Notes to Self

The art of personal narration

Memoir, Helena de Bres writes in Artful Truths, is “centrally valuable” as a window into the lives of others. “It’s memoir we go to, not journalism, or even biography, when we want to understand at a deep level what it was like, how it felt, to go through the sorts of experiences that make up the heart of human life.” The literary tradition of personal narration stretches back to the likes of Saint Augustine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Michel de Montaigne, but, as de Bres observes, there has been something of a memoir boom in recent years, with such notable examples as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. In some ways, though, McCourt and Eggers are contemporary outliers, as the genre has also seen a sea change in authorship, “from mostly older White men to an increasingly young, female, non‑White and otherwise diverse set of writers.”

De Bres, who teaches at Wellesley College, in Massachusetts, offers not a how‑to manual but rather a densely packed list of considerations — moral, ethical, aesthetic — that the would‑be memoirist ought to ponder when ­setting out on a life-writing voyage. A memoir, after all, is no simple thing. It demands an experiential truth, but unless you are recounting your life as a hermit or the sole occupant of a desert island (interestingly, the first memoir boom followed the success of Daniel Defoe’s fictional Robinson Crusoe), you rather quickly realize that your version necessarily involves other people. Therein complications can arise.

Whose truth are we talking about when we’re talking about memoir? And if, as some argue, the “self” is a fiction, how can there ever be truth when describing it? De Bres cites Mary McCarthy, author of two memoirs, who once claimed, “It’s absolutely useless to look for [the self], you won’t find it, but it’s possible in some sense to make it.” De Bres also, perhaps inevitably, refers back to Montaigne. “I do not portray being,” the French philosopher declared in the Essays. “I ­portray passing.” De Bres elegantly manoeuvres through different takes on the form, including that of so‑called verificationists, who argue that if one cannot in principle verify or test memory, then the memory can be neither true nor false.

Nonetheless, a literary work must have some kind of narrative structure, simply for ­coherence, even if no one’s life has ever conformed to such neat formulations. As Joan Didion put it in The White Album, “I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience.”

At the core of Artful Truths is an insistence on responsibility — in the sense that the power for good or ill resides in the memoirist’s hands. In the words of the critic Phyllis Rose, “You ­cannot write about someone else, however briefly, however sympathetically, without stealing a little bit of their self-determination.” Agency, de Bres reminds us, is always a two‑way street, so ­writers must scrupulously reflect on the veracity of their words.

Of course, it’s often a desire for veracious agency that inspires the writer in the first place. “Perhaps this is the true attraction of autobiography,” the English critic John Berger has argued. “All the events over which you had no control are at last subject to your decision.” Or, as de Bres ultimately concludes, a memoir done right “can not only reveal meaning in a life, but make meaning in it, too.”

The chair of the Canada Council for the Arts and a recent memoirist, Jesse Wente writes that he remembers the exact moment he first represented the Other and was stripped of agency. He was ten and about to bat in a softball game being played at Toronto’s Topham Park when he heard “Wah-wah-wah” coming from the stands. “It meant I was an Indian,” he writes. “The bad guy. The savage. The loser.” But was that true?

Wente’s father was born in Chicago and moved to Toronto when he was about twelve, after his parents separated. Wente’s Ojibwe mother grew up in what is now Serpent River First Nation, “a couple hours’ drive west of Sudbury, just down the hill from Elliot Lake, Ontario.” That is to say, his parents came from two different worlds: “While my mom’s mother worked at the Albany Club, my dad’s parents were members of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. They’re the source of much of the privilege I’ve accessed in my life.”

With Unreconciled, Wente both reveals and makes meaning of his evolving and sometimes conflicted sense of self. On the one hand, there was a growing awareness of Indigeneity, particularly through his relationship with his maternal grandmother, a residential school survivor who lived in East York, a Toronto suburb. On the other, there were occasional fears that he was somehow “not Indigenous enough.”

At the age of seven, Wente was diagnosed with viral meningitis, one of several medical afflictions he would experience throughout his childhood. “My illnesses were always serious,” he writes, “and they left me both suspicious of life and deeply cautious, as if life itself were a risk.” They also separated him from other kids during that summer —“being stuck inside drinking sugar-free ginger ales, with only that little TV to keep me company much of the time”— and from his classmates, who didn’t have the same special needs he did, at school.

In 1986, at the start of grade 7, Wente was enrolled at Crescent School, a private institution for boys near Toronto’s upscale Bridle Path neighbourhood, with the financial assistance of his paternal grandparents. As the first Indigenous student, he stood out; he remembers being taunted with “Go back to Oka.” Wente took comfort in hip‑hop culture and rap music, and he began hanging out with his Black classmates, at a downtown barbershop near Bathurst and Dupont. He also found refuge in film, a passion that he traces to seeing Star Wars for the first time at the age of three. Seven or eight years later, he saw Alanis Obomsawin’s Incident at Restigouche, a documentary that changed him and his perception of Indigenous cinema: “Here was proof that we could make movies, that it wasn’t impossible. Here was proof that a movie could say something other than what they always seemed to say — particularly about Indigenous life.”

“I had access to my fair share of privilege,” Wente writes of this period of his life, “but I didn’t have the white person’s luxury of being allowed to simply exist as myself; I’d always be seen through the lens of my Indigeneity. I could let others decide what that meant, or I could discover the answer on my own. I resolved to define myself.” Following high school, he entered the cinema studies program at the University of Toronto, with a scholarship from the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation. At first, he worried whether he was sufficiently Ojibwe to accept the financial aid, but his mother insisted. “This money is a small part of what’s owed to our family,” she told him. “You’re going to take this money, and you’re going to go to the university you want.”

