5 riveting memoirs to read right now
During Women’s History month, a simple way to support women is to engage with their stories.
A simple way to honor women during Women’s History Month is to engage with their stories. These five memoirs tell stories ranging from that a Creek Nation woman who found salvation in poetry to the complicated heartbreak that follows an abusive relationship. While the authors come from varying backgrounds, there is a through-line of resilience that permeates each book. These are stories of survival on all fronts from surviving generational violence and domestic abuse to a continuous battle with physical and mental illness. They are stories of how women can weather the worst storms and come out with brilliance. And no matter the weight of their experience, these contemporary writers find levity, humor and hope. Here are five memoirs written by women that should be at the top of your reading list.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
In her genre-bending memoir, Maggie Nelson reimagines what a family can be. Centered around her romance with artist Harry Dodge, the fluidity of Dodge’s gender identity is a cornerstone for Nelson’s analysis of queer family dynamics and what constitutes a “normal” or “traditional” family. She chronicles the fear and joy of becoming a parent once to Dodge’s son from a previous relationship and again to her own child. Humor and pain are interwoven together as they are in daily life. Nelson is unabashedly open to the point where reading her words takes on a voyeuristic feel at times as she tells stories of domestic messiness, a rushed marriage in the final hours of Prop 8 and hormone therapy -- testosterone for Dodge, IVF for her. Her poeticism allows her to circle in and out of philosophical discourse and humorous musings on sex and sexuality without ever feeling burdensome or trite. An unfettered glimpse into the life of a brilliant mind, it is a book about the impossible task of realizing one’s own identity amongst the noise.
Hunger by Roxane Gay
Subtitled, “A Memoir of My Body” Roxane Gay tells us the story of how she used her weight as a way to protect herself after being sexually assaulted at a young age. On the surface, it is about being obese, but really it is about the emotional relationship she has with her body. She does not shy away from the word fat. She does not apologize for her size. She just explains. She explains that hunger is much more than just a need for food. Sometimes it is so deep inside your soul that no amount of food or drink can fill it, but you can try. So try she did. There is a sense of nostalgia for who she was before her assault -- a mourning for the person she could have been had it not happened. She admits that she is not yet fully healed and she may never be, that though we love to think it is, the body is not a fortress and we are not impenetrable. She wanders through her life from childhood and troubled adolescence into her tumultuous 20s and into her introduction into the spotlight in her 30s and 40s. This is not a weight loss story or a story of learning to love your body. It is a story of how trauma can fester without guidance. It can become something else entirely if given the chance, and even though it is not possible to go back to being the person you were before it, you can become something new -- perhaps even something stronger.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machad
Raw, beautiful and painful, Carmen Maria Machado tells the story of an abusive queer relationship and explores the amplified heartbreak that comes with being abused by someone of the same sex through vignettes. With each chapter titled “Dream House As ___”, she explores the pain by giving it a physical place. Sometimes she addresses the relationship through a direct narrative -- telling the story of her and her abusive partners’ first road trip, their first fight ot the first time she felt like she might die in that house. While other times, she takes a more indirect approach. One chapter is Machado’s eerie take on a “choose your own adventure novel” where each choice cycles into a different instance of abuse -- showcasing the cyclical and seemingly inescapable nature of domestic abuse. She calls the memoir her entry into the “archive” that demonstrates the possibility and commonality of abuse between partners of the same gender identity -- calling into mind the idea that women are taught to fear men, but we are never taught that women are capable of the same evils. She addresses everything from nostalgia for the good to trauma from the badness and what healing can look like. Machado trudges through the mud of life before coming out onto the solid ground.
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang
In a series of essays, Esmé Weijun Wang shares her experience of living with chronic Lyme disease and schizoaffective disorder. Wang notes that it is rare to hear stories of people with mental illness directly from the source instead of from the point of view of a caretaker. She addressed the difficulty of having your identity as a person tied to a diagnosis and how it can hang over every part of your life -- an ominous black cloud that will never fade. Wang weaves bleak stories of periods of time where she believed she was dead with a harrowing love story that began in college and never ends. She finds strength in her mother, her spouse, a healer in New Mexico and the community of people living with the same chronic and mental illnesses. Wang does not shy away from her diagnosis. Instead, she finds peace in naming the thing that haunts her. She tackles everything from how the healthcare system fails the chronically ill to fighting the stigma of mental illness through outward appearance. It's a story of pain, love and perseverance.
Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo
In her memoir, Joy Harjo tells her life story from birth to her discovery of herself as a poet. Born into the Creek Nation in Tulsa, Oklahoma -- the end place of the trail of tears -- Harjo writes of growing up plagued by abusive men from her father to her stepfather and eventually her husband. She details a cycle of abuse passed down through generations -- the memoir mentions instances of abuse in her own life and the lives of her family and friends. Though her story is tumultuous, she finds shelter in her imagination and spiritual connection to the natural world. Even when she writes of her pain, there is an undercurrent of hope. She never seems to regret or pity herself for the things she went through. Her relationship with creativity is evident early on from fine art to acting to singing and finally to her discovery of the freedom that poetry can bring. In dreamlike poetic prose, Harjo’s story lives in the liminal space between reality and dreams as she tackles stories of heartbreak, birth, oppression, racism and death.