A Coastline Is an Immeasurable Thing: A Memoir Across Three Continents by Mary Alice Daniel

A Coastline Is an Immeasurable Thing: A Memoir Across Three Continents
by Mary Alice Daniel

A moving transcultural, transnational memoir in the vein of Enough: A Memoir of Mistakes, Mania, and Motherhood by Amelia Zachry, The White Mosque: A Memoir by Sofia Samatar, or Homebound: An Uprooted Daughter’s Reflections on Belonging by Vanessa A. Bee about a woman of mixed national heritage seeking her place in our increasingly transcultural, transethnic world.

In Daniel’s case, she moves from Nigeria on the coast of West Africa to England, and from there, to the United States. Across the span of three geographic zones, she also crosses into and between multiple cultures: Nigerian, Black-British, Black-American, coming to terms with herself as a bit of everything. Intersected between the racial and ethnic lines are the class lines and linguistic lines Daniel must also negotiate. This is a story of code-switching across multiple planes.

This is also a universal coming-of-age story about how we come to understand perceptions of ourselves from within and beyond ourselves. Who we are is not a singular explanation, but one refracted through a prism, the final view is ultimately dependent on the eye of the beholder and the position where they stand. What Daniel’s highlights in this memoir is both how dependent this view is on historical, cultural, class and geographic context.

For readers who enjoy memoirs and those which trace the processes of identity change, this is a winner.

The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir by Joseph Auguste Merasty and David Carpenter

The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir
by Joseph Auguste Merasty and David Carpenter

Every memoir is significant, on the basis that it documents a part of the human experience — and in the end, what do have if not an experience of life? In the context of the universe, this is what makes our existence unique — but there are some memoirs, some human experiences that possess a weightiness absent in others. That is, they reveal a humanity that transcends individual experience. The Education of Augie Merasty is one of these memoirs.

The cruel history of colonial settlement isn’t newly discovered — but it was hidden, deliberately and systematically for centuries. In the past fifty years and much more recently, excavations of memories, land, and archives have revealed the depth to which this erasure was taken. Merasty’s memoir is one of these excavations. [My Name is Seepeetza by Shirley Sterling (30th Anniversary Edition) is another memoir of residential schools and colonialism in Canada I’ve read this year, if you’re interested.]

I have an especial interest in these kinds of historical documents, not only as a historian of decolonization, but as an educator; the utility of the historical documents in the classroom are invaluable to convey the real effects of racism, colonialism, the power of the state in shaping our lives. Students often see the government as some kind of abstracted, remote thing, a hovering object over their lives that merely casts a shadow every once in awhile. Memoirs of this nature reveal how wrong that assumption is; the state is neither above nor below, it is embedded in every part of our lives and beings — even our DNA and the genomes that make up ourselves and our ancestry have been shaped by states and power. The Education of Augie Merasty is proof of the depth of the state in shaping human experience.

What makes The Education of Augie Merasty poignant is not only the memories he shares with the reader, but the whole of the story of this memoir’s making. The convoluted path and necessary involvement of the writer, David Carpenter — who serves as historian here — is a testament to the damage and legacy of settler colonialism in North America. The incompleteness of the stories, the silences and gaps in time and memory, as well as Augie’s language, preserved here by Carpenter, are evidence of the zigzag pathway that history is recorded, preserved, interpreted and ultimately used. As a tool to teach historical methodology, The Education of Augie Merasty is a fantastic case study.

The chronology of the memoir too, in the way it links the past to the present, is invaluable. Too often students see history as a static, buried thing of the past. That myth is a hard one to kill. But kill it we must, because history is not only the root of the present, it is also a reflection of our present selves and world. That is a key characteristic of history: Carpenter’s presence in these pages and the unresolved ending (unlike many memoirs, this is not posthumously produced) help to deliver this lesson.

