn’t boys love glitter? Why must women wear heels to look like powerful professionals?”
Tobia shares the pain of growing up in a world that mocked them for their love of Barbies, separated them from their closest friends, and dictated an ever-narrowing closet of acceptable fashion.
As they grow older, Tobia finds themself becoming a leader in their church and their college and eventually interning for the United Nations. Tobia credits these accomplishments to their gender. Because they were considered an outsider by the way they presented themselves—with hairy legs and a pair of tall heels—they had to learn perfectionism in order to be accepted. Because Tobia began questioning societal norms at such a young age, their mind was readier to find the kind of creative solutions to social issues needed at places like the UN. The book culminates in Tobia’s 2012 fundraiser for the Ali Forney Center, a shelter for homeless LGBTQ teens that was flooded in Hurricane Sandy. Tobia ran the mile-long Brooklyn Bridge in 5-inch heels, raising over $10,000 for the center to rebuild.
Tobia is currently an actor, best known for voicing Double Trouble on She-ra and the Princesses of Power. The audio version of this memoir is read by Tobia and full of sassy personality or, as Tobia might put it, glitter.
In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado
A few words of warning, this text heavily discusses partner abuse. In the prologue, Machado introduces the concept of “archival silence,” the tremors of which echo through this book. Archival silence, she says, is a means of erasing stories by neglecting to include them in collected histories. Many kinds of stories fall prey to archival silence. Saidiya Hartman calls it “the violence of the archive” and has documented African accounts of slavery. Domestic abuse in queer relationships, Machado argues, is another such story.
Machado’s own story is shared disjointed, reflecting the fragmented nature of traumatic memory. She calls herself “you” when speaking of the Machado who is still caught in her partner’s thrall, and “I” when speaking of her recovering self. Each section is framed by the dream house owned by her partner, with headings like “Dream House as Romance Novel” or “Dream House as Folktale Taxonomy.” Interspersed between memories of a magnetic, overbearing woman, Machado offers brief respite in smart, concise academic analyses of the representation of voiceless women in Hans Christian Anderson tales, of the prevalence of queer-coded villains in media, and of her own work in beginning to document the history of other victims of domestic violence in lesbian relationships.
Something That May Shock and Discredit You, by Daniel Mallory Ortberg (Daniel Lavery)
This is an experimental take on the memoir form co-opting classic tales, Bible stories, and pop culture to unpack the profound yearning for boyhood that Daniel Lavery experienced before transitioning. Slipping from Greek myth into in-depth Detective Columbo analysis and from Mean Girls references to Arthurian lore, his essays and retellings are glib, charming, and reverent each in their turn. These were the tales that he identified with and found escape in as he discovered or hid from himself, and in this memoir, he offers the reader the same escape, the same chance to say, “hey, maybe this story was written for me too”.
If you like his memoir, you may also enjoy his other works, which can be found under his surname at birth, Ortberg. Since publishing Something that May Shock and Discredit You, he has taken on his wife’s last name, Lavery. So you can find his current writings, short pieces, and social media using his married last name.
The audiobook is read by Lavery, offering the gravitas of a professor of Victorian literature and the humor of your best friend in equal measure.
For the last recommendation, I’m going to switch from memoir to fiction and point you to local author Trace Kerr and her debut novel The Names We Take, released in May. The fierce, empathetic novel features an intersex trans girl in dystopian Spokane, set sometime after the area has been wiped out by an epidemic called the “One Mile Cough.” (The similarity to the current worldwide pandemic is just a coincidence. Kerr completed her novel over a year ago.)
If you’ve already read all of these titles or are looking for something different to read during Pride Month, head over to OverDrive where you’ll find the booklist In Honor Of Pride Month, where you’ll find hundreds of choices for reading.
Share your favorite memoir in the comments. I’d love to read some new (to me) true stories.