Writing About the Family: Family History, Secrets and Universal Truths in Creative Nonfiction

In the chapter ‘Writing the Family’ in the book ‘Tell it Slant’, editors Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola closely examine why writing about the family is a crucial aspect of Creative Nonfiction writing and how that originates in the writer’s mind and how he/she gives shape to it in the course of the writing process. Family, they specify in the outset, is the first window of the child to the external world, “our first mirrors, our first definitions of who we are”. While the adult self assimilates into the external world with disparate individuals, cultures and experiences, the immediate family still remains at the core of his/her values/impulses, they still remain “the first objects of love, anger and loyalty”. It is thus, quite natural that writing about the family remains at the heart of memoir/creative nonfiction writing, keeping in mind so much of creative nonfiction works that revolve around the family, the parents, the grandparents, uncles and aunts, and sons/daughters and even grandchildren.

As writers, all of them may have faced the universal duality of their roles within the family, the need to be an integral part of their own clan, and establish themselves as separate entities. Also, being the forbearers of their families’ cultural and personal past, what they do with exposing the personal, private and intimate details of the immediate family while striving to attain a universal perspective is also crucial, as that is the only way their work can be solidified in the realm of literature.

For that matter, all great memoir and nonfiction work begin with the writer’s impulse to tell a true story with honesty, passion and urgency. It may be a story that involves the lives of immediate others who surround him, but the writer is successful after unfolding the story to his audience only if and when the purpose is to bring forward universal truth, to evoke universal emotions where the family is the nucleus. Here, even if the subject matter is apparently centered on the family, it eventually becomes a metaphor to explore some more complex human issues, the larger historical/cultural context. Also, here, the family and its little, specific details serve to link the writer’s personal experiences with the greater world. I will mention four essays here in which the writers successfully/effectively strive the balance between the personal and the universal, while becoming more than a simple exposure of family history and secrets. ‘No Name Woman’ by Maxine Hong Kingston, ‘Notes of a native Son’ by James Baldwin, ‘Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self’ by Alice Walker and ‘Three Pokes of a Thistle’ by Naomi Shihab Nye. All of these essayists accomplish this by the unique use of form/structure and narrative voice.

In ‘No Name Woman’, Maxine Hong Kingston starts out with her mother’s version of a forbidden aunt’s story, which is characterized by unusual silence. Ironically, in the very first section, the readers come across the author’s mother who warns her: “You must not tell anyone . . . what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born.” Apparently, as the story unfolds, the author narrates a detailed account of a young woman in a Chinese village who transgressed the cultural norms and became pregnant, not from her husband whom she very briefly encounters, but from another man whose identity she never reveals. The author narrates graphically, with gory details how the family suffers as a result of this ‘sin’, as the villagers flock to the house and slaughter the livestock. “The Villagers broke in the front and back doors at the same time…their knives dripped with the blood of our animals. They smeared blood on the doors and walls. One woman swung a chicken, whose throat she had slit, splattering blood in red arcs about her….” The descriptions and the details involve the violence and also the ostracizing of the aunt from Kingston’s family, and the poetic, emotionally charged scene of the aunt giving birth to a child in a pigsty. However, as the narrative proceeds, we understand that it is the author herself who uses her imagination to weave in the details. Her mother’s version of the story is only sparse, minimalist, with occasional reminders, “Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us…”. However, the author chooses a peripheral form by weaving a story within that story, she creates a portrait of a woman and attempts to look back at her life, the clothes that she wore, the bun that she tied, the men that she may have encountered in the fields who may have coerced her into a sexual relationship in a world where adultery had been an extravagance. She delves into her past and contemplates the way she had been married off to a young man whom she met and slept with only for one night. “Then he left for America. She had almost forgotten what he looked like.” She also vividly recreates the scene where her dead aunt goes into labor and gives birth, and also nurses the newborn for a few moments, as she desperately wants to protect the child, while also the truth that the child without any descent line “Would not soften her life but only trail after her, ghostlike” keeps plaguing her, until she carries the baby to the well, and they both dive into it. All this while, the author recreates the character of the dead aunt, the scene and the settings, richly detailed and nuanced, and by doing this, creates a story within a story. Her mother’s version of the story is there as a metaphor to explain how family histories are traditionally handed down, travels from one generation to the other, whereas her own version of the dead aunt’s story is the structural device through which she ultimately looks to discover her self-identity. By reanalyzing her aunt’s life, she actually intends to explore how the cultural history of her Chinese village, her family can help her reconcile with her own, emerging sense of self, growing up in a more fluid, cosmopolitan America. Her aunt’s life in the story represents the patriarchal trappings, the urgency to wipe out family secrets, as Kingston uncovers her family history while recreating the old, untold stories, altering and reinterpreting them for herself and also the audience, in her ultimate attempt to connect with her family’s past/history.

