Tag Archives: memoir

The Chronology of Water

book by Lidia Yuknavitch

annotation by Melissa Greenwood

I could write about Lidia Yuknavitch’s use of fragments, offset by long paragraphs without any punctuation, in The Chronology of Water. Or, I could write about her often colloquial language or self-professed “wise-ass voice” (291). Or how she sometimes addresses the reader directly and other times switches into the second person or the present tense, seemingly without warning. I could also write about her lyrical passages, a contrast to those more informal shorter-than-sentences. Or about how she does sex writing better than anyone else (cue to me racing to include her work in my MFA graduating presentation on How to “Do” Good Sex Writing). But I won’t write about the author’s fragments or point of view choices or tone or tense-shifting or mind-blowing sex scenes because I can’t not write about her reflections—so self-aware, so deep—they moved me to write “YES” in my margins, over and over, often with three or four underlines for emphasis.

Yuknavitch begins the memoir by telling us about her stillborn daughter and then flashing back to her own girlhood, which is equally as horrific as the opening hospital scene. We learn that the narrator’s father molests both Yuknavitch girls and that Lidia turns to swimming for salvation: “Anything in the water felt like home … In water, like in books—you can leave your life”, she writes (148, 152). Her mantra becomes “Hold your breath until you can leave” (73). And leave she does. For Texas. On a college swim scholarship. Which she promptly loses because she’s busy losing herself :

  • in drugs

“I would have put anything in my mouth … breathing in the white, breathing out comprehension and emotion” (64-65).

  • & in sex

“I’d become the kind of woman whose mouth was stuck in a permanent ‘yes’ shape … I was using my body as a sexual battering ram … All that euphoria filling up the hole of me” (64, 143, 69).

  • & in death wishes

“I didn’t know how wanting to die could be a bloodsong in your body that lives with you your whole life” (72).

  • & in marriages

like the one to “poor Phillip”, who was “never cut out for a woman like me with a rage in her bigger than Texas” and the second one to Devin—the “charismatic narcissistic tender hearted frighteningly attractive artistic drunk” whom “you divorced [eleven years later] because he slept with not one but about five gazillion different women” (59, 171, 207).

  • & in a flurry of self-destruction

like “a big blond DUI” (222). Like “count backwards from 100 with your eyes closed and with this stick up your ass and balancing an egg on your left tit …” (208). Like spinning out on the freeway and hitting a “5’ tall brown skinned pregnant woman who had no English” and then “blow[ing] a number out of orbit” because you drank that entire bottle of scotch, and now your car is totaled, like your life (212, 208).

But then Yuknavitch meets Andy Mingo. Her married student. I know. It sounds about as suspect as everything else she’s been up to. And she knows it too. “Yeah. Well. What did you expect? I’m still me, after all”, she muses (238). But as it turns out, Andy is the real deal. He becomes husband number three and number one dad to their live-born son, Miles. And while Yuknavitch jokes about her poor decision-making above in a self-deprecating manner, she speaks eloquently about her metaphorical rebirth. “[Even as we were] working out our childhood wounds at each other … He [Andy] treated th[ese] thing[s] I’d done – this DUI – the dead baby – the failed marriages – the rehab – the little scars at my collar bone – my vodka – my scarred as shit past and body – as chapters of a book he wanted to hold in his hands and finish” (259, 239). That is a sentence I not only wish that I’d written, but also that I were living. For the narrator, finding the kind of love that heals instead of hurts is a shift that borders on revolutionary. Yuknavitch has been to some pretty dark places in her life, but she assures us that “… beautiful things. Graceful things. Hopeful things can sometimes” illuminate the darkness and that “the simplicity of loving” can teach a girl how “to live on land” (293, 272). This is quite a remarkable notion when coming from a swimmer, who’s only ever flourished in pools, rivers, and oceans.

