Who Do We Talk To? Memoir's Multivisionary Perspective
By Nicole Walker
The memoirs are flying from bookstores across the country into my mailbox. Or, trudging their way slowly, thanks to Postmaster DeJoy’s management of the postal service. For the past year, I have clicked on the Bookshop link to buy a book for every Zoom reading I attended. I agreed to receive a review copy from four publishers. I say yes, I can peer review this book for a university press. In the middle of the pandemic, I have no friends. I have no family. But I do have one hundred and fifty collections of essays per day per day squared. I sing Suzanne Vega’s “Calypso’s” last lines over and over again, “It’s a lonely time ahead. I do not ask him to return.” I don’t need Odysseus to return because a man would get in the way of all this reading I plan to do.
I have read what feels like fifty memoirs during the pandemic. Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, Sarah M. Broom’s Yellow House. I read about that many novels including rereading Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping and Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. I even read books without the word House in the title. Tod Davies’ Jam Today. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings, and Brit Bennet’s The Vanishing Half. I read student theses and books for blurbing and books to teach next year but at this very moment, I’m reading three books simultaneously, which may be as similar to a round-the-dinner table conversation that I’ve ever had. These books fill my head with the voices willing to delve into the stories of their personal lives. But they do something else, which is hard to get away with if you’re just sitting around, chatting during dinner. They bring in threads of research and carefully iterated concern about how their personal choices make an impact on the people and the world around them, that makes these books not only great conversationalists, but great hosts.
Although I have no friends in real life, I do see people on Zoom. I’ve been thinking of Zoom’s self-view feature. I surveyed a few dozen people and asked, “Do you ever turn the self-view off?” Everyone said, “Yes, sometimes.” And then I asked, “Do you turn it back on?” and nearly everyone said, “Right back on.” Nervous laughing always signals the same exact self-consciousness that self-view engenders. Self-view toggles between long moments of self-hatred, “Where did I get that nose?” “Are those grooves in my forehead really that deep?” and that few and far between moment when you say, “Oh, my hair looks good like that.” I find our inability to turn off self-view for long fascinating. Would we, if we could, carry a mirror to every conversation? Are we worried about looking dumb or looking beautiful? Do we need our friends to start donning polarized sunglasses at all times? I’m going to go as the self-view version of myself for Halloween with the “Touch Up My Appearance” button turned up to 11.
Writing memoir features many of the same conditions as self-view: full of self-consciousness, self-doubt, self-absorption, and self-annihilation. But reading memoir doesn’t carry quite the same furtiveness: it is like sitting down with someone who has something to say, generally over a cup of coffee. Booklist wrote in a review of my recent book, Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster that the reading experience results in “The kind of deeply thoughtful and relatable discussion one might have with one’s best friends around the dinner table, back in the day when we could safely do that kind of thing.” The review made me happy—that my writing voice was inviting and familiar. The work of a memoir is to convey a story. It’s to invite readers to trace the track of thought. It is not exactly conversation, because it feels one-sided, but I know I talk back to whatever book I’m reading in my head. I feel a much greater intimacy with some books I read than many people I know.
But it did make me nervous that the phrase “kitchen table” ascribed domesticity to my book, and possibly memoir writing in general. I don’t know if I should worry except that “domestic memoir” seems to be a special silo for women writers. Memoir doesn’t bode well in the world of literary criticism. Jess Walters’s book The Cold Millions sits on my nightstand, unread because I’m mad at him for saying, “Maybe it’s fatigue with social media and the confessional tone of reality television but I get claustrophobic spending too much time in the head of another writer.” I’m confused because The Yellow House, which has memoir-like characteristics, he tells us, sits on his nightstand, fully read. Is Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House, a book about a house, built a lot like memoir, room by room, not a memoir? It’s a book about race, poverty, and hurricanes but it’s also from the memory of a writer. And don’t we get in the head of another writer through all books we read? Aren’t we more claustrophobic when we’re in our minds all alone?
