The rise of the memoir manifesto

The odd little niche that is manifesto/memoir has exploded in recent years. One would have thought the advent of the internet would have quelled, not accelerated, the genre’s (I guess it’s a genre?) popularity. Who would ever do something so pedestrian as go to a book these days for political think pieces? Twitter is right there (and by right there I mean friggin’ everywhere).  In the place of revolutionary pamphlets (Martin Luther), long bits of scroll written by white dudes (US Declaration of Independence) or stone tablets (Moses on a mountain), Twitter and blogs have become the most accessible points of contact for those seeking to define the zeitgeist of the age or to inspire change. Often, the author’s personal narrative is at the heart of these discussions. (Even our CEO Jennifer McDonald is at it. You can check out her immensely popular blog here.) As the Internet moves like water into the nooks and crannies of every aspect of our most intimate selves, manifesto and memoir have become merged.

But where the internet offers the broadest of churches in both quality of thought and quality of writing, books now treat the genre as very literary indeed. The most recognisable trigger point for the pivot was 2015’s Between the World and Me by Ta-nehisi Coates, a truly wondrous book, worthy of every one of its accolades. Winner of the National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller, the slim volume is a direct address from Coates to his teenage soon, attempting to articulate the experience of being black in America.

I struggle to think of a book that is so exquisitely written and manages to articulate the disturbing mess of racial politics. Coates is, as Toni Morison points out, a contemporary James Baldwin. He is just that good.

“So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason. All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to be twice as good which is to say accept half as much. These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile.”

511ktu-MsbLReleased just one year later, Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country is too easily reduced to ‘just like Coates’ work but for Australia’. In fact, reading these two books side by side reveals how unique - and how much further we have to go in this country. Widely acclaimed and winner of the Walkley Book Award, Grant’s intensely personal meditation on race feels at times like a confessional, at other times like an urgent warning. Every senior Australian school student should be required to read this astonishing work.

“I have started this so many times and stopped. I have tried to find the right words. It is so tempting to turn to rage and blame. I am angry: I know that. It flares suddenly and with the slightest provocation; it takes my breath away sometimes. I know where that comes from. I have seen it in my father and he inherited it from his father. It comes from the weight of history.

I am afraid too. And that comes from the same place. I have known this fear all my life. When I was young it used to make me feel sick, physically ill in the pit of my stomach. It was a fear of what could touch us - the sense of powerlessness, of being at the mercy of the intrusion of the police or the welfare offices who enforced laws that enshrined our exclusion and condemned us to poverty. It was a heavy hand that made people tremble. … We fear the state and we have every reason to. The state was designed to scare us.”

This is to say nothing, of course, of the long list of celebrated books by women on contemporary feminism. Fight Like a Girl by Clementine Ford, Shrill by Lindy West and Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay just to name a few. I highlighted so many passages from Gay’s book that it’s a neon storm from page to page.

“It's hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you're not imagining things. It's hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you're going to float the fuck away. The problem is not that one of these things is happening; it's that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly.” 

The point being there’s a lot of great writing out there on the issues of the day. The news gives us plenty of reasons to despair about the state of the world, but these books go beyond headlines, beyond tweets, to actually articulate some of the more messy and nuanced aggressions at the heart of our everyday life. 

41wmScO2UaL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Getting these books into the hands of their perfect audience - those who need to have their prejudices illuminated, who need to have their understanding deepened - is difficult. But I have even surprised myself in this regard. I went to these books to attempt to grapple with my straight, white male-ness. In doing so, I expected to be raked over the coals. Something in me felt I should read these as some kind of punishment for my privilege. Instead, I found the experience heart-warming. It validated my view of the world and made me feel closer to people. It expressed ideas that I felt in my gut but didn’t have room for. And yes, at times, it challenged me, but not as the hair-trigger challenge of an errant tweet. It confronted me on a deeper level, where I was able to have a dialogue with an author and examine my own life and behavior, quietly.

So, read these books or at least these sorts of books. Give them to someone in your life after you’ve read them and then talk about them. Bonus points if they’re a young person. 

'Tracker' by Alexis Wright - reflection by David Burton

This is our final post in our reflections on the full Stella Prize Shortlist for 2018. Check out our other posts on 'An Uncertain Grace', 'The Fish Girl', 'Terra Nullius', 'The Life to Come' and 'The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree'.  I’ll begin with an embarrassing admission: I didn’t finish Tracker by Alexis Wright. Please don’t take this as a sign that the work isn’t worth your time, quite the opposite is true. I simply didn’t have time to complete all six hundred pages before the winner of the Stella Prize is announced, and it would be such a shame to not spend some time talking about this remarkable book on the For Pity Sake blog.