“It is not easy to leave one self and embrace another”, but Yuknavitch has done as much in her new roles as together wife (as opposed to the angry, intoxicated version she brought to her first marriages) and doting mother (as opposed to the grieving kind she was after her first child’s birth and death or even the kind she grew up with—“a numb drunk folded into her own pain” (190, 163).) With those dark hours behind her and nothing but trees in front of her in her magical Oregon home with the family she’s created, the narrator has made it out of the “the cold wet of [her] life” (151). Here, she needn’t worry that her father’s anger built the house (a refrain she repeats throughout the book). Here, she can take solace. Here, she can feel nestled and supported. Planted and rooted. “I felt safety … Something up until that point in my life I’d only felt in water” (256).

In committing her story “about desire and language … About fathers and swimming and fucking and dead babies and drowning” to paper, Yuknavitch “rebuild[s] the wreckage of a life a word at a time”, and what a beautiful and reflective life her words make (141, 202).

 

The Confessions of an English Opium Eater

dequincybook by Thomas De Quincey

annotation by Kirsten Imani Kasai

Thomas De Quincey’s “Iliad of woes” serves as a forerunner to the contemporary trend of addiction memoirs about sex, drugs and alcohol. Seeking relief from stomach pains, De Quincey first takes opium (in the form of laudanum tincture) on the advice of a pharmacist. Like many addicts, he begins his spiral into pharmacopoeia through self-medication. Plagued by health troubles (he views his body as a “wretched structure”), there is limited medical aid available to him. A resourceless, homeless teen, impoverished and lacking higher education or vocational training, opium is his only steady friend. It quiets his hunger pangs, cushions his loneliness and smothers his grief.

Opium is a deranged and seductive lover to whom he returns again and again, despite the dangerous, vampiric nature of the relationship. His dance of indulgence and repentance continues for more than half his life. Again and again, he promises to quit the habit, only to slide back into use. He tinkers with his dosage and bargains with himself about where, when and how much he can safely take without risking negative health effects or reigniting an insatiable craving. The inevitable decline and descent into withdrawal fills his tumultuous sleep with hallucinations and terrors, dreams of vicious crocodiles, ancient “mystic ages” and “battlements [that] bore bright stars” (prophesying buildings lit with electric lights?) and “a greater influx of thoughts.”

Recovering alcoholic and Salon.com advice columnist Cary Tennis states that addiction is akin to “pressing the pause button” on your emotional processing, as De Quincey proves, ruminating the pains of unhealed emotional wounds and grieving the loss of his first love, Ann, a 15 year-old prostitute from his days on the streets. During yet another attempt to quit the habit, he writes, “It seems as though all the thoughts which had been frozen up for a decade of years by opium had now … been thawed at once–such a multitude stream in upon me from all quarters.”

“Confessions…” is a weak purgative. Written for money (financial troubles dogged De Quincey throughout his life), he openly acknowledges his audience’s salacious desire to rubberneck at the seedy side of life. His narrative wanders, less a chronological account than one given in spurts with gaps of time. Likewise does the story lack detail. De Quincey was married and had eight children with his wife but only two of the children are mentioned in passing (as an interruption in his opiated haze). The faceless wife remains unnamed.

A cathartic attempt to purge sin through public revelation, De Quincey does not deeply probe his motivations or the emotional subtext underlying them. This is telling of the era, however—Alcoholic Anonymous’12 Steps of recovery and the self-help movement was still a century and a half away. Addiction treatment and concepts of psychiatric analysis had yet to infiltrate popular culture. Or perhaps he felt he gave away enough of himself to satisfy his audience, readers who expected less of the memoir genre than we do today.

 De Quincey’s fantastic vocabulary and flowery prose take a moment to become accustomed to (along with his paragraph length sentences) but logophiles like myself will relish the breadth of his linguistic abilities. He unselfconsciously uses phrases like “limitary peripatetics,” “pecuniary emolument” and “shabby habiliments” along with a casual sprinkling of French and Latin, a testament to the rigors of his education (or at least those of 19th century merchant-class boys). His is the quintessential portrait of the melancholic writer, fearing a book he yearns to write to be a labor “too great for the architect.”