Perhaps we should rethink the word memoir when it applies to genre. Perhaps we should rethink the word domestic when it applies to subject. In fact, aren’t most books domestic—if domestic considers how and where we live? Don’t we all live somewhere, roof or not? These three books I read simultaneously might be called domestic memoirs. I would like to fight that word or that category. Perhaps I could fight Angela Fuller who wrote in The New York Times about three different memoirs, “Gallingly, none of the works rise very far above this special-interest corner; they’re neither sufficiently escapist for beach reads, nor sufficiently wise to offer the means to escape… Those masterly memoirs are rare: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings comes to mind.” Although upon re-reading the review, maybe only a writer like Maya Angelou, whose title “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” promises redemption to the bird and the cage, truly knows the definition of memoir as escape. Or I could fight the person who wrote on a review of one of my non-memoirs that they would like “a little more egg and a lot less Nicole.” Like Jess Walters, getting close to a writer may feel claustrophobic, but how else are you going to ride the synaptic roller coaster of another’s brain? Isn’t another word for claustrophobic “understand?” I suppose with understanding, you have to keep your eyes open. Claustrophobia keeps them closed as the plane crashes down.
But if self-view is the view we can’t quit, we also can’t seem to quit looking at other people’s faces on the screen. What if memoir is the people on Zoom willing to keep their camera on? If you’ve ever taught to a sea of black boxes, you know that a Zoom participant’s willingness to turn the camera on is a gift. But the memoirs I read, if I even call them memoir, aren’t just that camera pointed at a face. They’re also the shared screen—they’re the organized presentation of research and discovery. A lens of an idea atop the lens of a face. A double view providing twice the insight of a single look, a single book. The layers direct the view, curate the screen, giving meaning, if not redemption, to a life lived intentionally. Perhaps memoir’s best gift is to recognize intention when the living itself felt haphazard, and perhaps intention, later imposed, is the definition of meaning.
Intention plus complicated priorities equal meaning in Ingrid Horrocks’ Where We Swim. Horrocks layers ocean; river; Aotearoa, New Zealand; Sedona, Arizona; and Medellín, Columbia on top of our eyeballs. You’d think it would get very heavy with all those places against our corneas, but Horrocks has a light touch—she imposes meaning by acknowledging the surge of world events that bear down on what we might have once imagined were innocent activities: traveling, cooking, whale-watching. In a braided essay that weaves the story of a Right Southern Whale, the first one seen in Wellington harbor since 2010, with the story of the scout troop caught in a cave in Thailand, the narrator, Horrocks, finds herself full of wonder but also full of concern. She and her daughters travel to Wadenstown to try to see the whale: “Light rain slicks up my glasses and I am busy adjusting Lena’s and Natahsa’s raincoat zips when it first surfaces, a grey head appearing with surprising buoyancy from the choppy waves. The whale is on her back, wallowing and sticking out in two places, a startling distance from each other.” Equally wondrous is the rescue of the Thai boys. “The boys in the cave have been pushed unconscious through a kilometre of submerged rock passages to the open air. Everyone one of them. Elon Musk showed up ‘on location’ with an impractical kid-sized mini submarine and got aggressive when he was told it wouldn’t help. The rescue was done by divers, each holding a sedated child to his chest, a small human package breathing visible bubbles of life into the water.” The Right Whale is rare. The chance that the kids would be safely rescued unlikely. A kid’s zipper becomes both a distraction and something palpable to hold onto in a world of too-muchedness.
We can handle the weight of these multiple stories because the words “small human package” and “sticking out in two places, a startling distance from each other” stand opposed to each other but held in one vision. These floating bodies defy imagination, the human ones transported with help and technology, the Cetacea bringing itself back from a three hundred years of whaling. Horrocks is gentle with us. She doesn’t chastise us for bringing whales to near extinction any more than she chastises the scout leader for taking the boys to climb during high tide. Instead of pointing fingers, she worries with us.
Earlier in the week I heard a woman talking on the radio about where Matariki [what the Wellingtonians had named the whale] might head next, potentially to the known winter spot for Southern Rights in a marine mammal sanctuary off Taranaki. The sanctuary is also home to the critically endangered Maui dolphin, she said, and the government has just granted a seabed mining exploration permit within the area.
Sentimentality, and some vague feeling that we need these creatures, doesn’t seem to get us very far toward recognition of their own subjectivities and needs, or of the ecologies they depend on to survive.
There was something in the whale’s presence in our human harbour that demanded: Look. This is what I am. Pay attention.
Just the presence of the whale substantiates meaning. Just the act of putting the words “this is what I am” suggests that identity comes to us through looking and through seeing. When I’m getting a lot of rejections on my own writing, or it seems no one is reading a book I finally published after ten years of revision, I feel like there are too many books in the world. But Horrocks’s whale insight makes me rethink: Could there, to any whale lover, be too many whales in the ocean? Certainly not. Just as with books, an abundance of whales, even if you can’t see or read them all, reminds me to pay attention. Here you are. What a gift.
