More than two decades ago, Michiko Kakutani coined the term “memoir craze,” taking to task a host of contemporary authors possessed of the notion “that the exposed life is the same thing as an examined one.” Kakutani’s insightful comments – echoed by numerous literary critics, including Ben Yagoda and Daniel Mendelsohn – raised the bar not only for memoirists themselves but also for the very process of reading and critiquing memoirs.
“It is not my deeds that I write down, it is myself, my essence,” said Montaigne. This “essence” – more than the mere confession of life’s private moments – is the promise of every worthwhile memoir. “Essence” also begs the question: how do writers of our cultural moment understand and define the essence of a self? Through spiritual or psychological revelations, ethnic or aesthetic roots, rebellion or wisdom?
Two memoirs published this past March, Sophia Shalmiyev’s Mother Winter and Ayelet Tsabari’s The Art of Leaving, address this question through the experience of being a woman in a perilous, predatory world, about which the authors learn all too quickly. Though vastly different stylistically, the memoirs contain some striking similarities. Both are written by women in their forties. Both are immigration accounts. Both narrators reel from the early loss of a parent. To both authors, poetry is the underlying principle of human experience, and it lurks somewhere beneath the surface of the prose memoir.
Both memoirs posit complex ethnic identity as the locus of Montaigne’s “essence.” This, perhaps, is indicative of the historical and cultural moment in which we find ourselves. Tsabari, for instance, identifies as a Yemenite-Israeli-Canadian. Yet, while living in Canada, she started thinking of herself “as an Arab Jew, finding the term wonderfully romantic and contentious, surprised by how easily it rolled off my tongue. I became consumed by my Middle Easternness, infatuated with my Arabness.” It is through her embrace of the Canadian Arab community that Tsabari came to understand her Yemenite family in the larger Israeli context, where Mizrahi culture, let alone Jewish Arabness, was something she attempted to escape as a teenager. In a similar vein, to call Shalmiyev a Russian Jew is to gloss over the complexity of having an ethnically Slavic mother and Russian-Sephardic father who migrated from Azerbaijan to Leningrad, and with whom Shalmiyev immigrated to Brooklyn as a pre-teen. Both authors claim a kind of ethnicity that Shalmiyev terms “a new breed of in-betweenness.” For these writers, to live is to embody a historical conflict, continually “absorbing enemy lines” within a fractured self.
Tsabari’s work is told in self-contained chapters that resemble short stories. They are, by turns, tragic and humorously picaresque, and often both at the same time. Each chapter focuses on a formative –– and, generally, traumatic –– experience. The first recounts her father’s death, which occurred when she was only 11. She writes, the “moment, crystallized in my memory through the fog of grief, will be the fork in the road where my future splits in two: what could have happened had he lived and what happened because he didn’t. As I grow up, I will try to live as wildly and loudly as I can to outdo the enormity of this moment, to diminish it.” This heartbreaking admission alone could be a private psychological insight. Yet, a complex new historical order is introduced when the author recounts that on the day of her father’s passing, Ofra Haza, an Israeli singer with Yemenite roots, won second place at the Eurovision Contest. Suddenly, Haza’s Yemenite identity represented, and, in a way, defined, Israel within the larger world’s purview. In linking these two events Tsabari bridges personal and historical turmoil in a particularly wrought manner: the author’s father was a poet who, due to systemic discrimination against the Yemenite Jews in Israel, never had a chance to pursue his passion and instead became a lawyer. Haza, to young Tsabari, was the symbol of hope – not only that she could become a writer but that she could fulfill her father’s dream and rectify an injustice. Thus, for the author, to live “wildly and loudly” is to live through writing rooted in her ethnicity – that is to say, through the very thing that prevented her father from being a writer.
Indeed, Tsabari’s memoir expands the motif broached in the “Poets at the Kitchen Window,” one of most memorable stories from the author’s debut collection, The Best Place on Earth (2013). The short story is about a Yemenite father and poet, and his son, who has inherited some of the father’s predilections, including a particular knack for darkly ironic metaphors. The young protagonist describes, on a dare, the sun as an “open wound bleeding onto the skyscrapers. An egg yolk stabbed with the fork into the sea. Planes cutting through the clouds like sharp blades cutting through flesh.” These metaphors, amid a stripped-down plot, serve as illuminating leaps into the protagonist’s psyche, revealing the depth of not only a talented poet-to-be, but of his generation. When this gifted Mizrahi teenager recalls that all of the poetry he had read in school was written “by old Ashkenazi men” and that “he never heard of a Yemeni poet,” it suggests that a keen sense of injustice and flair for a defiance are prerequisites for becoming a poet in the first place.
