“Native Country of the Heart” — Cherrie Moraga

“The Shortlist” column in this past Sunday’s New York Times Book Review section concentrated on a quartet of family memoirs: “The Known, the Secret, the Forgotten” by Joan Wheeler (Norton); “Lost without the River” by Barbara Hofbeck Scoblic (She Writes Press); “The Donigers of Great Neck: A Mythologized Memoir” by Wendy Doniger (Brandeis University); and “Native Country of the Heart” by Cherrie Moraga (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The reviewer least enjoyed Scoblic’s “oral-history-turned chronicle” of the author’s family; while the depictions of rural life in South Dakota have “charm,” the final sentence of Hoffman’s assessment suggests a petulant weariness awaits any potential reader: “Those who aren’t kin might feel they’ve already stayed too long at the reunion.” Perhaps the length of the book contributed to the reviewer’s grouchy impatience to get back to his own life; the book is the longest of the four under consideration. Nevertheless, I am eager to take a look at Scoblic’s sketches of the upper midwest. I wish the reviewer had remembered that having “kinship” to this environment is not restricted to a matter of birthplace.

Doniger’s memoir suggests that even though a memoir is very different from an autobiography, in that the former concentrates on one central trope or theme while the latter embraces the entire trajectory of one’s life, both are dependent on recitation. The memories are not spontaneous, but have been carefully rehearsed. “My story exists along a continuum from the factual to the mythological. We do not remember the past; we remember our memories of the past.” The reviewer’s attraction to this theory of self-portraiture is understandable; it is, after all, our memories of other people’s lives that give a memoir or autobiography a profound three-dimensionality. (One definition that I have long offered to students is that an interesting autobiography is little more than interwoven biographies of the narrator’s most intense relationships. In fact, an autobiography could contain relatively little direct detail about the author’s feelings, and still be a compelling, intimate self-portrait, if it is honest about the impact of the lives on others on the author.) Of the two books set in California, I have only read Moraga’s, in part because I have admired her writing ever since I met her in the mid-1970s. Her first published poem appeared in an issue of RARA AVIS magazine, in which I also had a poem. Indeed, her play “Shadow of a Man” is one of my favorite works to include on a syllabus. I wish I could have taught it more often, but that is the problem with teaching both creative writing and literature on the undergraduate and graduate level.

Moraga gave the Helena Maria Viramontes Lecture several weeks ago at CSU Long Beach, and in the course of talking about her memoir, she asked the audience to consider a question that is not that easy to answer: “How do we decolonize ourselves?” My initial response was that any process that begins with a recitation of a memory is a false start. Moraga’s “Native Country” avoids that particular cul-de-sac by embedding her family’s entanglements with race, class, and cultural identity within the extraordinary uncertainty of her own setting off into a literary life. Each page of her book retains a touch of that distant impetuosity. If you should feel discouraged at your prospects, set aside your travails for the moment, and recover your balance by listening to Moraga’s passionate wisdom.