Becoming by Michelle Obama

I recently was invited to join a bookclub and this was the first gathering I was able to attend. Around half the members are native French speakers and the rest of us are English speakers from various different countries of origin. The first book they read was Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Kheops (Total Chaos) in English (which I’d already read and reviewed here), it’s crime fiction set in the nearby town of Marseille. We choose books that are available in both English and French. The second read was going to be a bestseller and Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming was chosen.

A book that needs no introduction, a woman unanimously loved from where I sit and yet one who was exposed to the full spectrum of opinions about her, requiring an inordinate amount of resilience. Interestingly, there had not been universal admiration for her by some prior to reading the book, a reflection of how much influence the media has on our perceptions of people, both positive and negative.

Divided into three sections, Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More, I actually found the first two sections of the book the most engaging. Here she shares the influences of her early life and development of her character prior to meeting Barack Obama, followed by the early years of their lives together. These sections are the most insightful and endearing, probably because they are the most real.

“My parents talked to us like we were adults. They didn’t lecture, but rather indulged every question we asked, no matter how juvenile. They never hurried a discussion for the sake of convenience.”

They also corrected their speech, causing an awkward moment when a cousin asked why she talked like a white girl.

“The question was pointed, meant as an insult or at least a challenge, but it also came from an earnest place.  It held a kernel of something that was confusing for both of us. We seemed to be related but of two different worlds.”

A consequence of parents and close family being attentive to pronunciation, encouraged to enunciate correctly, having had drilled into them the importance of correct diction.

“The idea was we were to transcend, to get ourselves further. They’d planned for it.  They encouraged it. We were expected not just to be smart but to own our smartness – to inhabit it with pride – and this filtered down to how we spoke.”

She refers to her younger self as a box checker, at all times focused on the agenda, on achievement.

“My to-do list lived in my head and went with me everywhere. I assessed my goals, , analyzed my outcomes, counted my wins. If there was a challenge to vault,  I’d vault it. One proving ground only opened on to the next. Such is the life of a girl who can’t stop wondering, Am I good enough? and is still trying to show herself the answer.”

It is at this time that she observes a boyfriend who swerved. Did something unexpected, didn’t follow the straight and narrow path, something she didn’t understand at the time, being a devout follower of the established path, someone conscious of what other people think. That observation would stay with her and later she would see the merit in it, and the stiflement of the established path – and make her own swerve.

In the second section she meets Barack and the self awareness increases, life gets interesting and challenging in different ways. She observes him going to community meetings, showing up and talking to people who appeared skeptical of him. He was trying to build trust in communities where it was seriously lacking. She observed his differences, how he made them work for him. For me, this is where it becomes unputdownable.

“But skepticism didn’t bother him, the same way long odds didn’t seem to bother him. Barack was a unicorn after all –  shaped by his unusual name,  his odd heritage, his hard-to-pin-down ethnicity, his missing Dad, his unique mind. He was used to having to prove himself, pretty much anywhere he went.”

I particularly enjoyed their paths as young adults and how they were able to overcome their differences in upbringing and character, bringing tolerance first to their own lives as a couple, before going on to use it in their respective careers and ultimately as parents and as America’s role model couple in the White House.  He trusted things would work out, she worried, ‘We’ll figure it out’ he’d say. And they would.

Though the words are never mentioned in the text, in spiritual terms it’s clear they are soul mates, not so much because of a great love, but due to what they appear to have come into each others lives to learn. I loved that this comes across so clearly, that she developed the awareness to look at the expectations she had put upon herself as a result of her upbringing and her character and found another way.

But what a sacrifice really, despite the perception of it being glamorous and of course privileged. What a relief to get some semblance of a life back, I hope so anyway. Their celebrity status will likely never change, but as she shares in the opening pages, she is at least able to do some things unobserved, to open a window, listen to birdsong and dogs barking, feel more like a human being again.

She has done a wonderful job of demonstrating how she was formed by her upbringing, of how dependent she was almost without realising it initially – on being near and around her extended family, and while she grew up in a working class part of Chicago, South Side, her privilege was to have had that foundation of a strong, supportive, self-sacrificing family.

And though she attained great heights in her education and career, she too would have to draw on those self-sacrificing roots of her parents and ancestors, ironically, while slipping into the shoes of one of the most self-sacrificing unpaid jobs in America, that of the First Lady of the United States FLOTUS.

The Turquoise Ledge (2010) by Leslie Marmon Silko

I loved this book. I chose it because I wanted to visit the natural landscape of Tucson through the eyes and insights of a lyrical nature writer.  I was also looking for the perfect birthday present for someone who knows that landscape well, to transport them back there, reignite something without having to travel.

And of course, being curious I had to read it first, it was far too big a temptation and we are the kind of friends you can do that with, indulge the gift before giving it – and I know I give something of myself by doing this, the pages ear-marked where I was stopped, moved, given pause for thought. I know how those traces of the previous reader intrigue, they add mystery where usually there is none.

Leslie Marmon Silko was born in Albuquerque in 1948 into a family of Laguna, Cherokee, Mexican and Anglo ancestry.

