Over the years, I have been investigating why some personal writing merits the label “moving”, others, “funny”, and yet others, “haunting”.
I find it a little amusing that any of the works in this category that I admire must be adjectivised in this way. In fact, as someone who has written a personal essay or two, I feel it’s the writer who is moved recounting anecdotes, has fun re-imagining lived realities, and finds it haunting to recollect all that they have endured. Not to mention the fact that it takes immense courage to let private affairs sing and dance in the public and serve the voyeuristic instincts of readers, who are ever so ready to binge on gossip.
While I’ve failed at with my investigations, I’ve noticed that I feel more drawn to personal writing by anyone who identifies as a woman. Their prose is piercing and observant, not only because gender is clearly a discriminator here, but also because such expressions have attracted attention much hate in in the hetero-patriarchal world.
Of late, several such powerful works, written by enriching voices, emerged and been celebrated. But, for several reasons, the seven books listed below stand apart for me. This set is purposely diverse, by all imaginable criteria – race, sexual orientation, geographical location, etc. And they trace journeys that many would find too overwhelming and personal to write. The cost the writers have to pay as a result is not always literary.
Centralising personal experiences
Last year’s Nobel Prize for Literature winner Annie Ernaux’s Getting Lost is a great example of that. In a masterful translation from the French by Alison L Strayer, we taste the rawness of desire – both its palpability and its inevitability – in this memoir. Crudely put, it’s a diary that Ernaux kept during her passionate affair with S, who worked with the Soviet embassy in Paris.
But Ernaux’s un-sanitised documentation of her feelings about this man, the desires she experiences, and what it does to her is dazzling. The bareness and aliveness of this collection of personal notes by this writer, who has written ever so penetrating accounts of the everyday, inject a familiarity and an unliterary-ness into it, and also makes it a book that presents a case for both meaninglessness and the transcending quality of indulging in pleasure.
Here’s an entry:
“Student essays, lessons, emotional life, outings, receptions – it’s all a vacuum. I no longer seek truth since I no longer write, the two are intertwined. I’m also very sexual, there’s no other word for it: being admired, etc. are not what matters to me. What matters is having and giving pleasure – desire, real eroticism, not the imaginary kind, as in porn on TV or in movies.”
While several readers, including my friends who are very literary, didn’t quite enjoy this particular work by Ernaux precisely for the reasons I love it, I am sure Raw Umber: A Memoir by Sara Rai will definitely meet their expectations.
The preface had me in its grip when the multi-award-winning bilingual (Hindi and English) writer, prolific translator, and editor notes in it how certain parts of this memoir have “remained, static and unbreathing, while the air around changed”. I approached the book with the curiosity of knowing what she is set out to unravel here and also what she makes out of the towering literary personality of her grandfather, Premchand. But I discovered her more, as should be the case.
Perhaps because it’s Rai’s first “original work in English” – as the book’s dust jacket reveals – the writing is queer in myriad ways. Her perspective, choice of words, and style of recollection set this work apart from other autobiographical works. Though the memoir is richly constructed and provides insights into India’s transition from colonial to self-rule, her familial roots, Premchand, and his philosophy when it came to money and material possessions, it’s the gender bias she experienced that resurfaces time and again. Growing up in Allahabad and being a woman writer, Rai notes how in a provincial north Indian town women are both (hyper)visible because they’re “instantly noticed and stared at”, and (hyper)invisible because their experiences don’t matter as much as those of male writers.
Defying the colloquial norms of a memoir
Three women writers I’d like to mention choose specific experiences as doorways to open up the space for discussing critical issues they, and the society at large is, are faced with. From mental health to child sexual abuse, from racial discrimination to celebrityhood, these three books cover a range of concerns with candour and humour.
Anton Hur’s translation of Baek Sehee’s I Want to Die but I want to Eat Tteokbokki takes the light-and-dark binary approach to writing and documenting the continuous bouts of depression and self-doubt of a young writer. The work is largely a conversation between the author and her psychiatrist, with the last thirty pages or so being a set of quick reflections on an array of things.
The popularity of the book can be attached not only to its topicality but also to the fact that one trusts an absolute stranger with one’s deeply personal issues because there is no one in one’s life to lend a kind ear and hear one out without judgment. It also sheds light on how ill-informed we are about the everyday trauma we endure, and how much we blame ourselves, for the miscalculated decisions we make in situations that are bound to fail us.
But above all, it was so heartening to find the writer accepting her own biases – be it accepting how she plays victim sometimes and how internalised homophobia is. Not many writers will so openly document this in this world of performative activism.
Kubbra Sait’s Open Book: Not Quite a Memoir is another such book. The family Sait grew up in, the early setbacks she faced, and the career choices she made are all marked with lessons she chose to draw from them instead of considering herself ill-fated.
This multi-talented person – who stunned everyone with her performance as Cuckoo, a transgender and Ganesh Gaitonde’s love interest in Netflix’s Sacred Games (2018) – writes so effortless that it’s easy to race through this book in a matter of hours and find yourself both tearful and smiling. While it’s not really a memoir I find inspirational, it shows that women entrepreneurs are bound to learn several lessons from the value-driven and self-reflective attitude Sait had and continues to have.
Most personal writing isn’t anything like Lilly Singh’s Be a Triangle: How I Went from Being Lost to Getting My Life into Shape. Singh, who is a well-known comic, uses every trick in a writer’s playbook to make her book not only enjoyable to read but also to include actionable recommendations. While the personal anecdotes help the reader connect with South Asian parenting, the immigrant experience, and the desire to remain hungry but not-quite-getting-there, it’s the plain articulation of everyday neglect that is very striking.
The artists’ ways
I couldn’t fathom how an idea to create a timestamp of your own face could have occurred to anyone when I picked up Timecode of a Face by Ruth Ozeki. The “experiment” by Jennifer L Roberts – who asked their students to “go to a museum or gallery and spend three full hours observing a single work of art and making a detailed record of the observations, questions, and speculations that arise over that time” – is the inspiration behind this work, Ozeki notes after the first timestamp in the book.
But face can be taken both literally and metaphorically. It is your currency in the world and also your root, but most definitely “not a work of art”, the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction winner and Zen Buddhist tells herself. Then why indulge? Because one’s face breaks silences – both within and around us – and can reveal whether we are or are not ready to face ourselves. Or as Ozeki writes, “My face was a surface onto which people, especially men, projected their ideas of race and sexuality, Asian-ness and femininity, ideas that had little or nothing to do with me. I grew up wearing a mask on my face that I didn’t know was there, but over the years, of course, the mask shaped me.”
In similar fashion, the notions of hypersexuality and fiction that the White world had come to accept about people of colour were braved by the Booker-winning author Bernardine Evaristo, as she highlights and dissects in her memoir Manifesto: On Never Giving Up. In this book, Evaristo traces her life growing up biracial in a White neighbourhood and her pathbreaking entry and contribution to British theatre, experiments with poetry and prose, and, most importantly how her thoughts on activism – both political and literary – and the fluidity of sexuality have evolved over the years. Furthermore, she notes that there’s no single Black culture or history, moving away from reductive ideas about race, and uncovers how misogyny, patriarchy, and other systems of exploitations function, and how one can break away from such a system if one wants to.
For me, though, the book stands out most for the writerly advice she offers towards the end: “ … but the reality is that to maintain a lifelong career as a writer there needs to be a deeper connection to craft.” Which is reflected not only in Manifesto but also in all the other books listed here, for it’s this craft that creates literary experiences that can be cathartic, liberating, and inspiring for many.