De Quincey shifts fluidly from a discussion of factual events and his emotional responses to philosophical, social and economic ruminations. By today’s publishing standards, his work feels both overwrought and experimental. Rejecting traditional linear storytelling for an elastic exploration of his topic, he fears no censure. “But my way of writing is rather to think aloud, and follow my own humours, than much to consider who is listening to me; and, if I stop to consider what is proper to be said to this or that person, I shall soon come to doubt whether any part at all is proper.” This is perhaps the greatest lesson for my own writing: to fearlessly apply the full palette of linguistic and stylistic techniques to a piece; to birth and nurture the work without regard to imagined future criticisms; and to hold on to the things I love and value–lyricism, musical phrasing, tiny details, complex, sink-your-teeth-in sentences and unwieldy yet perfect words.

It is almost comforting to read a firsthand account of De Quincey’s creative floundering and his daily battle to remain hopeful in the face of poverty, addiction and ill health. Writers endure many miseries, most of them silent. We are players in a vicious dodge ball game, and our fiercest opponent isn’t critical and public censure or ridicule, but our own knuckle-biting anxiety and self-doubt. Though we may labor through many a dark night of the soul, it’s reassuring to know that our words may resound through the years to deliver pleasure, camaraderie and inspiration to those who toil alone through the lonely hours, all the while dodging that cruel, ceaseless ball.

Despite the vast distances between us (centuries, continents, classes, gender), I closed the book feeling that I had met a kindred spirit. Light sleepers who adore winter, we both value wit and the flexibility of sound, meaning and function in language. Most importantly, De Quincey understands what is most important in life: a good cuppa. “Tea, though ridiculed by those who are naturally coarse in their nervous sensibilities … will always be the favourite beverage of the intellectual.”

Waiting for Snow in Havana, Confessions of a Cuban Boy

9780743246415book by Carlos Eire

annotation by Miriam González-Poe

“Desire proves itself most eloquently and painfully. Desire is God, and God is desire,” writes Carlos Eire in his memoir about growing up at the onset and during the turbulent times of the Cuban Revolution of the 1960s. Waiting for Snow in Havana, Confessions of a Cuban Boy recounts Mr. Eire’s genteel and privileged beginnings as a child of Cuba’s old aristocracy and continues cataloguing the chaotic halt to a way of life that ended with Fidel Castro’s take over of Batista’s regime in 1959, and, the author’s subsequent and unwilling experience as a child of the Peter Pan Project. Mr. Eire writes with great candor and honesty about his family and the people that peppered his life during these formative years. He spares not one of his characters the proper reckoning, the good and bad they represent to him, yet he finds a way to do it with grace, incredible believability and a conversational style of writing that keeps the reader turning the pages to find out what happens next.

Mr. Eire’s descriptions are at once humorous with the innocence of boyhood, and sad with the recollection of boyhood and innocence lost. Through the use of seamlessly flowing flashbacks he constructs a cohesive whole of a manuscript. Descriptions are stark, visceral, and beautifully visual, sometimes bordering on poetic. Mr. Eire has a special gift for the art of metaphor and hyperbole. In chapter after chapter the reader delights to find that what begins as a seemingly innocuous story about a boyhood recollection is really a collective statement of something of much deeper societal meaning and conflict. For example, in chapter 16, Eire relates his young-child fear of becoming “black” were he to eat dark foods that began after Nilda his African Nanny tells him innocently that if he just eats one more bite he will grow up to be “just like her.” Nilda is trying to encourage little Carlos to eat so that he will grow and become an adult, but he gets scared instead, and the fear that he will lose the privileges of his “white” upbringing and turn African become a vessel for the exposition of racism and prejudice. Carlos refuses for months to eat anything dark. Of the day he faced his fear of “dark foods” he writes, “I closed my eyes and took a bite from the chocolate-covered ice-cream bar thinking that this might be my last moment on Earth as a white boy. I savored the ice-cream in my mouth”…. “I had trouble opening my eyes after that first bite. But when I finally opened them, I immediately looked at my hand. I was white. White, as I’d always been. Whew!”…. “They’d been right after all, those that told me that dark food couldn’t turn you into an African.” He concludes the chapter with a powerful metaphor on the prejudice that every individual suffers when coming to a new country as a disenfranchised immigrant: “What they didn’t know was that it would take only one brief plane ride to turn me from a white boy into a spic. And I’m reminded of it every time I have to fill out a form that lists “Hispanic” as a race distinct from “white” or “Caucasian.” It wasn’t any food that stripped me of my whiteness. No just one forty-minute ride over the turquoise sea. Well let me correct myself. Since I flew out of Cuba at sunset, the water wasn’t turquoise at all. It was starting to turn dark blue, and the farther north we flew the darker the water became. By the time we had reached the lights of Key West, the sea was black. Pitch black.”

