Literary Nonfiction » Memoir

The Best of Memoir: the 2020 NBCC Autobiography Shortlist

recommended by Mark Athitakis

Know My Name: A Memoir by Chanel Miller

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Know My Name: A Memoir
by Chanel Miller

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From a brave account by the Stanford rape case survivor Chanel Miller to New Yorker reporter Ronan Farrow's gripping tale of investigating the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it's been a golden year for autobiography. Veteran critic Mark Athitakis talks us through the memoirs that made this year's National Book Critics Circle autobiography shortlist.

Interview by Cal Flyn

Know My Name: A Memoir by Chanel Miller

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Know My Name: A Memoir
by Chanel Miller

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We’re here to discuss the National Book Critics Circle’s autobiography shortlist for 2020. Before we get going, might you reiterate for our readers how the terms ‘autobiography’ and ‘memoir’ interlock?

Well, they have become remarkably fluid. When we do our deliberations at the NBCC, we treat these terms as somewhat interchangeable, but there is definitely a generational difference between how we think about writing about our own lives. For a long time, we thought of autobiography as the soup-to-nuts life history, one written towards the end of the author’s life: ‘here is my entire story.’

A couple of days before our NBCC deliberations, news came out that Elizabeth Wurtzel had died—the writer of Prozac Nation. Now, that book had a seismic effect on an entire generation of first-person storytelling. It cracked open the definition of autobiography to encompass what we think of more generally as memoir, which is: ‘here is a particular experience that I’ve had, and from which I can extract certain meaning.’ So, memoir doesn’t have to be a life story. It is an exploration of a certain element of one’s life.

Have you noticed trends or themes in autobiography over the last year or so?

One thing that I will say—and I think we might get into this when we start talking about Sounds Like Titanic—is that I think we are entering an interesting era of millennial memoirs that are trying to face the bill of goods they’ve been sold—ever since 9/11, ever since the Iraq War. What has been happening to these writers economically?

Anybody with any ambitions to be an artist or be outside of the economic mainstream has had a much harder time of it. I think you can see this in writers like—say—Jia Tolentino and a book like Trick Mirror; a lot of her essays are attempts to reckon with internet culture and the kind of narcissism that it stokes.

“We are entering an interesting era of millennial memoirs that are trying to face the bill of goods they’ve been sold—ever since 9/11, ever since the Iraq War”

There’s a memoir that’s just come out here called Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener, which is about her stint working for a number of start-ups in San Francisco. And it has the same attitude: if the only way that you can survive is by embracing a tech culture that is inherently exploitive and divisive and bigoted and sexist, what does it mean to survive?

So I think I’ve been seeing, at least in the past year, this prevailing tone of deep frustration with the society that a lot of these writers have been born into. I don’t think it’s just a matter of grievance, because I think these are strong, intelligent people who’ve made lives for themselves. But that is emerging as an interesting challenge that a lot of these writers are reckoning with.

Let’s get talk about the first book on the 2020 shortlist for the title of best autobiography. This is Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child, which was first published in the UK as On Chapel Sands. It has already been a British bestseller, and was shortlisted for a lot of major awards here. Could you tell me a little about why you admire it and what it’s about?

There are a few things going on here. First of all, I think that it is just a remarkably well-structured memoir, in terms of revelation piling upon revelation upon revelation. She’s plainly dealing with a family that has been very tight-lipped, and has tried to shut down all manner of secrets, about what has happened in family life. So I think it reads, especially in its tail end, in a very thriller-ish way as all of this information comes to light.

That’s very interesting. It echoes exactly what Stig Abell told us when it was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize, that it reads like a thriller.

Aside from that, Laura Cumming is just a tremendous writer. She is incredibly observant. She writes graceful sentences that really answer to the poignancy of this family that is fractured in a remarkable number of ways.

I think her breeding (for want of a better word) as an art critic serves her well here. Some of the best parts of this book are close observations of family photographs and her attempt to forensically understand not just her mother’s history and the particular incident that sparks of all this, but just how all these family members relate to one another. I think it’s interesting how persuasive she can be by looking at a particular part of a photograph and drawing someone’s personality out of it. So it meshes remarkably well, especially when you consider that she was really presented with very flimsy evidence and a lot of tight-lipped relatives when she began pursuing the story. So it’s a remarkable achievement just on a research level and on the writing level.

