A Memoir of a Girl’s Urgent Need to Find Identity

by Jerry Waxler

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

Karen Levy grew up alternating between the United States and Israel, never sure of which one she belonged to. The story of her Coming of Age, as told in the memoir, My Father’s Gardens, shows how her split identity created challenges on many fronts. Wherever she went, she felt like an outsider. Friendship was made more difficult because she kept leaving them behind. Her first job involved her in military intrigue, as a result of mandatory conscription in Israel. And relationships were made almost impossible by her overly protective mother, who demanded her daughter’s undivided loyalty.

In the end, she resolved her own challenge to grow up by choosing a country, settling down with a man and writing for a living. The resolution with her parents was more problematic, lending a sad note to her difficult choices.

Even before I read the first page I was hooked on the story of a woman who had to constantly find herself. Search for identity is one of my favorite themes in a memoir. On the surface, such an introspective search might not seem important enough to motivate me to read and enjoy a whole book. And yet, when I think back on the problems of growing up, my own search for identity drove me almost mad.

My grandparents left Ukraine to escape religious persecution. When they settled in the U.S. they stuck together with their own kind, as immigrants tended to do. My enclave of Jews in an ethnic neighborhood in Philadelphia kept me feeling safe and whole as long as I stayed home. But once I moved to the Midwest, I struggled to find a balance between my heritage and the desire to be accepted as an American. To find this new, blended identity, I attempted the peculiar, and as it turned out, maddening exercise of reshaping my self-image. This psychologically-demanding task I imposed on myself at the age of 18 sent me careening through a series of experiments that complicated the already challenging process of growing up.

As a young man, trying to mix into the “Melting Pot” of United States culture, I was trapped in a long journey of assimilation. As I grew older, I discovered that the entire country consists of people who surrender some of their ancestral identity in order to enter a shared one.

As the great mixing of modernity extends across the globe with massive migrations and blending cultures, people all over the world are attempting to let go of parts of their traditional culture in order to find psychological wholeness among the modern mix.

The Memoir Revolution is a wonderful tool to help us achieve our new identities as citizens of the modern world. Memoirs let writers and readers apply the power of story to the important task of being healthy, whole human beings.

Karen Levy’s attempt to connect with her own country became more difficult than most because she was torn between two, never sure of which one reflected her true identity. As a result of her unusual situation, and her deep, sophisticated story about her experience, the memoir offers a rich, complex look at the whole process of steering between cultures in order to find Self.

Other memoirs that explore self-identity torn between cultures

For another look at this tearing between two cultural identities, read the powerful page-turner Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham. In it, the young man returned to his birth country, Vietnam, only to find that he was angrily rejected by his former countrymen because he grew up in the U.S. Ultimately he had to face the fact that he needed to find his identity within himself.

In Rebecca Walker’s memoir Black, White, and Jewish, the author lives half her life with her white lawyer father in his upper class neighborhood, and the other half with her famous black author mother, Alice, in a lower middle class neighborhood. For a deeper look at people who straddled the fence between two races read the oral history by Lise Funderberg called Black, White, and Other about kids with mixed-race parents. By straddling the fence between races, they had special challenges that highlighted the universal journey of finding the story of self.

Notes

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.

Yin and Yang of Storytelling – Dramatic Tension of Opposites

by Jerry Waxler

Writing your memoir? Memoir Revolution provides many examples and insights into how to authors are translating life into story.

An author’s job is to tie us in knots, forcing us to search for relief on the next page. Thrillers easily generate tension when the hero races to find and defuse a bomb. But how do writers create tension from ordinary life? To find out how one writer achieves this creative task, I peered into the collection of short stories, “Inheritance of Exile” by Susan Muaddi Darraj.

Each story shows characters caught in the emotions and circumstances of ordinary life, and yet despite their ordinariness, I feel engaged in their struggles, turning the page to learn more. As I seek to understand how Susan Muaddi Darraj has accomplished her hold on me, I notice a particular feature of the writing. She has superbly tapped the power of opposites.

