A Memoirist’s Manifesto

These are scary times–if extreme right-wing semi-fascist rhetoric scares you. It scares me, so I’ve found myself huddling, a little depressed, a little beaten down. I’m not talking about your religion or your political orientation. I’m talking about the extremes that many of my Christian and Republican friends are appalled by.

The language of hate and exclusion creeps into society like a cancer, a fungus. When the solution to a problem is framed in terms of “Who should we get rid of?” the intolerance poisons not just relations between those in control and the targets, but among all people within the community. Trust is universally lowered. Polarizing rhetoric sets an electric charge in the air; who is the next “us” against the next “them”? Everyone gets defensive and edgier. Anyone could be the next target. The chilling effect of threatened repression is what tempts people to draw back into themselves and to seek whatever form of safety they might imagine. I’ve been feeling it.

One important solution to political repression is to tell your story: memoir, memoir, and more memoir. I believe in memoir not just as entertainment but as a solution that reveals how complicated and intertwined our lives all are.

Me, as one example: if you want to kick out the Buddhist democratic-socialist labor activists, be sure to put my name on the list. Seriously. My mama didn’t know her baby would grow up to be an activist memoirist, but she’s survived it. I’ve been in so many activist groups and coalitions that I’ve lost count of all the acronyms. Is that scary? It shouldn’t be. I didn’t plan to be this way; that’s just where I’m drawn–and all that activity is completely allowed in a democracy. Yep, I’m a patriot working hard to make this country better. And I write about it–I write memoir that often involves politics, not to preach but to explore (although I sometimes editorialize).

But I also love a lot of people who are described as hopelessly Trump-loving white rural working-class and lower-middle-class Midwestern, people who like guns and the right to bear arms. Complicated. I love the complexity, and I won’t give any of it up. My mom is an immigrant, as are my dad’s parents. My mom’s dad and grandfather were socialist anti-Nazi activists before World War II. My mom’s parents lived through the Hitler regime in Germany; the threat of fascism isn’t an academic black-and-white photo. It’s been a haunting consuming fog, mulling over this country’s foolish flirtation with extreme ideas as a stand-in for adult problem-solving.

Sometimes I have worried that so much of my political life is online and/or in my writing. I have chiefly worried that my politics would lead to discrimination and block employment opportunities. But my family’s history–and my own study of that history–has made me realize that trying to burrow into safety and anonymity might be a personal privilege, but one that is dangerous to the body politic.

In other words, the act of “memoiring” into family stories has changed my story and my relationship to my past.

If you’re feeling unmoored, I suggest that you read a memoir about this great diverse country. We are anxious about the truth because there is so little to go around; the lack of oxygen is suffocating.

It’s funny that those with little power are excoriated for speaking about their memories—so “domestic,” so “quiet,” so “self-centered” —while massive dehumanizing lies and radical acts of inattention are issued from governing bodies. I don’t think these two threads are disconnected. Some would prefer that we wake up and remember nothing. They would prefer the fantasy that we believe what we are fed.

We are told that writing our own accounts is “selfish.” This the desperate attempt to shame us into silence.

I believe that every single scrap of memory—every smell, every can of soup, every turn of flesh—is a victory against the void and the prefabricated, the false statistics and sound bites filled with hate or oversimplification and erasure.

I believe that remembering is never selfish and that individual experience opens spaces where complex and real political solutions among diverse people can be found. Memoir is not selfish, but massaging the truth and shaping it for profit and corporate gain is the ultimate act of self-centered egomania.

Crafting beauty from a rescued photo is resistance. Individual fondnesses in the face of global threats is the point.

Raising questions, making tenuous connections—these are our work and they are a route to salvage our humanity and reorient our compasses. We have to remember that in our real stories, we are all complicated, and our stories are all entwined together.

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13 thoughts on “A Memoirist’s Manifesto

  1. sonyalea says:

    “In other words, the act of “memoiring” into family stories has changed my story and my relationship to my past.” I spent this year taking my memoir into the world, and this is the fundamental experience that altered me, and the story. Thanks for the brilliance here. It’s an anchor in these times.

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  2. philosophermouseofthehedge says:

    People need to remember to live and let live and stop trying to boss everyone else around.What works for one, may not work for all, so what? To each their own. Best to not be overly sensitve/ keep looking to be offended (by those who don’t really matter anyway) and get a sense of humor – able to laugh at yousrself as much as at others. Smiles diffuse. Really tired of all the tired snarling

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  3. Lita Kurth (@KurthLita) says:

    First of all, thank you so much for this! I too have worried about how much of my political life is recorded for possible future retribution/discrimination, but I try to follow Helen Keller’s example (incidentally, how many people know she was an avowed socialist?) : “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.”

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  4. Dana Schwartz says:

    I love this so much. I could quote the whole thing, but this stood out for me: “I believe that remembering is never selfish.” Thank you for this reminder and these powerful words. I’m very glad to have found your blog.

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  5. John Eden says:

    This is great, Sonya! I wish I’d been reading your blog all along… but this is re-inspiring me to really work at getting my War Journal published somehow. I’m so bad at that part… just like my garden, I love to plant it but I don’t weed well or even harvest well. Character flaw. Anyway, thanks! I’m feeling motivated!

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