Writing family history is first and foremost an exercise in selection. Reviewing that hoard of letters, photographs, diaries, family legends, and oral history from which you compose your account, you must decide continuously which details to include and which to leave out. Continue reading
On March 21, the government of Mali was overthrown, and chaos descended on this West African nation of 15 million people. The origins of the coup lay in interlocking crises of rebellion, drought, famine, and the Arab Spring currently roiling the Mideast. Its resolution, which may depend on the military forces of Mali’s neighbors and those of outside powers, cannot be foreseen at this time. But an Associated Press article on Amadou Haya Sanogo, the obscure Army captain who led the coup, brought the whole affair into sharper focus and showed me how family history can sometimes cast a light on history in general.
Any writer of family history will face many questions of protocol and style. The first and most basic is: Where should I begin? Continue reading
Last week, I wrote about gender, patriarchy, and related matters as factors in family history. I was interested in how gender roles, power, and authority shape family life, and hence, the history a family leaves behind. I noted that stories about my father, uncles, and grandfathers dominated our family lore, and I wrote about the value I found in stories about my mother, aunt, and grandmothers (along with the archival materials my maternal grandmother left behind).
Well, I wrote all these things and thought I was done with the subject, at least for the moment. Continue reading
Gender, patriarchy, and stuff like that are hugely relevant to family history. These notions have enormous practical and theoretical significance. Continue reading
I was down in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago for another round of spelunking in the family archives. My explorations were extremely successful. I found scads of old letters, notebooks, calendars, and greeting cards. My grandmother was a terrific archivist, and my mother has preserved everything. Continue reading
One of the things that surprised me when I began researching my family history was finding out how much history there is in my family. I don’t mean personal information about my relatives, such as where they lived or what they looked like. I mean public history, the things you can read about in history books. Continue reading
Interviewing your relatives is both a simple task and a complex one. It’s simple in that the activity at the heart of the interview—talking to family members—is something you’ve done all your life. It’s complex in that this conversation is a directed one, which you conduct for the purpose of gaining information.
To make things even more complicated, you must also handle a host of difficult personal matters during this interview. Some of your relatives may be reluctant to speak. Some may speak in a curious, roundabout way, evading the very topics you are most eager to explore. Others may seize on forgotten quarrels, and it will be your job to prevent these conflicts from reigniting and overwhelming your work.
Why would anyone in his right mind want to write a family history?
Why would anyone with a normal zest for life choose to squander precious leisure time on a project that seems to be endless and offers no certain hope of publication?
Why would someone who cares about the feelings of others—and about their feelings towards onself—undertake a project that runs every risk of upsetting the apple cart of family relations?
After all, a family history awakens memories by necessity, and not all memories are happy ones. It asks witnesses to relive a potentially difficult period of their lives—childhood—and adopt a new perspective on what they may consider a closed chapter. It runs the risk of pitting family members, who may have sharply diverging views of the past, against one another.
So why do it? Why take on such a difficult and uncertain project?
I pose this question, not because I require answers, but because others might require them. After all, I am propelled by my own mania, and my own reasons are self-evident to me. But in others—especially my relatives, who have indulged my many requests for information—I sense a need for some clarity about my long-running project.
So here are some answers, or attempts at answers.
I write family history because it provides terrific material. When I investigate my family’s past, I find a powerful springboard, capable of launching me in any direction. Using my family history as a prompt, I can write about marriage, sibling relations, medicine, psychology, science, history, and politics—almost anything I choose to explore.
I write family history because it reveals a middle way of thinking about my clan, a way that transcends nostalgia, sentiment, and judgment. It’s easy to reflexively look on the past as a golden age. It’s easy to fall into settled patterns of thought about your relatives. It’s easy to form opinions about your kin, and to let those opinions harden into judgments.
Family history breaks up those patterns of thought. It reforms opinions and calls previous judgments into question. When you consider the times your relatives lived through, the dilemmas they confronted, and the options they faced, you see your forebears anew.
I write family history because it gives me a chance to prove my mettle. This is the hardest thing I have ever done. It summons more ingenuity, delicacy, and perseverance from me than anything I’ve ever attempted. That alone seems like a good reason to take on the job.
I write family history because it’s funny. It’s funny that one grandfather was an inveterate tightwad, who parted reluctantly with every nickel, and it’s funny that my other grandfather shot a seal while standing guard duty on the seashore in World War II.
It’s funny that my uncle, who is inept with mechanical devices, once ruined a car because he let it run out of oil, even though he was checking the dipstick weekly. It’s even funnier that he learned about cars from my father, who was just as ignorant about them as he was.
I write family history because it humanizes my relatives. If you are fortunate enough to come to delve into your family’s past, your relatives’ quirks become downright endearing. There’s something ineffably sweet about the way my great-grandfather ate a fried egg—first the white, in pieces, and then the runny yolk in one gulp. It’s also touching that my uncle, who was a small child at the time, seized on this one bit of behavior and still remembers his grandfather by it, decades after Baba passed away.
Finally, I write family history because it awakens wonder. Gaining access to the past is a miraculous exercise, akin to time travel. It’s like piercing a veil or sweeping aside a curtain: What once was invisible and unknowable becomes intimately known, like a diorama. The sure, sudden intuition by which you grasp the motives of the characters only deepens the miracle.
Then your own relatedness comes into play. These are your ancestors who strut and fret, whose hair, brow, and nose you share, who have bequeathed to you your musical gifts, short temper, or sweet tooth. Here are the people whose lives have prefigured your own. Step forward and greet them. They are waiting for you.