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I recently heard someone explain on a podcast that there isn’t much more to be said about the genre of memoirs than has already been said. I beg to differ! My first thought was that Carmen Maria Machado would like a word. And then I came up with this list of books that invites all sorts of new ideas about what memoirs can do as a genre.
Machado’s book Im Traumhaus is my starting point, but all of the books on this list take the genre in a new direction. Sometimes authors do something unusual on the page like inserting pictures, charts, translations, or footnotes. Sometimes writers combine genres and mix memoirs with poetry, essay, diary, folklore, philosophy, or nature writing. Sometimes they do playful things over time and reject traditional chronology. Each book on this list contains items that are recognizable memoirs, and each book breaks down the genre in some way. Both inhabit and defy form.
For me, these books are some of the most exciting books you can write today. Memoirs are flourishing! If you haven’t read In the Dream House I would start there. If so, take a look at the rest of the list and find more books to help expand your understanding of what a memoir can do.
In Carmen Maria Machado’s dream home
During her MFA, Machado met and fell in love with a charismatic woman who later turned out to be full of anger. In the Dream House, a seminal book, in part because of its portrayal of abuse in a queer relationship, is a subject that is all too often ignored. It is also formally inventive. Machado has divided her memoir into short chapters, each of which is inspired by a narrative trope, many of which are drawn from fairy tales and fables. This structure gives the emotionally shattering story both literary depth and tonal variety.
The Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
The Woman Warrior was first published in 1976 and is an account of Kingston’s experiences growing up as a Chinese-American in California. She mixes her own first generation immigration story with her mother’s stories about China, as well as stories from Chinese folklore and history. The result is an imaginative, poetic, cross-genre picture of a woman’s confrontation with her story, but also with racism, misogyny and trauma.
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The natural mother of Krys Malcolm Belc’s child
Krys Malcolm Belc is a transmasculine, non-binary parent, and these memoirs explore his gender identity and experiences with pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. The memoirs offer a new and necessary perspective on gender and parenting. It also contains many images that document Belc’s life – photos, legal documents – and add depth and complexity to the story of a person who grapples with their self-image and place in society.
Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Amy Krouse Rosenthal tells her story in encyclopedia entries. With bizarre titles that are arranged alphabetically, Rosenthal writes short pieces that describe her life and her observations of the world. She is adorable and funny, and she makes writing look easy. Together, the vignettes, stories, charts, maps, lists, and more create a complete picture of an ordinary person. This is a cuddly book.
The folded clock: a diary by Heidi Julavits
This book, subtitled “Diary,” reads like a series of short personal essays that together make up what we could call a memoir. The diary entries begin with the author’s everyday life and go on to deal with time, youth, memory, parenthood, friendship, marriage and much more. The entries are not arranged chronologically, which leads to fascinating juxtapositions and highlights moods and ideas rather than events that lead into one another. It’s a beautiful book, written and as an object.
H stands for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Who would have expected a book on falconry to be a bestseller? Shaken by the loss of her father, Macdonald adopts the hawk Mabel and begins training her. As she describes her adventures in falconry, she investigates her grief over the death of her father and tells the story of TH White and his book The Goshawk. Macdonald takes these many threads, including nature writing, memoir, biography, and history, and brings them together wonderfully in this unclassifiable book.
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Calling this book a memoir, even a genre defying genre, is a bit of a stretch, but it contains memoirs as well as essays, pictures, and poetry, so I’m counting it. This is a book about race in America and the many microaggressions that people of color, especially blacks, face. From Serena Williams to everyday supermarket encounters, Rankine analyzes the effects, large and small, of racism on American citizens. It’s powerful, groundbreaking, innovative, necessary work.
Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts
The Argnonauts are memoirs that focus on love, sex, pregnancy, and parenting. Using philosophy and theory as a guideline for her thinking, Nelson looks at her experiences of falling in love, marrying, giving birth, and living through the early days of motherhood with gender fluid artist Harry Dodge. Nelson’s deep commitment to ideas in order to understand her world experience makes these heady, groundbreaking memoirs unforgettable.
The Magical Language of Others by EJ Koh
This book is beautiful both as an object and as a writing. It tells of Koh’s parents’ decision to return to work in South Korea and leave her in the care of her older brother when she was 15. During their separation, Koh’s mother wrote her letters in Korean, pictures of which are scattered throughout the book, along with Koh’s own translations. Koh’s success as a poet is evident in the beauty and delicacy of her prose. This book explores writing, translating, and telling a coming-of-age story. It’s a powerful look at family, culture, language, and self-confidence.
The Immortals by Anne Boyer
The Undying is a book about being sick in America today. Anne Boyer tells the story of her diagnosis of an aggressive form of breast cancer and what it took to cope with it. She also deals extensively with the economics of disease. She examines the culture surrounding breast cancer and looks at other women writers who have battled disease. Your subtitle shows the breadth of the book: “Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care”. It’s a varied, cross-genre view of life and death.
Are you looking for more great memoirs? Check out this Must-Read List of 50 Memoirs and this Must-Read List of 100 Memoirs.