Samantha Dunn is the author of Failing Paris, a finalist for the PEN West Fiction Award in 2000, and the memoirs Not By Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life (Henry Holt & Co.), a BookSense 76 pick, and Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex and Salvation.
But right now she is also the author of this wise FB post, which I want to share with you:
“So a certain woman just published a memoir, have you heard? Some woman who ran for president?
Anyway. The news about it made me remember a time, recently, when a guy came up to me and was like,
“So it’s mostly women in your classes, right? Don’t they all want to write memoir?”
Evidently he was trying to make small talk. We were at the closing reception of The Writers’ Studio, an intensive four-day program through the UCLA Writers Program where I’ve taught memoir and personal essay since before there were smart phones.
It was, I believe, precisely the 400 bazillionth time anyone—man, woman, writer, non writer–had ever asked me that question, or some version of that question. Whether they’re conscious of it or not, underneath this query lies a nest of dismissive, condescending, sometimes overtly contemptuous, assumptions: Memoir classes are just a bunch of hens writing about their “feelings” and what happened to them. Oh, isn’t that sweet. I’m sure it’s all very therapeutic. [Snicker, snicker] But really, how *literary* can that be? How elevated an artistic endeavor can that be?
That question had pissed me off for years. Years. I’d find myself getting defensive, saying, “No, not only women, a lot of men too.” And then I’d instantly feel shameful about the wrongness of that reply, on so many levels–as if by holding up the fact that men also take my courses I validated the courses’ gravitas and rigor. My defensiveness itself has been a symptom that somewhere deep down, even I too doubted that a genre where the majority of practitioners—which is not to say that the majority of those publishing—are women could matter as much as other forms. Even I, me, moi, author of two memoirs and one highly autobiographical novel, battled an inferiority complex.
But earlier during that UCLA four-day intensive, a profound shift had happened for me while I was going through a lecture I have given many times, about the history of memoir as a literary form.
As I was talking about how St. Augustine’s Confessions, written around 400 A.D., are thought to be the root of modern memoir, establishing an inherently redemptive arc through the telling of personal experience, I was looking into the face of 20 women. White and black, some great grandmothers, some young women just out of grad school. One had never held a job outside the home. One had been the first female prison guard at San Quentin. One had been molested by a father. One was grieving the death of her mother. One had gotten lost in South America 20 years earlier and was still trying to understand the ripples that experience had sent out over her life. One had been on a plane hijacked by terrorists and had tried to keep it a secret because she didn’t want to revisit the trauma. All of them were complicated, soulful beings whose lives were unique expressions, singular combinations of personality and history and class and politics and race and art and whatever else forms us as humans.
All at once I had that bolt-of-lightening feeling as I spoke to them, realizing that no woman could ever have written what St. Augustine had. Even if a woman had been educated enough to write at that point in history (which was rare enough for men, even more so for women), she would have been burned alive for admitting to the transgressions St. Augustine details.
And as strange as it sounds, I had this, I don’t know what—this hallucination, this psychedelic moment, where it was as if the lost histories of millions of women through the ages, all the lives lived silently, all the agonies and the hopes and the dreams dared, were now shining through the faces of those 20 women in my class.
Acid flashback? Possible. Moment of satori talked about in Zen, instant of enlightenment? I dunno. But suddenly I knew, I felt, how incredibly subversive, how riotous, it is to be at a point in history where women are publishing the stories of their lives in significant numbers, the likes of which has never been seen in the record of human achievement.
By committing their experience to our collective literature they are changing not only their world but yours, ours. All these voices add up to an uncharted narrative about what it means to be human. Only the most radical of all potential endeavors: They are witnessing their story and we human things are therefore understanding more of THE story, and in that understanding we are thereby changing THE story for all of us.
This is the way the world gets reborn: One story at a time.
So I told random dude-at-writerly-reception-thingy-making–lame-small-talk,no, it is not “mostly women” who are writing memoir. It’s mostly A BUNCH OF FUCKING RADICALS WHO ARE ACTIVELY CHANGING THE COURSE OF HUMAN HISTORY.