She wanted to be a visual artist, but rebelled against perspective and realism, so pursued an English major initially,  published a bestselling novel Ceremony, and after a misdiagnosed ectopic pregnancy, experienced a life-changing moment, leaving her old life, marriage, teaching behind and moved to Tucson in 1978 just two months after surgery.

In The Turquoise Ledge, she pieces together this colourful, magical yet natural, narrative of thirty years living in the Tucson Mountains, on the edge of Saguaro National Park, in a ramshackle house, equally inhabited by creatures of the desert, a pandemonium of parrots and her pack of mastiffs, who like her, develop immunity to certain venomous dangers and survive the extreme climate. The desert terrain and all its wonderful beings, including the weather won her heart and it shows on every page.

The book is divided into five parts entitled Ancestors, Rattlesnakes, Star Beings, Turquoise and Lord Chapulin although there are elements of all those things throughout the text, as they are all integrated and woven into the life she lives, the habitat she dwells within and the landscape she walks over, studies and is a part of.

Though it is memoir, the author recognises that some aspects of memory are remembered vividly and others, even recent memories involve and invoke imagination. She has learned to tap into her subconscious, searching for truths not facts; she is a writer, a poet and an artist. Though she uses words, she is creating a self-portrait.

“We learn to ignore the discrepancies between our memory of an event and a sister’s memory. We can’t be certain of anything.

Fortunately my subconscious remembers everything I need. Whatever I can’t recall, later comes back to me as I write fiction. I make myself a fictional character so I can write about myself.”

She recalls interactions with family members and elders from her childhood, those often defining moments when a child observes more than just an event but is absorbing a cultural influence, hearing a people’s myths and songs, observing family superstitions.

Though she never spoke the Laguna language after the age of five that her great-grandmother A’mooh had spoken and wonders why that was, her great Aunts would ensure she knew of the hummah-hah stories, traditional Laguna stories that reveal the Laguna spiritual outlook toward animals, plants and spirit beings, a viewpoint that had become at odds with her great grandmother’s staunch conversion to the Presbyterian church.

I never felt alone or afraid up there in the hills. The hummah-hah stories described the conversations coyotes, crows and buzzards used to have with human beings. I was fascinated with the notion that long ago humans and animals used to freely converse. As I got older I realised the clouds and winds and rivers also have their ways of communication; I became interested in what these entities had to say. My imagination became engaged in discovering what can be known without words.

In these now forty years that have passed since she came to live here, the effect of bulldozers and the urban sprawl of Tucson have destroyed acres and acres of pristine desert habitat and left some species in danger of extinction and others to seek refuge elsewhere.

The old ranch house and the sheds and outbuildings are home to pack rats and deer mice accompanied by gopher snakes, racer snakes and rattlesnakes that eat them. So in the beginning, I got to know the snakes and pack rats because we were neighbours. I began to keep notes on my encounters.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So many encounters, that by the time you finish reading this section, you too may be converted to considering if not accepting that we should all live in closer proximity to our reptilian brethren. Silko and the snakes become familiar, she learns how to be around them and they learn that she is not a danger. In one of the most symbiotic relationships I have ever read about, this woman and these creatures live in this space together, her in the house, them under it and many anecdotes of those fascinating encounters that she handles with such poise and reverence.

Over time the rattlesnakes will get to know you and your pets. They learn human and dog behaviour and seem to understand the timing of our daily routines; they try to avoid encounters with us at all cost. A few times I’ve been very early or very late with my outdoor chores and I’ve surprised snakes that didn’t expect me at that time of day.

And then there is the heat, I learn that as the heat expands the air molecules they are thinner and less buoyant, no longer able to carry the particles of dust. The seasons are rain and no rain. When the temperature exceeds 112°F/44°C, the air smells of wood and bark just before they burst into flame.

The heat boils the sky to a deep blue. No traces of clouds, only the deepening blue as the air becomes crystal clear. The angle of the Sun causes the light to have the luminescence of a blue flame. The Sun is seated in the north corner of Time.

Photo by Yigithan Bal on Pexels.com

We learn about the unique geology of the Tucson Mountains that explains the formations, rocks and stones that appear on her walks in the arroyo (dry creek bed) her fascination with turquoise, with the Nahua people, the Nahuatl language and Tlaloc, the Nahua God of Rain, to whom she occasionally chants her own original rain prayer. And Lord Chapulin, who you’ll meet if you decide to read this, a living creature and the subject of one of her portrait paintings.

This book took me on a voyage to a place I’ve never been that seemed like another planet, Earth and yet not like the corners of Earth I’ve known. I wonder how someone can live in the heat of the desert like this (without air conditioning) and keep animals, or live alongside wildlife and observe them the way she does, in tune with the ancestors, the star beings, the rattlesnakes, rain chants and an ancient language she predicts is going to make a comeback.

I was enchanted by her endearing tales, her lyrical observations, nuggets of natural and peoples’ history, her love of the local environment and I hope the man with the machine desecrating the arroyo reads her book and stops being such an idiot.

Highly Recommended.