Tracker is the only piece of non-fiction to make the shortlist. It’s a biography (but this label is debatable, I’ll return to that in a tick), of Aboriginal leader, intellectual and entrepreneur Tracker Tilmouth. Tracker led an extraordinary life, passing away in Darwin in 2015 at the age of 62. He was taken from his family as a child and brought up in a mission on Croker Island. From these traumatic beginnings, Tracker became a political activist and key Indigenous strategist. His legacy will shape the lives of Australians for generations to come, particularly around land use and economic development.

xtracker.jpg.pagespeed.ic.Qa95jKWF5HThe book is extraordinary for many reasons. Most importantly, it records the life of Tracker Tilmouth, who’s influence on domestic affairs is unmistakable. Tracker belongs to the first generation of Indigenous Australians who fought against internationally unique prejudice. His life eclipsed both the worst of the Stolen Generation and National Sorry Day. In this, he saw Australia at its worst and - as you sense from the book - versions of what it could become.

Highly acclaimed writer Alexis Wright doesn’t attempt to contain Tracker’s life in a ‘Western-style biography’. Rather, she calls upon an Aboriginal tradition of storytelling that she describes as a “a practice for crossing landscapes and boundaries, giving many voices a part in the story”. And so Tracker becomes a ‘collective memoir’. We hear from many people, Tracker included, in the first-person. These transcriptions of oral interviews give the book an intimacy that is non-replicable through any other biographic form. The transcriptions themselves don’t attempt to contain the speaker in a written formality. Sentences are long, trains of thought sometimes meander - so the reader, in a way, becomes the biographer. We inhabit the body of Alexis Wright, listening to these stories, sitting in the presence of Tracker and those who knew him.

It’s an ambitious work that could crumble in the hands of a lesser writer. But Alexis Wright succeeds in both style and structure, creating a tight and compelling book. I mused briefly over scanning the rest of the book to finish it before writing this blog - but I didn’t want to. I plan to return to Tracker and finish it, when I have the time, and enjoy it as it demands. I encourage you to do the same. It’s an accessible, unique, beautiful collective memoir about one of Australia’s most important thinkers.

Three Essential Tips for Writing Memoir

Memoirs are magic. Reading the story of another person’s life brings can be some of the greatest acts of intimacy that art is capable of achieving. At their most powerful, great memoirs bring comfort, for they are often lighthouses on our own turbulent journeys through crisis. To read how someone else navigated their illness, divorce, injury or trauma can be a fundamental part of how we heal ourselves.

But of course, when we’re writing them, we don’t know that. It’s impossible to tell, from the writer’s side of the fence, just how a memoir will affect its readers. The memoirist can only compile the pieces of their story and attempt to sew them together. It’s often an emotional and difficult process.

Some of you may already have been inspired by Jennifer McDonald’s Vegetarian Vampires, which marries anecdotal memoir with a modern day secular spiritual text. Jennifer’s next book, released very soon, will be derived from her incredibly popular blog The Big Breast Adventure, which is the upfront account of how she navigated her breast cancer diagnosis. With these works in mind, we have three essential tips for writing memoir.

Don’t forget your reader
First drafts of memoir can often be over-stuffed with extraneous info. When you’re just starting to stretch your muscles and get used to the idea of telling your story, you’ll want to put in everything. Often, re-drafting a memoir is an act of cutting and re-shaping the work to keep the reader in mind. The reader won’t need to know a lot of the information that you see as an inevitable part of your story. The reader, like all readers, will want to be entertained and enthralled. So from the rough foundations of your first drafts, you’ll likely need to start thinking very differently about your story. What’s important to the reader? What’s the emotional connection? What’s funny, inspiring or revelatory? Memoir is, of course, about you, but it’s equally about the reader.

What’s true and what’s real
While you’re keeping the reader in mind, you may be forced to make editorial decisions that stray away from what was ‘real’. Frequently, for example, two characters may become one. Or a week of blank time may become truncated into a day. The names (or even genders and physical descriptions) of some people in your life may change when they find their way to the page. In this way, reality is altered but the truth of the story remains the same. Often these decisions come about to make your story simpler. Sometimes they can also be employed to avoid legal entanglements. This line in the sand is tricky to navigate for some. Take James Frey’s ‘A Million Little Pieces’, famously set ablaze by Oprah’s Book Club when certain scenes from the ‘memoir’ were found to have never taken place. On the other hand, you have famous works such as Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’, celebrated and sold as a piece of fiction, but which is entirely a very thin veil of his actual life.

Overall, the lesson to take away from this is to be careful with the truth. But you can be relaxed, at least a little, with what’s real. Character’s names, or locations or details may change, but the truth of the story must remain intact. Otherwise, it’s a work of fiction.

Embrace your voice
The success or failure of a memoir often relies on the author’s voice. Jen’s works, for example, are incredibly conversational and direct. One of the most famous and successful memoirists of our time, Stephen Fry, has an incredibly unique tone. We read these works not only for the story, but for the voice of the story-teller sharing it. We want to feel close to the person telling the story. We want to be an old, trusted friend, sitting at the bar with the author as they spin us a tale.

So attempts to hide your voice in impressive literary technique, or dry historical fact, are ultimately going to make your memoir limp. Think of the work as a story you would tell an old friend. Embrace your sense of humour and your pattern of speech. Your reader’s will be grateful.


You can purchase Vegetarian Vampires here, or read The Big Breast Adventures here. I also happen to have written a memoir, How to Be Happy, and it’s available for purchase here.