There is something about personal essays and memoirs that reel me in. The glimpse into the life of another, peering through the glass of the layers the author chooses to apply to the reminiscences, falling headfirst into a life never lived, but experienced as intimately and vicariously through the words and the memories of the one who has written it.
Reading memoirs and personal narratives by women have been, for me, a way to get into the female experience, across oceans, continents, cultures and even time. And each and every time, I have come away shaken and changed.
Here are five memoirs by women which have deeply impacted me.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail By Cheryl Strayed
I first read Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed and I was hooked. By the braveness of her voice, her raw honesty, her tender gentleness as she administered life truths to those who sought her out.
I then read Wild. Read it in a daze. I hadn’t lost a mother, but I had lost my father when I was very young. The sense of abandonment when you lose a parent as a child never really goes away. It all came flooding back as I read it.
Strayed took a journey from Mexico to the North of the USA on the Pacific Crest Trail, all alone, after her mother passed away. The book is raw, real and a catharsis to read. With this book, I realize why one needs to go away sometimes, to find oneself. And to allow oneself the space to mourn. Someday I will, I tell myself. Hike on my own version of the Pacific Crest Trail, and perhaps I will find myself. Would I write a book about it? I don’t think so. The definitive book on writing on a journey to take you through the grief has already been written and this is it.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings By Maya Angelou
The power of Angelou’s writing hits you from the very first page. It sweeps you in and takes you through an unflinching journey of her life and work as an activist, poet, educator and a woman of color. She shares the struggles of her early life. And the incidents that shaped and molded her into becoming the beacon that she is today.
Published in 1969, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is a no holds barred account of growing up in the deep South, a place riddled with racism and bigotry. And the effects of growing up as a black girl child in a world where both being black and being a woman had already hobbled you.
“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat,” she wrote. This was among the first autobiographies by a 20th-century black woman that was published to such wide acclaim and readership. Its unsparingness, it became a feminist manifesto of sorts, a manifesto of the survival of the female spirit.
Written till she was 40, the book takes us through the various avatars the author had been through in her life. A dancer, a singer, streetcar conductor, single mother, magazine editor, administrative assistant, and most importantly, the friend and associate of the luminaries of the black resistance movement, names like James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.
Out of Africa By Isak Dinesen
I confess I saw the movie before I read the book. But I didn’t regret that, because I read the book with Meryl Streep in my head. Isak Dinesen was the author’s pseudonym. Her real name was Karen Blixen. She was a Danish woman who went to Africa with her husband to manage a coffee plantation. Which she continued to do until well after her divorce from her husband.
Quite a trendsetter for those days, Karen Blixen wrote with a detailed eye for the difference in cultures and societies. And for the natural beauty of flora and fauna, and the vastly different landscape of Africa. Despite the era it was written in, the writing remains fresh and undated.
Out of Africa is about the author’s stint as the manager of a coffee plantation in Ngong Hills, south of Nairobi. A stint she left her comfortable life in Denmark for. What is remarkable is her prose, which is measured and elegant, even sparse some might say. Reading the book, in retrospect, as an adult, I would spot spaces where the “white gaze” was very obvious. But I prefer to think of it as a book written in colonial times. And therefore reflective of the era it was written in. This is a must-read.
I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being A Woman by Nora Ephron
If you haven’t read Nora Ephron, I envy you because you can approach her fresh and have all her work before you to read. She is one of those writers who is fabulously droll, acerbic in her wit. And yet touches on life truths beneath those layers of humor. The humor is self-deprecatory, you are meant to laugh with the author at herself as she looks at the middle-aged woman she has morphed into. But you cannot laugh at her, her wit is too sparkling and sharp for you to have the temerity to do so.
The times she writes about are long past, the city she writes about is New York. But the lives she writes about are all too recognizable as women of a certain age in any metro around the world. As I age, I think this is a book I will re-read. Because, yes, I am beginning to feel bad about my neck.
Eat, Pray Love By Elizabeth Gilbert
I read Eat, Pray, Love when it came out, and it did nothing for me. I re-read it a few years later and was completely gobsmacked by it. A journey of self-discovery after a divorce and the ensuing bout of depression. This is a journey that every woman must read, in order to come to terms with the fact that sometimes one must go away to find oneself.
Review of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Gilbert’s journeys through Italy, India, and Indonesia are not just a reader’s catharsis. But also an acknowledgment that it is when you place yourself in a culture that is alien, you often realize who you really are. The writing is simplistic in places, prosaic even, solutions are too easy. The countries Gilbert visits open their arms to her in a way that seems to pat. She even manages to find love by the end of it all, and it seems coming a complete full circle back to where she began. But therein lies its charm. That she presents a view of a situation that seemed hopeless and replete with despair. And tells the reader, here, this is where I was, this is how I got away and found myself, and new love.
In its simplicity and prosaicness is its message of hope. That perhaps life is nothing other than running away to find yourself only to find perhaps that you.
Guest Post by Kiran Manral
Personal Essays compilations by women is a guest post by renowned author Kiran Manral.
Kiran Manral published her first book, The Reluctant Detective, in 2011. Since then, she has published eight books across genres to date. Her books include romance and chick lit with Once Upon A Crush, All Aboard, Saving Maya; horror with The Face at the Window and nonfiction with Karmic Kids, A Boy’s Guide to Growing Up and True Love Stories. Her short stories have been published on Juggernaut, in magazines like Verve and Cosmopolitan. And have been part of anthologies like Chicken Soup for the Soul, Have a Safe Journey and Boo.
She was shortlisted for the Femina Women Awards 2017 for Literary Contribution. The Indian Council of UN Relations (ICUNR) supported by the Ministry for Women and Child Development, Government of India, awarded her the International Women’s Day Award 2018 for excellence in the field of writing. Her novella, Saving Maya, was longlisted for the Saboteur Awards 2018, UK, supported by the Arts Council England.
Her latest book Missing, Presumed Dead, can be ordered on Amazon here.