Buy a Copy of The Turquoise Ledge by Leslie Silko

Hourglass – Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro

I’ve not read any of Dani Shapiro’s previous works, this short book was passed to me by a friend and read in an afternoon. I enjoyed reading it, though I couldn’t say I related to it. It’s a very personal observation of a marriage, of the passage of time, a woman observing herself change, reflecting on her inclinations and trying to understand herself, her husband and their evolving relationship. As the title indicates, it’s a reflection on time passing, on memory and on marriage.

It’s full of nostalgia for moments passed, brought back to life as she picks up journals from girlhood and her earlier life and quotes from them, in particular, from her honeymoon spent in France. She wonders about the woman she was then.

She worries about the lack of a plan, despite being in her fifties and her husband almost sixty. She shares these anxious moments, as she begins to lose a little faith in the words her husband has uttered in the past, words that gave her reassurance “I’ll take care of it”.

Anyone who has lived with that kind of comfort will likely relate, but inherent within it lies a deep vulnerability, a fissure, a unassuageable fear of loss. It is here her words pierce the fabric of living, when they illuminate the cracks in the facade, opening a small window into that anxiety-inducing perception of reality that sees itself as separate.

It is that undercurrent of misplaced fear that disconcerts me, for there is no hint of resolution, little evidence of a desire to go within and face the abyss, to heal it. She remains focused on that which is external and therein perhaps lies the problem. Maybe that is a memoir still to come, when she will embark on the inner journey and learn to listen to her own guidance, to the whispers of her soul that are capable of reassuring her more than anyone or anything on the outside. Something that marriage appears to protect us from, at least until menopause, a subject she doesn’t mention but one that can also unravel our perceptions of the life structures we’ve created in our minds.

Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

It is a work of quietly observed transformation, the writer is trying to observe herself from both without and within, she has a long experience of observing from a distance and now she feels the pull to go within, yet it’s as if she has only just begun to put her toe in the river. She is aware of the pull of the river and quotes from Virginia Woolf:

The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths…But to feel the present sliding over the depths of the past, peace is necessary. The present must be smooth, habitual. For this reason – that it destroys the fullness of life – any break… causes me great distress; it breaks; it shallows; it turns the depths into hard splinters. As I say to L[eonard]: “What’s there real about this? Shall we ever live a real life again?

She recalls that she used to tell her students that to write good memoir, the kind that would be of interest to the disinterested reader, the writer had to have some distance from the material, not to write from feelings but from the wisdom and insight of retrospect.

But like every fixed idea, this one has lost its hold on me as years have passed and the onrushing present – the only place from which the writer can tell the story – continues to shift along with the sands of time. Our recollections alter as we attempt to gather  them. Even retrospect is mutable. Perspective, a momentary fragment of consciousness. Memoir freezes a moment like an insect trapped in amber. Me now, me then. This woman, that girl. It all keeps changing. And so: If retrospect is an illusion, why not attempt to tell the story as I’m inside of it?  Which is to say: before the story has become a story?

Photo by Jordan Benton on Pexels.com

And so as her reflections come to an end, they indicate that she may be at another beginning.

Somewhere, a clock ticks. Sand pours through the hourglass.  I am no longer interested in the stories but rather, what is underneath the stories: the soft, pulsing thing that is true. Why now?  What is this insistence?  All of me – the whole crowd – wants to know.

I am left intrigued to know what she will write next, where her inner journey will take her, when she lets go of looking through the lens of marriage, time and memory and observes life through a newly expanded awareness.

An Affair with My Mother by Caitriona Palmer

It seems a strange title for a book, until we understand it is a memoir of adoption, of secrecy, of a love denied, forbidden. And the woman writing it, comes to realise, how very similar the continued secrecy surrounding spending time with her birth mother is, to conducting an illicit affair. So she calls it that. It’s like an unwritten 13th commandment: Thou shalt not have any relation whatsoever with thy illegitimate child.

It’s set in Ireland, a country reluctant to let go of old ways, still in throe to a traditional family culture that shamed, blamed and punished young women for being the life-bearers they are – insisting they follow a code of moral behaviour documented by a system of domination, upheld by the church, supported by the state – a system that bore no consequence on men – young or old – who were equally responsible for the predicament of women.

“If there is anger in this book it is anger at the profound and despicable sexual double standard in Ireland. Men walked away without ever having to confront their role in these relationships.”

Eventually women in Ireland were given access to a means of preventing unwanted pregnancy, though not until Feb 20, 1985 when the Irish government defied the powerful Catholic Church, seen until this day as lacking compassion, in approving the sale of contraception, and more recently in a 2018 referendum, repealing its abortion ban (outlawed in 1861 with possible life imprisonment), acknowledged as a dramatic reversal of the Catholic church’s domination of Irish society.

For years, Ireland created and implemented what is referred to as an architecture of containment, institutions such as the Magdalen laundries (also referred to as asylums) removed morally questionable women from their homes (young women who became pregnant outside of marriage, or whose male family members complained about their behavior). They removed their children if they were pregnant then put them to work, washing ‘the nation’s dirty laundry’, thanks to lucrative state contracts provided to the institutions to fulfill. The last Magdalene laundries closed in Dublin in 1996 and the truth of what happened to those unmarried mothers continues to be investigated through the CLANN project.

