The Art of the Memoir

Three memoir authors join Farai Chideya to talk about the craft of writing your own story. Dominick Carter is author of No Momma's Boy. Kym Ragusa memoir is titled The Skin Between Us, and Thulani Davis put her family history down in My Confederate Kinfolk.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

It's one thing to write fiction. It's another thing to translate the story of your own life. How do you navigate through the pain and bias of personal experience to find a truth that's both personal and universal?

Continuing our series on the black literary imagination, we turn to three writers who've taken on the unique challenges of the memoir. Kym Ragusa's book "The Skin Between Us" explores her attempts to negotiate the different worlds of her mother and father, one African-American, the other, Italian-American. Dominic Carter's memoir "No Momma's Boy" mines painful memories of his mother's mental illness and the abuse he suffered because of it. Also with us, Thulani Davis, her memoir "My Confederate Kinfolk" documents her search for the truth about her Southern white ancestors.

Welcome, everyone.

Ms. KYM RAGUSA (Author, "The Skin Between Us"): Thank you.

Ms. THULANI DAVIS (Author, "My Confederate Kinfolk"): Thank you.

Mr. DOMINIC CARTER (Author, "No Momma's Boy"): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So Thulani, why is the memoir such a big part of the publishing world? And what motivated you to do yours?

Ms. DAVIS: I'm not sure why it's such a big part of the publishing world, except that I think human beings have always been fascinated with how people tell their own stories. And I think that's just more true than ever now. I hadn't intended to write one. I started out writing a novel and I was doing the research for that, and I got so fascinated with the people I found that I thought maybe I would do this first.

CHIDEYA: So Kym, let me turn to you. What's the difference, in your mind, between the memoir and the biography?

Ms. RAGUSA: The biography or the autobiography or...

CHIDEYA: Yes, the autobiography.

Ms. RAGUSA: Okay. I would say that the autobiography is a kind of story of great lives and great achievements, and it starts from the beginning of a person's life and it kind of moves through that life toward the achievements that person has had, and it's kind of a looking back at the life. And memoir, I think, is much more intimate and it's much more a story of - as an event or a series of events or themes in a person's life, and trying to make sense of those themes and events. And I'd say you could write a number of memoirs in a lifetime, but maybe one autobiography.

CHIDEYA: Well, Kym, your book reads with the literary texture of a novel. Thulani, yours is extensively historically researched. And Dominic, your book has a strong cautionary aspect to it. You each seemed to write in a different form. Dominic, why did you write in the form that you did? And was it a conscious decision?

Mr. CARTER: It was a very conscious decision for me, Farai, in terms of - and it was very difficult because I was going back over my entire life in terms of - as a child, I was trying to write the book as an adult, but also from the perspective of a child - because the fact of the matter is, in my memoir, I was sexually abused by my mother and it was - and very important to me that one, as I went back over everything, of course, it had to be factual. But I had to be able to tell the story in terms of how I saw it as a 7-year-old child. And believe it or not, I still remember the pain from being sexually abused as far as an emotional pain from my mom.

CHIDEYA: Dominic, we're going to ask all of you to read us a short bit of your memoir. But, Dominic, can you start us out?

Mr. CARTER: Sure. And I hope the audience doesn't find this offensive. But this is my life in terms of - it's the end of chapter one. I'm 7 years old, young man, grew up in New York City, and I was just sexually abused by the woman that gave me birth, my mentally ill mother. And it starts this way, the end of chapter one, page 46.

(Reading) Over the years, I often worried asking myself, will I be a freak of nature? Will I ever even want a woman? Who can I tell about this awful stuff? I was years away from puberty, yet to this point, life had handed me one bad card after another. I was conceived in a closet, reared in a ghetto, humbled by poverty, abandoned by my father, and neglected, beaten and sexually abused by my mother, the one person who was supposed to be my biggest protector. When I should have been learning my ABCs, I was instead learning how not to make my mother mad and how to tiptoe around her temper.

And here's the final short paragraph.

(Reading) I've heard it said that children are free-spirited, but I don't remember ever being free when I was young. My mind and my heart carried a heavy burden as far back as I can remember. As a child, I carried the pain of an adult, and as an adult, I carried the pain of a child.

CHIDEYA: Now, Dominic, we've had you on before about this, but did you have to forgive before you wrote something like this?

Mr. CARTER: Yes. And Farai, I will answer your question. But I - whenever I come on your show - I'm sorry, I just have to make it clear that I am a huge fan of your work, and I am so thankful for what you do in terms of educating Americans, and in particular, people of color. We have to acknowledge...

CHIDEYA: Oh, thanks.

Mr. CARTER: ...and appreciate the great work that you do as a journalist -perspective. Going back to my mom, I started writing the story, and initially, I did not put in the sexual abuse. And it was only after I received more than 600 pages of her mental records, in which I realized, at the age of 16, my mother was in straitjackets and receiving electrical shock that I decided that I wanted to tell my entire story, and I did have to forgive her. And I feel for the first time in my life that I'm actually free. And the book has aided me in that process of my soul, finally, after all these years of having a deep, dark secret and never revealing it to someone, being free.

CHIDEYA: Now Thulani, what do you think about that same question of forgiveness?

Ms. DAVIS: I think writing actually forces you to forgive people. It's very hard to write without a sense of love, a sense of compassion, even for characters that - in a fiction work that start out to be the bad people. It's like, ultimately, you have to come to understand people to be able to write about them, and that opens up your heart.