Other aspects of the memoir make it even more perfect for classroom and course use: its length is short, its language is accessible, its story is compelling and shocking. The absence of larger historical events occurring in Canada and the world are also bonuses here too, allowing the instructor to compliment the text as appropriate to the course level.

Merasty’s memoir is one I will be considering for use in my courses.

Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror Edited by Angela Yuriko Smith & Lee Murray

Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror
Edited by Angela Yuriko Smith & Lee Murray

I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect from this collection: Modern horror? Literary criticism? Traditional tales of terror? It intrigued me regardless.

What Unquiet Spirits delivers is a combination of all of the above. It is memoir, criticism, history, and ethnography in balanced fusion. Each chapter is written by an Asian female author and in it she discusses both her own writing, the cultural and historical inspiration for her characters, the origins of some feminine demon, ghost, or creepy — a unquiet spirit — which haunts her and the pages she has produced. In some chapters the author draws on a deeper well of literature of the past and ponders the future of the female spirit archetype that is the focus of their chapter.

The books is divided by and devotes its pages equally to feminine spirits across the Asian continent, from East to Southeast to South Asia. I was pleasantly surprised to see such attention given to Southeast Asian spirits and archetypes (my favorite was always the pontianak, the evil spirit of a woman who lurks in the dark under the protection of a banana tree. In my recollection, she can be “pinned” to the tree with a needle or a pin and made to do the pin-holder’s bidding. But, beware to that horrid individual if the offending metal is ever removed!)

While the collection examines different demons and feminine archetypes from across a swath of very diverse cultures, it ultimately makes a singular, united appeal to the reader. Their call to action is unmistakable: Asian women, as a whole, alive or dead, demonic or angelic, monstrous or victimized, are powerful beings. Asian women have been too long overlooked in the literary world and deserve more than the whispered, submissive voice they have been too long assigned by Orientalists; hear them shout, scream, screech!

For that reason alone, Unquiet Spirits is worth reading. But there is more.

The authors reveal facets of the Asian feminine that have rarely been visible, that is to Western audiences. To Asian women, we have always known they were there, even when our patriarchal societies told us to ignore them, to castigate them, to revile these demonic women as ill-influences on ourselves and our communities, yet still, Unquiet Spirits is sure to deliver novelties and new knowledge to Asian/Asian American readers.

Home Safe: A Memoir of End-Of-Life Care During Covid-19 by Mitchell Consky

Home Safe: A Memoir of End-Of-Life Care
During Covid-19
by Mitchell Consky

This memoir was a bit out of character for me; but, I’ve been reading quite a few memoirs this year and this one caused me to pause. Is it too soon to read about Covid-19? We’re not quite past it yet, are we? Given that Covid-19 remains looming in so many places and may very well make a comeback, I figured it might help my own healing to read about someone else’s pandemic experience. Admittedly, mine was mild, privileged, and uneventful in comparison to so many millions of others on this planet. What did others feel? How did others live through this? We talked amongst each other, but too often we said a lot of nothing to avoid the anxiety that a deeper, more nuanced conversation could too easily trigger.

From a historian’s perspective, memoirs like this — indeed, the millions of posts, tweets, blog posts, articles, stuff — that we produced in the past few years say something poignant about this strange and traumatic moment in our individual and collective lives. What was this moment in our history? Memoirs give us entrée into others’ internal lives, see how others experienced this.

Consky’s account of the past couple of years, encompassing the dying and death of his father and others, delivered on both points. What was living and dying in the pandemic like?

But readers should not expect a litany of statistics or a step-by-step replay of WHO’s or the American CDC’s decisions and policies. This is a memoir, a deeply personal and individualized account of a global experience. Death is always subjective, always individual, always very personal. Readers should not expect this book to discuss everyone’s experience of Covid-19. The deaths in this book are not coronavirus related deaths necessarily; this book is about the non-pandemic deaths that occurred during the past two years. Ordinary life and ordinary death did not pause for the pandemic. Pandemic deaths eclipsed the distress of other kinds of deaths, but only insofar as their appearance in the news, social media, public forums. The trauma of those passings remained, but was invisible in contrast.

