Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Way Around: Finding My Mother and Myself Among the Yanomami The Way Around: Finding My Mother and Myself Among the Yanomami by David Good

I took an anthropology survey course as an undergraduate that greatly affected me. The professor had done his field work in the Amazon and his affection for the tribe he lived with and studied was contagious. On the other hand, as part of the class, we were assigned several monographs – studies of cultures written in the objective style required of the discipline – which put me to sleep. These writings had no life in them.

The same cannot be said for THE WAY AROUND, and maybe that is because the author, while the son of an anthropologist, is not one himself and thus not constrained by the requirements of the discipline. Rather, this book is so heartfelt and so unique that it is hard to recommend it too highly.

The author's father, Kenneth Good, went to the Amazon to study the Yanomami tribe in the 1970s. The tribe was not entirely uncontacted – there had been missionaries in the area for some time – but they still lived their traditional life, uninfluenced by the cultural patterns of the “outside” world.

Kenneth Good, as it happened, fell in love with a Yanomami girl, married her, and took her back to New Jersey, where he was still working on his doctorate. They had three children together, but in the end, she was unhappy with North American life, and, on a trip back to the Amazon, she refused to leave and return to the States with her husband and children. The author, the eldest of the three children, was five at the time, and he wasn't to see his mother again for another twenty years.

In the intervening years, he tried his best, understandably, to deny his jungle roots and the mother who, he felt, had rejected him. He invented a story that his mother had been killed in a car crash. But as he grew up, more and more alienated from himself and his origins, he finally realized he had to go back to the jungle he knew only from a visit as a young child and find his mother. This book is the story of that reunion.

The success of most memoirs depends more on the way the story is told than on the story itself. This one is different: it would be hard to imagine how this fascinating story could be ruined by poor telling. In fact, though, Good does succeed in arranging the complicated elements of his story in an intriguing and engaging way. Although the explanations he gives for some events don't seem quite complete or satisfactory, mostly these are minor events.

One of the myths most Westerners believe is that once indigenous people come in contact with our culture, they succumb. So it was interesting and heartening (even though her children paid a price) to learn that Good's mother wanted to go back to jungle life – that the simple life she knew was where she thrived. And yet, reading the last chapter of Good's book puts this idea in perspective. Good tells us that his mother's village is one of the most traditional ones left, and that many young Yanomami, like indigenous people everywhere surrounded by a very different, dominant culture, feel alienated and inferior.

I remember my anthropology professor saying, “If you want to go to the Amazon, go now,” because he knew that the hitherto uncontacted tribes were being contacted more and more, and that their cultures were changing. This is shown to be only too true. And it is ironic that Good himself, as a “half-breed,” is both a product of and a manifestation of this infiltration. But the purity of the life he describes should give all of us pause. He reflects:

“The best illustration of this [simplicity] is probably the clearheaded way I would wake up each morning while I was in the jungle. [W]ith the jungle mind-set, what was there to think about, really? If I was hungry, I went off in search for food. If I was tired, I rested. If I was exposed to the elements, I built a shelter. If I ran out of firewood, I went out and collected some more.”
Life, he seems to say, really can be simple and pure – and that people can know happiness without all the trappings of civilization.


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

MEMORY'S LAST BREATH: FIELD NOTES ON MY DEMENTIA, by Gerda Saunders

This unique book is a successful attempt by a woman developing dementia to describe her experience. The book tells the story of Sanders' interesting life, but the tale is interspersed with italicized sections that describe increasing difficulty in handling everyday events and responsibilities. Saunders discovers that even though she has trouble remembering how to do simple tasks, she is still articulate and thus able to write out her thoughts and experience. She had been a professor and surmises that she hasn't lost these verbal abilities because they have become so habitual.

Saunders' youth in South Africa is interesting for those from other countries who may know little about life for the Afrikaners. Sometimes it's hard to figure out how all of these earlier events are tied into the story about dementia, but sometimes it is clear -- such as when she asks her siblings about an event that happened in childhood in order to compare her memories with theirs.

This examination of memory causes one to ask what a human being actually is. Saunders is secular and her answer is that we are, in the end, stardust. It's a conclusion that satisfies her enough to accept what will eventually become of her individually.

Friday, November 10, 2017

On My Own, by Diane Rehm

Diane Rehm, the popular NPR talk and interview show host who retired last year, shares with readers the experience of her first year after her husband's death in 2014. The book is thoughtful, and its virtue is that Rehm is, in a sense, thinking out loud in sharing how she coped and changed.

