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Memoirs: A genre fraud with danger

By | February 14th 2010

By John Mwazemba

In August 1929, American publisher approached Sigmund Freud to write his memoirs. There must have been a long pause as the father of psychology thought over the idea. Finally, Freud ruled out the possibility of doing something as ‘crass’ as writing an autobiography.

"That is of course quite an impossible suggestion," scoffed Freud.

"My life has passed calmly and uneventfully and can be covered by a few dates."

His sentiments were untrue, but why did he recoil? Freud must have decided against writing his memoirs because of the deep scrutiny that would have brought to his controversial self and psychoanalysis work. Indeed, as The New Yorker Magazine writer Daniel Mendelsohn puts it, writing memoirs requires: "A psychologically complete and honest confession of life that would require so much indiscretion about family, friends, and enemies – most of them still alive… coupled with unseemly self-exposures, unpalatable betrayals, unavoidable mendacity… memoir."

Mendelsohn thinks for much of its modern history, memoir has been the black sheep of the literary family.

"Like a drunken guest at a wedding, it is constantly mortifying its soberer relatives – philosophy, history, literary fiction—spilling family secrets, embarrassing old friends—motivated, it would seem, by an overpowering need to be the centre of attention," says the writer.

He says most distinguished writers and thinkers who have turned to autobiography have found themselves accused of literary exhibitionism ‘when they can’t bring themselves to put on a show at all’.

Acceptable margin of error

Freud and many other critics have asked: "My goodness! Why would any self-respecting person engage in such a thing as writing a memoir?"

Towards the end of last year, the Kenyan literary scene was set ablaze by two major memoirs – Former Defence Minister Njenga Karume’s Beyond Expectations: From Charcoal to Gold and former Kenyan Ambassador to Washington, BE Kipkorir’s Descent from Cherang’any Hills: Memoirs of a Reluctant Academic. Since these memoirs have generated a lot of interest, the genre is under scrutiny. As a literary genre, a memoir heavily relies on memories, which can get hazy.

The question is: what is the acceptable margin of error allowed or how can a writer recreate events without appearing to concoct events? To what standards should memoirs be held to?

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, William Loizeaux says: "A memoir is the creation of a mind remembering. The writer recalls and reflects on the past and evidence gathered about that past… .any memoirist will tell you, remembering is always a tricky business."

Loizeaux says there are many levels of accuracy.

"There are memories that the writer can verify empirically. There are memories for which the evidence is irrecoverable… there are hazy memories, then conjecture, then informed imagination. Here fact and fiction do indeed become blurry…," he says.

He says memoirs occupy a peculiar but invaluable patch of the literary landscape.

Recalling past

"They are not fiction, but nor are they strictly non-fiction… At its best, a memoir combines hard research, an engaging narrative, the intimacy of lyric poetry, and the thoughtfulness of an essay…A good story is important. Factuality is important. But the ultimate question about a memoir is: Out of how deep and considered a life does it spring?" he poses.

The fact that memoirs do not have to show ‘objective truth’ doesn’t give room for outright mendacity; distortions of facts – especially those in the public domain – or an attempt to "rewrite" known history. If the writer does that, he will join the many dishonoured writers who were "busted" after they wrote fiction and tricked publishers that they had written memoirs.

There are things that Kenyan memoirists need to embrace or else, as the genre gains traction, some writers will be disgraced when their work is unearthed to be very good fiction.

One of the major things for memoirists to note is that choice of words is very important especially for things they cannot remember correctly. An example here is apt. The first line in Kipkorir’s book says: "The earliest recollection of my life is of an event that occurred in 1942 or 1943 when I was a little over three years old". This is a perfect way of giving ‘facts’ in a memoir especially where the memory gets hazy – almost warning the reader that the writer is trying to recollect an event that has since become foggy.

Those things a writer can remember clearly – he should write so. A memoirist needs to be tactical when he cannot remember events, dates and facts clearly.

There is room for manoeuvre in memoirs; room to allow writers reconstruct dialogues and scenes that took place many decades ago whose exact words may not be remembered and to retell their life stories in an imaginative way.

Memoirs have brought complexity that writers, editors and publishers must wade through carefully – or else the entire genre is in danger of being discredited.

The writer is the publishing manager of Macmillan Kenya Publishers. [email protected]

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