EDITORIAL Chris Moss

NWR Issue 115

The Ultimate Existential Form

‘Memoir’ used to be a genteel word for autobiography. Its soft French sound and associations with power and nobility, combined with the fact the scribe was his or her own censor, usually suggested safe ground, tepid waters.

But in the last century memory – as theme, as faculty – and life-writing have been through the wars, literally and metaphorically. As the medium of confession and accusation, and the most powerful vehicle for a subjective insistence on truth, memoir has given a voice to individuals who reject the generalised lies and packaged half-truths of mass media, church and state. The ultimate existential form, it establishes its own rules and skewers received ideas and prejudices about class, nationhood, race and gender. That seven of the nine long-listed submissions in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2017 Aberystwyth University Prize for Memoir were written by women (and one of the remaining was co-written by a husband and wife) came as no surprise.

The three winning texts, excerpted in this special edition, display searing honesty without sacrificing sympathy. This is no easy task. Reality dearly loves to slip out of control, resists readability. Each of these texts also advances the genre in some way, as the author discovers the form most apt to share their life story.

In ‘My Oxford’, which took first prize, Catherine Haines gives an account of her experience of anorexia while studying at Oxford University that is as academically rigorous as it is deeply felt. The book was written initially as a tribute to a male friend who had died of the condition, but Haines keeps the focus firmly on her own anguish, fearlessly detailing the mental trials and physical realities of anorexia: ‘I was skeletal. My shoulders were hunched and my eyes were hooded. I looked like a Devil.’ Shot through with theological concerns, as the author works through a religious conversion, it takes on the medical and media-generated oversimplifications of her illness, rebuts fellow students who judged her harshly for her career as a model, and finds time to explore the literary tradition generated by eating disorders. Erudition in extremis is a rare thing and ‘My Oxford’ is a very impressive debut.

Second place was awarded to Mary Oliver for ‘The Case’, a fictionalised memoir praised by the judges as ‘innovative, affecting, with depth of heart and breadth of research'. Memoirs are often the final product of smoothing out research, deftly splicing together fragments of fact, recollections, rumours, hearsay and guesses. ‘The Case’ invites readers to share in the process of reconstruction, as Oliver recounts the life of her father, Jim Neat, through letters, diaries, signage and streams of consciousness. Neat, a migrant from England to Canada, is awaiting release from a mental hospital, hoping for reconciliation with his baby daughter. A visual artist, Oliver offers us both documentary and imaginative collage, and a book that rewards multiple readings – akin to revisiting a memory, rethinking it, looking at evidence from a new angle.

The third prize-winning book, Adam Somerset’s ‘People, Places, Things: A Life with the Cold War’, is an account of a backpacking trip across Eastern Europe. But it’s no ordinary travelogue, for the author is in middle-age, revisiting a railway odyssey he undertook in the early seventies. The journey, place and time proved to be formative. ‘The Cold War was omnipresent in my life. It was there from my first memory, to the first independent experience and into middle age. It took in people, places, things. It was the material for the social encounter where I first felt my own life had passed over into history.’ As well as a travel diary, ‘People, Places, Things’ is a meditation on time and place, the Eastern bloc described having since been reshaped by processes such as German reunification and de-Sovietization. As Milan Kundera, whose early fictions spoke to us from behind the Iron Curtain, writes, ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ Somerset’s is a very British Cold War tale, the story of an outsider getting inside history.

Rupture and reconciliation are the dominant themes of the three highly commended memoirs featured in this issue. Liz Jones’ 'On Shifting Sands' is a precisely drawn portrait of a family learning to regroup, set against the beautiful – and healing – backdrop of Ynys Môn’s beaches and warrens. 'Boystown SA' by Robert and Amanda Oosthuizen, is a story about fostering, schooling and dislocation told by a husband to his writer wife. The Red Circle by Maria Apichella (whose poetry debut Psalmody has been shortlisted for the Forward Prize Best First Collection) is a warmly evocative account of a daughter’s road trip with her Italian-American father undertaken to reconcile him with his mother.

For all the supposed levelling effects of technology and globalism, human life is more varied than ever. The modern memoir reflects this diversity. There’s nothing genteel about any of these stirring stories and all the authors are determined to ignore censors and self-censors alike. We hope you enjoy getting inside these heads, these lives.


       


previous editorial: Precision and Clarity
next editorial: Beware the Mythic Aura



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