Of course, in order to tell the story of her mourning and learning to live in a new way, she had to also tell of her long life with her husband, a successful lawyer whom she married when young and relied on for support beyond -- she now admits -- what was wise or reasonable. She isn't afraid to talk about the difficulties in the relationship, nor to deal with ambiguity, and she deserves credit for that.

She finds new strength now in the many relationships she forged over the years, as well as new interests. Her husband's difficulty in dying -- and the refusal of medical personnel to help him in ending his life -- made her an advocate of compassionate choices in ending one's life and her thoughts about this are sprinkled throughout the text.

Readers may also find inspiration in learning that Rehm did not even have a college education: being at the right place at the right time resulted in a dream job. But she credits her husband for supporting her financially and thereby making it possible for her to do volunteer work at the local NPR station to prove her abilities.

There is a minor organizational issue: Several of the chapters start out as though written as entries in a journal: i.e., "Today I . . . ." But within a couple of paragraphs, she moves to something like, "Two weeks later I . . . ." and suddenly we are not in journal territory at all. It's fine to do both, but it is jarring not to indicate the movement from journal entry to later reflection.

This is a minor complaint, though. Overall, if you are interested in Rehm, or liked her on-air presence, you will probably like this book.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Contradictions in Memoir

As I read Diane Rehm's memoir, which I mentioned in a previous post, one thing I notice is how ready she is to admit inconsistent thoughts and feelings. In truth, we are filled with such inconsistencies, but often we are content to tell ourselves that we feel what we want to believe we feel or, more simply, what we feel most of the time.

Actually, though, our minds are a jumble of thoughts, which tumble into consciousness willy-nilly. This fact may not cause so much trouble were it not for our belief that it shouldn't be so -- that we should be consistent. 

I used to teach English to college freshmen, the main curriculum of which, I'm sure many remember well, is how to write a composition. Mostly, this means a paper that makes an argument leading to a valid conclusion. I would often write things like, "Contradiction?" or "How does this follow?" in the margins of students' papers. They were supposed to learn how to be consistent. If a student was arguing for gun control, announcing that he had two guns under his bed was acceptable only if he explained why in a way consistent with his main thesis. But suppose he both loved and hated guns? There wasn't much room to write a paper about that -- and yet, wouldn't that be much more interesting?

So, partly, this desire to be consistent, or the belief that one should be, is the result of people like me  training young minds to avoid the actual contradictory nature of experience -- especially internal experience. But it is also the result of the need for identity. We want to take a stand, to have a point of view, because it helps define us in ways we want to be defined and seen by others.

This may be one reason it is so hard to write an honest memoir. We always thought we were such-and-so kind of person, but when we sit down to write, lots of thoughts and feelings that contradict our images of ourselves begin to bubble up. What we do with that determines whether we have a memoir worth reading. 

Why We Read Memoir

Previously, I discussed why we might write a memoir. Here, I want to look at the other side of the equation: why we might want to read one.

First of all, we need to relate to the writer. If the writer is not famous -- in other words, his or her only claim to fame is the actual writing of the book we are reading -- this is especially important. How is the writer like me, we want to know. Does s/he have a problem similar to mine that has been explored, clarified, or resolved through writing? What can I learn about my own situation? (And what I learn might only be the realization that I am not alone with my difficulties.)

But even if the writer is well-known for other endeavors, we still need to relate to him or her. Even if the person's fame is beyond what the ordinary person can ever imagine, we want to know that s/he is human, that he or she has foibles, and vulnerabilities. And we don't want to hear a gripe list -- how others have wronged this person while s/he has never made any mistakes.

I read a memoir some years ago. I don't remember the book's or author's name, but I remember the content. Years ago, this now-elderly woman tells, when she was young and living in France, she'd had an affair with Sartre. This was no fame-by-association memoir, however. It was a complaint -- a very loud one. She was a student at the school where Simon de Beauvoir taught, and she claimed that de Beauvoir seemed to favor her and befriend her but in fact, she was procuring young girls for Sartre. I have no idea how true this is, but it's certainly the way this woman experienced it. And now, many decades later, she still resented her treatment.

There's a certain dirty-laundry aspect of this kind of tale that makes it a good read. It also has a shirttail aspect: that is, no one would read a book like this if the other participants in the story weren't famous. But how much more interesting such a book would be if there were a bit of introspection.  The author spends the whole book trashing two people who were in the intellectual vanguard of a whole generation.  But the wider significance of her tale is never discussed.  