Memoir is a genre that challenges the writer in emotional ways as well as technical ones; not only in the psychoanalysis they must conduct upon themselves—the psychological journey they’ve gone on to write it—but in the impact the act of writing and revelation has on the people around them. Do you have a sense of how her relationship with her family was affected by the writing of this book?

I honestly do not know. I would have to surmise that since we are dealing with a book that is dealing with family secrets . . . but we’re talking about a pretty long time ago, though. Her mother was abducted, I believe, in 1929. And it speaks to just how pervasive this close-lipped attitude was.

So I think you have to factor in a certain fearlessness there as well, because I’m sure that Laura Cumming must have sensed that telling this story was going to frustrate, if not actively anger, many of her family members.

Talking about inciting anger—let’s move on to the second book on the 2020 shortlist of the best new memoirs. This is Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill. It charts his investigation into the allegations against the film producer Harvey Weinstein, for which he shared a Pulitzer Prize with two reporters at the New York Times. We’ll get to that—but first, please tell us about this book and why you admire it.

Sure. There’s an open question that comes up with a book like Ronan Farrow’s, because it is not a full-dress autobiography in any conventional sense.

He doesn’t talk much about his personal life. He does talk a little bit about growing up with Woody Allen as a stepfather, and his relationship with his family, but not in a sustained or especially deep way. It’s also not the sort of self-interrogative storytelling that you’d expect from a current-generation memoir.

But I think what value it has as an autobiography is that it brings some transparency to a story that is really important and emotionally fraught. I think there’s a lot of value in that. If you told this story as a straight nonfiction piece of reporting, it could have been harder to parse, harder to enjoy, I think, in some ways.

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It’s also important that he talks in the first person, because it reveals just how much hesitancy there was in the media to touch a story like this—about somebody like Harvey Weinstein, who had a hand in so many different organizations, had so much leverage in so many places. So I think it’s important for Ronan Farrow to tell this story in the first person, to give the reader a sense of just how high of a mountain he had to climb in order to get the story heard.

So I valued it, certainly as—and I’m not the first person to say it reads like—an espionage thriller. It reads quickly and it’s very engaging. The chapters are punchy. But beyond that, he’s doing a public service by being so candid about his experience and without coming off, by any means, as a braggart. He’s just trying to explain that this is the sort of experience that you have when you are trying to tell a story that is very difficult to tell.

Yes. The format reminds me a little of how All the President’s Men humanised the Watergate expose by bringing in the element of the personal quest. But I want to mention Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the reporters who first broke the Weinstein story. She Said, a book-length account of their own investigation, came out almost in parallel to Catch and Kill, although it’s a work of reportage as opposed to memoir.

It is. I don’t think anybody was thinking about pitting these two books against each other. I think, if anything, having two books that address this case from different angles is only additive to the conversation.

Look, we talk about being in an era of fake news, where President Trump rains contempt on the media on a regular basis. But it’s not a new thing; if you go back to Pew Research studies, Americans tend to have an inherent distrust of media outlets. Cable news, print news, you name it—there’s always been a substantive portion of the American populace that does not want to hear something that they’re not used to hearing.

“Cable news, print news, you name it—there’s always been a substantive portion of the American populace that does not want to hear something that they’re not used to hearing”

So having Ronan Farrow’s book as well as Jodi Kantor’s and Megan Twohey’s book in the landscape at the same time, I appreciate that. It’s a doubling down. I’m being a bit coy here, because I haven’t read She Said, so I can’t do a formal compare-and-contrast between the two. I know that it’s great to have both in the world, but I have seen personally how Ronan Farrow’s book seems to have captured the imaginations of readers on a very intense level.

Just before we move on, there was a great snippet in a Guardian article about about how while Farrow was in the process of fact-checking the articles that went into the New Yorker, he spent so long on the phone to the office, under such stressful conditions, the fact-checker got a stress nosebleed. I think that’s a fantastically human detail.

Any acclaim that he has gotten for this book gets an immediate response from Farrow, thanking his fact-checkers. I respect him for doing that. Obviously, accuracy is important in a book like this.

Does that imply sometimes it might not be?

This is one of these difficult things in judging memoir. Does the author really recall the exact conversation that they had with their mother when they were eight years old? On the autobiography committee, we have to take these things into account. And there are different ways of getting that ‘right.’

I remember that Tara Westover makes repeated points about the fallibility of memory in Educated for exactly these reasons.

But for a hard news story, like Ronan Farrow was writing, celebrating the virtues of fact checkers is a wonderful thing to have in the landscape.