Opposites generate texture in every aspect of ordinary life: sad and happy, rich and poor, young and old, hope and despair. It’s the yin-yang of nature, that oriental principle that claims each polarity contains its opposite. I knew about the principle, but I never noticed it as a tool for storytelling. Now I discover the secret hidden in plain sight.

Opposites, by their nature, create tension, like the sparks that jump across the two terminals of a battery. The tension pulls together when opposites attract, or pushes apart when we want to maintain our distance from the other. By juxtaposing the two sides and allowing us to feel the contrast, the writer generates energy, creating an intellectual and artistic feast. Here are examples of the opposites I noticed in these stories:

Girl and boy romance

While describing a relationship, the author maintains her protagonist’s feminine needs, and at the same time, she shows a deep empathy and understanding of the boy’s perspective.

Child and parent have two very different views

She shows characters at different stages of Coming of Age, wanting to grow up, and at odds with their parents. This universal tension can be confusing and polarized. And yet, somehow, Inheritance of Exile brings enormous compassion to these situations by giving us deeper understanding of the parents’ point of view.

Tension between rich and poor

To earn a few dollars, she sells hand-made baskets at a craft fair. People with lots of money stop by to look. The contrast between their economic situation and hers crackles with tension.

Hoodlums and law abiding working people

A working man is robbed at gun point, showing the stark contrast between these two lifestyles. The man works hard, pushing himself through the daily grind to support his family. The hoodlums break the law and steal what he built up. The scene creates an intense contrast of these opposing life choices.

Relationships with Father vs. Mother

The protagonist’s relationship with her mother and with her father are each formidable, each rich in emotion, tension, and love. The real power, though, comes from the juxtaposition of the child’s relationship with each. The difference in her connection with each of these two parents creates enormous tension that the character must sort through, and which drag me deep into their family dynamic. Mother-love and father-love, so different and so authentic, create dramatic tension that drives me not only to turn pages, but to ponder these truths of the human condition after I have closed the book.

Palestinian (immigrant) culture and American (dominant) culture

Of course, every immigrant copes with these two opposing forces – the confining boundaries of the culture-of-origin, and the inexorable crucible of the melting pot that demands escape from that confinement. Susan does an artful job of showing her characters moving sometimes easily and sometimes awkwardly between these two different states.

Life is a balance of opposites

All of life is caught in the pincers of endless pairs of opposites. Opposites create revolutions, hatreds, and passionate love. At a more ordinary level, we strive to balance or solve cold and hot, hunger and fullness, loneliness and anger. At every level of life, from physics and biology, individual life, and the history of civilizations, opposites move us forward. Find these opposites in your story to propel your reader’s attention forward as well.

Writing Prompt

To accentuate dramatic tension in your own story, look for the opposites. Use the same ones I noted from reading Inheritance of Exile or look for others: educated and not, healthy and sick, and so on.

Notes

The famous graphic symbol of yin and yang is a circle with the two black and white interlocking shapes. It is called Taijitu. Here’s a link to a wiki page.

Visit Susan Muaddi Darraj’s Portfolio

Visit Amazon’s page for Inheritance of Exile

More memoir writing resources

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

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

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Iranian in America makes love and laughter

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

When two countries go to war, their “us” versus “them” mentality make their differences seem irreconcilable. So when I saw Firoozeh Dumas’ memoir, “Funny in Farsi, Growing up Iranian in America” it appealed to me instantly. I wanted to laugh at the differences instead of fight over them. But how can you laugh about something so serious as the differences between Americans and Iranians?

At a meeting of the National Speakers Association in Philadelphia, after an introduction that repeatedly cracked up the audience, Ron Culberson explained that humor happens when your mind sets you up to expect one thing, and then the punch line suddenly shifts the ground you thought you were standing on. That’s what creates the laughter in “Funny in Farsi.” One culture sets up an expectation, and the other culture spins that expectation in a surprising direction.

