Memoir has a long history. Humans have been traveling from place to place to tell stories since the introduction of language. Writing about the self is a method of understanding the meaning of life and a way to communicate the writer’s experiences, emotions and personal beliefs. The ancient Greeks and Romans wrote about themselves in order to convey their opinions about life, as a record of history as lived in their era, and to transmit political, religious and educational philosophies. People continued writing memoirs through the ages, and it is still a valid and entertaining form of communication. Various categories of memoirs can be found in libraries and bookstores. The contemporary fascination with genealogy and family research illustrates the prominence of memoir as a way to understanding the self.
Some of the earliest recorded memoirs can be found in the Old Testament of the Bible in the prophetic narratives. In 500 B.C, the prophet Nehemiah wrote about his experience in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Luke the Evangelist, in 62 A.D., narrated the events leading to the establishment of Christianity in the New Testament book, Acts of the Apostles. Saint Augustine wrote The Confessions in 398 A.D. about his rejection of a sinful life and conversion to Christianity. The young Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai, wrote about her experience when she was attacked by the Taliban in I Am Malala.
Julius Caesar, Dictator of ancient Rome, recorded his memoirs in 50s B.C., The Gallic Wars, regarding his conquest of Gaul. The founder of the Mughal Dynasty in Central Asia wrote about the people he conquered in Memoirs of Babur in 1494 A.D. Sofia Tolstaya, wife of Leo Tolstoy, wrote her story, My Life, in 1910. Her manuscript was secluded until 2010 by Russian authorities because it was deemed detrimental to Tolstoy’s image, thus proving the importance of memoir writing. Ulysses S. Grant, 18th President of the United States, wrote his memoir in 1885 which focused on his involvement in the Mexican-American and United States Civil Wars. Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa’Thiong’o published Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir that chronicles his life under British colonial rule during World War II.
Karen Hesse published Witness, the memoirs of eleven citizens who lived through the 1924 Ku Klux Klan takeover of a small Vermont town. Because the citizens were illiterate, Hesse interviewed them about the events.
Slave narratives are an important contribution to history. Been Here So Long was compiled by American Slave Networks through the Federal Writers Network. A number of the memoirs were written by the slaves, with the others telling their story to a writer, who in turn recorded the memoirs in printed form.
A category of memoir is the survival epic. Halima Bashir, author of Tears of the Desert: A Memoir of Survival in Darfur, accounts her experience of when the Janjaweed Arab militia attacked her village. Bashir became a physician and wrote about her life with the purpose of telling the world about conditions in her home country. Nobel Prize winning author Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night, describes his imprisonment at Nazi German concentration camps Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944-1945 and the subsequent liberation of the camps.
People who leave their home countries due to political repression often write their memoirs as a method of therapy for the suffering they lived through. The memoir of Loung Ung, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, describes her life in Cambodia in 1976-1978 where she was kidnapped by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and forced to work as a child soldier in a labor camp.
Studying memoirs is valuable for learning about historical and cultural issues. Memoirs are a way to preserve personal and public stories that would otherwise be forgotten. Reading a memoir and being introduced to an unknown person or way of life can be an excellent starting point for the reader to develop an interest for further research. Writers often use the medium of memoir to impart morals, truths, beliefs, and philosophies. Readers may use these life lessons to develop their personal beliefs while having the chance to learn opposing viewpoints. Memoirs are used in literature, history, sociology, and religious studies classes. Reading comprehension and New Language Acquisition are other uses for studying memoirs. Young Adult (YA) memoirs are a popular form of literature, published in many languages, particularly memoirs written by young cancer patients and children who survived tragedy. Contemporary arguments about the value of memoir are the excessive number of books published, the poor quality writing, and the worth of the topic. Opposing arguments consist of readers who promote the validity of all topics, and who express the belief that society should not censor literary works.
In order for a piece of writing to be classified as memoir, it must be written in first-person point of view, whereby the author narrates their story. The memoir has no restrictions as to topic or length of the narrative. Memoir writing employs literary devices, such as character, plot, theme and setting. Methods of producing a memoir include writing by the author and oral history. Some memoirists such as the elderly or ill, or who have language or physical restrictions, must have their stories recorded by another person. Other options are video memoirs, taped recordings, and memoirs set to music, poetry or art. Another format is when traveling memoirists attend festivals and other gatherings to tell their stories to audiences that may not have the opportunity to read, such as people in prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, and homeless shelters. The internet has given writers the freedom to self-publish their memoirs, and in turn, to have a global reading audience. An author may have a blog, website or link to their writing to make it easy for readers to locate the memoir. The permanence of the internet ensures these memoirs will be available to succeeding generations of readers.
Augustine, Saint. The Confessions of Saint Augustine. London: Watkins, 2006. Print.
Freedmen, Ralph. “The Memoir and Representations of the Self: New Books by Vlasopolos and Picard.” Rev. of No Return Address: A Memoir of Displacement and Zwishen Chaos Und Kosmos. CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture. Web. 10 July 2014.
Greenblatt, Ellen. “Family Memoir: Getting Acquainted With Generations Before Us.” Readwritethink.org. NCTE. Web. 10 July 2014.
Hollander, Sharon A. “Taking It Personally: The Role of Memoirs in Teacher Education.” Electronic Journal for Inclusive Education. Web. 10 July 2014.
Ledoux, Denis. “Journal Writing for the Memoir Writer.” The Memoir Network. Web. 10 July 2014.
Mendelsohn, Daniel. “But Enough About Me.” New Yorker 25 Jan. 2010. Web. 10 July 2014.
Muskus, Urszula. The Long Bridge: Out of the Gulags. Dingwall, Scotland: Sandstone, 2010. Print.
Ung, Loung. First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers. New York: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2000. Print.
Wiesel, Elie, and Marion Wiesel. Night. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, a Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Print.
Zinsser, William. “How to Write a Memoir: Be Yourself, Speak Freely, and Think Small.” The American Scholar. 2006. Web. 30 June 2014.