“Why Memoir?” by Louise DeSalvo
January 29, 2010
Before I left for my holiday, I received an email from my former student and writing friend, Manijeh Nasrabadi. “Why memoir?” she writes. “I fell like we memoirists are still lowest on the literary totem pole. The implication that fiction and poetry are the real literary arts and memoir is something confessional, sensationalist or self-obsessed is still widespread. The artistic and political significance of memoir is poorly understood by many who don’t get why we don’t just write fiction.” Manijeh Nasrabadi, who is writing a memoir of her life as an Iranian American/Jewish American woman, writes, too that she has gotten into arguments about this with writers of other genres.
There are, of course, memoirs that are confessional, sensationalist, and self-obsessed. Just as there are novels and poems that are confessional, sensationalist, and self-obsessed. Singling out memoir as a genre peculiarly and singly guilty of such excesses seems, to me, absurd. Would any of us declare that a poet or a novelist shouldn’t write in their genre of choice just because some writers in these genres exploit them in ways that many claim memoirists do?
But there’s more to this challenge to memoir, I think. Susan Sontag once said that great art makes the viewer/reader/listener uncomfortable. And I believe that memoir — testimony — makes many people uncomfortable. If you read, say, a novel about the sexual exploitation of a young man or a young woman, you can tell yourself that it’s fiction, tell yourself it’s a work of art, and elide the fact that this kind of thing does, in fact, happen to people. Memoir doesn’t let us off the hook, and that’s why I love the genre; memoir says, “This happened; pay attention; this is the experience, the testimony, of a survivor.” We are still, I think, despite all the “reality shows” on TV (which are so far from reality it’s scary — to me, “reality shows” blunt the experience of lived life, rather than examine it) living in a time when many of us would prefer silence surrounding the difficulties of life to the revelation of them. (When I was about to go on tour for one of my books, my editor chillingly reminded me, “Remember, Louise, for every few survivors in the audience, given the statistics, there will be a perpetrator.”)
Today — January 29, 2010 — is the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz. Samuel Pisar, a survivor of incarceration in Auschwitz, writes in today’s The New York Times, about how “those of us still capable of slave labor” were marched from Poland into Germany; how they marched “from camp to camp, day and night”; how they were “strafed by a squadron of Allied fighter planes” mistaking them for Nazi troops; how he ran into the forest, hiding there “hungry and cold, for weeks” until he was discovered by American soldiers who fed and clothes him, and gave him “my first real taste of freedom.”
Memoir is not about recounting facts; rather, it reveals the experience of life. I have always viewed memoir as a corrective to history. As does Samuel Pisar. He says this: “Today the last living survivors of the Holocaust are disappearing one by one. Soon, history will speak about Auschwitz with the impersonal voice of researchers and novelists at best, and at worst in the malevolent register of revisionists and falsifiers who call the Nazi Final Solution a myth. This process has already begun. And it is why those of us who survived have a duty to transmit to humankind the memory of what we endured in body and soul.”
To transmit to humankind the memory of what we endured in body and soul. This, then, is the task of memoir. This is why we must write memoir. And read memoir. Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, his Survival at Auschwitz (If This Is a Man) are necessary because they transmit the lived life; they describe the endurance of a single human being. Reading memoir, I believe, is one significant way for us to cultivate the necessary human quality of empathy.
But empathy isn’t easy. Witnessing another’s life by reading memoir isn’t easy. In reading memoir, we can’t say This didn’t happen; we can’t let ourselves as readers off the hook. Reading memoir requires us to move from narcissism — a preoccupation with our own lives — into respect for the life someone else has lived.
Not everyone can do this. And, I believe, that, as a culture, we’re increasingly invited not to. Reading memoir requires reflection; it insists that we take a great deal of time to get to know someone. In this “instant” this, “instant” that culture of ours, we want quick fixes, quick relationships, quick communication — think of the “tweet.” Reading memoir takes the kind of reading time that many of us choose not to invest in a book — the kind of reading time that involves, as Louise Rosenblatt said, a transaction with the book we hold in our hands. We are not simply readers; we are witnesses. Witnessing someone else’s life carries with it a moral obligation: to respect, to care, to revere. Witnessing, really witnessing someone else’s life, leads to acts of caring, leads away from acts of victimization. And this witnessing, says Samuel Pisar, is what might enable us to live together in harmony.
How many of us choose to do this?
There is so much more to be said about the writing of memoir, about the reading of memoir — and I’ve lately been reading many memoirs of survivors of WWI and WWII, among others and would like to comment upon those, as well as upon the writing of memoirs by so-called “ordinary” people, but I will stop for now. For I would like to stay, today, with Samuel Pisar and his warning about the necessity of testimony, and I shall close with his words.
“And it is why those of us who survived have a duty to transmit to humankind the memory of what we endured in body and soul, to tell our children that the fanaticism and violence that nearly destroyed our universe have the power to enflame theirs too….[O]n this dark anniversary, [we need to remember] how often we remain divided and confused, how in the face of horror we hesitate, vacillate, like sleepwakers at the edge of the abyss. Of course, they remind us, too, that we have managed to stave off the irrevocable: that our chances for living in harmony are, thankfully, still intact.”