The memoir wants to know who we are. Who you are. Who I am. Andrea Ross’s Unnatural Selection is about her trying to find her birthmother. That’s one lens through which the book views the narrator’s life. The other lenses include finding a career, exploring the Grand Canyon, finding a husband, making a son, finding one family, two families, three families until an abundance of families redefines the word family, just as this is what I am, pay attention may define memoir. Ross, like Horrocks, writes of travel. In fact, they both come visit me in Arizona. One in Sedona, the other in Flagstaff, although I saw neither of them in person. There’s that great moment of serendipity when a book visits a place you are or that you’ve been. Where connects us. I am here. Hey, you were here too. What place means to me may be similar to what place means to you.
This is what I am undergirds many memoirs. But many of them can’t get to what until they go through a lot of where. Ross’s various locations help her define her various identities. This layering of place thickens her understanding. In Flagstaff, she finds herself using her EMT skills to help a hurt climber from a mountain. In the Grand Canyon, she takes comfort in her adoptive mother’s recognition of the kind of person she is, “You’re like the bear who went over the mountain to see what she could see,” her mother tells her. She finds old friends from the lower 48 when she’s visiting a festival in Anchorage, Alaska. She finds a fellow detective in a library in Greeley, Colorado. The search is as much a search for self through others’ identities as it is for her birth parents. She’s uncertain about her identity when her boyfriend Don decides to go to graduate school in Flagstaff, AZ.
Don and I had been together in so many challenging situations, I sometimes felt like an appendage of his. Now we would have no contact for five weeks. I would have to cleave myself from him. I had told him that after the expedition, I would move in with him in Flagstaff, but I sensed I needed my own plan, something besides waitressing at a goofy café and being his girlfriend.
On the surface, the expedition might have been a trip to Alaska, but the real adventure is the accumulation of a self that has lived in many places, had many jobs, had many loves, and, eventually, to garner three sets of parents, her adoptive one, her birth mom and her husband, and her birth father and his new wife. Like Horrocks’s Where We Swim, Unnatural Selection, Ross shows that more lenses through which to view a life are better than one—and that multiple identities are better than one. So perhaps it’s not so much, This is what I am, pay attention, but this is what we are, pay attention that centers memoir.
Susanne Paola Antonetta’s first book, Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir, taught me how memoir can be compiled through multiple lenses—one that invites into the author’s self-view and another through which you can learn about place and environmental degradation. With two (or more) questions, who I am becomes complicated and textured. Antonetta’s new The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here illustrates that understanding ourselves comes only through looking at those selves through other texts, other people, our current understanding of ourself, science, place, and our childhood’s vision of the world. Antonetta’s take on quantum entanglement, her grandmother’s Christian Science beliefs, and her own account of spending summers at the shore in a small hut with her family whose history of mental health—and professional accomplishments—is complexly textured. In a section called “The Problem of the Past,” Antonetta describes the behavior of photon particles. In the double-slit experiment, if you send one beam of light through a double slit into a mirror, that beam’s photons behave as a particle, but if you send a second beam of light, you can retroactively show that both behave as waves. Physicists call this first beam’s change in point of view “delayed choice.” This metaphor drives the central question of the book. If you look at the past, it is bound to behave differently than if you look at it head on. The key, she seems to argue, is to look at the past and present simultaneously, recognizing that light can behave both as a particle and a wave—it’s the memoirist’s job, through the double lens, that we can not only see both, but hold the idea of different qualities and different identities simultaneously in our minds. “We live in the forward-moving arrow of time, or we feel that way, so it’s hard to say what this delayed-choice uncertainty means for a human individual. All I can tell you is that many physicists who study time come to see the past the way a restless decorator might see a room. Here are brocade chairs, under the gilt mirror, and opposite the painting of a ship—real things—but all of it could be moved anywhere, could have been nudged anywhere infinite times.”
The memoirist’s job is to remind us of the way memory nudges the things in a room around. By naming and qualifying the slits or lenses, the author gathers the reader’s perception to say, look at this now. This is how a life looks through this lens now. Now, like clicking on a viewfinder, the author says, see how it looks a little different through this lens. That’s how it is now. Each past holds its own, especially now.
