So many good books to read, so little time to do it!
A while ago I decided that as a fiction writer aspiring to a high standard of style and quality, I will only read literary fiction: no genres like romance or sci-fi, no history books, biographies or memoirs. Several weeks ago I broke my own rule and read two memoirs: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah and Becoming by Michelle Obama. My wife had read them and assured me I would enjoy both.
Most of what I write is based on my own life experience and I said to myself that reading the memoirs of two people I respect might show me more clearly how to bring forth personal material while ensuring my work still reads like a novel. We read memoirs in order to learn about the people who interest us. We follow the life of the author without a plot — first this and then that, a simple chronology. One reads fiction to enter an alternative world. Even realistic fiction has one leg on earth while the other is reaching the skies and the author is digging deep into the soul. Fiction is driven by plot. Surprises. Twists. Turns. The techniques used in fiction writing should be more elaborate, more complicated, intense.
My wife was right. I enjoyed the two memoirs a lot.
Michelle Obama seemed regal, and I mean it in the best possible sense. She was up there, with the stars. Warm and profound, I could see her sparkle. She chose her words carefully. Used to being under the microscope, she spoke very honestly about her life and what surprised me was her self-awareness, indeed her obsession, with being black and a woman in a white male world. Before reading her book I wouldn’t have thought of it, maybe because I am white and male.
It started early. Her very young second cousin asks her, “How come you talk like a white girl?” Michelle explains: “Speaking a certain way — the ‘white’ way as some would have it — was perceived as betrayal, as being uppity, as somebody denying our culture. Years later, after I’d met and married my husband — a man who is light-skinned to some and dark-skinned to others, who speaks like an Ivy League-educated black Hawaiian raised by white middle class Kansans — I’d see this confusion play out on the national stage among whites and blacks alike…Do I trust you or not?”
Her family is described in detail in the book — her father and her amazing mother, Barack and their love story, her “two most perfect babies ever to be born to anyone, anywhere,” — as is her unbelievable trajectory to the White House. Her origins are unassuming. Admission to Princeton is celebrated with “pizza delivered from Italian Fiesta.” I would have had champagne poured over my head in a restaurant with white tablecloths and chandeliers!
She is painstakingly detailed: “I’d constructed my existence carefully, tucking and folding every loose and disorderly bit of it, as if building some tight and airless piece of origami.” She understands she is on a mission and works hard to accomplish her tasks and on her way, with all her humility and intelligence, she is surprised and awed by her newly attained position and fame.
Here is how she describes her reaction after Barack Obama’s keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston: “‘Must have been a good speech,’ I said when a beaming, bustling Oprah Winfrey showed up at our house to spend a day interviewing us for her magazine.” Oprah! And later, after being mobbed by a crowd of well-wishers in Arizona: “This for me felt like a true measure of his fame: Even white people were recognizing him now.” Later yet, the first time she encountered the presidential motorcade: “…something massive came around the corner: a snaking vehicular army that included a phalanx of police cars and motorcycles, a number of black SUVs, two armored limousines with American flags mounted on their hoods, a hazmat mitigation truck, a counterassault team riding with machine-guns visible, an ambulance, a signals truck equipped to detect incoming projectiles, several passenger vans, and another group of police escorts.”
She never forgets the women, especially the young ones. In a a passage from her visit to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in England: “There were girls in hijab, girls for whom English was a second language, girls whose skin made up every shade of brown. I knew they’d have to push back against stereotypes that would get put on them, all the ways they’d be defined before they had a chance to define themselves.” And the conclusion: “The energy I felt thrumming in that school had nothing to do with obstacles. It was the power of nine hundred girls striving.” She writes about the leadership and mentoring program she started at the White House: “We had girls from military families, girls from immigrant families, a teen mom, a girl who’d lived in a homeless shelter. They were smart, curious young women, all of them. No different from me. No different from my daughters.”
She never forgets Barack’s work. She describes the letters he receives as President, an aspect of his work that often gets overlooked: “He read letters from soldiers. From prison inmates. From cancer patients struggling to pay health-care premiums and from people who’d lost their homes to foreclosure. From gay people who hoped to be able to legally marry and from republicans who felt he was ruining the country. From moms, grandfathers and young children. He read letters from people who appreciated what he did and from others who wanted to let him know he was an idiot.”
And she is a good writer. She has a way of ending paragraphs — simple and punchy at the same time. She described how at the beginning of her relationship with Barack she felt tormented by questions about the two of them and completely out of focus. And then they ate some ice cream and he asked if he could kiss her. “And with that, I leaned in and everything felt clear.” And in another instance: “My father — Fraser Robinson III — had a heart attack and passed away that night, having given us absolutely everything.”
