Luck of the draw
Last week, my review of Sharell Cook’s Henna for the Broken-Hearted ran in The Courier-Mail and I reposted it here, mentioning that it may be the worst review I’ve ever written. I’ve thought about it all week and felt it deserved further explanation. I’ve also thought quite a bit about the contemporary memoir and how the everyday world functions in it.
I’m not back-pedaling, now, when I say that it was a bit of bad luck for Cook that her book was sent to me when it was. I stand by my review. However, I also feel I must acknowledge the obvious: the reviewer’s background, preferences, attitudes, and opinions—even current circumstances—are built into the process of reviewing.
I respect writers and writing and the dedication it takes to produce a book—even a bad one. When I’m sent a book for review, I remind myself that someone has spent hours crafting it and that, even if it’s not a genre I care for or a style I admire, the book must still be considered on its own merits. If I’d had more space in my review of Henna for the Broken-Hearted, I might have been more nuanced; however, nothing changes my opinion that this particular memoir should not have been published.
The contemporary memoir
I enjoy the genre in spite of the current flood. It’s interesting to read about of the lives of others. I’ve reviewed my fair share too: Joyce Carol Oates’ touching evocation of grief and loss in A Widow’s Story; Alice Pung’s bright light on the immigrant experience in Unpolished Gem; Kai Bird’s recollections of a childhood in the Middle East in Crossing Mandelbaum’s Gate. Having liked The Year of Magical Thinking, I’m looking forward to reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. Then, there’s Perfection by Julie Metz and Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen and, of course, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, which are all similar to Henna for the Broken-Hearted in subject matter and approach.
While I was thinking about all of this, it struck me that there are two kinds of memoir. The first type offers a window onto remarkable events—growing up in the 1950s and 60s as the son of a US ambassador in the Middle East, for example, or being kidnapped (and freed) by Somali soldiers. The context for these stories makes the writing easier. The writer can let the facts speak for themselves. The second type of memoir is just the opposite. Instead of the remarkable, this kind of memoir deals precisely with the unremarkable, the everyday lives of ordinary people, something any of us might experience. It therefore requires something ‘special’ in the telling.
All of us grow up and each of our lives unfolds uniquely. And yet we all have many things in common. Most of us will know what it means to have a broken heart. One day, each of us will experience devastating grief at the loss of a loved one. The question becomes: Why should we be more interested in one of these ordinary stories than in any of the other millions just like it?
We care about Oates’ memoir of sudden widowhood because she’s an incredible stylist. Didion’s book on the same subject offers profound insights into marriage, parenthood, grief and loss. Pung and Janzen treat the collision between how they were raised and the grown-up world they’ve chosen with humour, tenderness, and a deep appreciation for their origins.
When I read Henna for the Broken-Hearted, I was looking for that ‘special’ ingredient. Instead, the memoir reads like a chronological recitation, and it feels patched together. When I learned that Cook authors a blog about her life in India, things began to make sense. The book had just the feel of blog posts only rearranged into a timeline. While I read it, I kept wondering why I should care for this particular romance, if there was anything about the events she recounted that shed light on the human experience.
It was partly Cook’s misfortune that I’d just finished re-reading a very different kind of memoir, The War by Marguerite Duras, when I was sent her book for review. Henna for the Broken-Hearted recounts Cook’s recent courtship and plods heavily through the terrain of the everyday. In contrast, The War covers the weeks Duras awaited the return of her husband from Belsen immediately after the camp was liberated in 1945. The memoir was published in 1986, more than forty years after the events, when Duras and the rest of us had the benefit of knowing what really happened in German concentration camps. At the time she wrote it, of course, news was sporadic, uncertain, beset by rumours and misinformation. Duras preserves this uncertainty, choosing not to provide commentary or offer insight gained over the intervening years. The War is a raw document of history, a powerful testament to the experience of so many others who similarly awaited news of loved ones displaced through war. And, although it’s written as a diary, filled with “various comings and goings”, the everyday melts away, transformed into the universal.
It begins like this:
I found this diary in a couple of exercise books in the blue cupboards at Neauphle-le-Château.
I have no recollection of having written it.
I know I did. I know it was I who wrote it. I recognize my own handwriting and the details of the story. I can see the place, the Gare d’Orsay, and the various comings and goings. But I can’t see myself writing the diary. When would I have done so, in what year, at what times of day, in what house? I can’t remember.
