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STARRED REVIEW

3 memoirs to provoke reflection

Chelsea Devantez, Cory Leadbeater and KB Brookins share powerful personal experiences that are sure to inspire this summer.
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As Texas threatens LGBTQ+ people with draconian laws, KB Brookins’ memoir, Pretty, is an act of resistance against those who would silence trans writers.

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Chelsea Devantez, Cory Leadbeater and KB Brookins share powerful personal experiences that are sure to inspire this summer.

As the Texas legislature attempts to ban books; dismantle diversity, equity and inclusion; and threaten LGBTQ+ people with draconian laws, poet and author KB Brookins’ debut memoir, Pretty, arrives when we need it most. Brookins is a Black, queer and trans writer and cultural worker whose previous work includes two poetry collections, Freedom House and How to Identify Yourself With a Wound. Pretty details their experience navigating gender and Black masculinity while growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, exploring how they have moved through a world of cisgender Black and non-Black people, from their biological parents to their adopted family, from classmates to lovers, and from their gender transition through adulthood.

Brookins spent their youth challenging binary spaces and expectations. From early childhood to the present, they have desired to be seen as pretty, and this book is the search to find out what that means for them: “Though not gendered, we often associate prettiness with womanhood, femininity, and objects we see as dainty,” they write. “I’ve never been interested in womanhood, but I’ve always wanted to be treated softly, like a fat pleasantry to the eyes.” Through often striking prose and imagery, Brookins questions the restrictions involved in those associations: “When I was femme, my prettiness was canceled out by Blackness. When I was butch, my prettiness was seen as invalidating my masculinity. Who taught us that masculinity can’t be pretty? Who taught us that Blackness was devoid of prettiness and delicacy?”

While Brookins searches for answers to these questions, they continuously remind us of how hostile the U.S. is to Black and trans people: “As the perception of me changes before my eyes, I realize that it is a specific sadness—embodying patriarchal masculinity in a country that wants your blood more than it wants you to breathe.” We need words and stories like this. By describing their movement through the world, Brookins simultaneously critiques the conditions that oppress Black and racialized people who seek radical self-acceptance, and refuses the state’s malicious attempts to criminalize gender and sexuality.

Pretty offers far more than just pretty words—Brookins tells their side of the story as an act of resistance against those who would silence them. This book is as much a story of self-discovery and survival as it is a love letter to their younger and current self.

As Texas threatens LGBTQ+ people with draconian laws, KB Brookins’ memoir, Pretty, is an act of resistance against those who would silence trans writers.

In a time of rising anti-Asian hate and a renewal of anti-Black racism, Black and brown solidarity is of critical importance. Political pundits and activists alike have emphasized the urgency of financial, political and even ecological unity among these various ethnic and cultural groups. But in The Way You Make Me Feel: Love in Black and Brown, Nina Sharma calls for another type of Afro-Asian solidarity. In 16 bold, rich essays, Sharma unfurls the chronicle of her love affair with a Black man named Quincy. (Some readers will immediately recognize the dreadlocked man as Quincy Scott Jones, author of poetry collection The T-Bone Series.) Here, we journey to the center of a love story that is as much about romance as it is about Sharma’s Indian identity and wrestling with anti-Blackness.

Sharma adds color and nuance to her essays by braiding TV reviews with cultural commentary and memoir. In the powerful “Not Dead,” she discusses her experience watching “The Walking Dead” and analyzes one particular episode—the one in which the only Asian character in the series, a Korean American father-to-be named Glenn, is killed. She writes of her emotional journey following that episode, how she struggled to eat the meal Quincy lovingly made: “Our Sunday ritual. It wasn’t that my hunger was gone. I’d just had enough.” The episode made her think about another murdered Asian American man, real-life Vincent Chin, who was bludgeoned to death in Detroit in 1982. With grace and grit, she enters the narratives of these two individuals, and uses them to consider her own mortality as a South Asian American. 

