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Find more At Leisure with Joyce Saricks
As our communities become more diverse, the publishing world has followed suit, making available a wide variety of titles across genres and formats. Multicultural literature has long been popular in our libraries. Some readers enjoy reading about a shared ethnic background, while others appreciate the opportunity to explore another culture. I last wrote about multicultural collections in 2011, and the world, along with the world of publishing, continues to change. Once I would have argued that the easiest way to fill a display of materials on this topic was from the fiction collection, and that’s still a good source; increasingly, however, nonfiction reflects our multicultural heritage, and nowhere is that more evident than in memoirs.
I can’t believe I’m writing about memoirs! I confess I’ve come late to an appreciation of their pleasures. When I read fiction, I’m attracted first to story, not characters, and memoirs often offer too much personal information for my taste. However, when I was thinking about a column for this spotlight on multicultural literature, memoirs were the first subject that came to mind. They’re popular across the board, written by entertainers, athletes, politicians, and more. It sometimes seems that everyone—famous, infamous, or unknown—has written a memoir, and many focus on multicultural experiences and explore the pleasures and pain of fitting in.
Given their popularity, we needn’t look very hard to discover a wealth of multicultural memoirs written by a wide range of authors. Check out the adult and youth “Top 10 Multicultural Nonfiction” books in this issue of Booklist for a start on the best new titles. Of course, we’re all familiar with Madeline Albright’s Madam Secretary, about the former U.S. secretary of state and UN ambassador’s experiences from her childhood as a refugee from Czechoslovakia through her rise in government service, and with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved World, about growing up with her Puerto Rican family in the South Bronx. A contrast to these more formal, serious glimpses into lives is Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failures, a witty and engaging look at his Russian childhood and eventual immigration to and life in Queens.
Although those titles generally follow the writer’s life chronologically, not all memoirs do. Some are more anecdotal, with stories strung together to explore a personal journey. In his recent Yes, My Accent Is Real: And Some Other Things I Haven’t Told You, Kunal Nayyar (Raj from The Big Bang Theory) does just that. Employing a charming, self-deprecating tone, he writes that he’s too young for a memoir, so these anecdotes are merely stories from his life—humorous, insightful, heartfelt, and heartwarming autobiographical essays. Although he writes about acting, he focuses on his journey from one culture to another and the importance of taking the best from each. On a more serious note, Ta-Nehesi Coates makes his personal story universal in Between the World and Me, his highly acclaimed and award-winning memoir. In this eloquent and powerful open letter to his son, Coates explores what it means to be black and male in America.
Not all multicultural memoirs reflect experiences in American society; some explore Americans (and others) abroad, fitting into equally diverse cultures and adapting to the ways of their new countries. Peter Mayle (A Year in Provence) and Frances Mayes (Under the Tuscan Sun) have penned charming, lighthearted looks at living abroad, as have Julia Child (My Life in France) and Alan Paul (Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing). In I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty Years Away, Bill Bryson reflects, in his inimitable and humorous fashion, on some of the same issues new immigrants face.
Memoirs can also act as gateways to novels and other writings by memoir writers—and vice versa. It’s an easy step to move readers, even reluctant memoir readers like me, back and forth between fiction and nonfiction with such authors as Gary Shteyngart, Isabel Allende, and Sandra Cisneros, all writers who fill their novels with multicultural and personal references. And don’t forget memoirs are as hot on audio as they are in print. Audio adds another level of authenticity and intimacy, especially when read by the authors in their distinctive accents and cadences. Among the audio reviews in this issue, you’ll find three intriguing multicultural memoirs, all read by their authors.
Multicultural memoirs open the window on traditions and stories, whether they celebrate our own roots or introduce us to the heritage of others. They inspire respect for diversity and make us comfortable with customs not our own and people we may never meet. In her recent memoir, A House of My Own, Cisneros writes of the obligation shared by authors with roots in more than one culture: “For those of us living between two worlds, our job in the universe is to help others see with more than their eyes. . . . Our work as bicultural citizens is to help others to become visionary, to help us all to examine our dilemmas in multiple ways and arrive at creative solutions. Otherwise we all will perish.”
Our job in libraries is to make available materials that expand our understanding and acceptance of diversity, adding appropriate titles to all displays or highlighting them on their own. Reading and suggesting multicultural literature make us all citizens of the world, without leaving our armchairs.
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