Here is a list of five writers of color who have written exceptional memoirs this year. Each author is grappling with what it means to be part of today’s society while being a result of the past.
Memoirs are written so that we all don’t have to make the same mistakes, so that we can detect and vicariously live through the nuances of someone else’s story. Or, they make us feel less alone in our own experience, having someone else articulate something we or someone we know has lived.
Here is a list of five writers of color who have written exceptional memoirs this year. The subject matter and themes vary amongst the five, but the core element stays the same. Each author is grappling with what it means to be part of today’s society while being a result of the past. How does the then become the now, and who are they in it? Another pattern in each is the ways in which pop culture acts as anchors by which we can understand past selves — how music and art and television and literature coalesce to best define eras. Whether for your own personal journey or as a gift to someone you care for (‘tis the season), these five books come highly recommended as definitions of this particular era we’re living in.
Margo Jefferson – Constructing a Nervous System
If you’re a living person, Margo Jefferson’s writing will make you stop and take a long, critical look at the world around you. If you’re a Black person, Jefferson will make you take a long, critical look in the mirror. And if you’re a Black American woman, she’ll lift you up, wring you out like a rag then make you look at all the murky bits that dripped out of you — the parts you kept in the crevices, safe from everyone. Including yourself. She wrings you out, points right at the unsavory puddle and says, “Yeah, I knew it was in you cause I have it, too.”
Constructing a Nervous System is the Pulitzer-Prize winning writer’s second memoir — Negroland came out in 2015 — and Jefferson has only sharpened her tools of dissecting her past. She is in search of her own sense of integrity, hence the name of the memoir, and employs factors of her personal past as well as cultural strongholds along the way. It is a very self-aware book. The cadence of her writing is like chasing after the origins of jazz. It’s smooth and rough all at the same time. Free-flowing, yet meticulously calculated. Incredibly Black, incredibly cool. There is a velocity to her prose that can feel like it is circling prey, and the prey is passive comfort.
Hua Hsu – Stay True: A Memoir
This is a story leading up to an atrocity, yet it is driven by tenderness. An earnest and deep benevolence for a lost friend, but also for the purity of youth. For the process by which we become ourselves. Hsu honors the importance of adolescence while looking at it with the perspective of being able to connect the dots. It can be easy to reflect on the ideals of our youth as trite and naive. Hsu instead gives them weight and writes in a manner of excavating his principles in present day alongside the mindset of his past.
Stay True feels a little bit like an exercise in a difficult sort of forgiveness — the act of forgiving yourself. For a past you couldn’t change, for undergoing a trauma you could not have warded off. Memoirs, by nature, require a sort of tunneling by the author. A burrowing into an acutely personal past in order to turn it into something worth sharing with strangers. Something useful. One of the ways Hsu, who is Taiwanese American, does that is via pop culture references: the mixtapes, the movies, the clothes, the lingo that scaffolded his world even as it began to unravel.
Prince Shakur – When They Tell You To Be Good
This young, queer author is a first-generation Jamaican American and all five of those descriptors are prevalent in his journey throughout this book. What does it mean to be good? Polite, obedient, uncomplicated, intellectually but not morally challenging? Safe? From his memories of early childhood to his early 20s, Shakur is constantly searching for good — in society, in him, in his family, in the world at large. What does it mean, what does it look like? And, like any observant person, he questions the validity of the “they” who are assigning the value.
Traveling across decades and countries — the U.S,. Jamaica, Europe and Asia — Shakur’s young self grapples with murder, death, acceptance and love. What’s remarkable is When They Tell You To Be Good proceeds at a steady and unrushed pace that is somehow suspenseful. The cadence of reading acts like a heartbeat, quickening slightly at all the instances in which Shakur encounters strife or danger. Calming again when he (and so also the reader) thinks he reaches a sense of reconciliation. He’s honest, he’s angry, he’s yearning and isn’t afraid to admit all three. Shakur’s depth of sharing may have come more naturally due to his age — growing up with Tumblr and Facebook statuses. Not to say he overshares, but he matured and was making sense of the world at a time when there was value placed on transparency. Sharing allows needs to be recognized wider than an immediate vicinity — and sharing seems to have saved Shakur’s life.
Rabia Chaudry – Fatty Fatty Boom Boom
Many know Chaudry as the lawyer who helped free Adnan Syed — the subject of the first season of the podcast Serial. Here, in this memoir, she tells a completely different story: her own. It starts before she was born, with her parents and grandparents. Woven into her words about her personal family’s history is an account of the social and political events that shaped Pakistan and parts of India as we know them today. Perhaps it’s the lawyer in her, but Chaudry is keenly adept at depicting the effects of political action on intimate lives. An exaltation of baby formula by the conglomerate Nestlé plays a part in Chaudry’s family’s idea of how to feed her. This is perhaps the first act in what determines Chaudry’s life to forever be that of a “fat girl.”
Fatty Fatty Boom Boom has Chaudry criss-crossing between observations of American culture on immigrant habits, extolling the highlights of Pakistani history and critiquing the stifling beauty standards for women in both the East and the West — while she straddles both. Her writing is funny and sharp and allows readers to delve into the legacy of the South Asian diaspora via its cuisine. It would be easy to see this book as a pity party, but it isn’t. It’s an honest look at the relationship with the one thing we all carry with us (quite literally) throughout our lives: our bodies. And it’s a sort of love letter to the food that fuels it. What’s more, the book concludes with about 11 recipes so your tastebuds can follow along.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras – The Man Who Could Move Clouds
The Man Who Could Move Clouds is part roadtrip, part ancestral dig and part magical realism. At times it is psychedelic literature, projecting memories that are seemingly hallucinatory, trippy. But, as many of us know, family legacies can feel otherworldly when verbalized. The reader finds Colombian author Rojas Contreras on a journey both mentally and physically to trace the story of her grandfather, a healer who it was said “could move clouds.” Much of the search was spurred by a head injury that left the author with amnesia — an event that her family says is the transference of her grandfather’s powers to her. While trying to remember, she’s also experiencing her own past being told anew.
Rojas Contreras’ style mirrors the Spanish language in that both have a proclivity to conjure images freely; to nod to a space in between fact and fiction and nestle there comfortably. They make the portrayal of life a little more floral. Even while weaving together Colombian history, the tendrils of colonialization and the ways in which fear of the unexplainable can break families apart, there is a harmony to her words. A playfulness of spirit that is the gateway to most forms of joy. Prodding at the truth in your family’s history can be a daunting task, but Rojas Contreras brings readers along in the same way she is bringing herself: with love and curiosity.