Book Review

Caitriona Palmer was born in Dublin, raised in a caring family with two children of their own, the parents adopting after a miscarriage and recommendation Mary (the mother) should have a hysterectomy. If they wanted another child, adoption would be the only path.

She had a happy childhood and grew up in a very happy home, defiantly happy in fact, she would tell people early on she was adopted, almost proud of it she said, in her mind it had had no impact on her life, it didn’t change her or make her who she was, however she was constantly shadowed by a consistent ache, something she refused to confront or admit had anything to do with being separated from her biological mother at birth.

The book opens as Caitriona is about to meet her birth mother Sarah (not her real name) for the first time, a highly anticipated event, and yet as it unfolds, and she hears someone walk up the steps, about to fulfill a desire she has initiated, she becomes filled with dread and as the woman rushes towards her, repeating her name:

I said nothing. I felt nothing.

‘I’ll leave you both to it then,’ I heard Catherine say.

‘Don’t go’, I wanted to scream at her. ‘Please don’t go. Stay. Stay here with me, please. Don’t leave me alone with this woman.’

It is the beginning of the many conflicted feelings she will encounter within herself as that aspect of herself she was born into awakens as an emotional itch deep inside her she can neither locate or explain, at a time in her life when outwardly, living life as the person she was raised to be, she couldn’t have been happier. She was 26 years old, working in a dream job for Physicians for Human Rights in the US, in love and happy.  She put her anxiety down to problems with her expiring student visa, though when her employer found a solution by transferring her to Bosnia, it didn’t heal the anxiety, if anything it made it worse.

There, a small team of forensic scientists was overseeing the exhumation of hundreds of mass graves left after the war and attempting to determine the fate of over 7,500 missing men and boys from the UN safe haven of Srebrenica, which had been overrun by Serb forces four years earlier.

After a day when she and a small team broke into an abandoned hospital in search of records, the source of her own anxiety presented itself to her.

In that moment, filling our arms with the dusty paperwork, I felt a sliver of illumination. Driving back to Tuzla later that afternoon, our pilfered medical dossiers on our laps, the mood in the car jovial, I returned again to that moment, massaging the memory, trying to knead to the surface the revelation lurking beneath. What was I doing helping to search for the files of dead strangers when it was plainly obvious that I needed to search for own?

Though there could be no comparison between her loss and that of these families, it was this extreme situation that revealed her own source of anxiety and set her on a path to do something she had denied she would ever do.

She embarks on her search and despite the difficulties many encounter in Ireland, where Irish adoptees have no automatic right to access their adoption files, birth certificate, health, heritage or history information she manages to access information about her birth relatively easily. The agency traces her birth mother and facilitates that first and many subsequent meetings.

Despite the initial shock, they develop a close relationship, but with one significant and ultimately destructive condition, that she remain a secret, for her birth mother continued to harbour great shame and was terrified of the impact this knowledge might have on her current life.

By the close of that year, I had come to detest the power imbalance in our relationship, seeing myself as the cause of Sarah’s shame and paranoia, her sadness and regret. I hated being invisible to her husband, evidently a good man who adored her, and to her three children, half-siblings that I longed to meet.

Palmer digs deep into the history of adoption in Ireland, armed with journalistic skills (now a freelance journalist in Washington DC) she researches archives and interviews her parents and birth mother as if subjects of a news story, to get to the heart of this institution that wrenched families apart and caused such fear and trauma in young Irish women, leaving emotional scars many of them would have all their lives.

Feminism might have been on the march, but the women in Sarah’s world … had conspired to punish her for stepping out of line. ‘If you want to get people to behave, show what happens to those who don’t,’ an Irish historian once said to me about Ireland’s culture of female surveillance and the institutionalization of unmarried mothers. ‘Make them feel part of that punishment.’ Her Aunt’s verdict – “Nobody will ever look at you again. You’re finished.” – echoed constantly in Sarah’s mind.

One couple she researched, were married with more children, but didn’t want to know the child they had parented and given away before marriage.

“What is that? How can this legacy of shame even prevent a couple from accepting their own biological child? Why can they not open the door?

“This book was meant to answer that. But I don’t know why Ireland has let so many people down. I was meant to grow up and be grateful and never want to look at my past. Because things worked out well; I was given a wonderful family and have done well; that’s meant to be enough.”

For an adoptee or a birth mother, it’s both insightful and an extremely painful read, especially given the author’s own awakening from that happy dreamy childhood and early adult life that held no place for her unknown genetic history, or for any other familial bond or connection. She couldn’t recognise what she hadn’t known or experienced and because her adoption was something known, it seemed as if this life could be lived without consequence. In a recent interview post publication, Palmer describes this:

What I didn’t understand was that that primary loss impacted me, it did change me, I’m still grieving her. Despite my wonderful happy life, amazing husband and children… I’m internally grieving, this woman, this ghost, that’s a love that I’ll never regain in a way, memoir is an attempt to grasp at that.

I wanted people to know you can grow up happily adopted and still have this hole, I always feel like there is a hole deep down inside of me that I can’t quite fill, in spite of the abundance of love that surrounds me, this primary loss is profound.

