Memoir is an interesting genre because memoirs reflect how the writer remembers events. Often I find that the feelings and social commentary of the author’s memories, rather than the events they recount, are most intriguing. And I particularly like memoirs that are genre-bending. By this, I mean memoirs by people who practice another form of art or whose expertise of a subject filters through to their personal writing. In this sampling of my favorite memoirs, I’ve included one each from a critic, a journalist, a poet and a photographer.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
If you’ve read Bluets, Maggie Nelson’s essay collection about falling in love with the color blue and her loneliness that coincides, then you’ll see The Argonauts is a continuation, a happy ending to that exploration of loneliness. If you haven’t read Bluets, then you should read all of Maggie Nelson’s work. She has an extraordinary intellect for detailing her own feelings, for figuring out the problem. In The Argonauts she explores how we name our families and whether or not words are good enough. This is a book for all the excitement in your heart.
Zami: The New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
Published in 1982, Zami: The New Spelling of My Name is a must read in your lifetime. Lorde was a poet who was outspoken about what it meant to be black, gay, and a feminist. Zami explores learning to read, being a daughter of immigrants, factory work, and being a black lesbian in 1950s Greenwich Village. I’ve read whole chapters over the phone. Even now, after talking about it, I want to go home and read it.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow
Since Fire Shut Up in My Bones came out last September it missed last year’s summer reading list. So here it is: a memoir about being black and growing up in a deeply segregated southern town where slavery has deep roots and using one’s intellect to leave. It’s a memoir about exploring one’s sexuality and finding one’s place in the world. This is a much-needed book—it recently won a Lambda Literary Award for best bisexual non-fiction—and one you should read this summer.
Hold Still by Sally Mann
Best known for her photography, it makes sense that when Sally Mann received boxes of photographs and papers from her family, that the snapshots would lead her to investigate her family’s past and her own childhood. She had heard rumors of alcoholism and murder, but her parents never talked about it outright. This book is an exploration of family, of history, and of the South.