But in the main, this is a book about love. Sharma shows us that she’s got range, moving seamlessly from a discussion about racism on a national scale to making out with Quincy, for example. Readers will appreciate Sharma’s diaristic recounting of their lovers’ spats and her reflections on the central tension in their relationship: that in the American caste system, a Black man and Indian woman simply do not fit any accepted narrative. 

With writing that is at once humorous and profound, The Way You Make Me Feel confronts the paradoxical realities of race and the family, and calls for greater solidarity by way of love. 

With writing that is at once humorous and profound, Nina Sharma’s memoir unfurls the chronicle of her love affair and calls for greater unity among Asian and Black Americans.

Julian Randall’s The Dead Don’t Need Reminding: In Search of Fugitives, Mississippi, and Black TV Nerd Shit is a dazzling ghost story that braids intimate narratives with cultural commentary to explore the author’s own past, present and future.

Randall, a Chicago-born poet and author, opens The Dead Don’t Need Reminding in Oxford, Mississippi, where he is attending an M.F.A. program. There, living in the South for the first time in his life, he reflects on the origins of plantation-style architecture in the university’s modern-day fraternity houses and endures violent encounters with racists. He seeks out the history of his Southern-born great-grandfather who “fled his home under threat of tar and feather.” Throughout, he riffs on Miles Morales, Jordan Peele, “BoJack Horseman” and many more cultural touchstones to tell stories of his lineage, of himself and of the places that shaped his family. 

These are the “stories that shape us. The stories we turn to out of scarcity, the cousins we make out of characters.” While there are tender notes in his writing, Randall never avoids the violence of our American history and present, writing that “white supremacy is a death cult, a religion for the feral.” And, “America is a gaping mouth with an insatiable appetite for Black suffering, Black labor, Black cool, Black flex, Black silence, Black death.”

This is a story not just about a Black man surviving a visit to the Deep South, but about him staying alive long enough to learn where he came from. Our narrator invites us to witness his vulnerability and imagination, shepherding us through time and place from Chicago to the South and back again as he shares his research into his lineage and the depths of his depression. Through smart cultural critique to rich poetic imagery, Randall’s writing moves at a quick pace that reflects his city roots; but when he slows down to describe the lands and people that haunt him, we witness a gifted Southern storyteller. And so we gather on the porch, waiting to hear this story, low and soft, drifting through the kudzu.  

In The Dead Don’t Need Reminding, Chicago poet Julian Randall braids memoir, history and cultural criticism, revealing himself to be a gifted storyteller.
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Kathleen Hanna’s memoir, Rebel Girl: My Life As A Feminist Punk, is a timely refresher in resilience, the power of protest art and the tender humanity that we must not lose. Hanna, influential frontwoman of bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, reluctant leader of the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s and one of the most notable feminist artists of the past 30 years, recounts her heady and social protest-fueled life in the Seattle and Washington, D.C., music scenes. Like a comic book hero, Hanna has seemed to gather superhuman strength with every blow she receives, surviving a difficult childhood and dodging death threats during Bikini Kill’s rise to indie stardom, all while churning out ever more powerful and furious music. 

Rebel Girl unapologetically reveals the vulnerability behind that image, discussing the trauma and illness Hanna endured while being hailed as a feminist savior, assaulted by infuriated misogynists and torn down by fellow Riot Grrrls for being human. 

It’s now common to find books that document the angsty cultural soup of the ’90s, slickly packaged to inspire nostalgia for the sense of apathetic cool that’s attached to the decade. Where Rebel Girl diverges from these, and succeeds, is in Hanna’s refusal to unhook the headiness of the time from its more difficult and complicated aspects. She does not shy away from unappealing truths about the era, particularly the violence directed toward her and other women from within the overwhelmingly white and male punk scene, and the problematic aspects of the Riot Grrrl movement, with its lack of intersectionality and eventual dissolution into backbiting and purity politics. 