This compression and layering of lenses does interesting things to language. Words wind up tautly when pressed against layers of ideas. Horrocks, recounting the trip her brother arranged after the family had visited him in Medellín, confronts her own hypocrisy. The manatees who swim beneath the bridge who had been tempted to visit these ecotourists through offerings of lettuce, make her wonder if this ecotourism adventure echoes a pretty nice zoo. As the family considers taking the zipline across the forest canopy, Horrocks writes, “There wasn’t really a pause we could discuss and ‘see’ whether this was a good idea; the kids seemed up for it anyway.” This sentence could be pulled from every chapter of Where We Swim and inscribed as one of the central lenses. There is no definitive answer to the questions she asks: Why do we have children in the midst of climate change? What future do we see for them? Who are we, white settlers, to take our privilege and travel at all? By reading memoir, is it answers that we’re looking for or are we looking for someone to join us on our questioning adventures? After the zipline, Horrocks writes, “It’s only when thinking back that I’m forced to question whether everyone was equally happy about sacred, ancestral trees being roped up and climbed in this way. The fact that the activity seemed to be a version of indigenous vine climbing transformed into adventure tourism didn’t necessarily help. On the boat ride back, Walter told us one of the origin stories of the Amazon river is that it is a fallen ceiba, the trunk forming the main river, the branches its many tributaries. “On the one hand, I still don’t know if going up there was just a clumsy form of trespass. On the other hand, it felt like a homage to the trees and water, so different seen from above that I am still filled with the sense of that.”
Like Antonetta’s photons, it’s only delayed choice that causes the trouble, the double-thinking, but by paying attention we call attention and ask communally, what should we do? Perhaps it would be nice to be able to come down on one side or another of everything, but maybe what we’re learning, lo these hard political and climate times, is that instead of coming down, seeing through, with multiple lenses, is a way of seeing that builds possibilities rather than shutting them down. Horrocks’s word choice confirms this ambiguity. “Clumsy form” paired with “seen from above,” hinged by “homage”—all those ‘m’ sounds sound like a way to express multiple possibilities and a way of listening—a “hum” and a “hum?” simultaneously.
Ross expresses her multivision through metaphor. The stories raised into specific relief when laid atop each other. After viewing pictographs of baby handprints while rafting the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon, Ross looks for tools to help her on her journey to find her birth parents. She realizes looking directly for something can blind you. Your vision so narrow, you’re unlikely to see anything. She widens her gaze. Instead of looking for someone, she looks inside herself, strives to find an internal balance from which she can widen and zoom the lens without falling.
For the rest of the trip I scanned side canyons, legends, and alcoves, cottonwood branches and agave leaves, redbuds’ pink pea blossoms, seeking equanimity. Without knowing how it would look or feel, I could only hope I would know it when I found it. I knew it would be something I’d pick from the riverbank, a slick shard of shale or an ancient arrowhead, but a calm I could take home with me, like sitting on sand in shade after a long day of hiking. I took solace that despite the Glen Canyon Dam upstream, the river still flowed. Sometimes, it even flowed clear.
The chapter appears in the last third of the book. Here the metaphor for searching for birthparents and searching for self becomes analogous. Here, the hinge is the side canyons and the life that grows from them. Each agave leaf or slick shard transports Ross to a sense of self that searching alone, or rafting alone, could not bring. Equanimity is the perfect word here—a balancing of vision that, like two well-tuned lenses, help the searcher, and her reader, see.
Antonetta’s The Terrible Unlikelihood of Our Being Here organizes the layered vision for us. Part I is dedicated to memory, place, and her grandmother’s Christian Science. In Part II, we’re taught the science of photons, particles, waves, and quantum entanglement.. Part III gives us a deeper sense of the narrator’s family and its commitment and connection to religion while Part IV brings the narratives and lines of thought together, adding stories about her grandmother, May, and her grandfather in the third person. It’s tricky work, but Antonetta presses on the sentences until they provide the tiny hairs that marry thread. May, Antonetta’s grandmother, attended to surgical patients in World War I. Antonetta brings the layers of space-time, Christian Science’s heavenly Summerland, ward, and family history together,
If you read popular books explaining the theories of relativity, the authors will try to explain Einstein using the analogy of trains: one man on a fast train unable to calculate the speed of a man on a slow train, and so on. The Einsteinian trains simply held men in time—or men caught in one version of time—to make a point, and not the men the trains of 1916 actually carried, bloody, yipping in their sleep, torn, gashed limbs and pumiced faces. Heading for my grandmother, for whom what was relative was the ability to sedate them or sterilize their wounds.