That said, this book is about life too. It is about resilience and the ways in which we communicate those important things in life that need to be said and done before death makes it impossible to do so. This memoir is about memory, not only Consky’s but those of his father’s and the surviving friends and family of those who lost loved ones — during the pandemic and at other times too. Life and death during the pandemic of 2020-2022 was unique in our lifetimes, but also… not. Life and death was also familiar… too familiar? Scarily familiar. Comfortingly familiar. I cannot decide. Neither can Consky, I think.

This book is also about memorializing and the ways in which we do this, for ourselves and for the dead. One act struck me in particular: when a group of friends gathered their memories of another among them who had passed away and gave the resultant artifact to the deceased’s family. This book is about how we can commune over death, that common event, that inevitable process that erases (or should) differences and animosities among us.

The end of life care Consky refers to? I think he means us, the surviving family members and friends of the ones who have passed away. For that reason, the book transcends the pandemic. The pandemic is (was?) a great thing, a momentous thing, but life and death will go on with or without it.

A History of Fear: A Novel by Luke Dumas

A History of Fear: A Novel
by Luke Dumas

By page three, I was hooked. The ending comes to a perfect, organic conclusion — but I readily admit that if Dumas writes a sequel, I’m all in.

A History of Fear unfolds like Stoker’s Dracula, adopting an epistolary approach, delivering the story via journal entries, letters, official reports from doctors, prison officials, and newspaper articles. The novel dives deep into the most disturbing parts of human psychosis reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It delivers gothic horror too, in the manner of Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the end, the reader can’t be entirely sure of who is the monster, if demons are real, if evil is more human than we comfortable with. A History of Fear is a horror fan’s feast: gore and psychological terror stride side-by-side, the paranormal and the divine and the mundane intertwine to create a world the reader is never entirely sure is real. Illusion may very well be reality… or worse.

But the story is not fantasy; there is a real history embedded in this novel — and a commentary on a history of monstrous bodies, sexuality, religion, and intergenerational trauma. There is a reality underlying the one Dumas weaves for us. This is what makes the novel so appealing; there is a real horror here, one that we can recognize. This history is one that might be so common as to be truly terrifying because it might actually exist within ourselves. Or someone we know.

A History of Fear follows the main character’s slow descent into madness — or his ascent into clarity, depending on your interpretation. There is a true mystery here and this drives the story forward. The reader needs to discover what the main character also seeks: some sense of closure and parental acceptance. The main character is driven by a need to know themselves and their past. This is a genealogy of a family and the homophobic culture of the West. Dumas focuses on the psychological damage inflicted on those who deviated from the dominant norm and those who dared to question their place in it. The novel travels between the past and the present, each part of the jigsaw puzzle adds to the image of the whole of time, allowing the reader to witness the unraveling of the man’s mind and the suffering caused by intergenerational trauma.

The novel opens with the main character’s eventual, inevitable fate; this is the mystery. We know what happens to him. The mystery is why and how. The horror is the long arm of intergenerational trauma.

A wonderful book to have read in October, the Halloween month, but really, a fantastic gothic horror for any time of the year.

Enough: A Memoir of Mistakes, Mania, and Motherhood by Amelia Zachry

Enough: A Memoir of Mistakes, Mania, and Motherhood
by Amelia Zachry

This was an incredibly difficult memoir to read, but I am grateful that I did. Part of the hand-to-my-throat factor for me was how close Zachry’s experiences were to my own. Like her I am a Malaysian woman, one who entered the slipstream of migration and has become a transcultural, transnational creature with feet and hands in multiple worlds.

I also recognized the gaslighting and the gendered physical and psychological violence embedded in Malaysian culture. I recognized the gaslighting and gendered violence she experienced embedded in human society everywhere.

