I just entered Abercrombie & Fitch, NYC Flagship store, for the first time. Help! Barrage of music, slinky lighting, congealed masses of who can only be called teeny-boppers.. It's like Ralph Lauren (what is this awful WASP thing in clothes - not a polo, but a MOOSE) put through the washing cycle and Never-Ironed. One wanted OUT (of store)! And yet, and yet... one fell under the (a) spell. College -letters - sweatshirts - how to stay warm without a coat. And - Everything is very Soft. It's as if the whole country now wants to wear fabric that's the consistency of worn pyjamas. (Actually, Abercrombie Soft Banner seems to be shoving my beloved Patrick Robinson of GAP in the soft direction. GAP fabrics are wonderful right now.)
In St. Louis, last week (May 27) I gave a talk to Library Associates, a very congenial group of readers who support the libraries of St. Louis University. One of the members is the man who bought and laboriously repaired and refurbished (so saved), the falling-down white-brick mansion, with the Tara double-porch in back, where my family lived during my volatile adolescence (1965 to 1970).
The extremely congenial Dave Allen. Here he is, greeting guests at the door
He hosted the talk, which meant that I "spoke" it, to an audience, in the living room of the house I'd lived in, dreamed in, become myself in.
To talk about writing memoir, in the actual place that generated the memoir material. The imaginary house of my mind, enclosing a real house, enclosing the imaginary house that lived in my mind when I was 14.
Even now, a week later, I'm confused in my deepest psyche. Waking in the early morning, I can't remember where I am - and I'm listening for, but not hearing, the calls of crows in the back of the house - in that green, among those huge old trees.
The formal garden Dave has been making out of our former ruin-of-civilization, shot from "my" 2nd-floor window.
St. Louis Talk 5/28/08
1. It’s amazing for a memoirist to be speaking to readers in – this house. Where…where (I became myself?) Where I was young?
2. When I think back on this house, from the vantage point of my life now. I think...
3. Of being in my room, right above you, in the early morning – my room with its own lilac-tiled bathroom.. Of sitting at my desk by the double doors in the back, that opened to a balcony – that looked out on a lot of land, and big trees – of writing a homework essay, that I was excited about – of hearing the coos of mourning doves – and smelling grass and dew – and of… something like… feeling the earth breathe.
4. The peace of it. The excitement of writing in that peace. The (something) good fortune of being there - young, fired up, free to have ideas and write them down.
5. Of course – my parents, down the hall in their own beds– were probably tearing their hair with worry, about fixing the pipes, repairing the roof, replacing the torn dining room wallpaper…(we’d gotten the house when it was wrecked)…
6. But still. It was possible for a family of 8 – to have this house – to have this depth of calm, of un-agitation…Because of that postwar time.
7. We – of my generation – of our generation – (Americans –I think people in this room…) were given the gift of a peaceful childhood. Without war; without historical trauma. Some of our parents had come with difficulty from somewhere else; some of our fathers had seen a war. We never did – until maybe Viet Nam. But we’ve never had our own country collapse, or crumble, or grow impossible to live in. We’ve never been refugees. I don’t think I’ve ever even been hungry, except pleasantly so.
8. We’ve had the impression, until very recently, of unlimited resources – resources in all senses of that word.
9. What does a writer do with that?
10. Sometimes I think that maybe this is why The Memoir became the “new genre” of my (of our?) generation. With no external trauma - we were given the freedom to face ourselves.
11. On the other hand… Our experience had such a gilded light on it…What do you do with that, as a writer? How do you make it real? An experience that is somehow so trivial, in the light of history – “A true story – of a (relatively) happy childhood!” (in the historical sense)…Boring! (And yet, one says defiantly, not any less vivid, poignant – precious… )
12. Have we tried to convince ourselves that we’ve lived fully, etc. – by writing (and reading) memoirs? That we’re not just privileged people with shallow souls?? That we have a right, sometimes, to use the term, trauma? The term, survivor?
13. Who knows? But one result of the memoir phenomenon, has been to throw into relief - the nuclear family. The crucible of the American nuclear family – in this day and age. The experience of being a parent, or a child, or both. The depth and difficulty of it...
14. I fell into this genre in the mid-90’s, when I’d come out of a long haul inside a research-intensive Hollywood book. I wanted to tell a story to readers, not write another critical study. My own story was very intensely a parent/child one – about me, and my mother – about her death in a car accident (a touch of that missing war and violence) and my life “as a survivor” (a too-easy appropriation of that war-related term..?).
15. But because this wasn’t my first book; because I was already a cultural historian– and because I didn’t want to presume to claim “the most suffering”…Because I wanted to correct for that unreal mindset (“We are Americans – we live in a blessed land – our wonderful life is the life we are entitled to”)…
16. Because of all this, I approached this memoir in a particular way. To get away from that underlying assumption (or tone) of historical unawareness: that was the challenge for me. The history of this city, and the place of “my people” in that history, is what I wanted to color the story.
17. Whether I succeeded or not …is for my readers to decide.
18. For myself as a reader, I prefer memoirs that have the historical dimension - that place a nuclear family narrative in a bigger picture.
19. The memoirs I assign to my students come mostly from the pre-history of the current memoir phenomenon. I want them to think about what is actually the long history of this supposedly “contemporary American” genre.
