Memoirs offer readers the opportunity to take a journey through another human’s life. No matter how different the particulars of the memoirist’s experience from our own, the best memoirs tap into something universal. Here are five fabulous memoirs hitting bookstores this spring that together capture a panoply of the American experience.
Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob
In 2014, novelist Mira Jacob’s young son Z became obsessed with Michael Jackson, and he had a lot of questions about him, such as, “Was Michael Jackson Brown or was he white?” Jacob, whose parents are from India, is married to Jed, a Jewish man she met when they were growing up together in New Mexico. She told Z Michael Jackson turned white. “Are you going to turn white?” Z asks. His difficult, important, sometimes silly questions sparked Jacob to write a graphic memoir that takes the reader on a funny and bittersweet journey, illustrated with drawings of the people in her life cut out like paper dolls that move from scene to scene. As Jacob struggles to answer her son’s questions, she delves into her own complicated history of growing up brown, with skin darker than that of her parents, prompting her Indian relatives to describe her as “plain.” Jacob writes with honesty, humility, humor, and wisdom as she recounts painful and poignant moments from her life—such as the time she won a fifth grade Daughters of the American Revolution essay contest, and then, after she sent in her picture for the program, was given the wrong address for the banquet. Harder for her to bear is the way her in-laws vote in the 2016 presidential election, even after Jed writes them to say, “Please consider how this will harm our family.” Searching, candid, and full of heart, Good Talk provides an insightful conversation about race in America today.
The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays by Esmé Weijun Wang
It’s believed that approximately one percent of people have schizophrenia, and skilled and intelligent writer Esmé Weijun Wang takes care to guide readers through “the wilds” of the disorder. Wang, who won a 2018 Whiting Award and was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists on the strength of her debut novel, The Border of Paradise, was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, after she was forced to drop out of Yale due to what she thought at the time was bipolar disorder. In between debilitating bouts with hallucinations and delusions, Wang has accomplished incredible achievements, from earning a degree at Stanford to becoming a medical researcher to making her name as a fashion blogger to racking up impressive writing honors, including the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize for this book. She explains the overachieving in this way: “I care about recognition as much as I care about my own self-regard, because I don’t trust my self-evaluation.” With admirable candor and probing insight, Wang chronicles bewildering experiences that include hospitalizations (“My third hospitalization occurred in rural Louisiana. I told the doctor that I was a writer and studied psychology at Yale and Stanford, which was about as believable as my saying that I was an astronaut and an identical twin born to a Russian ambassador”) and episodes in which she believes she is dead. “People speak of schizophrenics as though they were dead without being dead, gone in the eyes of those around them,” Wang writes, but The Collected Schizophrenias goes a long way toward restoring life and humanity to those with this condition.
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, by T Kira Madden
In this harrowing memoir with a surprising conclusion, T Kira Madden describes a childhood of neglect set amid lavish privilege in Boca Raton, Florida. Madden’s Chinese Hawaiian mother grew up in Hawaii. Her father was Jewish and wealthy, the brother of Steve Madden, famous for his shoe empire. Through crystalline essays, Madden captures the experience as it must have felt to live it, in kaleidoscopic, fragmented fashion, out of chronological order. Madden’s mother is her father’s second wife. He left his first wife after Madden’s mother “rescued a mannequin from the J.C. Penney dump” and propped him up in the car and in the apartment for protection—they called him “Uncle Nuke.” Both Madden’s parents struggled with sobriety, and she was often left to her own devices, resulting in behavior including truancy and alcohol use, as well as experience with sexual assault. As shoebiz goes on in the background, Madden attends the kind of wealthy prep school whose students routinely receive plastic surgery as bar and bat mitzvah gifts; as one of the school’s few nonwhite students, she’s referred to by a racial slur she eventually adopts as a nickname. Despite the chaos of her upbringing, Madden’s love and forgiveness for both of her parents graces every page of this frank, lucid book.
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays by Damon Young
Damon Young is the cofounder and editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas, a senior editor at The Root, and a writer of great wit and acumen who tells the story of growing up black and male in Pittsburgh with incredible verve. He wrote this book, he explains, “to examine and discover the whys of my life instead of continuing to allow the whats to dominate and fog my memories.” Why did he wait until age 26 to earn a driver’s license? Why did his mother die young? Why did he enjoy Kool-Aid into adulthood? How can he reconcile the fact that he’s troubled by his neighborhood’s gentrification when he also enjoys the upscale amenities this brings? Young tells stories from his life in his trademark kinetic, discursive, joke-cracking style. These essays will amuse and trouble. “Thursday-Night Hoops,” about a pickup basketball league Young plays in with mostly white teammates, should be required reading to help understand the complexities and contradictions of black and white people coexisting in America today.
The Body Papers: A Memoir by Grace Talusan
Grace Talusan immigrated to America with her family from the Philippines when she was a preschooler. In this moving, clear-eyed memoir, which won the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, she probes the events of her life, documenting them with photographs and official papers. She involves the reader in her quest to make sense of who she has become by charting where she’s been. “Immigration is a kind of death,” she writes. “You leave one life for another one with no guarantee of seeing your loved ones or home again.” The portrait Talusan creates of her father, Totoy, is one of the most complex and beautiful parts of the book. Totoy grew up in a compound with his family in Manila. To punish him when he was ten, his mother hung him. Totoy thought he would die, but he survived, immigrated to America (after having all his rotting teeth pulled), and became an ophthalmologist. When Grace was young, Totoy and her mother practiced stricter Filipino-style parenting but grew toward an American permissiveness and warmth. After Totoy learns that his visiting father had been sexually abusing Grace from age seven to thirteen, he becomes her fierce protector, disowning his entire extended family to defend his daughter, and doing everything he can to help her heal. But Talusan is still working on healing. It’s clear that telling her story with such openness and perceptiveness, is part of that ongoing process. “Reaching out to other people and connecting,” she writes, “which is the exact opposite of how I felt when I was being abused, is why and how I am alive.”