Tag Archives: autobiography

Always Another Country

Memoir about belonging and growing up in exile

Quite some time ago, I was running late to an author event. It was being held at the Australian National University, but in a theatre that was quite far away from the entry to the campus. I’d raced over after work and tried to sneak quietly into the back to find…an empty theatre. I was a day early. Anyway, I returned the following evening and saw the author give an incredibly articulate and compelling talk about her life growing up in exile. Afterwards, I bought a copy of the book and had it signed, but it wasn’t until now that I managed to pick it up to read it.

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I found this old Virgin Australia ticket and couldn’t help myself

“Always Another Country” by Sisonke Msimang is a memoir about growing up outside your own homeland. The daughter of South African freedom fighters, Sisonke is born in Zambia and spends years there with her two sisters before the family moves to first to Kenya, then Canada. After a brief visit to South Africa after Nelson Mandela is freed and the end of Apartheid begins, Sisonke moves to the USA to start university. There, she makes new connections, develops her political views and falls in love – three things that have a profound effect on her life. When she returns to South Africa emotionally fragile, she reconnects with her family and begins to develop her career. However, this is the first time Sisonke has really called South Africa her home and she is faced not only with the nation’s Apartheid hangover, but with the gulf between the idealised vision for South Africa and the reality playing out.

This is an important book that provides a unique perspective on South Africa’s political transition. The child of freedom fighters but growing up outside South Africa, Msimang has the perfect balance of lived experience and objectivity to provide what reads like a very unbiased social commentary. I felt that I learned a lot about South Africa from this book, in particular the hard work that went in to dismantling Apartheid – often work that was happening outside the country’s own borders. In between reflections on how South Africa’s political situation impacted her and her family, Msimang also provides insights into how living as a third culture kid provided her with particular strengths and vulnerabilities that she had to grapple with as an adult.

I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog that memoir is a genre that I have difficulty with with. While I continue to believe that this genre is critical to ensuring that more diverse voices and stories are heard, ultimately memoir is the curated highlights (and lowlights) of a person’s life, arranged to highlight a particular issue or point of view. In this book, I felt that Msimang went into great detail about some things such as her relationship with Jason, her experiences in Canada and her friendships in the USA, but skated over some of the parts that I was much more interested in: visiting South Africa for the first time, her ongoing relationship with her South African relatives that she only met in her late teens and the day to day of living in the country post-Apartheid. While Msimang provided glimmers of these parts, I felt that these were the strongest parts of the book and really exemplified Msimang’s struggle with reconciling her birthright as a South African with her own developing values.

A necessary memoir that explores South African identity, citizenship and nationhood that I wished had a little more South Africa in it.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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How to be a Medieval Woman

Believed by some to be the first autobiography

Content warning: mental health, religion

This book was posted to me by an old friend who has a passion for classic literature in the Western canon. Now, because I was trying to get through my reading goal for 2019, and it was a reasonably short book, I brought it down with a few others over Christmas (yes, I am that far behind in my reviews). Now, a relatively recent by great tradition at my family’s Christmas is Dirty Santa. Basically, everyone wraps a cheap gift, you draw numbers from a hat, and in numerical order choose either to unwrap a gift or steal someone else’s unwrapped gift. Anyway, I had been very poorly prepared, so I decided I would wrap a book. Unfortunately, after a bit of confusion at home, someone kindly wrapped the book I hadn’t finished reading yet, and I had to quickly duck home and make the switch. When I returned, we played the game, and Grandma, who knew that I had been reluctant to wrap a book, had a concocted a devious ploy to make sure she chose it so she could give it to me afterwards. However, she didn’t realise that I had swapped books, so it was pretty hilarious when she unwrapped this one. Anyway, this review is dedicated to you, Grandma, and thank you for taking the photos.

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“How to be a Medieval Woman” or “The Book of Margery Kempe” by Margery Kempe is an autobiography believed to have been dictated to two separate scribes in the 1400s as Kempe was herself illiterate. The book describes Kempe’s life, and begins with her experiencing a significant crisis following the birth of her first child where she experiences depression and visions of demons and Jesus Christ. When she recovers, she starts some businesses and when they don’t succeed, grapples with sexual temptation and her desire to be a devout Christian. As the years go by, Margery grows more and more religious and continues to see visions. After convincing her husband to agree to celibacy, she undertakes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where she visits sites of spiritual and historical significance.

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This is a strange story that has two primary interpretations: one is that Margery is a mystic, a woman who receives messages from god, and the other is that Margery had some type of mental illness. Now although I am certainly not a psychologist, but Margery appears to experience a mental health episode after she gives birth the first time, and throughout the book refers to voices and visions which could well be hallucinations. Margery also appears to have difficulty maintaining relationships, observing that people around her tend to grow to dislike her, and to have difficulty regulating her emotions, though she sees her tears as a divine sign. Regardless of the interpretation, or the general likeability of Margery, it was nevertheless very impressive that she took herself on a pilgrimage to see a part of the world that intrigued her given the times. Maybe there is a third interpretation: that she was sick of being a wife and mother and wanted to go explore the world on her own terms.

I have to say, despite it being such an unusual story, it wasn’t a particularly easy one to read. It is told in the third person, and Margery is herself referred to as “the creature”. I think the tension in reading the book – whether Margery’s experiences are legitimate religious experiences or symptoms of a mental illness – is mirrored in Margery’s own experiences. Everywhere she goes, people doubt the legitimacy of her visions and experiences in the same way the reader does. In fact, a lot of the story is taken up with Margery crying, being abandoned by companions, annoying the locals and being asked to leave or threatened with legal action. Ultimately Margery speaks convincingly enough about her faith and she is allowed to move on.

Not necessarily gripping read, and perplexing and frustrating at many points, but certainly an insightful snapshot into the life of a medieval woman.

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Persepolis

This is a book that I have been meaning to buy for a long, long time. I’m a pretty big fan of graphic novels in most genres, but I really enjoy the perspective that you get from non-fiction graphic novel and this one is meant to be one of the best. I finally picked up a copy with a gift card I got for my birthday this year.

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“Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi is a graphic autobiography about Marji’s experiences growing up in Iran during and after the Islamic Revolution. Marji’s parents, politically active and reasonably well-to-do, protest tirelessly against the regime of the last Iranian monarch, the Shah. However, when fundamentalists seize power, Marji’s family publicly acquiesce to the new and frequently changing laws while they watch friends and family around them suffer under the brutal new regime. Living an educated and liberal life at home, but forced to wear a veil and be submissive in public, Marji starts to chafe against the double life she lives. Her parents decide to send her overseas to live and continue her education in Austria. However, when she arrives, Marji’s expectations and the reality of a new country and culture seem worlds apart.

This is a fascinating take on a part of recent history that before reading this, I knew nothing about. The black and white artwork is very understated which allows the dialogue and the narration to take the forefront of the story. However, Satrapi’s creativity really shines through when young Marji is imagining the things that she doesn’t always see herself but hears about from her family, the news and her friends. I thought another particular strength was the way that Satrapi depicted Marji’s deteriorating mental and physical health during here time in Austria, and the overwhelming challenges of navigating another country as a teenager with no support.

I think probably the only thing that was a bit challenging as a reader of this book is that unlike most graphic novels, this one takes much longer to read. Part of that is the complex and heavy subject matter, but part of it is that the subtly of the artwork is quite demanding and the images are a bit hard to distinguish between sometimes. This means that it takes a lot of concentration to interpret what is going on in each page.

This is a challenging but incredibly important graphic novel, and if you would like to learn more about the diverse history of Iran, this is a really great place to begin.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Graphic Novels, Non Fiction