With a tongue-in-cheekness that belies the seriousness of the subject matter of which he writes, Mr. Eire anoints his characters with a personality that is meant to describe Who-they-really-are in metaphor. He gives each of his characters a loving pseudonym and refers to them as such throughout the manuscript. His father is Louis the XVI, King of France; his mother is Marie Antoinette the tragic and beautiful queen; his Aunt Lucia is the Woman Without Desires. In this manner, Mr. Eire adds to the description of his characters within their quasi-tragic settings without needing to spend time completing it in writing. By comparing his characters to the well-known gods of history, Mr. Eire allows his readers to do the job of completing the characterization of his own characters for him. His use of strategic metaphor continues as the author paints an even grander picture using historical comparisons by pairing French Revolution to Cuban and the falls of the civilized lives within each. Mr. Eire inserts enough personal details  to make it interesting yet allows his audience to fill in gaps left to the imagination.

Mr. Eire’s use of first person narrative is conversational and easy to follow, as well. He intersperses dialogue and captures the voice of the 10-year-old boyhood on an idyllic Caribbean island with true believability. His recounting of childhood adventure and feelings is universal and easily relatable. He uses Spanish terms and phrases liberally, but he also takes the time to explain and translate each and every one, and their context, which makes the reading of his narrative that much more enjoyable, evocative, understandable, but most importantly, relatable.

As a writer and a memoirist, there are stories that inspire me in life, and there are stories that inspire me to want to write the stories of my life; then there are those that somehow have the ability to do both. I am always drawn in to stories that tell you their tales with  universality of theme despite very personal and specific of topics. This is one of those books. As a writer and a first generation American, I chose this book to read because it was my desire to learn more about my own history.  My parents were part of that lost generation of Cuban-Americans who immigrated to the United States during the “Castrolandia” catastrophe that rendered their beloved old Cuba a thing of the past. And this book does tell it like it is (or was) from a first-hand point of view. But the true beauty of Carlos Eire’s writing is not only in that it tells the personal story so well of an often glossed over time in our modern history, it is also rather, in the manner that he incorporates the events of his personal life into universal themes of the human experience, themes of which we can all relate. He is believable, thus he is trustworthy. As writers, we are all striving for authenticity and believability in our writing, no matter what our subjects are. As writers, it is our ultimate goal to have the audience trust us as storytellers. Mr. Eire’s easy skill in this arena makes his work Waiting for Snow in Havana not just an entertaining informative story but a primer for any writer striving to learn the art of  creative, authentic memoir writing. His prose flows so easily and effortlessly, that the reader has to remember to pay attention to the art of the writing, lest she forgets herself caught up in the adventure of the reading.

Mr. Eire’s incorporation of Spanish terms and their explanations into the English prose also satisfies. This is a technique that is for many bi-lingual authors not an easy thing to fit into an English manuscript effectively and have it understood implicitly. His manipulation of style, rich with metaphors and similes driving subtle points home in both languages, is so brilliant and visceral at times the reader can almost feel her mouth water with the succulence of it! Mr. Eire’s prose is an all in one: learning tool, enjoyable story, and history lesson.

In Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire creates a satisfying story that is not just a memoir about exile, but about the universal themes of loss, change, adaptation, living life without closure, and the eternal constant of hope. He accomplishes the task of writing a story laced with the realism of tragedy, the mysticism of hope and the universal desire to understand the flow of life events when explanation for those events has become both incomprehensible and absurd. “Is it possible to have a life without desires?” the author writes in Chapter 18. “I refuse to believe it.” Indeed, it is obvious that this story is Mr. Eire’s desire, and his hope. It is a remembrance and tribute to a way of life now extinct, and the author accomplishes his desire, (as he so stated), “most eloquently and painfully,” and to the satisfaction of his audience.