Hanna is equally straight-shooting when she reflects on her own failures and culpability, acknowledging them in a way that is refreshing and constructive. By illustrating how you grew, you can show others how to do the same. With Rebel Girl, Hanna intentionally busts open her feminist idol identity, liberating herself from our perceptions and serving some hard-won wisdom.

In Rebel Girl, Kathleen Hanna intentionally busts open her feminist idol identity, liberating herself from our perceptions and serving some hard-won wisdom.

Writing saved Janet Frame’s life.

In 1951, the 27-year-old writer was scheduled for a lobotomy. She’d spent her adulthood in psychiatric facilities, and the extremely damaging practice was in its heyday. But after Frame’s debut book won a literary award, a doctor called off the procedure.

Frame is one of many authors Suzanne Scanlon references to create a throughline between reading, writing and illness in her memoir, Committed: On Meaning and Madwomen. Here, the author of novels Promising Young Women and Her 37th Year, an Index, traces her entwined reading and mental health histories.

In her early 20s, Scanlon spent more than two years in a psychiatric hospital and experienced shorter hospitalizations for several years to follow. Both during that first stint and the years since, she’s turned to books for insight into the world and her own mental health, a practice mirrored in her childhood. When her mother was dying, 8-year-old Scanlon created order from the grief and chaos around her through imaginative play. The immersive nature of this coping strategy is akin to what Scanlon now finds in literature.

Committed leaps across time, mirroring how Scanlon comes to understand her own narrative, organizing an unconventional timeline from her fragmented memories. She also plays with form, occasionally breaking from running narrative with lists explaining her illness, or switching from first- to second-person to place the reader in a scene.

Committed is also about authors who faced mental illness, among them Marguerite Duras and Sylvia Plath. Janet Frame, Scanlon writes, is “the patron saint of writers once institutionalized, the long-institutionalized, the young women everywhere told they were hopeless, what would become of them now, defined by the places where they lived.”

“What we call mental illness is so rarely portrayed with any depth or complexity,” Scanlon writes. But as she combs the archives of her reading, she finds “information about what it means to be alive in [any] shifting historical moment.” By lacing her story with literary analysis and cultural history, she creates a thoughtful reflection on how societal expectations can impact people, women in particular, and how writing and reading can provide a port in the storm.

In her stirring memoir, Committed, Suzanne Scanlon tracks her entwined reading and mental health histories.
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“They say love is patient and kind, but they never say what else is true: that love is also anxious and fearful, desperate and forever on unsure footing,” award-winning journalist Carvell Wallace writes in his debut memoir, Another Word for Love. Known best for his intimate celebrity profiles, Wallace now turns his pen to exploring his own childhood as the son of a single mother. With honesty and candor, Wallace reveals how the poverty and abuse of his youth impacted his views on masculinity, desire, sex and love. Another Word for Love is an excavation of his personal history that asks and answers questions about living and loving as a queer, Black man.

Wallace is a brilliant storyteller and masterful student in the language of love. But what about the things that get in the way of loving and being loved? Wallace has a lot to say here, too. For many Black Americans, like Wallace’s complicated mother, the act of loving is often superseded by the pursuit of survival. As Wallace becomes a parent himself, his essays chronicle the history of police brutality and racial violence in America, frequently asking, How can we teach our children to love in the face of fear and death? It’s here, in Wallace’s frank examinations of family and community building, that his writing truly dazzles.

Wallace’s tumultuous childhood meant he was always on the move, setting down in cities across the country without planting roots. Throughout his travels, he traversed different parts of his identity and uncovered messy, tender truths about himself and other men. From discussing the importance of Solange’s When I Get Home to unpacking letters between Pat Parker and Audre Lorde, navigating a kink space and sharing harrowing stories about the harm he’s caused others, Wallace’s prose is always sharp, witty and honest. Ultimately, though, Another Word for Love offers this radical declaration: Pursuing love is an act of defiance. No matter what trauma or complexities fill your story, love is all of our birthrights.