Antonetta uses the forces of language, and its elasticity, to bring together not only the stories she’s been laying down but to bring together these words, that simultaneously mean the same thing and something very different. Trains are trains, but only metaphor for Einstein’s relativity. For Antonetta, they are trains full of very real humans as well. The relativity here is both fully conceptual and fully physical. In paragraph, Antonetta shows, through language, where the hinge is in these multiple visions.
The multiple visions show how multiplex each of these authors is. Horrocks is an environmentalist, a climate change warrior, a concerned-for-her-kids’-future mother, and a world traveler. She acknowledges her hypocrisy. In a chapter primarily about climate change, as she wonders what we’ve lost, and maybe what we’ve seen anew she writes, “Every time I heard someone in Europe or North America announcing they will no longer fly so as to avoid the carbon emission, I thought of the distance between here and there. Between me and my brothers, between my parents and their sons and grandchildren. It would mean the end of family as we know it. Another thing I was far from ready for. Not yet. But what will make me (us) ready?” Horrocks tucks description into concern, self-awareness with gripping action. The book is riveting. She has a unique way of considering the privilege and problem of travel without sounding like a ninny. She can only embrace hypocrisy and eschew sounding like a ninny by setting lens upon lens, sometimes fogging, sometimes clearing, the view.
Ross, too, ends on an environmentalist note. Her thinking about politics and balance culminates in a credo for the memoir—that looking at the self is a way of looking out for others.
Knowing our origins helps us to forge connections with our larger human family. The world is in the midst of a crisis of identity: the trend is toward splitting off into individuated, self-defined units. Knowing and reflecting on our origins is perhaps our most powerful way of resisting this trend as it compels us to locate our families, including the biological family that connects us to all others. In a larger sense, reflecting on our origins inevitably leads us to the metaphorical navel, that which connects us to the source from which we all derive, the earth.
Rejecting the indictment that memoir is nothing but navel-gazing, Ross argues that looking for our origins is us, looking for each other. By digging back into our past, by teasing out our connections, we can see our origin story, and it is us.
Antonetta’s deliberations about Summerland as a heavenly vision, her memory of growing up on the shore in Holly Park, her grandmother’s Christian Science, and her own quantum investigations make it clear that holding many possibilities in your head at once is what makes memoir more than memory and more than self. It’s a juggling act that keeps earth, identity, and imagination in its sights at all times. Antonetta imagines her long dead grandmother: “May swims and will keep swimming to the blue table that the sea gulps and tongues up again with wild speed, bouncing it out of the yacht basin into the bay proper. In her new form she looks like those lights in the night water my cousin and I once combed through our fingers, the vague and popping gleams you could and couldn’t touch. Perhaps in the chaos of time it was always her.” Antonetta’s visions of her grandmother make their own manifesto. The light is both palpable and not. The grandmother is both here and not. Time is both present and past. In a memoir, if you can get all those possibilities to ring true, you will, like Horrocks, Ross, and Antonetta, made something more than a book.
The interesting thing about Zoom’s self-view is that, although you might be adjusting your hair, you’re also staring at the faces of other people, wondering how they got their hair to stand that way or recognizing that they bite the edge of the lip, just like you. The presenter shares their screen and you learn about the Colorado River and Quantum Entanglement, the number of Right Whales seen in Wellington Harbor and the Jersey shore.
I don’t remember the answer to Maya Angelou’s question of why the caged bird sings. I remember the title. I’m pulled back into the book because searching for the answer with her, through lens and glance, doesn’t make me claustrophobic. It makes me want to be the bird and the cage and the song at the same time. Jess Walters may be right: it is getting a little crowded in here with all my own selves and all these books. But I’d rather it be crowded than quiet. I’d rather turn my self-view off and then right back on while I look at the views of others.
Nicole Walker is the author of Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh and Navigating Disaster (2021) Sustainability: A Love Story (2018) and the collaborative collection The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet. (2019). She has previously published the nonfiction collections Where the Tiny Things Are (2017), Egg (2017), Micrograms (2016), Quench Your Thirst with Salt (2013), and a book of poems, This Noisy Egg (2010). She edited for Bloomsbury the essay collections Science of Story (2019) with Sean Prentiss and Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction (2013) with Margot Singer. She is the co-president of NonfictioNOW and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts award and a noted author in Best American Essays. Her work has been most recently published in the New York Times, Longreads, and Ploughshares, among other places. She teaches at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ. Find her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and at her personal website.