Self-image changes in step with society

by Jerry Waxler

Henry Louis Gates, author of the memoir “Colored People,” grew up in Piedmont, a small town in the northeastern corner of West Virginia. The town was geographically in a hollow, and through the eyes of a child, looked picturesque, even cozy. In those simpler times in the 1950’s and 60’s, people got along with each other, except when race entered the picture.

Gates’ first inkling that race was going to make life complicated started in grade school. When he first became best friends with a white girl in his class, neither of them noticed they had different colored skin. Over time, this became more of an issue, and she began to pull away. Gradually, Gates noticed increasingly important issues, such as not being allowed to eat with whites, and that the paper mill only hired blacks to work on the loading dock.

As Gates tried to sort out his role as a black man in a white-dominated culture, millions of other people were doing the same thing, not just asking questions, but taking to the streets to demand answers. This was a strange and powerful time in our history. We were a nation that preached equality with the fervor of religion. But in practice, Jim Crow laws limited the rights of blacks all over the south.

I don’t know what stirred up such a bold call to action. Perhaps it was the fact that little more than a decade earlier, Americans had risen up to smash Hitler and had become accustomed to destroying great evils. Perhaps the pervasive eye of television made the world too small to hide the fact that so many governmental and social policies contradicted our shared dream of equality. But for whatever reason, society was tackling the same problem collectively that Gates was facing individually.

Gates described a compelling scene to demonstrate the intensity. Late in his teen years, when segregation had become illegal, Gates and his friends showed up at an all-white bar, the only black faces in the crowd. He survived the ensuing confrontation without physical injury, providing himself forever with the pride of knowing he risked his own safety to defend American idealism.

In the end of this crescendo of social conscience, Gates shares a gentler image of the fading of segregation. The paper mill held their annual picnic, one for whites and another for blacks. Even though the separate but equal doctrine was dead, that last picnic had a wistful quality, as people fully engaged in their own culture and enjoyed each other for exactly who they were. It was a lovely scene that provided me with a fascinating puzzle. As we blend into the larger culture, we lose some of the characteristics of our separate one.

Gates’ life story was compelling enough as an individual journey. He increased its value by artfully weaving his private life into the trends of the world. To paraphrase John Donne “no person is an island.” While it seems like a lucky break for Gates that he was learning about himself during the Civil Rights movement, I step back to see if I can find ways my life has interacted with the world. And I find many.

For example, even though I was born two years after World War II, I was profoundly affected by the ripples of despair and hope that emanated through my generation. And then, during the Vietnam War, I was deeply affected by the protests, the fear, and the pain of divisiveness. Looking further across the decades, I see sweeping changes in attitudes towards gender, race, religion and spirituality, age, career, marriage, and sex.

And everything seems to be speeding up. Our lives are impacted each year by some new radical change. Just in the last twenty years, cell phones have connected people wherever they are. Politics in faraway places we never heard of implode into our lives in terrorism. The price of homes went up, seemingly bringing with it unlimited wealth, and then crashed creating a financial crisis throughout the world. The oil that heats our homes and fuels our cars could be running low, becoming more expensive, and at the same time, damaging the atmosphere. My car is contributing to the melting of the ice caps. We’re all connected, and it’s all changing.

Social trends are not always obvious when we’re in them. Like a rowboat rising and falling on the surface of a large wave, we might not even notice we are being moved. To me, this is one of the most wonderful benefits of memoir writing. By encompassing a larger view, we see not only what happened inside our own lives, but we also fit in to a broader context, connecting our individual stream with the ocean of humanity.

Writing Prompt – social change that changed the way you saw yourself
Focus on some powerful transition or theme or period in your life. Then look for parallel changes in the culture. What was going on in the people, the media, or other larger scope that helped or hindered your personal development? If you can’t find an obvious parallel, the way Gates does in “Colored People,” look for subtler ones.

Describe examples of these cultural influences, from news stories, or from stories you know about other people. See if you can weave your individual life with the trends that are taking place in the people around you.

Check out these other essays inspired by memoirs about the mixing of cultures and search for identity:
Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein
Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

Dreams of our Fathers by Barack Obama

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Fact and fiction of a girl in the Chinese Cultural Revolution

by Jerry Waxler

When I was in college in 1968, I grew long hair as a protest against my parents’ generation. The old ways obviously hadn’t worked, so it was up to me to unravel everything I knew and start over. I didn’t realize that at the same time, on the other side of the world, a billion Chinese people were trying to do the same thing. Repeating slogans like “Smash the Four Olds: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas,” Chairman Mao had stirred up a frenzy against the wisdom of the past. Since education was traditionally held in high regard, smashing the “olds” included shutting down schools, mocking and denouncing teachers, and shipping students into the country to work in fields. This social movement was known as the Cultural Revolution.

Xujun Eberlein was an educated girl, living in a small city in China during that period. Her father was the president of an educational institute and her mother was a school principal so the Cultural Revolution wreaked havoc on their family. Both parents lost their jobs, her beloved older sister died, and Xujun were taken from home and inserted into a rural village to live and work with peasants.

After the fanaticism waned, she returned home, then moved to the U.S. and earned a doctorate from one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But the past kept calling to her, and in the fall of 2001, she began to write stories about growing up. After several years honing her English writing skills, she started winning awards and placing pieces in competitive literary magazines. Recently she published a book of short stories “Apologies Forthcoming” based on her experience.

When I first picked up Xujun Eberlein’s book of fiction, I hoped it would offer me deeper understanding of the task of turning life into story. My hope was richly rewarded. Like any good story, her tales lifted me out my own world and offered me a glimpse of hers. I read about a little girl seeing her father on his knees on a stage, being forced to denounce himself in front of his community. In another story, a young woman tried to adjust to her new life of poverty in a rural community. In still another, the protagonist reached out to men for friendship, and for the first time confronted the complexities of sexuality. In every story I felt two things: the pleasure of losing myself, and a sense that I was witnessing a period of history through the eyes of someone who was there.

Surprisingly, my suspension of disbelief gave me the freedom to enter that world without picking it apart for historical accuracy. To learn more lessons about this connection between her stories and her history, I read one of Xujun’s memoir essays, available online in the literary magazine, The Walrus. You can read it here. It’s a wonderful and tragic story, and another window into her heart and into those times.

Like the Rosetta Stone, I tried comparing these two different versions of the same events. My comparison of Xujun’s multi-dimensional attempts to tell the story of her life gave me some of the clearest understandings I’ve had so far about how story and memoir intertwine.

While fiction can freely break loose from actual historical fact, the story must give the reader an emotionally authentic compelling experience. One of the best ways fiction writers can tap into such authentic emotions is by drawing on the realities of the world around them, and especially the world they have experienced themselves.

On the other hand, nonfiction writers must adhere to historical facts. Even though this seems to offer fewer choices, a nonfiction writer has an almost unlimited supply of raw material contained within tens of thousands of days of memories. To transform these historical facts into an engaging story we must draw on fiction techniques, such as pacing, language arts, suspense, and surprise.

As I ponder these observations, I wonder what lessons I can learn from Xujun herself. She has poured enormous amounts of time and energy in the pursuit of good stories, so I asked Xujun to discuss some of her own experiences as a writer, and what it has been like to return to an earlier time, to awaken and review her memories.

Click here to read the first part of the interview I conducted with her.


For more details about Xujun’s life and writing, including more information about her book, awards, and other publications, see her website.

She also blogs about her observations about life in the United States, about China, and about life in general.

To read more interviews with fiction writers about the relationship between fiction and life see:
Interview with Naomi Gal
Interview with Jonathan Maberry

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.