What the rise of memories has meant for non-fiction

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From Margery Kempe, recognized as a key ancestor of the form, to Michelle Obama, who wrote the best-selling example to date, the memoir has a long, sometimes charged and often feminine history. It is also very popular. The third installment of Deborah Levy’s recently completed “Living Autobiography” has had a print run of 70,000. Trevor Noah’s memoir of growing up biracial in apartheid South Africa, Born of a crime, has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years. Actor Matthew McConaughey Green light set camp on the list 46 weeks ago and shows no signs of changing.

This year’s book releases, and especially this fall, are a testament to the genre’s continued dominance in Canada and abroad. From a background perspective, the memoirs with or upcoming titles span the gamut from establishment types (Jean Chrétien, Peter Mansbridge) to comedians (Rick Mercer, David Sedaris, Mark Critch), writers and artists ( Ai Weiwei, George Elliott Clarke, Donald Antrim, Bernardine Evaristo, Donna Morrissey), musicians (Steve Van Zandt, Warren Ellis, Dave Grohl) and athletes (Billie Jean King, Mark Messier, Hayley Wickenheiser). The number of memoirs of Indigenous writers, including Jesse Wente, Fred Sasakamoose, Chief Clarence Louie, Tomson Highway, Jody Wilson-Raybould, the late Richard Wagamese and Clayton Thomas-Müller, is remarkable.

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The five nominees for this year’s Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction – the richest and most important non-fiction award in Canada since RBC Charles Taylor’s demise last year – are memories. Three are Indigenous authors – Jordan Abel’s NISHGA, Tomson Highway Permanent amazement and Darrel J. McLeod Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity – and all, exceptionally, are by men (Ian Williams’s Disorientation and Ken Haigh On foot in Canterbury complete the field). Each member of the Weston Prize jury – Adam Shoalts, Terese Marie Mailhot and Kevin Chong – wrote a memoir, Mailhot having been nominated in 2018 for his, Heart Berries.

Being inherently about oneself, memoir is perhaps a logical form for our identity-centric cultural moment. Some see it as an opportunity to correct past imbalances. When asked about her thoughts on the Weston Prize list, Mailhot, who is Indigenous, replied, “My primary concern as a judge is to decenter the white literary aesthetic. One cannot solve the edition in a literary year with a single price. I will say that there is something beautiful about these books that transcends the ideas I had about representation and what the work of a singular story is.

Where once you had to be someone – a Churchill or a Hillary (Sir Edmund or Clinton, take your pick) – for an editor to be interested in your memoir, just as the key now is a unique angle or identity. . Nicole Winstanley, vice-president of Penguin Random House Canada, which has published three books on the Weston Prize List, sees the rise of memoirs as a kind of democratization of storytelling: “The real thrill of reading in general is luck. to see the world through the eyes of another, and to go to places that would otherwise be inaccessible. What we seem to see is that readers and critics are reacting to this opening up of intellectual and cultural places that many have never been with real exuberance.

Judging by this fall’s international offering, these places can be quite specific, if not obscure. In her In the eye of nature, for example, French anthropologist Nastassja Martin reflects on the transformative experience of surviving a bear attack in Russia, while Richard Antoine White i am possible details the path that led him from the rough streets of Baltimore to becoming principal tubist for the Santa Fe Symphony and the New Mexico Philharmonic.

Being famous-adjacent helps. Royd Tolkien, great-grandson of JRR, has just published a memoir recounting the trips he took around the world with his fatally ill brother as part of the latter’s bucket list. In his own forthcoming memoir, Omar Sharif Jr., the grandson of the one you think of, combines memories of his grandfather with details of his gay coming out in the wake of the Arab Spring. Starting with that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau Confession (not to be confused with those of Saint Augustine, which are not so juicy), salaciousness has always been a mainstay of the form of memory. Hence Faith Jones’ next one Nun sex worship, recounting his escape from his grandfather’s religious sex cult in Macau. It’s all there in the title ready for the tag, really.

The dissertation is about speaking one’s own truth, a business that can backfire when viewed as selfish or grandiose. Witness Zoe Heller’s famous Do Not Take Prisoner review on Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph anton, who accused him, using various forms of acid eloquence, to take the opportunity to play the role of victim. An example: “One could hope that by recalling his emotions in freedom and security, he could bring a certain ironic detachment to his own grandiloquence. Hindsight, alas, had no sobering effect on Rushdie’s bench. self-esteem. An unabashed sense of what is due to him as a beleaguered waiting literary immortal permeates his book. (Rushdie’s memoir is 656 pages long, so it’s very ubiquitous.)

But there are also practical and economic reasons behind the memory rush. As much as non-fiction is having a moment, writing it – as a story or a report, say – is time consuming, expensive and potentially cumbersome, legally. Attaching that magic colon followed by a “brief” to your title goes a long way in mitigating risk. It’s quite different from saying “It was so” instead of “I think it was so”.

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In a candid and widely read essay published in 2016 in Canadian Notes and Queries, Charles Foran, who won the Hilary Weston Award in 2011 for his biography of Mordecai Richler, and who became executive director of the Writers’ Trust in 2020, wrote on his decision to forgo a contract with Knopf for a non-fiction book he wanted to write, knowing that the advance would not cover the necessary research, time and travel. “What is observable for anyone sitting on a non-fiction jury in Canada,” Foran wrote, “is that there are too many memoirs, written on the cheap, and too many potentially great books that aren’t. not, literally, sufficiently documented, traveled. enough, thoughtful enough. … Most Canadian authors cannot afford to write non-fiction beyond the budget of our own experiences. The view out the back window is about all we have the funds to explore.

Author Kamal Al-Solaylee agrees that for most Canadian writers writing non-fiction is an unaffordable luxury. Although the early days of Al-Solaylee, Intolerable, was a thesis, he decided to do his last, To recover, a work of report in spite of the very personal impulse which animates it.

While on the board of directors of the Writers’ Trust, Al-Solaylee was part of a committee exploring the idea of ​​a grant for non-fiction authors of books that had been taken over by a house. editing, or were at work. step in process. The idea was greeted with enthusiasm, but the pandemic struck, forcing confidence to shift its focus to supporting writers who had lost their usual sources of income. Recently appointed director of UBC’s School of Journalism, Writing and Media, Al-Solaylee hopes the initiative will be revisited once things return to some semblance of normalcy. “Think of all the history that can be uncovered or the life-changing pieces of investigation that can result from supporting this work.”

Indigenous memories present a special case in the Canadian context. It’s one thing to read about the residential school system in a history book – something no one has done, for decades, because it just hasn’t been written – quite another to read the story of someone who experienced it, either personally or through the trauma of their ancestors. Some titles, like that of Jordan Abel NISHGA, which combines grim black-and-white photographs, fragments of poetry, personal anecdotes, and legal documentation in the form of an art book-like hardcover, offers a radical challenge to the traditional form of memory. That so many Indigenous memories were able to inject humor into their stories – Wente, Highway, and Thomas-Müller spring to mind – is remarkable in itself and shows an almost unthinkable resilience.

Neither Mailhot nor Wente could explain the recent abundance of indigenous memories. Asked about the goals of his own post about to be published Not reconciled, Wente said, “I guess I was just hoping to take the big systemic issues and show how they manifest on a personal level, so people can understand or see the connection between the systemic and the staff.” Mailhot, too, was phlegmatic on the subject. “I don’t know how or why these NDNs are there,” she wrote in an email. “I’m just happy we’re here. I can’t wait to learn more. I love our people and our stories and am especially proud of the art we have cultivated and inspired each other.


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