I can find no rule stating that a memoir about family must focus on the writer’s immediate family, but the custom seems to be widely observed. Parents and siblings occupy the foreground. Aunts, uncles, and grandparents take up their positions in a dim and sketchy background. The family tableau appears in this configuration as if no other grouping were possible. But in writing and in life, anything is possible. So why does the genre adhere so rigidly to this form?
If we accept the widespread contention that the true subject of memoir is the self, this convention becomes somewhat easier to understand. Then it makes sense to have a foreground containing an earlier version of the author, along with the family members who figured so prominently during the formative stages of the author’s journey. For those of us who came of age in traditional nuclear families, this composition may seem like the only one possible. It will be interesting to see if future memoirs, looking back on an era in which the family is frequently reconfigured by divorce, migration, and other factors, also adopt this form.
To assume that the influence of the nuclear family is the only one worth noting, however, strikes me as problematic. If we really want to understand ourselves, we must get as near to the bottom of things as we can. If my parents made me the way I am—and I am only parroting this simplistic assumption, not endorsing it—then what made them the way they are? How do we form an adequate account of their origins?
There are also other reasons to challenge this convention. One is simple artistic license. Writers should be free to select their material and structure their stories in any way they see fit. I think this statement requires no justification. Life is full of people and events. Any of them may be worth our attention. It is the writer’s job to select the elements and perspective of composition. It is up to the reader to accept or reject the writer’s choices.
Finally, we have to acknowledge that writing is not only a matter of aesthetic values, but also an enterprise shaped by personal factors and chance. Novelists may create their characters, but we choose ours, based on the affinity we feel for real people, either living or deceased. Write what you know, goes the old saw; the saying has particular weight for writers of family history and memoir.
My own family history project grew out of an offhand remark my mother made to me about a decade ago. “You ought to write about your uncles,” she said, knowing the affinity I felt for these three unusual men. At first I thought the project might lead to one or more short personal essays, but I was wrong about that. The more I learned about my uncles, the more I wrote. The more I wrote, the more I felt that I could not limit my project to just these three characters. The story seemed to burst through whatever boundaries I imagined for it. Over the years, it has become a general family history, marked by its original conception. My uncles and other extended family members occupy the foreground. My parents and siblings appear in the distant background. I hardly appear in it at all.
I write about my extended family because my mother once suggested that I write about my uncles, and her suggestion led me on a journey that has not yet come to an end. I write about my extended family because my relatives make for vivid characters, whose lives take on even greater meaning when viewed against the backdrop of 20th century history. I write about my uncles because I once worshipped them as heroes but now see them as men, a transition that is interesting in its own right. I write about my extended family because the story of my uncles led me inexorably to the story of my grandparents, great-grandparents, and aunt. I write about my extended family because it is like painting the shadow of an object, rather than the object itself. I write about my extended family because the microcosm my relatives inhabit is wondrous and strange. I write about my extended family because it is the unconventional choice.
© 2012 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.
I agree with you. I didn't realize this choice was so unconventional. I wrote about my extended family right off the bat, namely my maternal ancestors who were slaveholders in SC. The profound effects of that experience can be seen through aunts, uncles, and cousins. You are so right that an extended family can inhabit a wondrous and strange microcosm. I share your view. See the website for my book blog, if you like. Your uncles look very different from one another — they must be real "characters." My uncles made my mother the way she was. You never know where the most interesting material will come from.
Yes, the legacy of the extended family endures, making itself felt every day. It doesn\’t surprise me at all that your uncles would have so deep an influence on your mother. It\’s interesting the way you tie family history and American history together. That\’s also my aim, because I think our families are deeply marked by the times they live in.
I look forward to checking out your blog. Thanks for checking in.
I am reading some of your posts tonight with tears in my heart that I was not able to "find" you sooner. Your aunt Phyllis Kubrin was a close friend in 1952 when we were both enrolled in journalism classes at Los Angeles City College. In fact, she was my "alpha"/mentor when I pledged to Matrix (the women's journalism fraternity there). Her pet name for me was simply "Pledge" and she kept a precise small journal in her purse where she would scribble down my every misstep as she guided me to initiation. We corresponded briefly after she moved to New York…and then I lost track of her. Slowly the memory dimmed as I went on to marriage and children and all the other distractions of life. There was no way then to google a name, and even when the miraculous connection possibilities blossomed with the microchip and laptop, chances were always slim that a woman would use her maiden name online. So over the years I have typed in the unique surnames of old female friends from time to time, hoping something would turn up. Regrettably, almost all my searches now result in obituaries. So it was with mixed delight and sorrow that I came upon your columns tonight. And to find a picture of Phyllis gave me a poignant smile. Thank you. I have a little memory you might enjoy Phyllis told me once about her academic record–that she had an F—in physical education–in Rest—FOR TALKING when she was supposed to be napping!! I also remember that she had to wear a scarf because of hair loss (perhaps after scarlet fever?) and she "rented" bangs. She was such fun. Good heavens, that was sixty years ago, and I remember it all now. But damn me if I can remember what I had for breakfast!—Yvonne (Caruthers) Bartlebaugh
So nice to hear from you! I\’m touched that you have kept my aunt in your thoughts all these years. I have in fact heard the story about failing Rest, as well as other things from her time at LACC. I\’ve also heard about her rented bangs. She had an accident that resulted in a head injury and surgery in her senior year of high school. The bangs and her class in Rest both stemmed from that accident. I didn\’t know that she failed Rest for talking, but I\’m not surprised to hear it–that was just like her. She was a character!
Thanks for reading and commenting.