Firoozeh came to the United States from Iran when she was seven, with a father who believed America was the promised land, a land of infinite wisdom, compassion, and possibilities. That’s a familiar theme for me. Three of my four grandparents moved across the globe from Russia to the melting pot of America. In the early days of their immigration, there was enormous suspicion against them. Their Jewish names and manner and their foreign accents isolated them. But the melting pot blurred the differences especially among the children, and by the second or third generation, the accents were gone, the suspicion eased, and people started to relate to each other as people. The self-effacing humor of Jewish immigrants was an important tool as they struggled to become part of their new home, and helped create a sense of bonding and strength.

So I was prepared to appreciate Firoozeh’s humor. For example, when Firoozeh was a little girl, visiting Disneyland with her family, she became preoccupied by a bright red telephone and when she looked up, her family had moved on. At the lost-and-found for children there was another child who didn’t speak English. The caretaker begged Firoozeh to speak to the little boy. When Firoozeh spoke to him in Farsi, which the boy didn’t understand, he cried even harder. It was comical to think that the American woman assumed that any two foreign children would understand each other’s language.

On Firoozeh’s first day in second grade, her mother went along. The teacher invited them both to the front of the class and then gestured for Firoozeh’s mother to point out their country of origin on the world map. Firoozeh’s mom stood there smiling politely but not moving. The teacher assumed any woman would naturally know where her own country was on the map. She was wrong. What she expected did not match reality.

When I watch a movie or read a book, situations of identity confusion embarrass me so badly, I want to jump up and pace. I was feeling this jumpiness when I read Firoozeh’s memoir, and I wanted to understand how this dramatic tension works. So I pondered other dramatic situations in which identity confusion makes me crazy, and I realized that identity confusion plays a central role throughout Shakespeare’s plays. So I took a closer look at Shakespeare’s comedy “As you like it,” in which Rosalind, was forced into exile, and dressed up as a boy. In this disguise she meets Orlando who was madly in love with her. Taken in by her disguise, he enters into a second relationship with her, now as a friend and confidante. The resulting confusion has been driving audiences crazy for centuries.

Confusion about identity is especially relevant in the great melting pot of modernity, when people cross boundaries, exiled from their own culture and try to enter another. We wonder about each other, “How am I supposed to speak or act towards this person? What parts are the same? What parts are different?” The concern about a person’s identity creates tension, and then when the identity is exposed, we breathe a sigh of relief. “Ah, now I understand.”

While Firoozeh’s neighbors in the United States weren’t sure how to relate to her, I had no such confusion. She took me into her confidence and I saw for myself who she was, thanks to her superb command of the English language, and her clever, ironic insights. “She’s one of us.” I thought. And even better, as a recent entrant into the melting pot, she could share her observations about contrasts between two cultures more clearly than someone limited to seeing things only from within one.

At the end of the play “As You Like It,” just as at the end of all of his comedies, Shakespeare resolves the confusion by marrying the characters. I suppose he figured once they were living and sleeping together, all the masks would be removed. Firoozeh married too, but in her case, the wedding was yet another opportunity for misunderstanding. Her parents wanted the celebration to be the same as in Iran, where animal sacrifice is considered essential. The caterers, who were not experts in the nuances of this ritual, decided to carve the animal first. The carcass they wheeled out, stripped of its meat, was appropriate neither for an Iranian or an American celebration. It switched from being a symbol of joy, to a symbol of foreigners trying to hang on to their old identity in a new land.

The ending of Firoozeh’s memoir differs from a Shakespearean comedy in another way. Her husband is French, so even after they married they can never return together to a single homeland. Instead, they must continue to seek the universal qualities of love and laughter in each other, and in their adopted neighbors or else forever remain foreigners. And that is precisely what provides the lift at the end of Firoozeh’s drama of confusion and mixing. Amidst the differences of people, she offers us this opportunity too, to understand the things we share.

Writing Prompt: List the decades of your life. For each period, list examples of cultural mixing. For example, what neighbor, lover, teacher, or co-worker entered your life from another culture? How did you behave towards that person? Curious? Suspicious? Confused?