It’s a story that doesn’t end on the last page, and will leave readers like me, curious to know what impact this book had on the relationship. The podcast below, brings us up to date with where things are at since the book was published, including mention of the hundreds of letters that Caitriona has received, the many people who have had similar experiences, heartened to learn that their experience brought solace to some, in their ability to share with her their stories.

Asked, given what has transpired, would she still do what she did, she responds:

I would have done the same, as it was approached ethically and with love – but I wouldn’t allow it to remain a secret so long, the weight of a secret… every human being wants this sense of belonging and yet we are expected to express gratitude and get along, we are a part of each of those things and that’s a beautiful thing…

The big gap in all this, and for this entire process, is the lack of facility for healing, for giving adoptive parents, birth parents and the children affected by adoption, resources to help them understand what they might go through and if they do, how to manage that, how to heal from that, live with that, recognise the characteristics that come with having lived though such trauma.

The world we live in today is a long way from being accomplished at providing that, and some countries are no doubt better than others, hopefully it is coming, it doesn’t take too much digging if one can find tools of well-being that might bring about individual change and healing.

Further Reading/Listening

Caitríona – I’m Still Grieving Her – Podcast – on building a relationship with her birth mother, the heartbreak of being kept a secret and the high cost she’s paid for sharing her story

The State has a duty to tell adoptees the truth Caitríona Palmer: Shadowy adoption system is the last obstacle to a modern Ireland – June 2018

CLANN: IRELAND’S UNMARRIED MOTHERS AND THEIR CHILDREN – establishing the truth of what happened to unmarried mothers and their children in 20th century Ireland, providing free legal assistance

Refuge, An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams is a writer with a deep and active interest in environmental education and conservation, Refuge is both a memoir of a period in her life when she accompanied her mother through the illness that would claim her life, and shortly after her grandmother, leaving her the matriarch of the family at the age of thirty-four.

Although this is the book she is most well-known for, I first read and reviewed her writing and encountered her mother in a more recent, and equally extraordinary book, When Women Were Birds, Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, which was written twenty years later (when the author was 54) in 2012. It was also the age her mother was, when she succumbed to the illness written about in Refuge.  I recommend it equally, they are a unique pair, in their insights, their confusion, their ultimate compassion and understanding.

Throughout the memoir, she spends time with her mother, and equally has concerns for the Great Salt Lake, which sits on their doorstep, it is the place she grew up in, a landscape and wildlife she is obsessed with, one I knew nothing about, but became increasingly intrigued by, this enormous, terminal lake with no outlet to the sea.

Great Salt Lake: wilderness adjacent to a city; a shifting shoreline that plays havoc with highways; islands too stark, too remote to inhabit; water in the desert that no one can drink. It is the liquid lie of the West.

Natives of the area speak of the lake in the shorthand of lake levels, it’s not deep, but it is vast, so it doesn’t take much precipitation for significant rises to occur. In the mid 80’s when she was writing this book (it was first published in 1991) talk on the streets of Salt Lake City was of the lake’s rapid rising, everyone had concerns, the airport, the farms, the railroad, survival.

My interest lay at 4206′, the level which, according to my topographical map, meant the flooding of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.

She writes about her family history, her genealogy with its deep roots in the American West her Mormon culture has preserved and their connection to the natural world, infused with spiritual values.

The birds and I share a natural history. It is a matter of rootedness, of living inside a place for so long that the mind and imagination fuse.

As the author shares the drama unfolding within her family of which she is the eldest child and only daughter, there is always the metaphor of the lake, the simultaneous restlessness of its birds, as if they too sense change coming; she wonders if they are better adapted to it than humans.

The thirty-six short chapters each carry the name of one of the bird species that inhabits the lake environment, they may only be mentioned in one sentence, but they are all listed, noted, observed over time, throughout the pages, they represent the life cycle of species, moving on, migrating, adapting to change, dying, making way for the young.

William’s both observes beauty and dissects suffering as she observes her mother’s and her own and tries to make sense of it, through nature and her current philosophical understanding.

Tonight I watched the sun sink behind the lake; The clouds looked like rainbow trout swimming in a lapis sky. I can honour its beauty or resent the smog in this valley which makes it possible. Either way, I am deceiving myself.

Birds are entwined with local folklore, the Californian gull rescuing the Mormons in 1848 from losing their crops to crickets. They still gather to tell this story.

How the white angels ate as many crickets as their bellies would hold, flew to the shore of Great Salt Lake and regurgitated them, then returned to the field for more. We honour them as Utah’s state bird.

It’s a book where you could highlight a passage on each page, one you can open on a random page and find some meaningful, reflective passage on life, an interesting bird fact or a brief history lesson.

The writing is at times poetic, sometimes scientific, passionate and honest. There’s a perfect balance between the personal and the environment that makes it a compelling read, but also one that you’ll want to savour.

The mother and daughter get their astrology charts done and read each other’s.

“I liked the part about Terry being neat and meticulous,” teased Mother. “I remember standing in the middle of your bedroom when you were about thirteen years old. Everything in your closet was on the floor, art and school papers were piled high on your desk. I remember thinking, I have two choices here – I can harp on her every day of her life, making certain her room is straight – or I can close the door and preserve our relationship.”