Agreed. Let’s move onto the next book on your 2020 shortlist of the best memoirs: Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman’s Sounds Like Titanic. It’s a really wild story; she can’t get a job as a reporter, but finds work as a violinist—only to realise that while she’s playing, it’s actually a recording blasting out over the speakers. The orchestral equivalent of mouthing the words, I suppose.

This book was a pleasant surprise for me. If you serve on a literary judging committee, you have a lot of books thrust at you. You have books literally sent to you, a lot of people in your inbox. And you also have the general noise and chatter about, what are the ‘big books’ or the ‘good books’ of the moment. But this was a book I discovered when I was scanning the new release stacks in my public library, which I was doing as part of my due diligence. I saw it, saw that it was published in 2019, took a flyer on it, and I absolutely fell for it.

“She does something risky, which is write much of the book in the second person, implicating the reader in her experience and her struggle”

First of all, she is a tremendous storyteller. And she does something risky, which is write much of the book in the second person, implicating the reader in her experience and her struggle. It’s risky because that can come off as whiny, or as manipulating the reader. But I think that she has not just a remarkable story to tell—about being roped in to work with this PBS composer to pretend to play violin for hours at a stretch and spend time in this RV going across the country playing music that she utterly detests—but an ability to unpack her experience and understand it as indicative of a wider cultural fakery that Americans, in particular, have allowed themselves to be susceptible to.

So on the structural level, her way of weaving in her experiences in the Middle East, on this tour, growing up in Appalachia—her stylistic gambits—are, I think, interesting without being showy. This is a book with a broader thesis, extending beyond her particular experience. I think there’s a lot to think about in this book. I’m a great fan of it.

Yes. As you said earlier, it talks to a generation. I was hired for a job around, I think, the same time as Hindman was playing the violin. When I arrived I learned that while I’d been working out my notice period, almost my entire department at the new company had been made redundant. The man who’d hired me was gone, I didn’t know who to report to or what my tasks were. Friends told me just to shut up and take the money. But the meaninglessness of my work soon felt crushing. It was a period of existential crisis.

There’s so much embarrassment surrounding that sort of experience. Being Ivy League-educated, but forced to sell your eggs in order to just survive; or to take a job like this and be grateful for the money that it earns, but also just be so cognizant of cheapening every ambition that you had as a child to be thought of as a serious person . . . I think these are especially true challenges for a whole generation of college-educated kids who have taken on massive amounts of debt and were told that this is the investment that you have to make in order to be a good and successful person, who then realize that you have to make not-so-good choices to be even semi-successful.

Absolutely. Next we’ve got a graphic memoir. This is Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations. Which is interesting—although not a first—because a graphic memoir won the award last year.

The NBCC has a history of embracing the graphic memoir; Fun Home by Alison Bechdel was also a finalist in 2006. Good Talk is less of a straight narrative of experience and more a collage of experiences, dealing with Mira Jacob’s efforts to help her biracial son navigate the world that he’s been born into, filtered through her experiences as a writer growing up in an Indian family.

After 9/11, she sees a lot of the world as frazzled, confused and uncertain about what to do with a woman like her—a woman who has married a white Jewish man and had a biracial son. What’s interesting about it is that she captures a whole range of emotional registers. She can be deeply angry; she can be sad; she could be frustrated.

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But it took me a little time to notice this in the book, and I don’t think it leaps out right away: the images of Mira Jacob as she tells the stories are all cut-outs, and they’re often the same cut-out. So the expressions, the faces of these cut-outs remain the same regardless of what emotions the characters are going through. So it’s inviting the reader to apply and understand those feelings without being manipulated directly on behalf of the artist: here’s a face, here’s an experience, what do you make of it?

It uses the graphic form to talk about difficult subjects in a way that is non-didactic, and really inviting. It’s just a pleasure to look at as well because she is a wonderful artist on top of everything else.

Yes. There’s an extract available on the Guardian, for those who’d like a preview. Are graphic memoirs difficult to judge in terms of their literary merit, or to compare to the ‘straight’ written memoir?

I’d like to think that we are smart enough now to understand that a graphic memoir does have different elements to it. I mean, how many years has it been since Maus now? I think 30, 35 years. So I think we understand some of the rhetoric of the graphic novel, how it blends imagery with text, that sort of thing.

