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Write what you know? The classic pitfall of the misery memoir

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Heather Kennedy
WVoN co-editor 

Write what you know. It remains one of the most popular adages for the aspiring writer. Taken literally, this truism would deliver you to the door of the autobiography.

But how do you begin moulding your subjective life story into a coherent narrative that glistens and throbs with the poignancy you felt living it?

It must be incredibly hard.

That’s probably why, on the far end of our bookshelves gathering dust, unfinished or barely begun, sit so many autobiographies. And Indian.English, Jillian Haslam’s account of poverty and abuse in post-colonial India fails, like so many memoirs that preceded it, falling on the wrong side of the line between pathos and bathos.

Read Indian.English and you’re left with the nagging suspicion that Haslam has been seriously let down by her editors, not least because of the grammatical and spelling mistakes that litter her writing. When you’re wading through pain and childhood nostalgia to distil rousing parables for people you’ve never met, sound editorial guidance should be more crucial than ever.

There aren’t many cities in the world where Englishness suggests inferiority and stigma. So Haslam, growing up in Calcutta and hated for her Englishness, has much to teach us about the nuanced and specific nature of racial prejudice. But frustratingly, her memoir evades any political or historical context.

A book which could have evoked the ghosts of colonialism or explored the dehumanising rationale of the caste system instead leaves you baffled, wondering at the backdrop which pre-empted her struggle for survival:

Throughout my entire life, from when I was a little girl to the time I left the country, we were always looked upon as being different, and being British, not wanted there.

Haslam’s misery is born out of social structures and cultural myths steeped in years of intractable contempt. Without reference to these forces, the sensation is of a story half told.

In the collapsed, teeming streets of Kidderpore, Calcutta’s squalid shipping port, poverty, racism and sexual prejudice catalyse to create an environment of acute danger for Haslam.

Her story raises questions about the nature of sexualised racism and the stigma attached to pigment in a post-colonial society, but leaves the reader unsatisfied. This is an opportunity sorely missed:

Many times all we heard was “Hey white rat! Come here and dance for us!” Or even worse suggestions.

Although the reader will be aware that they are in the presence of someone remarkable, the power of Haslam’s story doesn’t translate past the page.

This is a shame. We assume that hardship makes us more sensitive to the suffering of others. Often in fact it makes us ruthless and spiteful in the face of someone else’s suffering, even and especially when this suffering reminds us of our own. But occasionally, through a rare determination of will, a person can resist the bitterness that comes with dejection.

And I don’t doubt that Haslam is one such person. So it’s all the more regrettable that having risen above physical, social and psychological degradation, her memoir doesn’t work as a compelling piece of writing.

Scenes from Indian.English are frequently shocking, but the shock never stirs in the reader anything more profound. When you have only a person’s words on the page to grasp the slippery shape of their subjective reality, it requires poetry.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Maya Angelou uses beautiful, forceful imagery to weave a memoir powerful enough to reverberate with the voices of an entire race, brutalized.

In Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, his time in a Nazi concentration camp is relayed in stark, unflinching prose, leaving the reader to reel and gawp at events which stand alone, ungilded by judgement or comment.

Indian: English, on the other hand, leaves no space for the reader to form their own moral and emotional response:

Then a few days after the scare with my father, we learnt that Mr Nazareth had passed away. It was as though the entire world was crashing down on us. Once again, my mother had no one to turn to. This news was devastating to all of us.

Never is Haslam’s language vivid enough to place you there at the scene, when men on the crowded bus rub their testicles on her shoulder, when she has to live for months in the festering, rat infested space under someone’s stairs, when she watches her dead sister being laid out in a large tea chest because her parents are too poor to buy a coffin.

Returning to the streets where she grew up, Haslam notes that life for poor families in Calcutta has degenerated rather than improved.

As wealthier nations are questioning the legitimacy of aid to India, Haslam’s story could have held immediate relevance. Instead, Indian.English fails to confront readers with the pressing, unpalatable horror of extreme poverty; a horror which even now Western eyes shudder to contemplate.

  1. Deborah Sowerby says:

    This is a thoughtful, helpful article on the possibilities and perils of life writing, from which stands out this nugget of truth: “We assume that hardship makes us more sensitive to the suffering of others. Often in fact it makes us ruthless and spiteful in the face of someone else’s suffering, even and especially when this suffering reminds us of our own. But occasionally, through a rare determination of will, a person can resist the bitterness that comes with dejection.”

    The book in question seems to scream out the adage “show don’t tell.”

    On the question of inadequate editing, don’t publishers know their audiences? It’s quids in for them because, sadly, a lot of people don’t recognise a good story badly told.

    I read an autobiograhy recently that was recommended by a friend. I said I found it extruciatingly and frustatingly hard, for all the wrong reasons. He was baffled by my reaction.

    Presented with start-to-finish hardship and misery set out like an inventory of a catastrophe, or a despot’s shopping list of all the things to do to someone you despise, there’s nowhere to go except perhaps the sick-bowl. This is not the response I’d want.

    Thank you.

    • vicki wharton says:

      The misery memoirs I have found most readable are those that show the steps to overcoming a life built on such hideous circumstances. There is nothing to learn from a ‘get even’ approach, but plenty to learn from someone who has learnt to use what they’ve learnt in hardship to make something better for themselves.

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