While sick, I’ve caught up on my reading, including two memoirs that are very different from each other. Both try to tease out the past, but one takes a journalistic approach and aims for veracity, while the other floats in and out of what I guess is creative non-fiction territory. In her foreword to The View From Castle Rock, a collection of stories about her family and herself, Alice Munro says:
I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality.
Her book is divided in two parts: one dealing with her Scottish ancestors and why they might have come to Canada, and the other with her own childhood and girlhood in Fifties Ontario. In the final section of the book, Messenger, she visits countryside near Chicago as an adult to seek out the cemeteries where family members who did not settle in Canada are buried. So she looks at her family’s past, her past and her present.
The book is beautiful; lively with attractive prose and depictions of settler life. I particularly enjoyed the part that dealt with the family’s sojourn on board ship – how fears of the youngest child’s being tossed overboard meant that they had to “tether” him at night (I think I would have done the same), the imagined relationship between an elderly and self-indulgent father-in-law and his matter-of-fact and acerbic daughter-in-law, hints of a love affair, dances and sightings of whales. While not wealthy or able to secure upper deck berths, the family are luckier than most and survive the journey intact and and well. It is only once they hit the shores of their new land, that their tragedies and dramas – possibly imagined by Munro, possibly not – unfold.
I also loved the section dealing with Munro’s childhood and girlhood in backwoods Ontario. The imagined and the real were threaded together imperceptibly, but I still desperately wanted to know which bits were fiction and which were true. While I enjoyed what she was doing, there was a part of me wanting clarification. She provides that in the foreword, saying that some characters “did things they did not do in reality”:
They joined the Salvation Army, they revealed they had once lived in Chicago. One of them got himself electrocuted and another fired off a gun in a barn full of horses. In fact, some of these characters have moved so far from their beginnings that I cannot remember who they were to start with.
Perhaps it is the journalist in me that wants to separate out fiction and non-fiction, or I must read more creative non-fiction and learn to go with the flow. As Munro asserts, they are just stories. Let me say, they are lovely stories, full of candid humour and insights into the oddness of the human condition. I’ve never read any Alice Munro short stories, but I guess they are full of the same.
I have also just finished reading another memoir, the craply titled Ja No, Man, by a young Canadian ex-South African called Richard Poplak. I sighed a little when I picked this book up. You know how movies set in the Eighties always have the same signifiers: someone playing with a Rubix Cube, people wearing day-glo clothing while Flock of Seagulls plays in the background? This book is covered with the same signifiers that shout Eighties South Africa to me, and its tag is A memoir of pop culture, girls, suburbia … and Apartheid. I thought it was going to be superficial, mindless and vaguely celebratory of what was really a horrible time to live in South Africa.
I’m glad to report that it isn’t. Poplak’s book is darkly funny, disturbing, and very well researched. He backs up his memories of growing up in Johannesburg in the Seventies and Eighties with acid offensives against the Apartheid state. He presents the eerie strangeness of being a child who only knows black people as servants, the indignities of Veldskool where he learnt about the immiment Communist threat and how to fold a flag, and the barbaric discipline of South African schools, where he was regularly sent for “six of the best”.
Poplak’s family left South Africa only a few weeks before Nelson Mandela was freed, so his book does not contain any reference to the miracle of the Rainbow Nation. While this might have eased his vituperative edge, it also means that the memoir is very specifically of its time and of its place. There is no sentiment, no schmaltz; Poplak addresses those two decades starkly. He makes no apology for not including black experience in the book – this is his experience and he presents it frankly, sometimes so frankly that I squirmed in uncomfortable recognition.
Towards the end of the book, he says:
It is a strange thing to be severed from the community of man – to be an island – as we were in South Africa. Isolation, both cultural and geographic, causes a certain kind of backwardness. The pastiche you create of the world, assembled from snippets of popular culture, hearsay, half-true news, and folkloric assumptions, is a patchwork quilt. Adrift, you create a world that only nominally hints at civilization. We were a quasi-democratic quasi-dictatorship, with a culture as anemic and as weirdly translucent as those deep-sea species of fish seen on the Discovery Channel. The flag Oom Piet raised with such reverence, the national anthems we sung with such forced gusto at assemblies – these were dead symbols for a dead country.
Richard Poplak and I and many millions of others are the products of Apartheid, and this dead culture. Thank goodness it is dead, and a new South Africa is rising from the ashes, but many are still paying the price of that cold grey time.
Poplak’s approach is very different from that of Munro. He says in his author’s note that it is both an act of memory and a work of journalism – if he remembered a certain tree as a jacaranda, he went back and checked that it was a jacaranda. He changes the names of teachers, certain schools and schoolfriends, and also clearly states that there are no composite characters, fictional places or made-up situations. His book is rigorous and factual, while Munro’s is swirling and exploratory.
It was an interesting experience reading these two different approaches to the memoir, neither better than the other, back-to-back. I would really appreciate any tips on good creative non-fiction, as it’s clearly a genre I want to explore more.