In James Baldwin’s essay, ‘Notes of a Native Son’, the relationship between Baldwin and his father, their internal struggles and conflicts are apparently the focus of the narrative, as the author recounts the varied emotional tensions of the relationship on the day of his father’s funeral. However, as the narrative progresses, the readers understand that the familial relationship between the father and the son serves to uncover greater existential truths in Baldwin’s life, including racial discrimination rampant in the 1950’s America and also the question of American identity. While in the opening scene, Baldwin lays out the settings of the essay, the day of his father’s death, July 1943, the day when his last child was also born, the distressing period in the city of Detroit, marked with “one of the bloodiest race riots of the century.” The day of his father’s funeral, also the day of his nineteenth birthday, as well as a day he comes to terms with his epiphanies, and his father’s vision of the apocalypse.

While from the very beginning, he provides rich details into his family life and also narrates how he had always got along very badly with his father, the fact that they both shared, in his own words, “the vices of stubborn pride” unfolds as the narrative progresses, and through the course of the essay, he articulates how this ‘stubborn pride’ in his blackness, a legacy, evolves and shapes his own persona as an African American. Structurally, he builds the essay around a definite/finite time frame, the day of his father’s funeral, and this context helps him situate the essay, while also letting the author explore the many complex, difficult issues that arise in his family and also in the world around him. In the narrative, Baldwin tries to situate the early memories of his father and how he grows up under his intimidating presence, the pride of his father in his own blackness, “his outrageously demanding and protective way he loved his children”, and his groping personality, his “proudly pursed lips and rigid carriage”. He provides a rich, layered account of his young life under his influence, stifling and wanting to escape his tyranny, and also his father’s gradual surrendering to illness provoked by his “intolerable bitterness of spirit.” Also, in the narrative, Baldwin’s father’s failures in life, his afflictions and his gradual surrendering to death is coupled with his own episodes of struggle and animosity as he starts living in New Jersey, separately from the family. In the vignettes of this independent young adult life of Baldwin, including his experiences in bars, diners and public places, his fights and violent self-resistance, the first epiphanies of his life happen when he realizes that he actually, unknowingly carries the burden of his father’s existential crisis, his father’s smoldering anger and bitterness in the white-dominated America.

In the scene of his father’s funeral sermon, Baldwin employs the use of memories most effectively, while he remembers the characteristic grin in his father’s face, his father teasing his mother, the comfort his father offered when he as a child, scraped his knee on a barber’s chair. With these little details, he transforms his father’s image into an enduring, memorable one, interspersed with flaws and humanity. Also, with his exposition of the scene of the race riot in Harlem, he simultaneously brings out the images of violence and racial hatred, as his own emotions now start to reflect in the world outside. Thus, by placing the story of his father and his personal memories in context of the larger American history, he successfully transcends the personal terrain to move towards a more universal experience.

Alice Walker, in her essay ‘Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self’, poignantly tells the story of an old scar in her eye caused by her elder brothers, which affects her vision of physical beauty and also later acts as an epiphany to understand the true value and significance of it. In the essay, Alice Walker steps forward to give a very personalized account of how her brothers hit her with the pellet of a gun that resulted in a permanent scar tissue in one of her eyes, and how she has suffered the onslaught of that childhood event by slipping into a kind of stigma, and a low sense of her beauty and self-esteem.

The essay starts with Walker’s childhood recollections of an Easter Sunday in 1950, her mother braiding her hair with ribbons, the Easter speeches that she listens to in the church, and people admiring her prettiness, her dress and her appearance. The narrative gradually progresses to a detailed, harrowing account of how her life had been severely affected by that childhood accident when she was “eight years old and a tomboy”, surrounded a group of brothers who “shoot and shoot everything with their new guns”. The scene, the settings of that event and its exposition is carried out in vivid, visual details. “I feel an incredible blow in my right eye….my eye stings and I cover it with my hand.” The brothers, notorious and bullying in nature, make her hatch a lie, and later, fever-struck, when she visits a doctor, he says, “Eyes are sympathetic…If one is blind, the other will likely become blind too.” The author confronts this moment of terror and insecurity of her child self and continues it as an ongoing journey well into her mid-life crisis, when she asks her mother and sister whether she has changed in any way after the incident. She presents the memories of a school where she had been terrified by the ‘electric chair’, and also by friends who questioned her about her scarred eye and called her “one-eyed bitch”. Through the vignettes of her early childhood and adulthood, she actually shows us windows to her mental world, snapshots of how her life is affected by powerful forces that are not within her own control, including race, social class, family dynamics and her own cultural notions of beauty. In the essay, we see how the family is instrumental in her silent suffering, and also how the family becomes a redeeming gift in the end, when Walker’s three year-old daughter Rebecca gleefully says that she sees a world in her mother’s blemished/scarred eye. In her presentation of the perception of her own beauty in respect of family and cultural values, her three year-old daughter becomes the metaphor through which she attains the most profound epiphany: she is beautiful in her own uniqueness. With Stevie Wonder’s song “Always”, she discovers another dancer within her own self, a dancer who is “beautiful, whole and free”, which reflects how she comes out of the conventional perspective of beauty thrust on her by family/cultural expectations and forms her own paradigms of living and acceptance.

