The Cultural and Political Power of the Personal Memoir

For women, and for gays, lesbians, and other minorities, simply telling the truth about the way we live can be subversive


One of my earliest memories involves my mother telling me to go outside and play, at which point I dutifully carried my book into the backyard, sat down on the swing, and continued reading. More than any other genre, I'm infatuated with memoir. There is nothing more satisfying than getting lost in the sloppy, messy details and extraordinary turns of someone else's life. I particularly love memoirs by women, especially women from non-Western countries. My interest borders on evangelical; I think that reading memoir is one of the best ways, maybe one of the only ways, to develop empathy for those we see as the Other.

Just by existing, books like this are narratives of transgression. Writing them is an act of rebellion.

We all have certain stories in our heads about people who are different from us, especially people who are somehow marginalized: women, queer people, people of color, people with disabilities, poor people. We make assumptions about their interests, their backgrounds, their families. These narratives are culturally influenced and depend on our own predilections, but ultimately, one reading can be just as shallow as any other; pity is just as trivializing as scorn. This is particularly true when it comes to politics. Making broad statements about how oppression works and who is marginalized by what, no matter how well-intentioned, is counterproductive when applied to the lives of individuals.

For evidence, look at Italy's recent debates over banning the veil. While mandating that women wear hijab is unquestionably repressive and misogynistic, it doesn't logically follow that the garment itself is the problem, or that outlawing it will solve anything. Indeed, for those women who choose to wear the veil as a symbol of their religious devotion, forbidding it is just as oppressive as requiring it. In either case, women are being denied the right to make the decision themselves. It's as backwards as if politicians in the U.S. decided that, since some women feel stifled by expectations that they will go into the caring professions, nursing should henceforth be illegal. Every woman, in every country, experiences some kind of misogyny, but no two experience it in exactly the same way. Any attempt to rectify or even discuss oppression is doomed to be clumsy and ham-handed if it doesn't take into account individual differences in experience.

At the moment, I'm working through a pile of memoirs from Iran: Persepolis, Lipstick Jihad, Things I've Been Silent About. This feels especially relevant considering the strange cultural resonance that exists right now between the U.S. and the Middle East, the way in which our fates intertwine. The narratives we believe to be true about that region have been woven into the underlying fabric of our society. Unfortunately, much of what we assume is at least simplistic, if not actively incorrect. One of those things is that women -- all women -- in Islamic cultures are miserable and abused, a homogenous mass of veil-wearing victims. Reading the words of women in that part of the world, being immersed in their particular, idiosyncratic perspectives, allows for a more complicated understanding of their sufferings as well as their triumphs. It helps the reader to appreciate them not as numbers in a newspaper but as whole, dynamic people.

Presented by

Lindsay Miller is a freelance writer based in Colorado.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

Just In