It can't be denied that desire for titillation offered by such a tale can be a reason to read a memoir. But it isn't the best or highest reason. The writer who learns something about himself or herself as a result of writing is the writer whom we as readers also learn from. This is where the motives for writing and reading a memoir intersect.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Writing a Memoir for the Best Reason

As we get older, many of us want to write a memoir -- to press into stone before it is too late what our lives were about, what was significant. But what was significant to us as writers may not be what would be significant to readers. Writing a good memoir, it seems, requires some of the same empathy that writing a good novel does: we need to ask what is universal about experience and frame our narrative in such a way that others can see themselves even in a tale whose facts are very different from those of our own lives.

So, a good memoir requires an intersection of the writer's reasons for writing and the reader's reasons for reading. I'm going to talk about the first in this post, and in a subsequent post, I'll talk about the second. And in talking about the first, I mean to discuss not only what a writer's motive should ideally be but what it actually is in various cases.

When I was younger, a certain man in my spiritual community had developed Parkinson's. He was a big, strapping man, and he so disliked his new, dependent condition that he was often resentful and uncooperative when his wife tried to help him. In the end, unable to deal with both the difficult medical issues and the changes in personality due to her husband's disease, she moved him to a long-term care facility

He hated it! He wanted to go home again. But it was not going to happen.

I had known this man before disease struck as both generous and wise, and, sorry to see him trapped in a situation over which he had no control, I began to visit him. He told me that he wanted to write a memoir of the time he'd spent in Africa when he was young. He had been an aid worker and also climbed Kilimanjaro. He couldn't perform the physical act of writing anymore -- and this was before the various digital aids were available -- but he proposed that he would record his experiences on tape. Would I be willing to transcribe them?

I saw this project as something this man desperately needed for his survival in a situation  where so little of what he had been remained. He would assert that, indeed, his life had meaning -- both to him and others. So, while I didn't have a lot of free time, I acceded to his request, suspecting that my services would in fact never be needed anyway.

In fact, although I visited my friend several more times, it wasn't long before his mind was so confused that recording a memoir was the last thing that would have occurred to him. The final time I visited, he didn't even recognize me. Kilimanjaro and Africa had blown away with the wind.

Did the world lose a good book because someone waited too long to write it? I can't know the answer to that. But I do believe that the motive to put your life on paper before it's too late isn't enough to make a compelling read -- assuming you are expecting readers other than family and friends. And this is true even if your experiences were unusual or interesting. 

What motive is necessary, then, to create a good book?  I'm reading two memoirs currently, One is On My Own by Diane Rehm, the NPR talk show host. The other is The Way Around: Finding my Mother and Myself among the Yanomami bv David Good, the son of an anthropologist and a woman in the Amazonian tribe his father was studying. It's easy to see how different these books are, and I'll talk about that in the next post, when I discuss why people might want to read a memoir. I've barely started both books, but I think the titles and first pages give an idea of why these authors took up their pens.

Although Diane Rehm is near the end of her life, she didn't just want to record her experiences so they wouldn't be lost. The title, On My Own, gives a hint of her main aim. She wants to record how she is growing, changing as a result of having to live life without her long-time, recently deceased husband. What is she learning or has she learned from this?

David Good is not well known and he is only in his thirties. Unlike Rehm's book, his would not have been published had he not had an extraordinary story to tell. And yet, his motive, it seems to me, is not so different from Rehm's. He is looking for himself -- or, rather, for aspects of himself that he has not accessed yet. It's about self-discovery.

I've heard other memoirists say as much -- that you don't write about what you know about yourself but you write in order to find out something you didn't know. Your book is the result.    

Friday, October 6, 2017

Kazuo Ishiguro -- Congrats!

So nice to see something good happening in the world. So good to see someone as deserving as Ishiguro win the Nobel Prize.

I heard clips of several of the many interviews he did yesterday. He talked about the many themes of his work -- how people miss opportunities, how they lie to themselves in order to continue in what would otherwise be intolerable situations.  His work is varied and always profound. He said that, although he was raised in the UK, he grew up in a Japanese household, so he saw things through Japanese eyes. Sounds like a thesis for some graduate student somewhere.

Congratulations to a great writer, and, maybe more important these days, a good man.