CHIDEYA: Can you read us a little snippet of your book, which, again, was very deeply researched as well as personal?

Ms. DAVIS: Sure.

(Reading) When my grandmother, Georgia Campbell Neal, died in 1971, she had started writing a book. At the time, we thought she was about 85 years old, though it was well known that she was apt to lie about her age. She was more likely 94. She was writing the story of her parents, Mississippi cotton farmers - one black, one white - who met near Yazoo City, Mississippi, in the 1870s. She began the few pages she wrote with a sunny image of her mother, Chloe Tarrant Curry, and Chloe's husband, James Curry, both former slaves leaving Alabama.

It was near train time. Chloe, a buxom, brown, comely woman of 25 and her tall, lean husband, Jim, were feverishly getting their bags and baskets together to go to Mississippi, a place where they were told money could be made easily and honestly. They were leaving their four children with their father - with her father. She promised when she settled in this rich country, she would buy a home for them. The distance they had to travel was about 250 miles. But to them, it seemed far, far away because it took days and they had never left a plantation in Alabama.

CHIDEYA: So what did you learn from this research? And how long did it take you to write this book?

Ms. DAVIS: The research took me three years and the writing maybe a year. I used to research late at night while working at the Village Voice or waiting for my writers to turn in their copy. And I stayed on the Internet a lot. And the research was like a black hole that sucked me in. I just got so fascinated with what happened to people during the Civil War. And so I kept going and going, and I really - I found out, I guess, first of all, that I knew nothing about my mother, and no one in my family knew anything about her. And it - that made it very hard. It's hard enough to find your ancestors who were slaves. But in a way, I didn't know where to begin other than with my grandmother, who I knew, but I did not know, for instance, that she - where she was from in Mississippi. So I would say I learned so much. I found 500 people I'm related to that I've never heard of.

CHIDEYA: Wow.

Ms. DAVIS: So it was quite an adventure.

CHIDEYA: And Kym, you set out on a personal journey. I understand you were involved with an anti-racist group, trying to work out problems between the Italian and black community. So when did that activism turn into a search that you wanted to put on the page?

Ms. RAGUSA: I think that it was a convergence of the activism and coming to understand my own story and coming to peace with my own story. And once that convergence happened, then I felt like I needed to get the story out in public. And to really have this story of these two communities be an alternative to the news reports of the violence and the tension, something that was another kind of story.

CHIDEYA: Can you read us a little bit?

Ms. RAGUSA: Sure.

(Reading) I don't know where I was conceived, but I was made in Harlem. Its topography is mapped on my body: the borderlines between neighborhoods marked by streets that were forbidden to cross, the borderlines enforced by fear and anger, and transgressed by desire. The streets crossing east to west, north to south, like the web of veins beneath my skin.

CHIDEYA: Now, when you are writing, you have this very lyrical style and we're really inside your head, how much - and this is a question I want to toss to everyone, but Kym first - how much do you have to know to do things like dialogue? Obviously, when you were a little kid, you weren't actually writing things down and you don't do a lot of sort of retrospective dialogue. But for things like that, how much of a leap of faith do you have to take in your own writing?

Ms. RAGUSA: I think the thing about dialogue in memoir is that it's really representative. And it can never be the exact words or the exact context, the exact moment that the words happened. And so it really is an act of imagination to think about the flavor of the words, the color of the words, and how those words hit the listener, how those words hit the writer at the time. So it's sort of the emotional resonance of the words for me. And that's why I didn't do a lot of lengthy dialogue. I did sentences here and there, or kind of snippets of dialogue almost like the way I remembered it. I remember kind of voices speaking certain things, and I wanted to get that kind of lyrical sense of memory.

CHIDEYA: Thulani, let me move to you. How did you approach it?

Ms. DAVIS: I felt a little nervous about it because, as a journalist, I thought I needed to be scrupulous by - about saying, I think this might have happened this way. And - but to release that voice in myself, particularly at the end when I'm trying to imagine how a woman who had spent the earliest part of her life - or the first 15, 20 years in slavery, how she would feel owning her own land and standing there free, I really had to just say, I see her this way, I imagined her this way, to release some of the texture that I experienced from being in Mississippi and what it looks like to look out on that cotton field, and what it's like to walk in the mud of - in between the rows of cotton, that kind of thing. So I had to sort of give myself permission.

CHIDEYA: Dominic, we just have a little bit of time left. You are - and thank you for the compliment - a fabulous journalist. How did you approach that question?

Mr. CARTER: Well, for me, with the restraint of time that we have to deal with now, I tried not to deal with actual dialogue unless I knew it was factual. As a journalist, that was the top priority for me, that it had to be factual. The good news for me, in terms of a very bad, negative story in terms of my life, is I received, I would say, about 3,000 pages from mental institutions around the country on my mother. So that was able to help me piece everything together and make sure that it was factual.

CHIDEYA: Well, I want to thank all you guys. And again, we've been speaking to Dominic Carter, author of "No Momma's Boy: How I Let Go of My Past and Embraced the Future," coming from WAMC in Albany, New York, and also with Kym Ragusa, author of "The Skin Between Us," and Thulani Davis, author of "My Confederate Kinfolk" from our NPR New York studios.

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