One thing is certain: it is inconceivable to me that I could have written it while I was actually awaiting Robert L.’s return.
How could I have written this thing I still can’t put a name to, and that appalls me when I reread it? And how could I have left it lying for years in a house in the country that’s regularly flooded in winter?
The first time I thought about it was when the magazine Sorcières asked me for a text I’d written when I was young.
The War is one of the most important things in my life. It can’t be called “writing”. I found myself looking at pages regularly filled with small, calm, extraordinarily even handwriting. I found myself confronted with a tremendous chaos of thought and feeling that I couldn’t bring myself to tamper with, and beside which literature was something of which I felt ashamed.
It’s true that the book may have had less force if it had been published in the late 1940s when the world was tired of war stories. Duras had already published two not very good books by the war’s end (Les Impudents, 1943, and La Vie Tranquille, 1944), but she was known more for her activities in the Resistance than for her writing. Had the memoir been published before Duras attained such a huge presence in literary and intellectual spheres, it might have made barely a ripple—who knows?
Then, there is something devastating about the fact that the diary remained unremembered for so long. Remarkable that it was hidden in a couple of exercise books, stashed away in the blue cupboards in a house that regularly flooded. The exercise books might have been washed away, destroyed, tossed out, turned to dust, burned in a fire, or forever forgotten about. The fact that none of these things happened is astonishing enough, but that the story is so wrenching and immediate, so important, on top of being so very nearly lost, strains our nerves. What else has been lost? What other treasures have been forgotten, carelessly destroyed?
The fact that The War was discovered in time and finally published is a gift.
The problem with blogging
In the 1940s, it was exercise books. Today, it’s blogs.
With the same ease as purchasing a notebook, we can sign up with WordPress, pick out a design template, and expound two cents’ worth on any subject. The difference between the old exercise books and today’s medium of choice is that it’s all so public and so right now. This is a big problem. Cook’s story might have been more interesting if it had been lost for a number of years. Perhaps certain events will occur to make her romance representative or poignant or of historical worth.
If everyone has a voice and feels the need to broadcast it, what we end up with is a lot of noise. And if all we’re writing about is our ambivalence toward parenthood, our annoyance with traffic jams and nosy neighbours, what we ate for breakfast, and how to get that stain out of our best shirt, we’re not commenting on anything really, we’re only perpetuating our own drudgery for others.
It isn’t every day that one waits for a loved one to return from a concentration camp. Duras’ wait was filled with days and the days with commonplace events—eating and not eating, sleeping and not sleeping, waiting by the phone. The War connects us to a heightened experience of the everyday and to a deeper sense of our common humanity—just what a potent and worthy memoir should do. My fear is that with so much self-profiling going on, with all that noise, the remarkable is being swept away on the riptide of the ordinary. Sadly, we will be less for it.
I challenge everyone who writes to think carefully about what they put out there. Could your story withstand being lost for four decades? Would it be made better?
Daughter to a famous theologian and an irrepressibly matter-of-fact mother, Rhoda Janzen grew up in a strict Mennonite family. She wore tight plaits, shapeless ankle length skirts, and took a thermos of strong-smelling Borscht to school each day. She couldn’t dance and was permitted to sing only hymns. Since the Mennonites frown on higher education for women, it was expected that Janzen would marry, settle down, and produce obedient Mennonite children.
As soon as she is able, Janzen flees. She studies English literature instead of theology, gains a PhD, becomes a professor, publishes poetry. And she marries the opposite of a Mennonite man—the stylish, worldly, vainglorious Nick. Janzen’s life then becomes one of elegant understatement, full of art openings, cocktail parties, interesting conversations, and little black dresses.
One day, Nick leaves her for a man he meets on Gay.com. In the same week, she is in an awful automobile accident. Alone, in shock, unable to work or manage the mortgage on their new lake house on her own, Janzen hits rock bottom. Her family urges her to come home, and home she goes.
What happens surprises her. She is heartily welcomed. She is accepted and loved. Without a husband, Janzen unconsciously drifts back to the point of origin, finding comfort in the sense of community and strong ethics of the Mennonites, even while she pokes fun at their old-fashioned quirks.
Her descriptions of growing up Mennonite and how this upbringing collides with the world Nick offers are at once hilarious and tender. Janzen’s intelligence shines brightly through all the comedy. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is a heart-warming story of self-revelation, transformation and, finally, self-acceptance.
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in February 2011.