This was hard, so hard, to read at so many points. I had to put this book down multiple times. But the discomfort it caused was also what forced me to return to it. The kind of emotional disturbance Zachry’s memoir inflicts is that which can only be excised by pushing through all the way to the end.

I am glad I returned to it, acknowledged her pain my own (caused by reading it) and kept going in spite of all that. There is more than suffering in this memoir. Zachry illuminates a healing path too.

Zachry’s memoir is not a Malaysian one, although this is a cultural aspect of her experience that cannot be brushed aside. In this I recognized Zachry’s heritage as akin to my own; women told to swallow their pride, their pain, their voices. It is a world in which women remain — and are expected to remain — invisible. And this is true across Malaysia’s many cultures, ethnicities, and religious communities. For all the lovely tropical lushness of Malaysia, it is not a paradise for everyone; feminism is throttled by legal manipulations, feminists ostracized as social pariahs (even when Western-style feminism is eschewed in favor of local versions of feminism.)

But, I digress; Enough is not a memoir of a culture. Zachry’s experience is one that is all too familiar and common across cultures and in all societies. It is an extraordinary story of a crime that is horrendously ordinary. Hers was a life lived by many people; that’s what makes Enough so memorable, so relatable, so important to read.

Zachry’s memoir begins at her beginning, with childhood, then takes the reader into her teenage and early adult years. It is then that Zachry’s life is altered by an event that haunts her (even now after she has found ways to manage it). The bulk of this memoir is devoted to Zachry’s struggle with the trauma of this event, her path to a recovery, and it ends with a substantial section on her present life which shifts the focus to the traumas of migration and the development of her transcultural identity. Zachry’s journey to a happy place is not one filled with woo-woo cures or unattainable magic pills. Zachry documents how hard work, emotional work punctuated by slips and backslides is the tried and true path; one accessible to all of us, at least in theory.

This is a memoir for all women because this is a story we all know, first-hand, second-hand, or otherwise.

Someday Mija, You’ll Learn the Difference Between a Whore and a Working Woman: A Memoir by Yvonne Martinez

Someday Mija, You’ll Learn the Difference Between a Whore and a Working Woman: A Memoir
by Yvonne Martinez

This is an intensely powerful memoir; Martinez’s life is a scar tissue of intergenerational wounds. Someday Mija, You’ll Learn the Difference Between a Whore and a Working Woman is a serious treatment of what the traumas of racial violence, poverty, and sexual exploitation can do to a child and a family, and how Yvonne was able to weave these histories — her own, her mother’s, her grandmother’s, her family’s and her community’s — into a lifetime of “doing better.” This is not a memoir to be undertaken lightly.

Celebrate Hispanic Heritage, September 15th to October 15th — but also, whenever and always!

Someday Mija, You’ll Learn the Difference Between a Whore and a Working Woman is divided into two halves, the first reads like a novel and documents Martinez’s experiences as a child and growing up in a dysfunctional family. The second half addresses Yvonne’s life afterward, as an adult and specifically as an activist in the service of her community, as an organizer, and educator.

The two halves are intertwined: it is Martinez’s experiences growing up in an abusive and violent home that shapes her ability to understand the traumas that envelop her community. This shared experience is one not easily addressed by public health programs or the simple piling on of more and more education. Oppressive systems stemming from cultures steeped in patriarchy, sexual violence, and colonization cannot be wiped away, even replaced that easily. These cultures exist within even larger systems of oppression.

In Martinez’s case, however, these experiences also spurred them to take on systemic racism, sexism, violence, and poverty as institutions to be dismantled. This is a case of an individual working from within, for one’s own community (and for all communities). Change must be internal as well as external for it to sustain; Martinez’s life is proof of that.

A profound and consuming memoir that is in equal parts disturbing, sad, and inspiring.

I Am Oum Ry: A Champion Kickboxer’s Story of Surviving the Cambodian Genocide and Discovering Peace by Oum Ry, told to Zochada Tat and Addi Somekh

Afterward by Michael G. Vann, PhD.

