Saturday, March 24, 2012

Craft: Structure & Meaning in Memoir

The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines memoir as:

A narrative recollection of the writer's earlier experiences, especially those involving unusual people, places, or events. A memoir is commonly distinguished from an autobiography by its greater emphasis on other people or upon events ...and sometimes by its more episodic structure, which does not need to be tied to the personal development of the narrator.

I'd like to expand on this description of memoir by looking at the structure of my own.

The Promise of Iceland is, in something like the way the definition suggests, as much about 'other people and events' as it is about me. Specifically, I wanted to write about Iceland and my parents, even if I did so through myself, that is, even if my imagining of Iceland was the link between my parents and the country where they met.

I also wanted to write on the theme of home. While the book is by nature more narrative than it is argument, and so couldn't in any sense be called an extended personal essay, I nevertheless hoped that the broader questions behind the work would be clear to readers and would frame the personal within the universal: how do we conceive of home, and what role do our parents play in our conception of home as a place or as an idea?

One way of attempting a broader framing is through structure, a technique that can be used as an alternative to the episodic or theme-based approach of memoirs that function more clearly as personal essays, such as for instance The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, a book that I love and that I teach in one of my undergraduate courses. Didion tells the reader in explicit terms what it is that she's trying to work out - how is our thinking affected by grief - and then comes at the question from a number of angles, each of which is given a chapter that, in a subtle way, marks the progress of her first year of loss.

Yet there is implicit meaning in the Didion as well, in particular around a barely acknowledged dialogue that she is having with her deceased husband John, as part of the progress of writing the book. The first fifty pages or so deal not only with the link between the ordinary and the suddenness of change, but also perform that very change in the structure of the narrative: on the first page we are told of John's death, and so are quite prepared for it, and yet by the end of the first section we're also shocked, as though, like Didion, we didn't really think it could happen, or even has happened. That is, the form not only reflects but in a sense enacts the content.

Given chronologically, the main events in The Promise of Iceland run as follows:

1941: My mother's birth    
1951: My mother's family moves from England to Australia, and then back to England
1956: The family moves to Australia a second time
1957: My mother's parents separate
1961: My mother marries Ed
1969: My mother and Ed separate
1970/71: My mother moves to Iceland and meets my father
1971: My mother falls pregnant; the father is married and she promises not to reveal his identity
1972: I am born, in Iceland
1977: My mother and I move to Sydney
1979: We move back to Iceland and I meet my father for the first time
1982: We move to England, where I attend boarding school
1986: We move to Brisbane, where I finish school
1990: I visit Iceland and, at my father's request, promise that I will also keep safe the secret of his identity
1990-1999: University years, during which I begin a PhD in Icelandic Literature
1999: I visit Iceland and decide to break the promise I made nine years earlier, and so meet my siblings for the first time
2001: I visit Iceland for six months and decide I would like to live there again
2004: I marry and move to Iceland with my wife
2006: Our first child, Finnur, is born in Iceland
2007: We return to Brisbane
2010: My last visit to Iceland, for a family wedding
2011: My father dies

In structuring this story for meaning, I hoped to relate my experiences to a number of ideas:

  • returning to place as returning to the past,
  • family stories as patterns, and home as a kind of story, 
  • the idea of home as related to notions of origin and parenting.

The result was the following order of events:

Click to enlarge

Thus, the memoir begins with a Prologue set in 1990 when, aged 17, I meet my father and repeat a promise that my mother had made nearly twenty years before, not to reveal his identity. The story then moves to 1977, or to the first point when my mother and I have, in a sense, an equal share in the story. So, while being a big jump back in time, I hope it is a natural step in the story established in the Prologue, that is, on the topic of the shared nature of a promise we made to my father. 

After the idea of the promise has been established, both in terms of my own decision as a seventeen year old and in terms how my decision was influenced by my mother, the story moves back further still, to 1941 and my mother's childhood and early life in England and Australia. From there, it narrates how after her marriage to Ed ended she found herself in Iceland, and how she met my father there . Naturally, my intention at this point was to try to catch a full sense of who she was when she fell in love and then fell pregnant. This, I felt, was the necessary context for her decision to protect my father, and my subsequent decision to do so as well.

Chapter 4, 'Paper Run', reintroduces my part as the central strand: I return to the story as a young boy visiting my father. Chapter 5 returns to my mother's story, to 1972 when she gave birth to me. The aim so far has been to link our stories, and through interweaving bring up ideas around the theme of inheritance: secrets, family promises, and a complicated sense of home.

A straight chronological order from chapter 6 onwards reflects that the story is now located almost entirely in my experiences rather than in the drawing of parallels. That is, memoir now moves backwards and forwards along a theme of physical return to Iceland as a way of thinking about our returns to the past. 

The climax of that process comes in September 1999, which is why four chapters are spent in the company of that month. An extended narrative of the outcome of that visit to Iceland occupies chapters 16-20, and culminates in the birth my oldest son, Finnur. The work ends in 2011, with the deaths of my father and my mother's husband Ed. These events, along with my most recent journey to Iceland in July 2010, are given as a closing bracket to the left parenthesis of the Prologue. 

A wider perspective might reveal the following tripartite structure, again bracketed by the Prologue (1990) and the Coda 'Ashes' (2011): 

A) My mother's journey to Iceland (1941-1972) and my childhood and youth (1972-1990) up to the point where we again meet the events of Prologue (1990), when I made the promise to my father;
b) My life after I made the promise until the point when I decided to break it (1990-1999); and
c) Returns I made to Iceland after I'd broken the promise (2000-2010).

In this description of the memoir, the movement in the narrative is essentially one that alternates between  childhood and parenthood, and how these two roles connect around the idea of home. Just as we can choose to become parents - and after which point we're never really our parents' children in quite the same way - so too at some point we must make our own decision about home. Claiming home, and the sense of belonging that comes with it, is part of a  a more mature conception of our parents, one which brings with it a new kind of curiosity about them and, of course, their stories.

Click to enlarge