As the Great Salt Lake continues to rise, a deep sadness washes over her that all has been lost.

I am not adjusting. I keep dreaming the Refuge back to what I have known: rich, green bulrushes that border the wetlands, herons hiding behind cattails, concentric circles of ducks on ponds. I blow on these images like the last burning embers on a winter’s night.

There is no one to blame, nothing to fight…Only a simple natural phenomenon: the rise of the great Salt Lake.

There is also refuge in poetry, in other writers and the book is interspersed with memorable quotes from those whose words soothe her during this period of grief, as her mother goes into decline. And so I leave this sharing of thoughts on the book here with her reading her Mother a poem one afternoon by Wendell Berry:

T H E   P E A C E  O F   W  I L D   T H I N G S

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron

feeds.

I come into the peace of the wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Highly Recommended.

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage, Reflections on Creative Nonfiction

I have had this memoir on my bookshelf for a long time and recall first becoming aware of it when I wrote an article for our a newsletter about a genre in literature I wasn’t familiar with called Creative Nonfiction, sometimes referred to as Literary Nonfiction and here in France as essais or belles-lettres.

It had emerged as an evolving and respected genre, encouraged in the US by Lee Gutkind who founded the creative nonfiction MFA at the University of Pittsburgh in 1973, slower to develop in the UK, the first Masters programme in Creative Non-Fiction offered in 2005 at Imperial College London.

In some ways, creative nonfiction is like jazz—it’s a rich mix of flavors, ideas, and techniques, some of which are newly invented and others as old as writing itself. Creative nonfiction can be an essay, a journal article, a research paper, a memoir, or a poem; it can be personal or not, or it can be all of these. Lee Gutkind

It is distinguished from ‘nonfiction’ by its use of language to impart more than just information or facts, it presents observations, history, stories in ways that are compelling, sustaining the attention of the reader. It’s not by accident that a work becomes one of creative nonfiction, it is an art, achieved with practice.

The words “creative” and “nonfiction” describe the form. The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonfiction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy. Lee Gutkind

Lorna Sage’s memoir, published in 2001, is an excellent example of literary nonfiction, by the time she wrote it, she had been practicing her ‘creative literary art’ for some time as a literary critic, reviewer, and essay writer, publishing widely on women writers and their work. She wrote books on Angela Carter, Doris Lessing, twelve 20th century women writers, Edwardian writers Violet Trefusis & Alice Keppel and a collection of her journalistic pieces Good As Her Word was compiled posthumously.

Though she went into academe, was a lecturer, professor of English literature and Dean of the School of English and American Studies at the University of East Anglia, she resisted its embrace as a writer,

“I always wanted to write like a writer, not an academic,” she said, “to show there’s someone behind the words, someone from a specific place.”

Bad Blood centers around her childhood years in Wales. Her first memories are of living in the vicarage with her grandparents, Part 1 is the story of their marriage, creating the environment that she grew up in, one where her grandmother rarely left the house.

So it is meandering along the church yard path, tugging at her grandfather’s skirt flapping in the wind that forms the opening line and a clue to her influences; followed by further proof of the loveless union he was escaping.

“The church was at least safe. My grandmother never went near it – except feet first in her coffin, but that was years later, when she was buried in the same grave with him. Rotting together for eternity, one flesh at the last after a lifetime’s mutual loathing.”

She barely recalls the presence of her mother during those years, she was there, but the daughter’s recollection of her own mother was of,

“a shy, slender wraith kneeling on the stairs with a brush and dustpan, or washing things in the scullery. They’d made her into a domestic drudge after her marriage – my father was away in the army and she had no separate life.”

She sums up her grandmother’s sufferance in marriage with the observation:

“What made their marriage more than a run-of the-mill case of domestic estrangement was her refusal to accept her lot. She stayed furious all the days of her life – so sure of her ground, so successfully spoiled, that she was impervious to the social pressures and propaganda that made most women settle down to play the part of good wife.”

She gains even greater insight into their marriage and family life thanks to the confiscated diaries of her grandfather that have fallen into her father’s possession and help her reconstruct events of the time and life in the family household. She comes to the conclusion that the family was falling apart because nobody wanted to play the part of parent.

“There is no doubt that Grandma preserved Grandpa’s diaries for 1933 and 1934 as evidence against him. Indeed, the 1933 diary has a couple of scathing marginal comments in her hand – Here the fun begins (Friday, 25 August) and Love begins (fool) exactly a week later.”

Life becomes quieter after the death of her grandfather and they move to a new council house, taking recently evicted Grandma with them. Lorna develops an interest in the neighbouring farm and spends much of her free time helping out, watching nature in her various forms.

“I’d turned into a tomboy travesty of my mother’s little shepherdess, orphaned and anonymous, and utterly absorbed in the world outside. The repetition of farm days made them seem a backwater of time where the future was safely accounted for.”

Though her grandfather had died when she was nine, his presence was not forgotten, his bad influence often mentioned, though in Lorna ‘s memory he hadn’t let her down like he had the other women in his life, he continued on in her mind as a kind of flawed mentor who had ‘vanished into the dark with his mystique intact.’