20. The core books – the three that have meant the most to me, and them – are Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being (in which she does some deep and humble searching about how memory works), plus, an opposite-temperament pair of great writers: Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz (in which he examines “what is a man” in the context of the camps) and Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, (in which he post-modernly re-evokes the enchanted lost world of St. Petersburg before the revolution).
21. It’s true. Having written a memoir, I became (inescapably) a teacher of the genre. I’ve come to believe that the “trauma memoirs” (like the above-named) are exaggerations of the very trauma that is human – the trauma of losing your childhood, merely by growing older. But they’re not different experiences from more mundane ones. Reading the exaggerations, is essential to the health of the genre.
22. Teaching, I’ve gotten to explore the genre’s knotty questions: not just how to evoke history. But also: how to present the main character as a character. How to let the readers see the main character, when he/she is the sole P.O.V. How to keep the momentum going. How to make form out of formless memories. How to navigate the tone – so that it seems engaging, spontaneous – honest – and not all infatuated with its own experience. (How not to take yourself fatally seriously).
23. My present memoir, Autobiography of a Wardrobe - that brought me here today – was written with some of these questions in mind.
24. The Wardrobe, as narrator, isn’t entirely serious. Wardrobes don’t usually talk. But once my Wardrobe-narrator had invented itself, I (the writer) saw that it could see the main character (me) - so the readers could see her too.
25. But the book is serious, in that it is a hopefully intimate portrait - not of a protagonist in her society, in her history. But of a body. Of a woman’s body interacting with the world.
26. My first memoir (American Daughter) is the history of a family – a public memoir. The second one – Autobiography of a Wardrobe – is the history of a body – an intimate memoir. That underdeveloped subject of a woman’s body encountering the world.
27. My beloved historical dimension – I didn’t want to lose it – is provided by the Wardrobe, as it tells, not only about its body, but about where the clothes came from that the body puts on.
28. Now, I find I’m in for the long haul. These questions that come with the genre, are the questions that will occupy me for the rest of my writing life. How to construct the persona of the narrator – and make it good company – trustworthy – yet not icky and fatuous.
29. How to take real experience,- and turn it into literature.
I went to Cairo (courtesy of spring break and old friend with airline points) and discovered the Galabiya. It's a one-piece thing, a fitted (to varying degrees) robe, that makes for instantaneous, stress-free getting dressed.
Before I went, I agonized. How to be respectful in Cairo? I packed shirts with sleeves, pants, long skirts - bathing suit, in case I could sit by the hotel pool in it (I could).
The hotel, the wonderful, busy Ramses Hilton, on the Nile, sitting on an overpass above highways zooming around each other, filled with tourists from the whole Middle East - thrilling to an American. Men in male galabiyas (lengthened button-down shirts, very ironed). Women with heads covered in various ways. Kuwaitis on business. Saudi female(!) medical students on holiday.
And what a city, wildly alive, though clogged with traffic, infused with traffic fumes. People on the streets: moving quickly; alive faces, like in New York. It looks great from the 26th floor - but you can hear it! even up there.
My shirts with sleeves proved to be the right thing. At the Pyramids, on horseback(!), I was commended by Guide Haisam for not exposing all kinds of skin in a manner unsuitable for Egypt, the way Russian tourists do (according to him).
My question: what clothes for streets? Young Egyptian women around town wore long, long skirts and little jackets, heads covered. One walked in city space under highway, arm in arm with a guy - she in long jeans-skirt, rose-colored jacket, headcovering in 2 shades of pink.
The two-toned veil is achieved by means of stretchy cotton band around forehead and over ears; and on top, a veil (further back from forehead) - pinned around face, like a nun's wimple. I learned this on the groundfloor of the five-story, slightly ramshackle Ramses Hilton Shopping Arcade, behind the hotel - filled with a range of everybody - everybody old & young, middle-class & lower - strolling, all evening.
I bought a cream-colored silk-wool veil, with some discreet sequins on one side, and wore it (without the ski-band-thing under, that impeded hearing) over my head to go out. Very feminine.
The Galabiyas! were on the Arcade's 2nd floor. Modlina, run by Mr. Y.M. Abu Sharkh, superbly aimiable Palestinian man with fluent English (children living in Salem Mass) - one of the great stores of the world. Not high-luxury; useful. He offered heavy patchwork silk galabiyas; light summer galabiyas; clingy, nylon va-va-voom galabiyas with sequins. A trying-on fest ensued, with the grave yet smiling Fatma picking out galabiyas for me.
In my closet now, as I write, a cream-apricot-avocado silk; a black & gold embroidered cotton; a blue swirly nylon with blue sequins. This last one is meant for some kind of nightclub, or a private venue. It's uncomfortably, beautifully, exhibitionist, with a front slit.
But what does a super-chic Egyptian woman wear, someone who wouldn't stroll with the crowds in my hotel's arcade? The answer: Ed Dukkan, in another hotel, the Semiramis Hotel. shop in Semiramis Intercontinental
Ed Dukkan contains, besides the Sheherezade galabiyas (hanging, half screened in closets, implying secret narratives), objects. A cell-phone case, with tiny white-shell buttons over brocade. Small encrusted purses. The decor: plush red carpet and striped satin chairs to sit in while shopping.
Ed Dukkan is Cairo heaven, for women & wardrobes.