In Another Word for Love, Carvell Wallace’s dazzling debut memoir, love is an act of defiance.
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RuPaul, drag superstar and pop culture icon, has been busy on his lifelong way to stardom—a destiny, he reveals, foretold by a psychic before he was born. He has been an actor, producer, author, model, dancer, singer, songwriter, media host, business mogul and creator of the multi-Emmy-winning reality TV series, “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” He has worked his way from unhoused nomad to celebrity star, including an actual one on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Now 63, RuPaul turns his penetrating gaze inward, looking for deeper meanings within his journey. In The House of Hidden Meanings, he shares all with a tender clarity that renders him unforgettably human. 

Ernestine Charles chose her only son’s name because, she said, there was no one else “alive with a name like that.” Raising four children in San Diego after her abusive husband left, she was “always in a bad mood.” RuPaul entertained her with “imitations, bits, sketches, little scraps of makeshift theater. . . . I put her powder on and whipped a towel around my head as if it were a lustrous head of hair,” he recalls. As a teenager, he escaped to Atlanta and eventually worked his way to New York City. Club scenes kept him performing and partying. He always acted like a star, he says, because he knew he was one.

RuPaul paints wildly vivid city scenes: gritty New York, Atlanta alive with punk and drag, and San Diego, where his complicated childhood haunts him still. Relationships were often sidetracked by too many drugs and risky sex, but he somehow survived, always believing in his destiny—and in drag. His 1993 breakthrough video, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” turned gay stereotypes on their heads and showcased an exuberance that appealed to both the mainstream and the LGBTQ+ community.

Here, we don’t find his rise to fame, the lead-up to “Drag Race” or even his activism and philanthropic work. That information about the often-profiled star is readily available elsewhere.  The House of Hidden Meanings is about beginnings. RuPaul reveals the inner work of healing from past wounds and repairing his relationship with himself, and his memoir celebrates the potential for reinvention. “In a system where things insisted on being one or the other, drag was everything,” he writes. “That made it magic.”

In his refreshing memoir, drag superstar and pop culture icon RuPaul tells his life story with a tender clarity that renders a larger-than-life figure unforgettably human.
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Kao Kalia Yang’s mother grew up in a Hmong village near the juncture of two rivers that run through the forests and highlands of Laos, a land that Yang writes evocatively about in the opening chapters of Where Rivers Part: A Story of My Mother’s Life. The Hmong, an ethnic minority in southwest China, Laos and surrounding countries, were devastated by the Vietnam War, which began soon after Yang’s mother Tswb (pronounced “chew’) was born. Her home village, Dej Tshuam, was a place where people were bound by family ties and ancestral traditions; her family fled the invasion of North Vietnamese soldiers when she was 14.

The ruinous impacts of the war on the lives of Yang’s parents and relatives are related here. But the point and power of Where Rivers Part lies elsewhere. In an audacious act of love and art, Yang writes this memoir from her mother’s point of view. We hear from Tswb’s perspective about her own mother’s marriage at 15 to a much older man with children, and how her mother transformed herself from a submissive wife and daughter-in-law into a matriarch. Later we experience teenage Tswb’s decision to marry a handsome 19-year-old boy named Npis (pronounced “be”) she met on the trail while their families were fleeing capture. Soon there are doubts and reassessments. We witness the emergence of the fierce determination to survive that will see her family through harrowing years of deprivation in a Thai refugee camp, and that will impel Tswb, Npis and their children forward as refugees making their way in the alien world of Minnesota.

There are moments of poignant beauty. There are also humiliations. Tswb is small and brown; her English is not good. In America, she is easily overlooked. In this exceptional book, Yang shows what a mistake it is to underestimate her: “I wanted to claim the legacy of the woman I come from, the women who had to define for themselves what it meant to live in a world where luck was not on your side.” She has done so with deep feeling and grace.

