1 OCTOBER 2020
“In writing what we know, we often write about WHO we know. Join these artists in a discussion around the ethics of writing memoir, what it means to write real-life people into your work, and how to take care of yourself and others in your craft.”
In anticipation of this discussion – something about which I feel very passionate – I reminisced about the amazing memoirs and auto-fiction I’ve had the privilege to read and listen to.
Here are 5 of my favourites in no particular order:
The Good Girl of Chinatown by Jenevieve Chang
There are a lot of memoirs about the Asian diaspora, about the rise of Communism in China, about adapting to a new country. The Good Girl of Chinatown is about all that and what happens next. It reveals the patterns and pains of Jenevieve’s and her family’s travels in fascinating style. And we see China in the 21st century, where Jen’s stories of her time as a Shanghai showgirl had me absolutely gripped.
The Book of Thistles by Noëlle Janaczewska
Before this book, I had never, ever thought about thistles. I feel like I barely even knew what a thistle was, they were so insignificant. I could not have been more wrong. If you like your memoir deeply embedded in history and science, this book is a treasure trove. Through many snippets of archival documents, Noëlle introduces many different types of thistles and their changing reputation and legal statuses, mingled with her personal experiences. This book taught me how to eat an artichoke (a type of thistle!)
Hunger by Roxane Gay
Probably the most intimate and vulnerable writing on this list, I do recommend having tissues on hand and somebody to debrief with. It’s an outpouring of emotion that draws you down and in. I found myself swinging from tears to outright laughter and back again. With deep self-awareness, Roxane lays out the complicated relationships between a person, their body and the rest of the world.
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
From the man who brought you Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ in space. Who knew it could take so long to read such a compelling book? The problem was, I had to stop constantly to binge Wikipedia articles on space disasters, space food and the International Space Station. But while all that is awesome, the real lessons Chris Hadfield shares here are a love of discovery and a willingness to grow. And have fun while you’re at it.
Kill the Messenger by Nakkiah Lui
I saw this play performed at Belvoir, surrounded by audibly tutting pensioners. It ended up being one of the most profoundly heartfelt and unsettling shows I’ve seen. Nakkiah appears as herself, the playwright interrogating how and why we make/watch black theatre. In one scene, she grapples with telling another character about his own death. It’s a barrage of questions about purpose, meaning, hope and truth. What are the ethics of writing about other people? What is the point of staging suffering? Rereading Kill the Messenger five years on, with the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody at 441 (at least), what has changed?
Writing about your own life isn’t easy, but I love how autobiographical work can help a reader recontextualise their own life, it can inspire them or simply make them feel less alone.
After the Hero of my Own Story event, I will be talking on one more NYWF panel, with a provocative question: Why Isn’t Theatre Sexy? On Sunday 4 October 5pm – 6pm. I hope you check it out!
P.S. If you’ve never seen it, or it’s been too long, here’s Chris Hadfield performing Space Oddity… in space: