January 13, 2018

The Power of Memoirs | How a single voice can make a difference

In today's world, it can be hard to believe that one voice can actually make a difference. While the Internet has become a place for anyone to express themselves, it is also so full of people that it can be difficult to be noticed.

In a world of noise, distraction, and chaos, I did not believe in the power of an individual's voice. My jaded attitude caused me to give up on the power of an individual's story. The books I read mainly consisted of fantasy, science fiction, and a tiny bit of contemporary romance. In case you didn't notice, the genre that is completely missing from my reading diet is non-fiction.

Instead of learning about the real world through memoirs and biographies, I dove into the escapist distractions of fantasy and science fiction. I used to read more for entertainment and fun than for knowledge and understanding. 

However, my mindset completely changed when I started reading memoirs. By dipping my toes into the murky waters of non-fiction, I became invested in a new genre that not only taught me about the real world around me, but also how to be a better reader.

My journey to reading memoirs was not entirely self-discovered. I took a class at my college that taught American history through first person memoirs. I only took the class because it seemed easier than reading everything out of a boring textbook. It would be an understatement to say that I was skeptical about learning through memoirs. All of my history classes in high school were taught out of a dusty, old textbook that never veered from the distanced third person point of view. Even though they were not the most interesting reads, they taught me the material and helped me pass the inane multiple choice tests. To add to my skepticism, the last time I even touched a memoir was when my class discussed an excerpt from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 8th grade. 

I walked into my memoir history class on the first day thinking that it was going to be super easy since we weren't going to actually learn anything. Long story short, I was completely wrong. The syllabus was packed with memoirs and documentaries that covered a wide range of time periods, styles, and cultures. We read everything from immigration stories and veteran tales to famous autobiographies and modern masterpieces. Each memoir challenged my views of America, and the world in general, in a way that a textbook never would have.

First person narration goes deeper into a story than the objective third person offered by a standard history textbook. Zooming into history through the perspective of one person makes history more relatable and understandable. 

When you see the world through someone else's eyes, you are able to truly connect to them and their story. The facts and statistics from a textbook are certainly informative, but they likely won't have as much of an impact on you as a first person account of the fear of living as a Muslim in America (Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas) or the horrors of a bloody battlefield in Vietnam (Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic) or even the endless difficulties of coming out in a small town during the 1950s (Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story by Paul Monette). Memoirs are told with the truth of emotion that cannot be rivaled inside the pages of a history textbook. 

Another bonus to reading memoirs is the diversity offered in the stories. Diverse memoirs are the epitome of the #ownvoices movement that battles ignorance while also supporting marginalized voices. It is often said that history is written in favor of the winners, in favor of the wealthy, and in favor of the majority. Memoirs, especially those written by the silenced voices of marginalized people, are essential to viewing history beyond the limited story of one perspective. 

(Sidenote: I would not say that diverse memoirs are abundant though. The entire publishing world needs to push toward more diversity in stories and that still includes non-fiction). 

Even problematic memoirs can teach a powerful lesson when viewed in the historical context they were written in. To a certain extent, books reflect the values and expectations of a time period. Even though it might not be pretty, we have to face the issues of our past if we ever want to make a better future.  

My best example of this phenomenon is Separate Pasts: Growing up White in the Segregated South by Melton A. McLaurin. In short, I would recommend reading Separate Pasts, not because the narrator is good, not because it has a good message, but because it is one of the most realistic perspectives of white privilege I have ever seen. The author is completely oblivious to his opportunity and elevated social status, thinking that he is the hero of the story just for thinking of black people as actual human beings. The book is so blatantly racist that I have no idea how it got published. Pointing out flaws with McLaurin's world also meant pointing out flaws in myself and our world today. Seeing the transgressions of the past makes it easier to recognize similar (or even the same) injustices in our own lives. By showing the flaws of a time period, memoirs can help us build a better road map to the future by avoiding the mistakes of the past.

In my naive state of mind, I thought that first person memoirs were a narrowed scope of history that were too specific to adequately describe a historical time period. I was doubtful that a single person could teach me anything about the past. 

But, I ended up learning a lot from that class, more than what was even on the syllabus. Having a class based entirely on memoirs reminded me that books aren't just for pleasure and entertainment. There is nothing wrong with reading for escapism and happiness, but there is also value (and even a little bit of fun) in reading non-fiction. 

Do you think a single voice can make a difference in history? What was the last memoir you read? Are you a fan of non-fiction? What are some of your favorite memoirs/autobiographies?

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