The Rise of the Memoir

Madi Wong asks, "What’s so much more intriguing about memoirs than fiction books?"


Illustration by Sarah Chew.

The idea of someone sharing a significant part of their life, or multiple moments that shaped who they are, has risen in popularity in literature through the memoir.


“Memoirs tend to take a closer look at a life in relation to a specific moment, phase or event. The more focused the memoir, the more immediate it feels, to me at least,” says Dr. Kamal Al-Solaylee, a journalism professor at Ryerson University. Al-Solaylee is the author of his own memoir Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes.


Intolerable is a memoir on Al-Solaylee’s family’s journey navigating Middle Eastern politics as they moved from Aden to Beirut to Cairo, and Al-Solaylee’s own journey as a gay man in an intolerant country. It contrasts his experience in Canada as a journalist and academic with the experiences of his family back home in Yemen, and it addresses how he handled the cultural differences. Some popular memoirs that have been adored worldwide include Piper Kerman’s Orange Is The New Black, Elie Wiesel’s Night and Roxane Gay’s Hunger.


Another memoir that has caught the attention of the Canadian public is Scaachi Koul’s One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter. Koul is currently a culture writer for BuzzFeed and is a Ryerson journalism alumni. Her memoir is filled with a collection of hilariously fierce essays that tell her story of growing up with Indian immigrant parents in Canada. Koul also addresses her experiences with love, self-image and culture.


Koul’s book begins with her describing her experience growing up as a woman of colour with the unfair stereotypes and unrealistic images that negatively affected her body image. She writes about how she dressed in boyish clothes out of insecurity, about gaining weight at a young age and when she started to wish she dressed more femininely. Koul’s description of being cut out of a skirt that got caught on a zipper at a store she once worked at is so potent with its imagery that every reader will feel like it had happened to them. Although it was utterly embarrassing, she tells the tale so comically that it can’t help but remind you that insecurities about appearance are universal.


“Clothes are ephemeral,” she writes. “They fall apart in the wash, you lose them at a friend’s house, they rip and crumble and go out of style. You’ll forget about them and buy new ones and then start the cycle again. But your insecurities, the ones that make you go hunting for something to make you feel better, to love yourself more, to give you a renewed sense of self or greater spirit — don’t you even worry. Those will last you a lifetime.”


Koul also doesn’t shy away from sensitive topics and turns her personal experiences into teachable lessons. In her book, Koul also discusses the deactivation of her Twitter account due to harsh criticism and threats from both journalists and regular people on social media — mainly men. Koul writes about wanting to see more diversity in the media, specifically in books and films. In her memoir she says,


“I remember being a little girl and wishing I read books or magazine articles or saw movies about people who even remotely looked like me… It changes you, when you see someone similar to you, doing the thing that you might want to do yourself. That kind of writing — writing by people who aren’t in the majority — it’s sheer visibility on your bookshelf or your television or your internet, and is sometimes received similarly to my call for more of that work. It’s responded to with racism or sexism or homophobia or transphobia. We are deeply afraid of making marginalized voices stronger, because we think it makes privileged ones that much weaker.”

Koul takes on rape culture and the normalization of sexual assault in television. In her book she tells us that men always watch women in an attempt to get closer to them, which leads back to her recurring question: why do we tell women to be more careful instead of teaching men to treat women properly?


Her story about getting roofied for the first time at university leads into her thoughts on party culture. Koul’s explanation of the false connection between party culture and rape culture references Brock Turner, a Stanford swimmer who raped a woman behind a dumpster. To illustrate her point that rape isn’t a lapse in judgement as a result of partying, Koul writes, “The mistake we make is in thinking rape isn’t premeditated, that it happens by accident somehow.” At the end of the chapter Koul says, “Rape culture isn’t a natural occurrence; it thrives thanks to the dedicated attention given to women in order to take away their security.”


For every serious and heart-breaking topic Koul addresses, she also manages to keep the reader laughing and thinking “Me too!” the whole way through. Koul brings her experiences to life so vividly that it’s almost too easy for me to relate to them.


One of those life experiences was Koul’s journey with puberty where she reminisces about going through those awkward stages. She describes that period of her life as “fast and ugly” in comparison to the other girls around her. Koul’s words about growing pubic hair and debating whether she should stay true to or rebel against the “hair norms” in society were so painfully honest and real that it was impossible not to laugh.


It’s important to note that authors share their stories for many reasons, including education and self-therapy. What’s so much more intriguing about memoirs than fiction books? They drive individuals to learn about the truth.


Al-Solaylee says he believes it has something to do with the evolution of the concept of privacy.


“I think we’re at a time where personal stories are no longer as personal as they used to be,” says Al-Solaylee. “We understand privacy and sharing in quite different terms from how readers and writers from two or three generations ago understood them. Social media and reality TV upended the private and the public. And to some extent, voyeurism is not the social taboo it was once.”


Koul’s stories are just some examples of how a memoir can produce eye-opening, educational and even relatable insight. They can make you feel close to the author, help a person discover something new about the world and inspire individuals; that is the inspiration behind these stories.

© 2018 New Wave Magazine

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