Naomi Shihab Nye’s essay “Three Pokes of a Thistle”, also replete with evocatively woven family stories, is also in essence, the universal journey of a young girl striving to attain her sexual and psychological maturity. She segments her essay in three individual sections. The first section is about her childhood and school life, her first grade report card, a car accident and her loneliness and her discovery of Mark Twain’s book that shapes her vision of life. In the second section, she recounts her experiences with her father’s rich, stimulating world of language and cadence, the fragrant syllables in Arabic in contrast to the constrained Catholic environment of her friend Marcia’s house and her father’s pig-like grunt, and also her first tryst with the adult world of sex with the boys in the park, ragging her with the F-word. The third section is about her introduction to the feminine world of growing breasts and training bras in which she fumbles and eventually finds her way on her 12th birthday, when she is been gifted with a training bra. The three segments of the essay are neatly structured as various disparate layers of the author’s life, which she eventually joins with her metaphorical/artistic vision, and in the process, unfolds her relationship with her parents as a metaphor to discover/attain a recognition of her gradually maturing self.

Her mother cries “mightily, heaves of underground rivers”, peels beets, “her fingers stained deep red”, stands at the “screen door peering out, my baby brother perched on her hip”. Through these lyrical images, the author presents her mother as a primal force who actually leads her towards her fascinating discoveries of life. Her mother also represents the pervasive silence that permeates the author when she questions her about the F-word, when she questions her: “What really happens between men and women to make babies.” In the author’s life, it is this silence of her family, particularly her mother that leads her to the quest of understanding and discovery, which is again the author evoking the universal human emotions of wonder, anger, fear and insecurity. Moving back and forth between her family’s cultural truths and her discoveries of the greater physical truths, including the blossoming of her sexuality and her gradual awareness of it, Nye’s essay accomplishes the task of a successful/effective personal essay. The tension between the cross-cultural conflicts and her assimilation to conformity is brought out beautifully, with the portrayal of the family.

Thus, it can be seen that in all respects, these four essays are effective in bringing out the larger perspective which moves the writing beyond the merely personal to resonate with the general audience.

References:

Miller, Brenda and Paola, Suzanne: Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003

Root, Robert L. Jr. and Steinberg, Michael: The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction–4th ed. Pearson Education, Inc., 2007 

 

Child of Delight

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Mithi, my true wealth. Pic credit: Lopa Banerjee

 

If I could fill your life with the serenity and magic of fairy tales,
I sure would.
If I could transport you to a true magic kingdom
Of angels and nymphs,
I sure would.
I wish I could carpet your path with roses and
The mirth of sweet spring.
I wish I could give you all this and much more.
But as I whisper your sweet name today,
Just know that life will not always
Sparkle like a diamond.
From your paradise of innocence,
Life will, by and by, suck you to a domain
Of wonder and sin,
Which won’t be magical anymore.
Till then, my child of delight,
I sing of the spring with you in my arms,
Whilst the rough winds shake and ruffle
The brushstrokes of the fairy land
We have painted together.

Footnote: some lines written for my elder daughter, Mithi on her fourth birthday, November 14, 2012. Retrieved from Facebook 🙂

Indian Summer

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Pic credit: Lopa Banerjee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If some day, I could weep the furnished warmth of your tears,

If some day, my own tears could speak with yours,

Radiant blue, opaque, like the tinsel-hued shore of our childhood days.

 

If our furtive, emaciated tears

could meet in dusty, forsaken doorways,

Ripple and flow, kicked off by the dust of melancholy melodies.