I Am Oum Ry: A Champion Kickboxer’s Story of Surviving the Cambodian Genocide and Discovering Peace by Oum Ry

This memoir strikes hard on multiple levels. It is a reflection of contemporary America and the transnational, transcultural, immigrant experience that many Americans live, whether themselves or vicariously (as Zochada Tat did), as the children of immigrants. Migration is a traumatic event, (sometimes positive, sometimes not, but always) one that reaches across several generations. Oum Ry’s memoir toggles forward and back in time, threading a connection in time between father (Oum Ry) and daughter (Zochada Tat). From this perspective, I Am Oum Ry is an emotional read, a subjective vacuum in which the characters are the primary focus, separate from the context of their world in a way. Tat and Somekh portray Oum Ry, his many lovers, his wife, his children, and the myriad of people who came, left, or stayed in his orbit, in all their flawed perfection; the logics behind his and their behavior as consequences of individualized trauma: parental abandonment, grief of loved ones lost or killed, sexual desire and exploitation.

But people do not exist in vacuum. The individuals in these pages are not ahistorical; they are deeply embedded in histories of patriarchy, Colonialism, the Cold War, the Khmer Rouge genocide, the American/Vietnam War, Cambodian traditions, and collective desires for modernity, belonging, and security.

The memoir takes the reader to Cambodia in the mid-twentieth century, beginning just after WWII. The French stubbornly cling to Indochina. Then ahead to the American War in Vietnam a decade later. It lingers on the five golden years of the 20th century when Cambodia perched on the edge of modernity, part of a larger Southeast Asian moment of revivalism and decolonization and prosperity in the early 1970s. After that the reader follows Oum Ry into the dark age of the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the suffering that followed as Oum Ry, like so many thousands of other Cambodians fled to Thailand to seek asylum elsewhere, anywhere. Oum Ry, like many other fortunate refugees makes his way to the United States where he finds both happiness and deep disappointment. The life of a migrant is bittersweet, filled with hope and longing.

The histories I Am Oum Ry excavates are powerful, a fisted punch to the gut. Oum Ry holds nothing back. The currents of forced migration, war, genocide, and racism that underpin Oum Ry’s words and experiences will knock the wind out of readers. This is an important memoir, not because it is unique — it isn’t, there are many Cambodian-American/Cambodian memoirs written by survivors of the Khmer Rouge — but because it neither indicts or glorifies the past or the present. The Khmer Rouge are not the sole villains of the genocide, though they are largely responsible for the horrors Oum Ry and other Cambodians experience; the Vietnamese and ordinary, fellow Cambodians are part of the horrific milieu of that moment too. America is not hailed as the land of milk and honey; it too is a dark land of racism, crime, poverty, and disappointment. But it isn’t all bad either; Oum Ry and his family find a place in California and become new Americans.

It is also significant in that it highlights pradal serey/muay thai, and centers around this sport. It is unique in this aspect. Oum Ry occupies a unique cultural position as a fighter, a sports icon in Cambodian history and 20th century Cambodian culture; his memoir gives us a rare glimpse into a world of sport and celebrity that was exclusive before the war and certainly much more so afterwards as a result of the loss of so many Cambodian stars.

For me, as a Southeast Asian scholar and a historian of Southeast Asian sport, I Am Oum Ry possesses academic significance. Sport is an often overlooked aspect of history and culture, seen as purely recreational. I Am Oum Ry proves how wrong this assumption is; pradal serey deserves attention as a historical artifact of a lost moment and in the present as a vital element of Cambodian-American identity and Cambodian cultural revival.

For almost every reader, I Am Oum Ry will evoke a multitude of emotions ranging from sad to inspired. Oum Ry’s life has been a rollercoaster in and out of the fighter’s ring. It has been dramatic in positive and negative ways. His is a life worth the reading.

