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.