In the extraordinary Where Rivers Part, Kao Kalia Yang writes with deep feeling and grace about her mother, a Hmong woman who escaped the cascading violence from the Vietnam War.

When Sarah McCammon was growing up in the Midwest in the ’80s and ’90s, every aspect of her life was governed by her family’s evangelical faith, a faith underscored at her sprawling nondenominational church and her Christian school with expectations of an obedient childhood and “pure” young adulthood that forbid sex and, essentially, dating until marriage. Within this sheltered realm, the possibility of eternal damnation was ever-present. “The thought that there was something I could do that was beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness terrified me, and often kept me awake at night,” McCammon writes. “Intrusive thoughts would slip in randomly, at any moment . . . and suddenly I’d be gripped by fear.”

In The Exvangelicals: Loving, Living, and Leaving the White Evangelical Church, McCammon details her journey away from this upbringing, into a life as a questioning adult and then a journalist covering the 2016 Trump campaign and the reproductive rights beat for NPR. Mixing memoir and reportage, McCammon focuses on the growing number of young people who, like her, have left the evangelical fold to navigate a new world, often with ambivalence, a group loosely known as exvangelicals.

McCammon describes the mix of comfort, fear and trauma she experienced growing up: her confusion about her parents’ rejection of her surgeon grandfather, who came out as gay after his wife died; her first encounter with secular teens during a stint as a Senate page; the shock of the physical punishment her parents administered after she had a panic attack in high school. She weaves her story around those of her interviewees and the larger history of the evangelical movement’s quest for political ascendance; for instance, Phyllis Schlafly’s anti-women’s rights newsletter informed her mother’s activism, and McCammon worked as a high school intern for Schlafly. Though her own exodus came years earlier, McCammon notes that fervent support of Trump is the factor spurring the majority of young people to exit the evangelical faith.

McCammon renders exvangelicals’ search for life after evangelicalism with sensitivity, showing the difficult balance of gaining self-acceptance and a broader understanding of the world while often losing the comfort of families and worship, especially for LGBTQ+ people. The Exvangelicals is a welcome addition to the story of faith in 21th-century America.

Mixing memoir and reportage, Sarah McCammon documents the growing number of young people who, like her, have left the evangelical fold to navigate a new world.
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As we grow, we come to reckon with the pieces of ourselves that originate from the people who raised us. The realization can be both empowering and painful as we recognize the good and ugly traits we’ve absorbed and the lessons our parents imparted that we took to heart. In The Mango Tree: A Memoir of Fruit, Florida, and Felony, Annabelle Tometich untangles her identity in light of the unbearable moments she experienced being raised by a struggling and often enraged Filipino mother, and the loss of her white father who died during her childhood, taking with him the upper-middle-class privilege that he afforded her.

“All I wanted as a child was to be normal, to hide my weird family, their weird deaths and weird antics behind a big GPA and a spot as captain of the swim team,” she writes. “As an adult, I still strive for this ideal, knowing full well the impossibility of it.”

Her memoir begins in a Florida courtroom where her mother faces a felony charge for shooting out a man’s window in retaliation for picking a mango from her tree. The case, and tree, are a touchstone throughout the book as Tometich navigates her life story. Her mother and father fought mercilessly before his death. After her mother was left to parent on her own and went to work as a nurse, Tometich helped raise her younger siblings.

Tometich, now a food writer, started her career in medical school, then worked as a chef, and eventually landed a job at the sports desk at The News Press in Fort Myers, Florida. Here, she got the dreaded call from a co-worker about her mother’s court case. Anyone with a less than normal family can relate.