If some day, our tears meet in a wind-drifting trail, lead us

Through mossy courtyards, bumpy, narrow alleys, barking dogs

Stumbling over the curb to the shoreline of our last summer days,

If some day, our tears meet and run over the mirror lake

Dissolve in it in a myth of tenderness, in a high tide night,

The world around us, dark, clingy, tossed with the

Dead wind of our palms, our tears running away

From the narrow strip of the human landscape.

 

I would have made myself at home with your tears,

Be the child again, bursting wide, plundering your open wounds

With my very own, run over with you, hand in hand

Stumbling over random houses,

Crickets, the chocolate brown of our sweat,

Where we had once tripped, in the dark.

 

Copyright: Lopa Banerjee. October 28, 2014

 

The Drunken Lovers’ Song

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Image source: Lopa Banerjee

For all those short wintry days, sheathed under

The soft blanket of the setting sun, they met,

Under the misty halo of twilight.

Their hands clasped, their tongues tied

Under the spell of the faint, blinkings rays

Of the hibernated sun,

Zipped by the pale, urgent moonlight.

They met, they wandered, withered with the moon,

In their own planet, love, the only language of the living.

 

The sky, a euphoria of lofty colors

Threw sparks upon their faces.

They looked up, and down,

Coiled in each other’s faces, sitting

Rapt beside a drunken, luscious river,

Counting baby faces in the translucent water bodies.

The faces, playful, indolent, unbound, never knowing

The toxins, foul smells, the ground zero of the city.

They laugh, rolling, rippling, flowing,

Tiny petals of music, poetry and love,

Fingers kissing dewdrops, evolving

Into a saga of childhood love,

Twinkling dim, blinking out, withering away.

In a tangle of two souls, spread out

Like a flowered skirt, the drunken lovers

Surrendered their lavender blossoms.

The stale night whispered, venom sprung

Out of the earth’s crust.

And while the green pastures waxed and waned

With the pale, cold moon,

Deadly ghosts spitting misery, trampled over

Their flesh, bones and honeyed dreams.

The drunken lovers and the moon, consumed in embrace

Quivered, fluttered wings  beneath the deadening cacophony.

The river called them out in ripples

And the unwavering smell of love.

And they gripped, grouched in the dark planet,

Love, the only language of the living.

(C) Lopa Banerjee. October 23, 2014

‘Teen Kanya: Samapti’: Tale of the Rebel

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The young Aparna as Mrinalini. Image Source: http://www.banglatorrents.com

 

Remembering the beautiful Aparna Sen in her teenage years as Mrinalini or ‘Pagli’ (the crazy girl) in the movie adaption of Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Samapti’ (The Ending)–the girl with tattered sari and unruly hair, with dreamy, lustrous eyes, full of rebellion and angst that in the end turns to sweet surrender. Remembering the portrayal of endearing love that evolves and gains momentum with time, while the tomboyish girl gradually settles into docile domesticity. However, I am totally in love with the rebel with an independent mind who fearlessly sat in her nuptial bed and demanded: “Amake jor korbe keno? Ami ki khuki? (Why did they force me into this marriage? Am I a child?)” The rebel who stealthily crept to the terrace, climbed a tree, slept in a swing the entire night, nurtured a neglected animal, was one with the dirt, mud and soil of the quaint, uneventful village, who learnt to love the man, pine for him, who had once imposed himself upon her.

A full write-up on the trilogy of ‘Teen Kanya’ directed by Satyajit Ray is hovering in my mind now, let’s see how soon I am able to lay it down on paper. For the moment, sharing with you the untamed sweetness, the rural simplicity and the saga of unusual love:

 

‘Caged’: Nonfiction/Essay at Cafe Dissensus

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Caged woman. Image Source: wewastetime.com

My heartfelt thanks to Cafe Dissensus journal and the editors Mosarrap Hossain Khan and Bhaswati Ghosh for publishing my personal essay ‘Caged’. More than an essay, I would like to call it an ode to the concept of femininity in prose, inspired by Jamaica Kincaid’s narrative style in her bold, gritty nonfiction piece, ‘Girl’. It is my privilege to share my thoughts and writing as a monthly column writer for this wonderful online literary platform. This piece appeared as my monthly column there on September, 2014.

Sharing an excerpt from the opening section of the piece:

“The caged bird sings with fearful trill

Of the things unknown, but longed for still

And his tune is heard on the distant hill

For the caged bird sings of freedom.

…But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

His shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

His wings are clipped and his feet are tied

So he opens his throat to sing….”

