Memoir, Social History, and Autobiography
If you are writing your life story, this blog post is designed to be thought-provoking and give you some direction on whether you are writing memoir, autobiography or social history.
Generally speaking, a distinction is made only between memoir and autobiography. I would argue that there should be a third category: social history.
I would define social history as follows:
A social history is the story of a part of the life of the author or his or her family, which tells the reader something important about the social history of the country where the author or her family resides and/or grew up in.
What are the differences between that and autobiography and memoir? As we will see, the lines are often blurred.
An autobiography is the story of the author’s entire life prior to writing the book, often told in chronological order.
A memoir is the story of one significant aspect of the author’s life or of the life of someone who is or was important in the author’s life.
Social histories lie somewhere between an autobiography and a memoir, and perhaps as a result, are often not ascribed a genre by the publisher. While they usually focus on one aspect of the author’s life or that of their family, they tend to cover a significantly longer period of someone’s life than a typical memoir. Because they focus on social history, they are often very informative about the social conditions in a particular community at a particular period of time.
Great Australian examples that I would argue belong into the social history category include One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville and my two favourites Not Just Black and White by Lesley and Tammy Williams and Joe’s Fruitshop & Milkbar by Zoë Boccabella.
Lesley and Tammy Williams’ Not Just Black and White is classified as a memoir by the publisher. In substance, however, Not Just Black and White is a social history. A social history of the injustices inflicted on Aboriginal people in Queensland who were removed from their traditional lands and relocated to Aboriginal settlements or missions. While the book focuses on the Williams family (going back to Lesley’s grandparents), the book informs readers about the absolute control the so-called Aboriginal Protection legislation imposed on every aspect of Aboriginal lives and about the scandal of the stolen wages – wages which the government was legally obliged to pay into a state-owned bank account in trust for the Aboriginal workers, but failed to do. Not Just Black and White is thus related to social justice issues and an important contribution to the knowledge about Australia’s social history.
Similarly, Joe’s Fruitshop & Milkbar, a social history of Italian immigrants’ lives in Queensland, with a focus on the lives of Boccabella’s grandparents, details an aspect of Australia’s social history that many Australians do not know about.
One Life: My Mother’s Story is the story of Grenville’s mother’s life from childhood to her late thirties and a social history of the challenges educated women in Australia faced in the 1930s and 40s – and to some extent continue to face today.
Books that sit on the borderline of social histories and memoirs are war ‘memoirs’ such as Primo Levi’s If This is a Man and Elie Wiesel’s Night. They have a strong focus on touchstone events in the authors’ lives, but also inform the reader about an important aspect of social history. Similar are books written by the adult children of refugees to Australia. Great examples are Unpolished Gem and Her Father’s Daughter by Alice Pung, We Are Here by Cat Thao Nguyen, and Jewels and Ashes by Arnold Zable. In these books Pung, Nguyen and Zable combine an exploration of their parents’ harrowing experiences before coming to Australia with a focus on the impact these experiences have had on the parents’ and the authors’ lives in Australia. These books have a focus on touchstone events in the authors’ and their parents’ lives as well as being informative about social history affecting a significant group of Australians.
What distinguishes memoirs from autobiographies is a close focus on one significant aspect of the author’s life or the life of someone important in their life. In the best memoirs that focus is on touchstone events or turning points in the authors’ lives.
Good Australian examples include My Year without Matches by Claire Dunn, How I Rescued My Brain by David Roland, Girl on the Edge by Kim Hodges, The Dangerous Bride by Lee Kofman, and The Mind of a Thief by Patti Miller.
Claire Dunn’s memoir focuses on her year living off the grid in the wilderness, facing and overcoming physical and environmental as well as psychological challenges. After a career as a forensic psychologist, David Roland suffered emotional trauma as well as a stroke. His book How I Rescued My Brain is the story of his recovery. Kim Hodges in Girl on the Edge details the feelings of alienation and suffocation she experienced while growing up in a tiny country town in West New South Wales. The Dangerous Bride by Lee Kofman focuses on non-monogamy in relationships, intertwining her personal experience with theoretical and empirical research and references to triangle relationships of famous writers and artists. Patti Miller in The Mind of a Thief explores the meaning of personal belonging and identity in the Wiradjuri country where she grew up.
My favourite memoirs are Boy, Lost by Kristina Olsson and Missing Christopher by Jayne Newling, both of which won the Human Rights Literature Award.
These are the reasons why they are my favourite memoirs:
- Olsson and Newling focus on a fundamental turning point in their respective lives – which becomes the all-encompassing theme of each of their books.
- Such fundamental turning points and thus themes tend to relate to universal ideas or the life experiences of many other people. In Kristina Olsson’s memoir Boy, Lost, that theme is domestic violence and its long-lasting effects on the children of both the abused and the abuser. In Jayne Newling’s memoir Missing Christopher, that theme is youth suicide and its devastating impact on the parents and siblings of the youth.
- Both Olsson’s and Newling’s themes are fundamentally connected to social justice issues: domestic violence and mental illness are two of the most important issues we face in contemporary society.
- Both books are beautifully written by authors trained as journalists. For an example see their beginnings, already quoted in my previous blog post Nine ways to direct your reader from the very beginning:
Kristina Olsson, Boy, Lost:
“Cairns railway station, far north Queensland, summer, 1950. A girl with fugitive eyes and an infant on her hip. She is thin, gaunt even, but still it is easy to see these two are a pair, dark-haired and dark-eyed. She hurries down the platform towards the second-class cars, slowed by the weight of her son and her cardboard suitcase. It holds everything they own, everything she dared to take.”
Jayne Newling, Missing Christopher:
“Overlooking the edge of the cliff from where my seventeen-year-old son died, I watched as a blond-haired toddler ran towards his mother and screamed. He had fallen and grazed his knees ten metres below, on the same rock Christopher’s body thumped and splintered.”
Jayne Newling indicates her theme in the very first sentence of her memoir. Kristina Olsson does so in her first paragraph, but not as directly – she uses suspense to intrigue the reader. Nevertheless, the fact that the ‘girl’ is in a hurry and has ‘fugitive’ eyes, and even more so the fact that the suitcase holds ‘everything she dared to take’, gives a clear indication that she is in fear, fear for herself and fear for her infant son.
Hopefully this blog post will have given you some food for thought and direction, if you are writing your life story: is it memoir, autobiography or social history?