By Kate Craigie, Senior Commissioning Editor, Yellow Kite & Hodder Non-Fiction
In Order to Live. Yeonmi Park
There are some stories that can only ever be told by one person, someone with a unique experience or insight into a historical moment – the person who was in the room where it happened. For me, these are the first kind of stories that come to mind when someone says ‘memoir’ and Yeonmi Park’s In Order to Live is a perfect example.
Yeonmi Park was born in North Korea, in the city of Hyesan, which is close to the Chinese border. She was brought up under its brutal dictatorship, where paranoia, oppression and famine shaped her childhood. When she was thirteen, Yeonmi and her mother escaped North Korea, but it would be another two years before they reached the safety of South Korea, as they fell victim to sex traffickers in China, before making a dramatic second escape through the Gobi Desert to Mongolia.
There are not many people who can write a memoir when they are in their early twenties, but Park is wise beyond her years because she has endured hardships and oppression – and all-consuming hunger – that are impossible to imagine from our vantage-point. It is a harrowing read in places, but it is also brave and honest and – that incredibly over-used word – inspiring.
Read also: Wild Swans by Jung Chang, I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, Educated by Tara Westover
My Name is Why. Lemn Sissay
Some of my favourite memoirs are also manifestos; memoirs with a message. They use personal experience to shed a light on a social issue or structural injustice, and the extraordinary – or even relatively ordinary – life at the heart of them offers context, grounding the book’s arguments in the material circumstances of the memoirist’s lived experiences. Lemn Sissay’s searing memoir, My Name is Why, is one such book.
After a childhood spent in a foster family, and then six years in care homes, Norman Greenwood was given his birth certificate. From it he learned that he was British and Ethiopian and that his name is Lemn Sissay.
As a poet, Sissay brings a lyricism to this memoir that makes it stand out. As he reflects on his childhood, Sissay offers a moving and frank expose of the bureaucratic cruelty and the racism at the heart of the British care system. You cannot read it and come out unchanged.
Read also: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Natives by Akala, Lowborn by Kerry Hudson, Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey
Uncanny Valley. Anna Wiener
One area of memoir that has been incredibly popular in the last few years is the ‘professional memoir’. Giving us a window into a world that those of us with comparatively unexciting desk jobs rarely get to see – and hope that we won’t get to experience first-hand – memoirs by emergency responders, brain surgeons, forensic psychiatrists and criminal barristers, reveal humanity at its most vulnerable and its most cruel, and expose systems at breaking point.
Perhaps because it opens with twenty-five-year-old Anna deciding to leave her publishing job (ahem) and moving to San Francisco to take up a job at a start-up, one of the ‘professional memoirs’ I most enjoyed was Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener. I bought this book on the strength of Rebecca Solnit describing it as ‘Joan Didion at a startup’, and raced through its witty, precise and intimate account of working in Silicon Valley. A literary-minded coming-of-age memoir, Uncanny Valley reveals the bullying, greed, sexism and #DownfortheCause fetishization of hyperproductivity that powered the ‘fever dream’ years of the tech industry. Anna is an appealing narrator because she is relatable, a kind of outsider’s insider. (And it makes me really happy to work in publishing.)
Read also: Do No Harm by Henry Marsh, The Devil You Know by Gwen Adshead, The Language of Kindness by Christie Watson
In the Dream House. Carmen Maria Machado
If you read all of the books listed above, you might feel like you understand exactly how memoir works – what it is and what it isn’t. But In the Dream House, the story of a relationship gone bad, completely explodes any ideas about what memoir can be.
Tracing her relationships with volatile women, In the Dream House is a hard book to pin down – constantly shifting perspectives and borrowing from different genres and literary tropes as Machado tries to make sense of the abuse she suffered. Each chapter considers the relationship through a different lens. It’s inventive and beautiful even as it is harrowing, and a propulsive read that stayed with me for long after I read it. It is a testament to what a writer can do when she completely throws out all of the rule books.
Read also: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, The Fact of a Body by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich