Memoir Writing: a literary journey into human resilience

By Francesca Lombardo – I was 25 years old when I asked myself questions such as “why can’t she see me?”, “why can’t she hear me?”, “who is she?”, “who was she really when she was a child just like me?”. 

The person I wanted to ask all these questions was my mother. A mystery to me as a child, as a teen and as young women that I longed to unlock. But mostly a pain that leaves many daughters struggling with their sense of self-worth and a fractured identity; a yearning that turns into an abyssal void. It was then that I jotted down a letter to her, a letter that I have never sent.

That letter then turned into chapters, with an incipit of an idea about a narrative structure, to explore, retell her childhood and coming of age, through the lenses of a child, a teen, a young woman; her daughter. Also to shed light on my childhood and on my relationship with her. I left it in a drawer which I closed knowing that I had to reopen one day. So I embarked on my Ulysses journey, sailed ship and bravely embraced a new world with the firm idea of becoming the true hero of my own story; I moved to the UK.

Twenty years later, with a new life behind me, the pandemic was the moment I decided to look back and resume those old questions, now with the eyes of a mature woman, and finish that book. But another complex layer emerged: reconnecting my two identities, my two stories, my two lives spent in two different countries and worlds, and my need to use writing to dispel, shed light, clean and purify a new painful wound and a new realisation.

This time it wasn’t my mother that didn’t see me, didn’t hear me. This time it was the world and the society I lived in who did not listen to me. When I reported a sexual assault to the London Police, I was abused and buried together with my case, as if it was just an old curse that I had to atone. Almost a punishment for my hubris because I was, maybe, just a woman. And so again; we can’t, don’t and won’t hear and see you.

Memoir writing is turning into a very popular literary trend. How can we forget Angela’s Ashes: a 1996 memoir by the Irish-American author Frank McCourt, a painful insight into poverty and life struggle in Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century; 

Love, Eat Pray by Elizabeth Gilbert, a spiritual journey through the soul and different continents; both turned into very successful movies.

While last century’s iconic and classic memoirs, which are a lucid insight into the atrocities of Nazism, and of Fascism, If this is a man and The reawakening by Primo Levi, and Family Lexicon by Natalie Ginzburg, set during the Fascism period and the persecution of the Jews in Italy during the period of Benito Mussolini

Memoir writing comes both from a universal need to honour a painful passage or period of our life, to reflect on the human journey and on resilience but also to close a circle in order to make sense of something that in real life didn’t make sense at all, while offering readers an opportunity to reflect on life’s powerful, incessant ability to test human resilience, pushing us to the extreme.

The Publisher’s Point of View on MEMOIR as a literary genre: Giulio Perrone Editore.

What are the essential components that make a memoir a book with the same literary value as the novel-fiction?

I believe that the tradition of a memoir is very ancient and has always had a literary dignity equal to that of the novel. As in other eras, this form of stories is returning to being, if not predominant, at least equal in importance with respect to the classic novel. Memoirs give authors also the possibility to deal more directly with issues that are now tremendously relevant to the society in which we live. On the other hand, the boundary between fiction and autofiction is quite blurred and many authors are able to powerfully narrate while staying on the border.

How important is the ability of storytelling in drafting a memoir?
Surely the technique is always important when writing but I believe that especially in an expressive form such as the memoir, the strength of the writer’s voice and the ability to touch the depth of a story remain the key aspects of the story.

In your experience as a publisher, where does the need of exploring the memoir genre arises in writers from?
It probably arises from the sense of loneliness and isolation that one sometimes feels when one adopts themes that society forgets, ignores or does not adequately value. Going to the bottom of one’s own experience is an act of incredible courage that gives others one’s experience as an example, as a model for reflection and comparison to feeling one’s own redemption possible.  

Memoirs as a literary genre is a growing trend – How do you explain this strong public interest in writing autofiction and memoirs? I think that all the hybrid forms of writing that mix the narrative element with the non-fiction one is having a great impulse also because the narrators of the new generations do not accept being crushed into a single narrative structure. I find that this impulse is healthy and literally enriches the publishing offer of recent years, especially of independent publishing houses.  