That said, it being a graphic novel doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an easier way of telling a story. In fact, one thing that’s interesting about Good Talk is that it really does reveal some of the artistic challenges that Mira Jacob was facing in terms such as: what is the clearest way to talk about the particular experiences that she had with her family, or growing up as a child? Sometimes she uses photographs, sometimes she uses symbols—American flags. Sometimes she is emphasizing the people that she’s talking to. Sometimes she’s doing straight, essayistic writing. I think that the artistic choices that she makes throughout Good Talk all seem reasonable and inviting and engaging.

Thank you. This brings us to the final book in the 2020 selection of the best new memoirs. let’s talk about Know My Name: A Memoir, by Chanel Miller. This is ‘Emily Doe’ of the Brock Turner sexual assault case, and the book sprang from her victim testimony—which was later published on Buzzfeed and went on to go viral.

It’s interesting because the testimony that became viral is an appendix to this book: it’s the last thing that you experience as a reader. I think that was a smart strategy, because it removes the notion of feeling that you already know the story. The memoir, Know My Name, is written in a very different kind of register. Obviously her statement was meant to be a public statement. She wanted to be heard not just by Brock Turner, but also anybody who has been a victim of sexual assault.

“What’s really remarkable to me about Know My Name is the depth of self-interrogation that Chanel Miller does throughout this book”

What’s really remarkable to me about Know My Name is the depth of self-interrogation that Chanel Miller does throughout this book. There is a lot of questioning, because she is forced to do it. She’s forced to do it because of the questions that she is getting by Brock Turner’s defense lawyers, who are trying to cast aspersions on her. They’re trying to reframe her as an illegitimate person. They’re trying to reframe her as a liar. They’re trying to reframe her as part of a larger culture, that says that a woman who has been sexually assaulted was ‘asking for it’ in some way.

She realizes that there are so many attempts to reframe her as a person that it is clear that she has had to work very, very hard emotionally, not just to understand her own feelings and emotions and experiences, but to find a way to articulate them that is clear.

She has a very interesting story to tell—about not just that experience of the sexual assault, but the recovery from it. Her engagement in art, and in some ways the way that she was saved by art. I don’t know if the cover is different in the UK, but here it mimics the Japanese pottery style Kintsugi, which emphasizes the breaks in something as opposed to trying to cover them up, which is a wonderful metaphor for what she is doing.

On the sheer level of being somebody who is writing about an experience as deeply and as thoroughly as one possibly can, I think Know My Name is an exemplar of the form.

Yes. Sexual assault has been another theme of the genre this year. Memoir, as an account of someone’s ‘lived experience,’ is perhaps the most powerful form in which to explore that as an issue.

Absolutely. And I think there are all sorts of ways that that can be done successfully. I think one thing that is striking about Know My Name is that Miller has made a decision to shift the tone, from the anger of the victim statement—which is valuable and real and necessary—to a cooler register. Which is not to say that there are not flare-ups of anger, but I think she’s trying to be almost as impartial as she possibly can be in her understanding of the emotional chaos that she has been thrust into.

We talked about fact checking. I feel like she must have done a remarkable amount of rigorous fact-checking on herself, because I think it really does show in terms of the depth of understanding that she presents about her experience.

Thank you. To close, perhaps you might tell me a little about the judging process from here. When will we know who has been awarded the title of best new autobiography?

We will know the winner on March 12th, 2020, which is when the board will present its awards in New York City. All the 24 members of the NBCC board are broken up into committees to select finalists in each of the six categories. Now, all 24 board members are charged with reading all the finalists, and then reconvening.

So there are a lot of people who have not experienced any of these books until now. I think that’s exciting, because sometimes—and this happens with me when I see other categories that I didn’t sit in on the committees for—there are always titles completely unfamiliar to me, and they might go on to become some of my favorite books.

I think that’s something that people appreciate about the NBCC awards: that they often throw a few curveballs out there. I’m thinking about books like Good Talk, which maybe didn’t get as much of an audience as it perhaps should have when it came out, and Sounds Like Titanic, which didn’t get much review attention at all.

What’s great about this process is that we’re very open-ended about what we invite in to discuss, and sometimes the things that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to spring up find a way of doing so.

Interview by Cal Flyn

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Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a critic and journalist whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Humanities magazine, and numerous other publications. His book The New Midwest, a study of contemporary fiction from the region, received the 2018 Books on the Banks prize for best adult nonfiction title. He lives in Phoenix.

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Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a critic and journalist whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Humanities magazine, and numerous other publications. His book The New Midwest, a study of contemporary fiction from the region, received the 2018 Books on the Banks prize for best adult nonfiction title. He lives in Phoenix.