Then an internship at CBC Radio radically altered the trajectory of his life. Wente became involved in programming and started doing movie reviews on air. From there, he became a programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, before getting his dream job of managing the festival’s event space, the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Along the way, he became associated with various Indigenous arts boards, finding both affirmation and a sense of mission. “Knowing I’m the exact type of Indian that residential schools were designed to produce and that I’m considered tolerable by a system bent on eradicating Indigenous existence is an uncomfortable, even painful, thing to live with,” he writes. So he decided to actively “weaponize” his position by speaking out against past and present injustices.

Wente received his first death threat in 2016, after delivering “an emotional radio column” about sports teams with Indigenous mascots. “Shut up or get scalped,” a voice on his home answering machine said. “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” More threats came the following year, when he spoke passionately, on both television and radio, against a controversial Appropriation Prize that some of Canada’s “most prominent editors and print media figures” had proposed. Many in the industry had simply missed the point. “For Indigenous people,” he writes, “cultural appropriation isn’t just a matter of representation and responsible storytelling; it is life and death. If the emotion it inspires didn’t make sense to you before, I hope it does now.”

Wente left his position at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in September 2017, “in the midst of that slide into tokenism . . . the one that would ultimately turn my dream job into a nightmare.” He already knew something about nightmares, particularly after having grown his hair long after university. “My long hair was a magnet for white attention in a way my personhood never was,” he writes. And much of that attention came from “suspicious shopkeepers and security guards, who seemed to assume I was there to steal,” and from the police. He recounts multiple instances of racial profiling, particularly the humiliation he felt when he was once stopped while walking his girlfriend home. At a certain point, Wente decided the hassle wasn’t worth the aggravation. He cut his long hair —“always freighted with meaning”— short. “I was exhausted by the scrutiny it attracted,” he writes. “I was sick of being treated as either a threat or a mythological creature, with little room in between to just be myself.”

Jesse Wente notes that one’s hairstyle is “a minor thing, a detail, nothing to get too fussed about”— except for when it isn’t. The novelist Jaspreet Singh makes a similar point when he describes the significance of cutting his hair in My Mother, My Translator. Singh, who once wore it in a knot under his turban in the Sikh tradition, made his tonsorial decision when studying chemistry at McGill University, a world away from his home in India. “I was almost twenty when one look at my face would make my mother cry,” he writes. “I had done something terrible, something absolutely forbidden, for I had cut my hair short and removed my beautiful turban, and one quick look at my altered face, even the most peripheral, would upset her to such an extent it was hard to comprehend.”

Years later, Singh had established himself as an author, and his mother agreed to translate fourteen of his short stories into Punjabi. A frustrated writer herself, she did so faithfully: “What struck me was that she got the emotional impact right.” But she dramatically altered the rawer tone of one of the stories, which had “offended her when she first read my book in English.” In many ways, the editorial intrusion epitomized the softenings, the not‑saids, and the silences of their larger relationship. “We are creatures of digression,” Singh writes. “The saying goes, ‘We are the stories we tell.’ But — we are also the stories we choose not to tell. In fact, we are more the stories we don’t tell and will never be able to tell.”

With lyricism and power, My Mother, My Translator intertwines moments from Singh’s life with those of his mom. He had urged her to write a memoir of her own, and she reluctantly agreed. But she had abandoned the idea before she died in 2012, at the age of sixty-eight. Singh takes up where she left off and chips away at the silences and traumas she left behind: “When she was gone his hands grew still. No stories, no novels, nothing would come out. To return to his normal state of being he had to first tell her story.”

In doing so, Singh dove into his family hist­ory, as well as his own long-buried memories. He recalls the pogroms against Sikhs in 1984, and how he and his family had to hide in a neighbour’s house in Delhi. He speaks of his “constant inability to be ‘at home’ anywhere”— having moved to Canada and subsequently living the life of a writer, with a succession of residencies in a series of places. And he recounts one of his mother’s visits, when she made the shocking revelation that she had attempted to abort him by jumping off boulders. To be a good wife, she had left a teaching job she loved and followed her husband when he took up a security post along the India-Pakistan border. “But you were a determined baby,” she told him with pride and affirmation. “Even I could not stop you.”

Singh’s mother wished not to speak of certain things, such as the 1947 partition of India. But along with the sadness she carried, she had animating love — for her children, for her parents, for her Punjabi culture. At one point, Singh remembers her in brief impressionistic segments:

When I gave a public talk about her in 2013, I couldn’t tell those in the audience about a little boy three or four years old. One day the boy was in a mood to drop a fragile plate on the ground but couldn’t let it go from his hand. His mother’s eyes had filled with mischief then, she took the plate from the boy and very carefully dropped it for him.

As Helena de Bres explains, the memoirist has long been the target of ­criticism: “That their enterprise is naive, foolhardy, and quixotic; that they’re liars and cheats; that they would throw their mothers and ex‑lovers under the bus for fame and fortune; that they’re ­narcissists and exhibitionists; that their artistry is facile and fake.” In just a few words, Jaspreet Singh shows how the memoirist can, in fact, graciously make meaning of a very human, very complicated person, while capturing the ­intensity of the love between a mother and her son. He shows how a memoir can make for a gem of a book.