Parent’s Story: Personal History or Memoir?

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

In almost every memoir writing class or group, one person says “I really want to write about a parent.” Early in my study of the memoir genre, such a goal seemed off-point. After all, a memoir is a first-person introspect account of the author’s life experience.

However, over the years, by reading an ever-widening selection of memoirs, I have grown to respect the desire to contain all aspects of one’s life journey into the form of a story. Stories of parents run the gamut.

On one extreme are the author’s attempts to ghost write or inhabit their parent’s

Farewell Aleppo

earlier lives. Cherry Blossoms in Twilight by Yaeko Sugama-Weldon and Linda E. Austin captures the first person account of Linda Austin’s mother growing up in pre-war Japan. Andrew X. Pham in Eaves of Heaven  tells the story, through his father’s eyes, of being caught in the cross fire of north and south during the Vietnam war. Both base their stories on intense interviews and the familiarity of a close personal relationship to get inside the perspective of the main character.

Linda Joy Myers, a thought-leader in the memoir movement wrote a whole memoir Song of the Plains, about her sometimes frustrating effort to see inside her ancestors’ points of view. Her story is a tale of reminiscences, speculation, interviews, and research.

Other authors such as Miranda Seymour, author of Thrumpton Hall  and Alexandra Styron, author of Reading my Father  dig into the archival records their father’s left behind, sprinkled with a smattering of the author’s own early memories. Alex’s Wake by Martin Goldsmith  chronicles the author’s maddening search in Europe to trace the tragic journey his uncle and grandfather made on the ill fated St. Louis when they tried and failed to escape Nazi persecution.

Barack Obama shared his insights into the African origins of his father (and by extension other African Americans) in Dreams of Our Fathers . And author Helene Cooper did the same in her memoir of growing up in Liberia, in House on Sugar Beach.

This desire to understand ancestors arises as a natural extension of the same curiosity that drives one to know one’s own story. And so when I come across another example of a child’s attempt to chronicle a parent, I accept it as an honorable and welcome contribution to the memoir literature. Even if such stories are not always able to go inside the protagonist’s inner perspectives, these authors do their best to learn how their ancestor’s history contributed to the author’s psychological evolution.

The latest example of this drive to find a parent’s life is Farewell Aleppo: My Father, My People, and Their Long Journey Home by Claudette Sutton.

A young girl knows her parents come from Syria but she doesn’t know what that means. And the stories she hears from various members are so complicated with various surprising twists and turns, with brothers who move from country to country, and return or don’t return to Syria. As a young woman, she has little hope of being able to sort it out into a coherent story.

Were her grandparents really from Syria? Most of the Jews she meets have ancestors from Europe. Her own family’s stories of middle eastern Jewish communities seem unreal.

As she matures and has kids of her own, she begins to wonder how she can learn more. Eventually she begins to ask questions and gather information. Through interviews and research she constructs the story of her father’s clan.

In gathering her father’s stories, she uncovers amazing features of twentieth century history, including some fascinating insights that are rarely known or discussed in our popular culture. into the cultural cross roads and sanctuary city. In addition to the existence of a large Syrian Jewish community, her father’s story provides insights into the existence of a substantial Jewish community in Shanghai, which swelled during World War II, with Jews looking for safe haven from the Nazis. In Claudette Sutton’s story, we can’t go deep into her father’s emotions as a young man. And yet, even without his internal voice, we can feel the thrill and nervous tension of watching the historic events of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, and other profound events that shaped the journey of this international group of souls who had been wandering for two millennia, looking for a safe home.

Typically a memoir is about the journey of an individual, and the narrative takes us deeply inside the author’s own point of view. Even though Farewell to Aleppo does not sit firmly within the point of view of either author or protagonist, it nevertheless offers a brilliant insightful story of the life of an ancestor. This form at the intersection of personal history and memoir brings alive the journeys of recent ancestors, supplying the author and her family with important information about their heritage and offering the rest of us a vibrant, personal view of the events of recent history.

Writing Prompt

What were your parents doing before you were born? Write down a few stories from family lore. If parents or other older relatives are still alive, ask questions to try to flesh in this folklore and develop the scenes and emotions that will turn them into stories.

Notes

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

4 thoughts on “Parent’s Story: Personal History or Memoir?

  1. Thank you so much for reviewing my book, Jerry, and your reflections on the urge to write about parents and ancestors. You touch on a lot of the questions I had while writing – who my father and ancestors were, how they shaped me, how historic events they lived through can be conveyed to others who don’t know about them.

    For me, writing about family comes in part from an urge to know myself – then develops into an urge to let the person I’m writing about live their life on the page. Much as in synagogue we say kaddish, a prayer of mourning, where we say the name of our dead loved ones aloud to remember them by name. Writing about family comes from this sort of place for me – a way not only to know myself but to remember and imagine those who, in part, made me.

    Thanks for encouraging me to think more about these motivations! I’m so glad you found insights in my book “Farewell, Aleppo.”

  2. Thanks so much for writing that book, Claudette. It taught me so much about the courage of your father and his parents – when they realized that prospects in the Middle East were dimming how brave they were to research and send the kids to a foreign land. The whole thing gives me goosebumps and awakens fantasies of what my grandparents and great grandparents and many others who immigrated to America must have gone through. Even though my own parents were never forthcoming about their immigrant parents’ courage, travel and transition, I can vicariously attempt to understand my own ancestors by understanding yours.

    Best wishes
    Jerry

  3. There you go, Jerry! Another reason for writing memoir and biography — to awaken readers’ imagination and curiosity about what their own ancestors experienced leaving their homeland and making a new life in a new land. Many people don’t want to share the stories of how they got here, or we never get a chance to ask them, which leaves us relying, as you say, on vicarious attempts to understand them by understanding others. Great reason to write AND to read!

  4. Thanks for the comment, Claudette. Yes. Writing memoirs and reading them go hand in hand. Every memoir author I’ve ever talked to (whether published or unpublished) has confirmed the value of putting together a narrative that helped them understand themselves, their families, and their world. It’s so cool that you have entered into that pact to find and share your story!

    What’s next? 🙂

    Best wishes
    JErry

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