“When, in my teens, I quarrelled with my mother, she would say in despair and disgust, “You’re just like your grandfather,” meaning that I was promiscuous, sex-obsessed, that the bad blood was coming out. My bookishness was part of that inheritance too, and though she and my father approved in theory of my love of reading, and my coming top in exams, we all knew that books had a sinister, Grandpa side to them. You could always tell which were his books because he had had the bright idea of inking out their titles and authors’ names in case visitors to his study asked to borrow a Dickens or a Marie Corelli.” Lorna Sage

Though childhood takes up much of the book, her teenage years are intriguing, for here the family rises above convention and supports Lorna at a time of great need, in an era when many young women in her position would have been shamed and treated in an inhuman manner, giving rise to more problems and heartache. That she gets through this challenging period in her life, supported by her family and goes on to complete a university education virtually without hindrance, is astounding.

Indeed, marriage, and its changing nature over the years, became one of the book’s themes, and so did secrets and lies. He represents for me now the glamour of the past, and its sinister pull, like the force of gravity inside your life. He refuses to die. When Grandma was packing up to move out of the vicarage I called by on my way from school and she told me that she had met him on the stairs.

Lorna Sage

Further evidence of what can come about when families support each other through a crisis can be observed in the reflections of her daughter, shared on the tenth anniversary of Lorna Sage’s death, at a time when she could better acknowledge and celebrate her mother’s literary success and the choices she made, which sadly wasn’t the case when this memoir won a literary award.

Lorna Sage Source : Wikipedia

I expected it to be more of a ‘misery memoir’ than it was, and hadn’t realised it would be quite as comical as it was, for although the family inflict wounds upon each other, she observes them with a wry wit, that doesn’t make the reader suffer as can be the case with some childhood memoirs.

While she makes family life transparent and shares certain parts in detail, there remains a sense of something preserved  and held back, she tends to put others centre stage rather than focus too much of the narrative on herself, and never allows any of the family characters to be portrayed as the victim.

As another reader commented, it’s a pity that she wasn’t able to write a sequel, as her life after the events of this book, as a working woman and mother,

would have been equally interesting, though even in her professional life, she seemed to prefer to analyse the lives and writings of other women than turn the literary gaze onto her own experience.

Bad Blood won the Whitbread Book Award (now Costa Book Awards) for Biography just seven days before she died from emphysema, two days before her 58th birthday.

Have you read Bad Blood? Do you have a favourite book in the Creative Nonfiction genre?

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Further Reading

Lorna Sage – Brilliant teacher and critic who expanded the horizons of English literature and women’s writing

Past Imperfect – Lorna Sage writing about her grandfather, Guardian

Sharon Sage – talks about her brilliant ‘lioness’ of a mother, 10 years on – Guardian

On Creative NonFiction

Lee Gutkind – What is Creative Nonfiction?

Tim Bascom – Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide

Book Riot – Kim Ukura – 50 Great Narrative Nonfiction Books  that highlight strong research/reporting along with narrative voice

Maria Popova – Brainpickings – Essays – ideas of a timeless nature – one woman’s search for meaning across literature, science, art, philosophy, and the various other tentacles of human thought

A Long Way Home (Lion) by Saroo Brierley, Larry Buttrose (ghostwriter)

I saw the film when it was on at the cinema about a year ago and like everyone who has seen it, I thought it was extremely moving. If you don’t know the story, it’s about a 5-year-old boy who is out with his teenage brother, who has told him to wait for him at a quiet train station near their home, and feeling tired, he climbs into an empty carriage, falls asleep and when he awakes, it is moving, the carriage locked and he will be transported, far, far from his home, which he won’t see for another 25 years.

The book only confirms how incredible and moving his story is, on top of the emotion it provokes, was the amazement at how many situations 5-year-old Saroo got into that he was miraculously saved from, often by his own well-honed instinct, other times sheer luck, and occasionally, surely, divine intervention.

Like befriending the teenage boy he trusted and went home with, who would be the first person to make an intervention on his behalf that would lead him to 25 years of safety, before he could find his way back home and be reunited with his family again. In the meantime he would spend those 25 years in a middle class Australian family in Hobart, Tasmania – far from his culture and birth family, learning another language, getting an education and developing a way of life that would benefit them all by the time his story comes full circle.

It’s a bittersweet story with a thrilling beginning as he falls asleep in the wrong place at the wrong time and his life is hurtled, like a rocket capsule, into another hemisphere, with a few obstacles to overcome on the way.

It’s sad because he was a boy who became lost from his family in a large country, he had difficulty pronouncing the name of the town he came from (and even his own name) and in the city he arrived in Calcutta (Kolkata), he spent weeks riding trains hoping one of them might take him back. Nighttime brought an element of danger, and even in the day while having fun with other children in the river, danger was never far away, he would be rescued a couple of times that might have been life-threatening, had not well intended strangers come to his aid.

