4 Must-Read Memoirs Recommended by 4 Bookstagrammers

 ‘The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts’, by Maxine Hong Kingston – recommended by @dpalessandra

Chinese American writer Maxine Hong Kingston is one of the most prominent voices in contemporary American literature.

A daughter of the first generation of Chinese immigrants in the United States, Kingston has written a number of novels and non-fictional works in which she tells the experiences and difficulties ethnic minorities have to face when confronted with a “host” culture and society.

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, published in 1976, is a peculiar and controversial literary production, one that blends autobiography with old Chinese folktales. Even though scholars have questioned Kingston’s writings’ accuracy and authenticity regarding Chinese traditions, the book is still considered a turning point in Chinese American literature.

The book is divided into five chapters that can also be read as short stories. Kingston narrates the tale of Fa Mu-Lan, a Chinese woman who took her father place in battle, disguising herself as a man. The traditional folktale, alongside others, is used as a comparative case to analyse Kingston’s own life growing up in America, as well as the lives of the women in her family. Kingston is aware of the sacrifices, humiliations and discriminations that both her mother and her aunt had to face in order to create a new life in the United States. In this sense, the author introduces resilient female characters who are able to subvert, even if only implicitly, the gender and social roles on which the patriarchal system is based.

Kingston also represents the difficulties of adjusting to a new cultural reality, underlining her mother’s incapacity to understand and accept American traditions and modes of life, so different from the Chinese ones. Her mother’s behaviour and strong personality affect the construction of Kingston’s own identity as a young woman, causing her to feel culturally displaced and invisible within the social and familial contexts. However, once Kingston rediscovers her own cultural roots, she will also be able to let her womanhood blossom fully into a true Woman Warrior.

The major themes of the book are the relationship between mother and daughter, as well as the relations between past and present; the figure of the migrant, alongside concepts of cultural assimilation and hybridity, is central to the development of the storyline, which blends facts and fictional elements; the autobiography can also be read as a pivotal work for the field of gender studies, as it questions the situation of Chinese women within their own society and as part of an ethnic minority group.

A controversial memoir, Kingston’s work is a true milestone of Chinese American literature, one that you don’t want to miss!

‘Assata: An Autobiography’, by Assata Shakur, recommended by @thatothernigeriangirl

I read ‘Assata: An autobiography’ in April because it was the first pick for ‘Because We’ve Read’ book club created by Hoda Khatebi. It’s not the type of book I’d have selected at that time but it paved the way for my intense interest in that genre now.
In order to ensure this review portrays what I really felt while reading this book, I had to go back to my Instagram highlights. My first impression was how, unlike most autobiographies, this wasn’t a long boring story about how Assata’s life as an activist led to her exile from the US. She managed to insert, at every corner, lessons that not only revolve around the fight against racism, but the importance of intersectional feminism, the evils of colourism in Africa, apartheid in South Africa, effects of colonisation on the African continent, even beauty standards, and the ill treatment of Native Americans.
Assata is a pinnacle of a strong black female activist and this book gives you immense insights into her train of thought, and best believe you won’t come away from it the same. Although there are several parts of this book that will stay with you, I’ll leave you with this introspective sentence:

“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who are oppressing them”.

‘Born a Crime’, by Trevor Noah, recommended by @shereadsox 

‘Born a Crime’ by Trevor Noah is a memoir everyone must read at least once in their life. I have personally had a blast reading this book and I am sure others have, too. Trevor Noah recounts his childhood as a ‘coloured’ child in South Africa balancing between funny anecdotes, thorough explanations of the apartheid, and sometimes both combined. He tells us about his life but most importantly he tells us about his mother, who, in order to have someone who loves her, defied the system and went against it: she had a child with a white man and thus committed a crime. That’s how powerful his mother is, and somehow, Noah’s memoir is about his mother: Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. A woman I highly admire because she defied all the rules and laws that did not make sense to her, because of the relationship she had with God, because of the education she gave him: he is indeed the Son of Patricia.

Every single topic he touches upon in his memoir is dealt with using a humorous approach, however, this approach does not equal taking these topics lightly. It is quite the contrary. It only highlights the importance of these subjects, and makes them easier to understand. From being a ‘coloured’ child identifying as black but seen as white by other black children, the power of languages, to him constantly questioning everything and everyone around him (even his mother!). ‘Born a Crime’ is a tragi-comic memoir you’ll definitely want to read!

Tip to enjoy this memoir even more: listen to the audiobook!

‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama, recommended by @literandra_

Where do you start with a book that has been highly anticipated, widely read, continuously reviewed, and extremely hyped? Well, I guess you start by stating your personal opinion and why: I was very skeptical of this book, actually, I did not even want to buy it and wait until the hype dies down. The bookworm in me, however, got carried away. I bought the book on the day it was published and even got the audiobook.  I let Michelle Obama read her own story to me and  thoroughly enjoyed it.

It is an open account of her life, mostly free from political name-dropping or stereotypes, it has some juicy insights into life at the White House, some funny anecdotes, and lots of points to think about in the wider sense: What does it mean to be a woman and black and working class in America? What does it mean to be successful in your job, have multiple degrees form Ivy Leave universities, and still struggle to find your place in the world. What does it mean to be ‘the first’ in most things in your life? What does it mean to be married to the first black President of the United States, and, at the same time, to be the first black First Lady?

I disagreed with Michelle Obama on several things, but I generally enjoyed the narrative, and have gained new respect for her as a person, a mother, a lawyer, and First Lady. If I had to sum the book up, I’d say it’s a memoir that is meant to encourage other people, especially black women, to keep believing in the ‘American Dream’, while acknowledging the obvious challenges that one faces in this pursuit.