For me, the mark of a good memoir is how much of it I can remember once I’ve set it aside for any amount of time. Last night as I watched Barack Obama address congress, I found myself thinking about a poignant scene from his debut memoir, Dreams From My Father.
Here is the setup: Barack’s father, a native Kenyan, who has been separated from the family and living in Kenya since Barack was two, is coming to visit. The elder Obama is an official for the Kenyan government. His visit home includes a celebrity visit to his ten-year-old son’s school. Barack feels torn: he is reluctant to have an African show up at his school, but he is excited to finally meet his absentee father. The image used to illustrate this ambivalence is young Barack looking up a picture of a Kenyan in a reference book, only to find a man in a loin cloth holding a spear. How perfectly this scene illustrates those first tentative steps a child takes from private to public life. He looks forward to meeting his father but also values the esteem of his classmates.
This scene works because it’s both universal and specific. It captures the specifics of young Barack’s coming of age—a broken home, the quiet longing, an African father. But it also shows the universals—a ten-year-old sensibility, an elementary school milieu, the child’s growing awareness of his own public identity.
If you asked me to characterize a universal trait of growing up, I am not sure the threat of mortification would ride high on my list. Yet two years after first reading this scene, I can remember a good bit of the detail. Why is that? Maybe it’s because the image of a boy so horrified by his own imagination easily reminds me of my own childhood anxiety around being embarrassed.
Here is what I know: If you try to write a universal scene, you can easily end up with something that sounds stiff and self conscious, completely missing the mark. Instead I think we have to learn to trust our instincts to select the right scenes, the ones with the most emotional impact.
And then just let go and let the muse do the rest.
The kids were obsessed with last night’s vote.
They started watching the election results after they got home from their after school activities. It was early evening and the results were just coming in. When they heard McCain was up somewhere on the East Coast, there was much wailing.
“Oh, no!” Kennedy cried.
“How can this be,” Aaron wanted to know.
Holly told them to relax. She explained how early it was and got them ready for what we thought would be a long night of returns. Pretty soon Kennedy was aping CNN, talking like a pundit. Aaron was doing delegate math. I got home from work around 8pm. No sooner had I walked in the door, Holly called out “Obama wins!”
And there was much celebration!
I enjoyed the McCain concession speech. I had to scold Aaron for shooting the TV with his nerf dart gun while McCain was speaking. The kids brushed teeth and we all watched Obama’s victory speech.
I like it that we all enjoyed such a momentous occasion together. We never did that sort of thing when I was a boy and that was during one of America’s most tumultuous decades: Nixon, Vietnam, Civil Rights, and Women’s liberation. Not to mention all the Arab/Israeli conflicts.
I remember watching the Olympics with my Dad and brothers and Jim McKay’s plaintive voice saying, “They’re all gone.”
I said, “Dad, the Arabs.” I knew we were Arab on his side.
I don’t remember what he said. I imagine he was trying to deal with the news himself. I just always seemed to want to know more than my parents were willing to tell me. Now I realize sometimes that’s no fault of the parents.
But last night was all kinds of great. All the political questions were easily answered by Dad and Mom. It’s always good when your man wins.
Looks like Barack Obama has a lot of support from my hometown. This is video of him, stumping in Steelton, at the local Steelworkers union hall over the weekend.
He is right about how the little towns, like Steelton, have been passed over economically for the past 25 years. But looking at the polls, he has his work cut out for him in Pennsylvania. I called my brothers and sisters to drum up some support, but nobody was home. Hopefully everyone was down on Front Street, cheering for Barack.
Have you read the speech Obama delivered in Philadelphia last week? I’ve got the full text posted after the jump. I read it this morning after seeing Sarah Churchwell’s response in today’s morning paper.
I am certainly glad I read both. Present Tense heartily endorses Barack Obama for president!
Of all the memoir I read last year, here are my three favorites:
Dreams From My Father: I know this was available prior to 2007, but I read it last spring and was much impressed with Barack Obama’s willingness to tackle complex subjects in a deep and meaningful way. Everyone talks about his drug use in college, but what stood out for me were the heartfelt discussions about coming to terms with his mixed race background and his complex feelings for his father, an African living in Kenya.
I’m encouraged that Obama used memoir as a vehicle for opening a frank discussion of race in America. I’m delighted he felt comfortable enough with his modest drug use to discuss it openly (in stark contrast to Bill Clinton’s quasi-admission of not inhaling his drugs).
Foreskin’s Lament: If I had to pick, this was probably my favorite memoir from 2007. Partly a discussion of fatherhood, partly a coming-of-age memoir, Shalom Auslander describes with great humor his attempts to break free from of the bonds of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing somewhere in upstate New York.
AlternaDad: Neal Pollack’s memoir about becoming a father convinced me that I should try to market some of my own essays about parenting. What I have noticed is that the best memoir always seems to inspires me to write my own.