Three headings: a memoir, a novel, and a panel discussion.
1. The memoir: Call Me American, by Abdi Nor Iftin
Abdi Nor Iftin is an immigrant from Somalia, a young man in his early thirties who settled in Maine a few years ago. As a boy in war-torn Mogadishu, he was so enthralled with the idea of America that he had a nickname on the streets: “Abdi American.” Abdi lived through unbelievable hardship before eventually getting a lottery-based chance to come to the US. The book is hard to read in many ways, but easy in another way, in that it is so wonderfully well written: a difficult story engrossingly told. Abdi credits his family – still in Somalia – with helping him flesh out his memories as he was writing the book. He now works as an interpreter for other immigrants.
I don’t even have the words for how deeply and thoroughly a story like this, and a person like this, contradict the vicious lies of the cabal that came to power in this country partly by playing on people’s ignorance and fear of “the [utterly imaginary] other.”
2. The novel: Remind Me Again What Happened, by Joanna Luloff
Also newly published, the novel tells the story of a long friendship among three people, two of whom are married to each other, one of whom loses years of memories after contracting a mosquito-borne illness. It’s an exploration of memory, friendship, honesty, love, and secrets. It suggests questions like: Who are we without our memories? Can we borrow or commandeer other people’s memories? What happens when we keep secrets from the people we’re closest to? And what do we really know of each other given the secrets we keep from even from ourselves, and even if our memories are “intact”?
A challenging novel, quiet, at times a bit bleak, but absorbing and in the end, hopeful. For me the portrayal of the complexity and challenge of a set of long term relationships, a sort of chosen family, was even more thought-provoking than the exploration of memory.
3. The panel discussion: Truths, Lies, and In-Between: The Ethics of Memoir Writing
I went to this discussion in Portland last week – three memoirists and a moderator talked for an hour about memory and memoir-writing. My only complaint is that it should have been two or three hours longer, and my main takeaway …it’s complicated.
The discussion gave me a lot to think about in relation to telling personal stories. I don’t have a “big” story like Abdi Nor Iftin’s, but since I treasure the handful of written family stories that I have from past generations, I sometimes think about writing one of my own. I don’t even know where to start, so nothing may come of it. But it’s inspiring to listen to people who have actually done the work.