(Maya Angelou: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings)

You were probably right. Being born a girl, I should have felt the warning rattle at the door. I should have heard the noisy presence of heavy feet stomping the old cement floors. I should have braced myself for invaders taking direction, seeping through the damp, concrete walls. Being born a girl, my mind was quiescent and tame. I had sunrise, I had hope. I was simmering in my pretty looking prison. I was simmering in arrogance and expectation.”
Do read the rest of the essay here and leave your valued comments:

http://cafedissensusblog.com/2014/09/17/caged/

Mountain Reverie: My First Photo Essay at Cafe Dissensus Everyday

Wikipedia says about photo essay: “A photo essay or photographic essay is a set or series of photographs that are intended to tell a story or evoke a series of emotions in the viewer. A photo essay will often show pictures in deep emotional stages. Photo essays range from purely photographic works to photographs with captions or small notes to full text essays with a few or many accompanying photographs. Photo essays can be sequential in nature, intended to be viewed in a particular order, or they may consist of non-ordered photographs which may be viewed all at once or in an order chosen by the viewer.”

I had first come across the term photo essay while taking a seminar level course in experimental nonfiction writing, and there, my tryst with a few essays including ‘A Postcard Memoir’ by Lawrence Sutin first sparked my interest in attempting to write that kind of short, crisp memoir accentuated by a series of pictures. Sutin’s essay was marked by crisp, richly layered prose inspired by pictures which portrayed slices of everyday life, including a newborn in his mother’s lap, a tropical garden and a potato-chip factory with school kids touring the premises, and a portrait of a man and his son. After reading a few more photo essays, I was more intrigued into writing this form of essay through which I would be able to relate to some immensely emotional or spiritual moment, a moment of epiphany or a moment of euphoria through the conscious effort of dissecting pictures. One such profound moment struck me this year during our two day trip to the mighty Yosemite National Park, northern California this summer.

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My first photo essay, ‘Mountain Reverie: A Surreal Cavas at the Yosemite National Park’ that has appeared at Cafe Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Cafe Dissensus journal, is my humble attempt at nature writing based on this very trip. Hope some of you will find time to read and comment on it:

http://cafedissensusblog.com/2014/08/23/mountain-reverie-a-surreal-canvas-at-the-yosemite-national-park/

Rise of the Phenomenal Woman: My Humble Tribute to Maya Angelou

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Maya the iconoclast. Image source: http://www.achievement.org

Sharing my very humble tribute to the poet, author and iconoclast Maya Angelou that I had written for B’Khush.com, following her death in May 2014. I wanted to go on and on with my rambling about the woman, the writer and the activist who had inspired me profoundly, but the space restrictions hindered me, somewhat.

Here I am sharing a small excerpt of the piece which had been published by Antara Chakraborty, my friend and editor of B’khush in August 2014.

Maya Angelou: Rise of the phenomenal woman 

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size 

But when I start to tell them,

They think I’m telling lies.

It’s in the reach of my arms,

The span of my hips, 

The stride of my step, 

The curl of my lips. 

I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman, 

That’s me….” 

(Phenomenal Woman: Maya Angelou)

 In the morning of May 28, 2014, a life lived with beauty, grace, ruthless confidence and fearless passion came to a screeching halt. Maya Angelou, the poet, memoirist, activist, dancer, singer, civil rights activist, mentor and hero to the oppressed, truly a women representing the Renaissance among the modern times, breathed her last in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a place that she called home for the last three decades of her life. The ‘caged bird’ whose songs soared on the wings of an eagle left behind the legacy, depth and wisdom of her phenomenal life in her classic works of poetry and memoirs. As for her innumerable readers, they will remain seeped in the classic intensity and power of her poems including Phenomenal  Woman, Still I Rise and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the seething, penetrating documents of the life and persona of the woman who dared to talk from the heart, and had fearlessly depicted her rawness, passion, vulnerability as well as strength, inspiring us with the magic of her words.

My first tryst with the poet and profound thinker Maya was the reading of the fiercely feminist poem Phenomenal Woman. Like her other readers and admirers, I had been inspired by the way she unfolded the unconventional beauty and the deep, raw sexuality of a woman in the lines of the poem. In this fiery poem, she comes across as immensely unrelenting and unforgiving about her self-identity as a woman. The way she writes about ‘the ride of my breasts’, ‘the swing in my waist’, the ‘span of my hips’, she actually chronicles the heart of every woman, documents their own struggles with a rousing spirit, and a joyful, unabashed soul. The poem happened to be the first literary work of this amazing, gifted storyteller and poet that encouraged me, taught me the courageous expressions of creativity.”

To read the rest of the short essay, do visit this page and leave your precious comments:

http://bkhush.com/dev/content/scattered-pearls-rise-phenomenal-woman