We can talk about feminine and masculine memoirs, therefore gender, and if so, as an editor who is very attentive to feminine issues, what are the essential differences in your opinion? I believe that in recent years, finally, writers are taking all the space they deserve because they have a great expressive power and also a more interesting and profound world to tell. In this sense, I think that the number of male readers who want to know and deepen female themes is also increasing and this gives us hope also for the impact that a phenomenon like this could have on contemporary society.

How important can memoirs be to focus on important issues about the condition of women and women’s place in the world and as an instrument of social denunciation?
Very, very much. Above all, because they allow us to come into contact with life, sometimes without mediations or elaborate constructions. The strength of the story in some cases hits straight to the stomach, makes us reflect and consider how essential it is to become supporters of a radical change in the world in which we live and of the written and unwritten rules that govern it.

We have selected two memoirs recently published; Transito by Spanish author, Aix de la Cruz published by Giulio Perrone Editore and Dove mi trovo/ Whereabouts by Pultizer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri (published by Bloomsbury Publishing in the UK and Guanda in Italian).

TRANSITO (Italian Publisher, Giulio Perrone Editore)

On the threshold of thirty, Aixa de la Cruz collects memories of the most significant moments of her life: from the day one of her best friends is seriously injured in a car accident to divorce, from sexual relations with other women to childhood passed without a biofather. As in a vortex, it sucks up bonds, family, identity. He chews them and spits them out. He questions the idea of guilt, not about its religious meaning, but as the interspace in which poetic justice is formed. She reflects on the current events surrounding her and influencing her generation, the #MeToo movement, the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, the feminization of politics. Transito accumulates experience upon experience until it raises a wall and invites, or perhaps drags, the reader to go to the other side. Aixa de la Cruz’s is the impure writing of the ego: between narration and essay on sexual identity, confessional literature and autofiction, a review of tweets and a set of theories. But this litany is interrupted when the self meets the other and the reveries become flesh and the scars start to bleed again.

Aixa de la Cruz was born in Bilbao in 1988, she has a degree in English Philology and a doctorate in Literature Theory and Comparative Literature. He has published the novels De música ligera (451 Editores, 2009) and La línea del frente (Salto de Página, 2015) and Diccionario en guerra (La Caja Books, 2018), a hybrid proposal of fiction and non-fiction on feminism. Transito, in Spain, won the Euskadi de Literatura en castellano 2020 Award.

WHEREABOUTSDOVE MI TROVO (British Publisher, Bloomsbury and Italian Publisher Guanda)

Exuberance, rootedness and strangeness: Jhumpa Lahiri’s themes in this book, reach a vertex and climax. The woman at the center of the story oscillates between stillness and movement, between the search for identification with a place and the refusal, at the same time, but also a yearning and longing to create permanent bonds with a foreign city.

The city in which she lives, Rome, and which enchants her, is the living background of her days, almost an interlocutor privileged: the sidewalks around the house, the gardens, the bridges, the squares, the streets, the shops, the bars, the swimming pool that welcomes her and the stations that occasionally take her further, to find her mother, immersed in a painful sense of solitude without remedy after the early death of her father. And then there are the colleagues of work in which she cannot settle down, friends, friends, and “him”, a shadow that comforts and troubles her. Until the moment of passage. Over the course of a year and in the succession of seasons, the woman will come to an “awakening”, on a day of sea and full sun that will make her feel with force the heat of life, of blood. This is Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel written in Italian, with the desire to cross a border and engage in a new literary language, going further and further out. 

Jhumpa Lahiri, was born in London to Bengali parents. Raised in the United States, she currently lives and teaches at Princeton, spending long periods in Rome. She is the author of seven books, all published in Italy from Guanda: The interpreter of ailments, The namesake, A new land, The wife, In other words, The dress of the books and Where I am, the first novel she wrote directly in Italian.  She obtained numerous awards: Pulitzer Prize, PEN / Hemingway Award, Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and Guggenheim Fellowship.

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