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Death as a Doorway into Memoir

For Judy Fong Bates, the death of her father by his own hands when she was twenty-two, is a painful shame that hangs over the days of her adult life. The prologue of A Year of Finding Memory opens with this startling, but somehow serene, statement.

“Not long after my father hanged himself in the summer of 1972, I found a small cardboard box far beneath his bed.”

There is a once-upon-a-time tone to these words, as if Bates is floating in a fantasy far away. Indeed, much of her childhood is filled with stories her parents told her about the many relatives and hardships of war that happened in faraway China. She is six when her mother brings her to small town Acton, Ontario where her father, already sixty-four, ekes out a living of drudgery washing other people’s dirty clothes by hand, a business her educated mother hates. Constant bitter arguments ensue, against the back drop of racism, isolation, humiliation, hopelessness and homesickness. A worthless dog life, her father complains endlessly. Any extra pennies are sent back to relatives.

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Operation Turtle Migration

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Newly hatched turtles

(The environment is a necessary part of any memoir. It is the setting where the narrators story unfolds. Indeed, its existence is why the human species survives at all. Here, activist and naturalist Joan Norris relates how hundreds of doomed turtle eggs and hatchlings were given a chance to survive with strategic intervention.)

Have you ever heard of turtle nests migrating? Is that even possible? Well, it turns out turtle nests can indeed move from one place to another. They just need a little help from their friends.

Turtles ready to dig their nests look for a sunny embankment where the eggs can be incubated by the warm substrate. The Close Point Causeway on the south shore of Rice Lake, Ontario has this and it has a marsh on one side to serve as a nursery for the wee hatchlings. So, scores of  snapping and map turtles travel here each spring to dig their nests. For about ten years now I have been protecting these nests. With help from friends, our success rate has grown each year so that last year almost 2,000 baby turtles hatched out.

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The Memoir Revolution

In case anyone is still in doubt about whether or not we are in the midst of a memoir revolution, fully half the ten titles on this year’s National Book Awards (American) longlist for nonfiction are memoirs. But within that flexible category is immense variety:

  1. Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s open letter to his son about how to “live free in this black body”.

  2. Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs is Sally Mann’s account of her family and artistic life in the American South, enriched with many historical photos.

  3. If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran is Carla Power’s story of friendship with Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi and their combined efforts at studying the Koran.

  4. Ordinary Light: A Memoir is Tracy K. Smith’s record of growing up in a bookish family surrounded by animals, the dawning of her creative life, and the search for love.

  5. Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir is Michael White’s tale of travelling through Europe and the US to see the Vermeer paintings – while going through a painful divorce.

Just reading the titles is enough to give you ideas for a direction your own story could take. A letter. Freedom. Photos. Friendship. Creativity. Love. Travel. Divorce. Or any combination thereof. Universal themes, but with your own story woven onto the loom of such archetypes, we are invited onto the pages of your twenty-first century truths.

Do the world a favour. Add your voice to the revolution.

A Bouquet of Storied

A Bouquet of Stories

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A Fine Farley Moment

Farley Mowat, fellow rejectee

Farley Mowat, fellow rejectee

On July 22 of 1985, my journal has this remark: “Letter from Farley Mowat!” He was responding to one of mine, which I had felt compelled to write because I had recently been turned back at the US border at Pearson International. I’d said goodbye to everyone, had plans in Miami … it was a devastating and humiliating experience. I knew he, too, had been turned back on his way to do a book tour in the States, and thought he might like to know of another instance of such rude (or so it seemed to me) treatment. I’m not sure why I knew he’d be interested in my plight, but trusted the good faith of a Canadian whose books I’d been reading for years. He wrote:

“Your case of refusal at the US border is certainly not unique. I now have heard from at least two hundred people who have all had something similar happen to them. I am drawing a lot of this together in a book called My Discovery of America, which will be published in October in Toronto.”

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I Remember

Memory is the theme of Human Chain, a collection of poetry published by one of the world’s greatest poets, Seamus Heaney, in 2011. “What is the relationship between writing poetry and memory?” he was asked by a Toronto Star reporter.

“Memory has always been fundamental for me,” Heaney replied. “Remembering what I had forgotten is the way most of the poems get started. At the best times, something wakens, there’s an almost physical quickening. There’s no knowing where a remembered image will take you” (italics mine).

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How’s the Weather?

 

How’s the weather? That’s what we ask. Like, how’s Mom, or how’s the baby. The weather is like a close relative, something or someone we care about. Indeed, sometimes we feel embraced by this ‘relative’. Love affairs happen in sun, rain, hail, the hush of no wind, the roar of a tornado, heat waves, cold snaps, fog, smog, flood, drought, ice storms, dust storms, solar storms. The weather can prevent us from eating, working, sleeping—and suddenly that relative friend becomes a foe of sorts. Every one of Earth’s seven billion people was born on a day when the weather was busy doing something.

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They Left Us Everything: A Memoir by Plum Johnson

Plum Johnson plumjohnson.com begins They Left Us Everything with conflict between her mother’s needs and her own fatigue and frustration from being the primary care giver for her mother for years. Johnson goes back to an earlier time, too, to describe the old clapboard house in Oakville, Ontario she grew up in, but it is the conflict between her and her mother that drives the first several pages.

Plum Johnson on the verandah of the clapboard house, Oakville

Plum Johnson on the verandah of the clapboard house, Oakville

In the first few lines, we hear three recent phone messages from Johnson’s mother. “Damn this machine! Call me!” is the last one.

Johnson then tells us, “Nineteen years, one month, and twenty-six days of eldercare have brought me to my knees.”

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