Writing Prompt: List vacations or journeys to other countries, regions or neighborhoods where others might have looked at you as a foreigner. What is it about you that people might have thought was different from them? (Color, features, accent, religion.) How did you reach out? What were some of the confusions? What humor or love relieved the tension? What did you learn? What surprised you? What still makes you wonder?

Visit Firoozeh Dumas’ home page.

Funny in Farsi, Growing up Iranian in America

Note: For more information about Ron Culberson, the speaker who got me thinking about humor, see his website. www.funsulting.com

Note: I listened to the audio version of the book, read by Firoozeh herself, so I was treated by her lovely voice and slight accent, along with the authentic pronunciation of the few names and words she mentions in Farsi. This book is available from www.audible.com.

Note:
Here are a few other memoirs in which the mixing of cultures plays a central role. Click the links to read my essay.

The Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein
Pursuit of Happyness (the movie) by Chris Gardner
Dreams of my father by Barack Obama

More memoir writing resources

Memoir-lovers in my experience intuitively recognize the potential that this genre has for healing us individually and collectively. My book, Memoir Revolution, backs up these intuitive views with research and examples about how the cultural passion for life stories serves us all.

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

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

Harry Bernstein reveals the Invisible Wall

by Jerry Waxler

I am reading the Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein. The reason I heard about this book and decided to read it was because of the buzz that it generated when Bernstein, now 96 years old, wrote this, his first published book when he was 93. That’s a story in itself, and inspiring to anyone who thinks it’s too late. That gives me 36 more years of productive writing ahead of me!! If I get started now, I still have the full span of a career ahead of me. And by the way, Bernstein has recently sold his second book.

So what can I share about memoirs by reading this book? First of all, I ask what makes this memoir tick? It combines two types of memoir: a coming of age story –Harry is just starting school, around 6 years old, and he shares his observations from that tiny perspective as he tries to make sense of the world. And it’s an immigration story. Both of his parents came from the old country, Poland, and moved to England. They are living on a block, an enclave, a sort of ghetto with other Polish Jews on one side of the street. And on the other side of the street are non-Jews. The Invisible Wall of the title is the wall of animosity and suspicion that runs down the center of the street and separates Jew from non-Jew.

When I read the synopsis, about growing up in England in the beginning of the century, and in particular growing up in the cultural tension of this street, I wanted to read more. For some reason which I find fascinating, even though my own grandparents came from Russia, I emotionally feel connected to England as the mother country. I guess it’s all that English literature, King Arthur, Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens. (Did those stories help me define my roots, more even than my own grandparents?) So I’m drawn to read this story to learn more about another generation of Jews being indoctrinated in the culture of the mother country.

Within the book, I find an interesting surprise. The author shows me both sides of the wall. Of course I see the fear of the children, as they walk to school terrified that they will be beat up by anti-semitic bullies. That’s the side of the wall one expects in a book that contains anti-semitism. But inside the home, I get to see the other side. Like Maria in West Side Story, when a girl from the Jewish side is drawn to a boy on the non-Jewish side, Bernstein shows us his mother’s graphic gut-wrenching fear.

I feel the emotions of the girls, reaching out to boys in the dominant culture with love. And the loathing from the parents, trying to maintain their old culture. It’s a beautiful melting pot story. Like the parents in West Side Story who beg their daughter to “stick with your own kind” Bernstein’s people desperately try to keep the children on the “right” side of the invisible wall. And there are other powerful emotions I identify with in this story. I am terrified and disgusted when I hear Harry’s father come into the house, abusive and drunk. I am anxious and hopeful when his mother figures out a way to make some money on her own.

So here is the magic of how the memoir draws in a reader. I see the world from the protagonist’s eyes. I want him to survive. I want his pain to be resolved. And he lets me get inside these emotions by showing them openly. It’s hard to write so boldly about one’s own raw emotions. I know it how hard it is for me. I suspect that Bernstein’s many decades gave him enough distance from the intensity, so he was able to see the emotions more clearly. So there’s another lesson I can take away from reading this book. Not only do I still have time. But as I grow older, my perspective of my life grows more interesting and deeper.

Note
For my essay about Harry Bernstein’s second memoir, The Dream, click here.