My Name is Seepeetza by Shirley Sterling (30th Anniversary Edition)

A student recently asked me in class, “Why are there reprints of books? Why do they get reprinted?” Among the reasons I gave them was this one: “Sometimes new information emerges and something important needs to be added. Or, sometimes, the content of the book becomes relevant again, given certain events or things that are happening right now.” I added, “Remember, history is less about the past, than it is a reflection of our present moment or our desire for what we want our future to look like.”

Sterling’s My Name is Seepeetza, the 30th anniversary edition epitomizes this reason. The recent discovery of several hundred bodies of indigenous children buried and hidden at several residential schools across Canada — Fort Pelly, St Phillip, St John, just to name three — is a heavy reminder that the state sanctioned annihilation of Canada’s indigenous culture and peoples over the past four centuries is not a remnant of the past, but a living monster that still lives and looms over the lives of the 150,000 children and their countless descendants.

This is a living trauma, its horror and long reach remain unknown.

For this reason alone, I am considering using this book in my next iteration of a 100-level history course I teach to undergraduates for this reason.

Sterling’s accessible, authentic prose in the voice of a young girl only gives me more reason to assign it as a course reading. The length is perfect for a semester and the format in epistolary style as a diary allows me to use this in class, for small group work within the time constraints of a class session or for short individual activities.

The content though is the main appeal here. Sterling’s own experiences makes My Name is Seepeetza all the more powerful, opens an avenue for an educator to discuss this in more depth as a primary source, as a part of historical record, opens the door for historical discussions and framing it within a larger landscape of indigenous history, gendered and racial violence. My Name is Seepeetza hits on the major nerves: language weaponized, education as violence, eugenics, parenting as cultural intervention, skin color and its tormented relationship with race and ethnic autochthony. History.

A reprint is not merely a revival, it is a reflection and delivery of knowledge we need right now.

Travels With My Grief by Susan Bloch

Travels With My Grief by Susan Bloch

I chose Travels With My Grief because I have yet to encounter grief in this capacity. People read memoirs for so many varied reasons. Indeed, I imagine that each of us reads for a variety of reasons. I read memoirs to immerse in a perspective that is not my own, to understand — if only briefly, incompletely, and inadequately — what an experience of life might be. I am a humanist.

Memoirs, therefore, inherently take me to places of great discomfort, places of dark unfamiliarity. My objective is dissonance, the book and my reading of it, a form of liminal initiation by proxy.

Travels With My Grief threw me into an ice-cold alien landscape, one which was terrifying because of its banality: This is an ordinary grief, the loss of a spouse, a friend, a companion, a lover. The wall between my comfortable life and Bloch’s grief-stricken one was a thin one, translucent enough for me to see myself in her stead. One day — my odds are 3 to 1, based on my own fallible knowledge of male and female longevity — I will be in that place, in her place. A widow.

And what then? The journey of grief Bloch takes the reader on is both ethereal, surreal, unreal and all to plausible simultaneously, because no one imagines the death of one so close to themselves and yet, we all must experience it in some fashion — or at very least, contemplate the possibility.

For those same reasons, Travels With My Grief was comforting. Bloch survived, survives, so too will I, could I, must I.

But Travels With My Grief does not convey a simple message of “You Will Survive”, it is more. It is surviving without forgetting, without discarding the grief. Grief becomes a passenger in the life thereafter, where, in the beginning, it might have once been the driving force. Another comforting message.

This memoir is also about the concept of grief, the power — emancipating and debilitating — of the idea of widowhood. There are cross-cultural clashes, competing notions of what it means to grieve, how to do it, what it can or should be in a person’s life. This memoir is about how to live with those shifts in one’s identity, not only internally from our own subjective experience, but also how those who grieve might be treated by others. What does it mean to be labelled, “widow”? How does one live with such an identifier when one hasn’t been that before?

I am glad to have read this. But Travels With My Grief is a memoir that cannot make sense fully to me, not until I am in the throes of this kind of grief. I imagine that when that moment comes, passages from the book may return to my mind or I will be inclined to reread it.