She is humble. She was the First Lady of the United States, yet she quotes her mother, “the plainspoken enemy of hyperbole, still says anytime someone starts gushing about me and Craig and our various accomplishments, ‘They’re not special at all. The South Side is filled with kids like that.’”
Contrast this with Donald Trump on his Access Hollywood tapes, “…using language so lewd and vulgar that it put media outlets in a quandary about how to quote it without violating the established standards of decency. In the end, the standards of decency were simply lowered in order to make room for the candidate’s voice.” They continue to be lowered and with them, our perception of ourselves.
If Michelle Obama was regal, Trevor Noah’s book was like watching a colt run through a sunny prairie. Yes, I recognized his voice. Reading his memoir was like listening to The Daily Show. A little more involved, of course.
To him the color of his skin was a fact of life, not a constant reminder of where he started and what he has achieved. Growing up in South Africa, he was constantly reminded of his mixed race. “The doctors took her [Trevor’s mom] up to the delivery room, cut open her belly, and reached in and pulled out a half-white, half black child who violated any number of laws, statues, and regulations — I was born a crime.” And later in the book: “I was famous in my neighborhood just because of the color of my skin. I was so unique people would give directions using me as a landmark. ‘The house on Makhalima Street. At the corner you’ll see a light-skinned boy. Take a right there.’”
Michelle describes her fight to be a successful black woman living in an overwhelmingly white environment; Trevor describes his life amongst a black community who sees him as different.
Like Michelle Obama, Trevor writes about language and color: “…language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.” And also: “I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.” This is why black girls felt Michelle’s English identified her as white.
He writes about apartheid. “The triumph of democracy over apartheid is sometimes called the Bloodless Revolution. It is called that because very little white blood was spilled. Black blood ran in the streets…As the apartheid regime fell, we knew that the black man was now going to rule. The question was, which black man? Spates of violence broke out between the Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC, the African National Congress, as they jockeyed for power…Instead of uniting for peace they turned on one another, committing acts of unbelievable savagery. Massive riots broke out. Thousands of people were killed. Neck lacing was common. That’s were people would hold someone down and put a rubber tire over his torso, pinning his arms. Then they’d douse him with petrol and set him on fire and burn him alive.”
Like a colt, Trevor ran. He cared, but he didn’t seem to care too much. This was his world and he ran to escape his mother’s spanking (hiding), other boys, the school, the people who pursued him for shoplifting, his stepfather and the police.
The book has a beautiful arch, where a powerful scene in the very beginning is repeated almost word for word in the end. Trevor and his mother have a way of finding laughter among pain and tears.
Trevor was nine years old when his mother threw him out of a running minibus, to save him from the gangsters driving it. And afterwards she started laughing. This is at the end of the first short chapter in the book. “I started laughing, too, and we stood there, this little boy and his mom, our arms and legs covered in blood and dirt, laughing together through the pain in the light of the petrol station on the side of the road in the middle of night.”
An then, at the end of the book, when Trevor is an adult and has left his home, after Abel, Trevor’s stepfather, shoots his mom: “‘Mom, [Trevor says] you were shot in the face. There is no bright side.’ ‘Of course there is. Now you’re officially the best-looking person in the family.’ She broke out in a huge smile and started laughing. Through my tears, I started laughing, too. I was bawling my eyes out and laughing hysterically at the same time. We sat there as she squeezed my hand and we cracked each other up the way we always did, mother and son, laughing together through pain in an intensive-care recovery room on a bright and sunny and beautiful day.”
Physical punishment was the norm of the day, in school and at home. Here is how his wonderful mother put it: “If I don’t punish you, the world will punish you even worse. The world doesn’t love you. If the police get you, the police don’t love you. When I beat you, I’m trying to save you. When they beat you, they’re trying to kill you.’”
Trevor’s mother always said Jesus was there to help her, yet Trevor always found comic relief in the occasional horror of sermons and the expression of people’s demons: “Black church had one saving grace. If I could make it to the third of fourth hour I’d get to watch the pastor cast demons out of people. People possessed by demons would start running up and down the aisles like madmen, screaming in tongues. The ushers would tackle them, like bouncers at a club, and hold them down for the pastor. The pastor would grab their heads and violently shake them back and forth, shouting, ‘I cast out this spirit in the name of Jesus!’…Good Lord, that was fun.”
Was Trevor religious? Not clear. Here he is, talking to his mother at the hospital after she had been shot. “‘But where was your Jesus to pay your hospital bill, hmm?”…She smiled and said, “You’re right. He didn’t. But He blessed me with a son who did.’”
Was reading these memoirs a learning experience for a fiction writer? Yes, it was: just pour my soul into my writing, let it flow, and be who I am.
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