Memoirs about Search for Cultural Identity in Modernity

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

In the first part of this article, I consider how Karen Levy’s memoir My Father’s Gardens raises important questions about the search for cultural identity during Coming of Age. In this part, I offer examples of other memoirs that ask similar questions. By exploring these memoirs, you might be able to get in touch with the way national origin, religion, skin color, or other cultural factors influenced your self-image as you grew into your role as an adult.

Examples of Memoirs that Chronicle the Search for Cultural Identity

In Frank McCourt’s childhood home in Ireland, he was mocked as an outsider because he was born the United States. At the end of Angela’s Ashes, he returns to the United States, trying to find his true identity. At the start of his second memoir, ‘Tis, he realizes that as an Irishman, he is advised to stick with his own kind. In other words, he is seen not as an American, but an Irish-American.

Mei-ling Hopgood in Lucky Girl is a Chinese girl adopted into a Midwest family, creating cultural tension between her parents and neighbors and her own biological origins. When she goes back to China to meet her biological family, she feels out of place, unsure if that’s where she belonged.

In the memoir, House on Sugar Beach, Helene Cooper tells of growing up in Liberia. Helene Cooper’s ancestors were freed slaves who moved from the United States to form the nation of Liberia. In the end, to escape a violent rebellion, Cooper emigrates to the U.S. One of the most interesting aspects of her story is that in her own land of Liberia, those blacks who had once been slaves in America had, by virtue of their larger experience, become the privileged elite, often resented by their countrymen who had no such foreign ties.

Henry Louis Gates’ memoir Colored People rivals Cooper’s in terms of the complexity of crossing cultures. Growing up in his small town in the waning years of Jim Crow, he felt secure with his black family and neighbors. He came of age during the tumultuous sixties when the laws changed and Jim Crow was crumbling. While other authors talk about shuttling back and forth between cultures, Gates must cross boundaries at a time when those boundaries are rapidly moving.

In Color of Water, James McBride felt securely black in his home and his neighborhood. As a young adult, he went on a search to understand his white, Jewish mother, who had always hidden her origins from him.

Rebecca Walker’s childhood was split between her mother’s middle class black neighborhood in San Francisco and her father’s privileged white neighborhood on the east coast. Her memoir Black, White and Jewish describes the confusion of trying to develop an identity while straddling these subcultures.

In the book, Black, White, and Other, author Lise Funderberg collects oral histories of many young people who struggled to grow up with a parent on each side of this cultural divide. Funderberg’s book of oral history was written before Barack Obama’s bestselling Dreams of our Fathers led readers along his own journey through this dilemma . All these stories raise awareness that even after multiple generations in the so-called Melting Pot, our cultural identities continue to influence the way we see ourselves.

When Rhoda Janzen in Mennonite in a Black Dress wanted to become an adult, she moved away from her Mennonite community to sophisticated city living. Her memoir is about returning to her roots and trying to make sense of the blend between the modernized culture of her adulthood and the sheltered one in which she grew up.

In Shirley Showalter’s early childhood, as described in her memoir Blush, she grew up embraced by the Mennonite culture of her family and community. Over time, she becomes increasingly aware that her dress, customs, and even choice of words differ from the “outside world.” To become an adult she chooses to assimilate, while at the same time maintaining what she finds good about the Mennonite aspect of herself.

In Sue William Silverman’s quirky memoir Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, she attempts to use her passion for pop culture as an entry point into American culture. In her desperate attempt to understand how a Jewish girl could become identified with a larger blended culture, she seizes on Pat Boone as the epitome of that blended culture, and tries to make sense of herself in relationship to him.

Jewish identity plays a key role in Harry Bernstein’s memoir. Bernstein grows up in England in the early part of the twentieth century. On one side of the street live Jews, and on the other side, Christians, creating a cultural boundary down the center that he calls the Invisible Wall, the title of his memoir.

When Carlos Eire emigrates from Cuba as a little boy in the cruel politically-motivated airlift known as “Operation Peter Pan” of the early 1960s, he considers himself a fan of American pop-culture. It never occurs to him he will be rejected by the people of that great land. But in Florida, his Cuban accent sets him apart as the Other and his classmates scorn him. In the powerful memoir, Learning to Die in Miami, he spends his Coming of Age attempting to be accepted as an American.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book Nomad describes her evolution from an African tribal culture into the European Melting Pot. In a fascinating journey from penniless immigrant to member of the Dutch parliament, and in 2005 voted by Time Magazine to be one of the 100 most influential people in the world. The book is a must read for anyone interested in taking a brilliant, in-depth look at the challenges of assimilation in the Western world.

For a look at going back in the other direction, read the series of memoirs written by Ian Mathie about his years as a foreign aid worker in Africa. Even though Mathie is white, he isn’t nearly as much of an outsider in these remote villages as he seems. His missionary parents raised him in the jungles of Africa, providing him with a deep knowledge of local customs. Although his memoirs portray adult adventures in these situations, they all reflect his self-image as a man who has embraced two stunningly different identities. He has somehow found peace as both a modern, white European and a black, indigenous African. Every page and crisis makes one wonder, “How does he find such peace, embracing these two vastly different aspects of his own identity?”

As you attempt to fit into an increasingly blended world, one way to become more comfortable in your own skin is to write a memoir. When you shape your past into a story, your identity becomes a sharable, understandable part of yourself. You no longer limit your identity to just skin color, age, education, job, religion, national origin, and language. You come to see yourself as the person who lived this story.

The universality of memoirs works in both directions. When you read memoirs you gain a broader empathy for the way other people have lived, loved, and learned. Memoirs are a valuable tool in the melting pot. I am so excited to be part of this Memoir Revolution which is teaching us collectively that by combining literature and life, our culture offers us a language that helps us grow together.

Here is a link to My Father’s Garden by Karen Levy.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

2 thoughts on “Memoirs about Search for Cultural Identity in Modernity

  1. Jerry, thank you for your answer to my Coming of Age question following your previous post. It was 50 years ago tonight that I wrote in my diary, “….I wish our family was more outgoing among ourselves.I don’t know why we kids usually “talk indirectly” to Daddy. Life is amazing, even at the family level. As I grow older, it is time for me to act accordingly. After all, I’ll soon be halfway to 22. I guess I’ve become a woman without realizing it.” My diary entries can be found in A 1961-65 Park College Diary using this link:

  2. Barbara,

    I love your diary entry when you call yourself almost halfway to 22. I had to reread that line a couple of times. You’ve been at this for 50 years. Wow! This is one of the coolest things about getting older (and possibly the only cool thing LOL). We can look back and find the seeds of wisdom by exploring the way our lives unfolded.

    I wish us old memoir-lovers could hang out together in a university course and talk about the journeys of life. In fact, that’s the way I look at the “memoir corner” of the internet – where we’re doing exactly that.

    Best wishes

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