Saroo with his adoptive mother

The childless (through their own choice) couple that adopted him, were open and inclusive regarding his culture, furnishing his bedroom with a large map of India and items reminiscent of his country of birth, they joined an association connecting Indian families to their culture. However, unwanted memories could arrive unbidden, sometimes reconnecting with stories from India awakened his childhood trauma. He describes seeing the Hindi film Salaam Bombay:

Its images of the little boy trying to survive alone in a sprawling city, in the hope of returning to his mother, brought back disturbing memories so sharply that I wept in the dark cinema, my well-meaning parents unaware of the cause. Even sad music could set off emotional memories. Seeing or hearing babies cry also affected me strongly, but somehow the most emotional thing was seeing other families with lots of children. I suppose that even in my good fortune, they reminded me of what I had lost.

A few years later, his parents adopted another boy from India, who became his brother, the book doesn’t delve too deep into this relationship, however the film did bring out the contrast in their characters and the difficulty his parents, particularly his mother, who was a relatively quiet and calm woman, had in parenting him.

Mantosh and I were very different, partly because of the natural differences between our people, but also because of our different experiences in India. It’s one of the things that makes people who adopt children, especially from abroad, so brave: often the kids they’re taking in come with troubled backgrounds, having suffered in ways that make adjusting to their new life difficult, and which can be hard to understand and even harder to help. I was reticent and reserved; Mantosh, at least at first, was loud and disobedient. I wanted to please; he rebelled.

According to an interview, Mantosh was unhinged by the film, his protracted adoption wasn’t able to be finalised within the two month grace period the children’s home were given, so he was sent back to the large orphanage where lost or abandoned children would encounter all manner of youth, including bullies, criminals and abusers, the time he was obliged to spend there awaiting the administrative outcome scarred him physically and mentally. He didn’t have the good fortune of his brother, whose story is all the more remarkable for him having avoided abuse, though he was certainly close to encountering it, as his story shows.

“[His grandmother] couldn’t keep Mantosh in her care anymore, while he was waiting to come to Australia, once we’d accepted him. So he had to go back to [the orphanage] where he was burnt, raped, beaten, you name it. And I’m very bitter about that.” – Sue Brierley

There is most certainly a very different and equally important story to be told, if one follows Mantosh’s experience; it was interesting to listen to his mother speak on that in an interview recorded here. At least, she says, it did result in him beginning to open up more about his experiences and they were able to seek help for him, he represents the other side of adoption; the adoptive mother admitted they weren’t prepared for what it would mean to raise a child who’d been through such trauma, she didn’t have the support needed and experienced discrimination in the medical community when she did try to seek help.

When Saroo really becomes intent on tracking down his family, (another element that is much more vividly portrayed in the film) no one except his girlfriend knows how obsessed he has become, he has had periods of searching in the past, spurred on by meeting other students who grew up in India, who’d make guesses as to where he might come from based on his memories, but when, with the help of Google maps and tracing railway lines out of Calcutta, he began to spend hours every night doing his research, he kept it to himself, in ways and for reasons many adoptees will recognise.

I didn’t tell many people what I was doing, not even my parents. I was worried they might misunderstand my intentions: they might think that the intensity of my search revealed an unhappiness with the life they’d given me, or the way they’d raised me. I also didn’t want them to think that I was wasting time. So even as it took up more and more of my life, I kept it to myself.

He was fortunate to have such a supportive girlfriend, he felt she would have been within her rights to feel alone in their still-new relationship, he was treading a fine line and would catch her looking at him sometimes as though she thought he was crazy. He was driven, determined and you knew he wouldn’t give up until he’d found something he recognised, the memories and maps in his head so well preserved over the years, surely he would find them if he kept going.

Perhaps to some extent sharing something so fundamental to me strengthened our connection – and that came through when we talked about what it all meant to me. It wasn’t always easy to articulate, especially as I was trying to keep a lid on my expectations, trying to convince myself it was a fascinating exercise, not a deeply meaningful personal quest.

In the book, Saroo spends a lot of time rationalising and expressing his gratitude, it’s clear he doesn’t wish to hurt anyone in his portrayal of the story, he understands he treads the line between two families in a topic that is almost a cause, that attracts fierce activism especially on the part of those who are pro-adoption, however he also acknowledges what many adoptees need to hear, the aspect that was healed in him in taking this journey, by his perseverance.

Rightly so in his case, as he wasn’t abandoned or given up in the first place. The trauma his mother must have gone through in finally accepting that he had disappeared, and what strength and love, to have believed for so long he may return, so strongly she believed it that she refused to leave the town they lived in, to join her other children and be nearer them and their families.

After being lost, I’d been lucky enough to adopted by a loving family, and not only lived somewhere else, but had become someone else from the person I might have been had I stayed in India. I didn’t just live in Australia, I thought of myself as an Australian. I had a family home with the Brierleys and had made my own home in Hobart with my girlfriend Lisa. I knew I belonged and was loved, in those places.
But finding Khandwa and my Indian family also felt like coming home. Something about being in the place just felt right. I was loved here too, and belonged, in a way I’d not thought much about beforehand and found hard to explain. This was where I’d spent my first years, where my blood was. When it was time for me to return to Hobart – a time that came around far too quickly – I felt the wrench of leaving deeply.

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