In The Art of Leaving, one can sense the author’s long way home: the path toward her father’s literary inheritance, the poetry of Yemenite singing and cooking, an embrace of both her physical appearance and her backgammon chops. The author’s wanderlust seems in a direct relationship with her complex feelings toward her identity. She humorously recounts that, for years, she called her bank account “the Wandering Jew fund,” and states: “Leaving is the only thing I know how to do. That seemed to be the only stable thing in my life, the ritual of picking up, throwing out or giving away the little I have, packing and taking off.” The relentless travels pay off, allowing the author to acquire “skills I cannot list on any resume, like rolling joints while driving, bargaining in bazaars, or getting by in foreign countries with hardly any money.” There is no doubt that precisely these “skills” – and her desire to playfully recount them – make up a bag of tricks for this storyteller-raconteur, allowing for flowing and entertaining prose, even while writing about difficult personal matters.
The heart of Shalmiyev’s memoir is her early formative trauma: her mother’s alcoholism, recklessness, and, ultimately, their separation when the narrator moved to the US with her father at the age of 11, and never to see or hear from her mother again. As much as it is a story of an open wound –– she never again saw or heard from her mother ––it is also the author’s courageous questioning of the social expectations for women in the Soviet Russia, as well as in the US, where the author came of age.
If Tsabari’s work showcases the author’s storytelling skills within a compelling narrative, Shalmiyev’s memoir is a comparatively experimental work. It is a collection of loosely connected fragments, resembling short prose poems that dash across time, languages, and continents. The brokenness of the self, as presented by Shalmiyev, is so thorough that fragmentation seems the only viable mode of expression: for the narrator, the intensity and pain of memories past manifest as short bursts of thought rather than coherent narratives. She writes, “It is hard to organize our days in my congealed 1980s Soviet Union mind. The casualness of violence. The nearness of peril or harm like a dull click of an abacus.” If the brutality of the muted, abacus-like accounting of threats recalls Kafka, the “congealment” and fear manifest themselves in Shalmiyev’s own writing style, that, within a single paragraph can leaps across years of memories, reflections, and evasions.
This darkness follows the author from her earliest days. She recounts commuting to a distant school, often without money for travel: “… I would panhandle. My strategy was to stand by the change machines at the subway turnstile and cry.” As a young child, left in her mother’s care not long after her parents’ divorce, she witnessed a drunken sex orgy. At another point, she addresses her missing mother: “You opened your mouth and spritzed the hair lacquer down your throat and swallowed hard; a pinkish hue returned to your winter-dull cheeks.” At a time of Soviet rationing, those unable to control their alcoholism resorted to drinking hair lacquer, cologne, or anything containing traces of alcohol, no matter the damage to one’s body or dignity. Redemption does not come even after the author and her father leave the USSR and reach Italy, en route to America. The father works at a gas station, and his boss sexually assaults the narrator, who could not have been more than 10 at the time.
These harsh, pained, and eloquent flashes of prose are interspersed with invocations of various literary influences; Shalmiyev’s personal canon heavily leans toward radical feminist and proto-feminist poets: Sappho, Gertrude Stein, and Audre Lorde. Other influences are united in their proximity to poetry and to radical, groundbreaking expression: Anais Nin, Susan Sontag, Dorothy Richardson, James Joyce, and Roland Barthes. These names explain her ambitions as a writer who is also a consummate reader, and whose memoir is a journey through literature. They also contextualize the poetics of her fragmented, experimental style.
The two tumultuous, complex memoirs both end on a similar happy note: marriage, children, and creative writing programs. As Shalmiyev puts it, the “only religion that’s left for me now seem to be motherhood.” Certainly, both writers have had their share of hardship, the survival of which is a tale worth telling – and they both have the chops to tell it in a spellbinding manner. Whether or not they manage to capture the elusive “essence” of themselves, or their lives, remains a question for readers to determine. No doubt, grappling with such questions is precisely what makes memoirs worthwhile.
The Art of Leaving (2019) by Ayelet Tsabari is published by Random House. Mother Winter (2019) by Sophia Shalmiyev is published by Scribners; both are available from Amazon and other online retailers.