Not-so-perfect family dynamics—and the wounds that emerge from them—are popular literary fuel because of their universality. Yet it’s rare to see an author give an honest account of every bit of it, which in this case includes added layers of tragedy, racism and class struggle: the sting of hearing her grandmother use a slur against her mother, the bittersweetness of seeing her mother care for Tometich’s own child, the reckoning about the harm that was intended as good parenting. And, of course, the moment Tometich comes to recognize that it really is impossible to separate herself from her upbringing. In the end, The Mango Tree reminds us that all trees derive strength from their roots.

Annabelle Tometich’s memoir, The Mango Tree, may be about a fractured mother-daughter relationship, but it also understands that all trees derive strength from their roots.
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Conventional wisdom has long held that mental illness is disconnected from physical health, requiring two separate courses of treatment. In Facing the Unseen: The Struggle to Center Mental Health in Medicine, psychiatrist Damon Tweedy aims to debunk this long-standing theory. The acclaimed author of the New York Times bestseller Black Man in a White Coat, Tweedy offers what feels like a personal invitation into his office, his expertise and, most of all, his hard-earned wisdom. 

Tweedy straightforwardly describes his training through Duke University School of Medicine, including his growing frustrations with an unsatisfactory system of care. He is critical of his colleagues for overlooking, stereotyping or dismissing the “unseen” signs of mental illness, bringing issues of class, race and gender into focus. He also questions his own biases, first as an aspiring cardiologist, and then as a psychiatrist struggling to understand how mind and body work together. 

Mostly, though, Facing the Unseen is about his patients. Tweedy is an excellent storyteller, making the people whom he treats unforgettably visible in all their complexities. Their stories embody why recognizing the mind-body connection is critical. There’s Natalie (all patients’ names are pseudonyms), an Iraq war veteran with PTSD, who came to the ER desperate for help. But treating her drug withdrawal was not considered a medical priority, and she was left to seek outpatient psychiatric care elsewhere. A passionate advocate for integrated medical and psychiatric care, Tweedy cites statistics that tally addiction and opioid abuse, PTSD, depression and anxiety, and the prevalent use of prescription pills. Throughout, he uses powerful descriptions that yield keen insights, showing us how the health care system sets doctors up to fail their patients, and offering solutions that will help. 

Improving access to effective treatments by coordinated caregivers is improving, but the need for better care is also growing. Facing the Unseen sounds both an alarm and a rallying cry. 

In Facing the Unseen, Black Man in a White Coat author Damon Tweedy makes an impassioned call for better mental health care.
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This Isn’t Going to End Well: The True Story of a Man I Thought I Knew by Daniel Wallace is an electrifying look at how to navigate loss. Wallace considers the nature of grief and connection as he tells the story of his brother-in-law William Nealy, who died by suicide at 48. After his death, Wallace grapples with unresolved feelings and troubling questions about Nealy’s life. Writing with compassion, reflection and self-scrutiny, he explores his own personal demons and the boundaries of friendship.

In A Dutiful Boy: A Memoir of Secrets, Lies and Family Love, Mohsin Zaidi recounts the challenges of his conservative upbringing in London. Raised by traditional Muslim parents, Zaidi has a difficult time coming to grips with his sexual identity. As a student at Oxford, he is able to live an authentic life as a gay man, but he finds himself at a turning point when his father and a witch doctor attempt to alter his sexuality. Exploring family, community and self-love, Zaidi’s bold, revealing book will spark inspired dialogue among readers.

Leta McCollough Seletzky investigates the complex life of her father, Marrell McCollough, in The Kneeling Man: My Father’s Life as a Black Spy Who Witnessed the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. McCollough belonged to the Invaders, a Black militant group in talks with Martin Luther King Jr. prior to his assassination, and he was on the scene when King was killed. Yet he led a surprising double life: He was also a police officer secretly charged with gathering information on the Invaders. In this powerful memoir, Seletzky struggles to accept the truth about her father and to reconcile it with her identity as a Black woman.

In Normal Family: On Truth, Love, and How I Met My 35 Siblings, Chrysta Bilton examines the remarkable circumstances of her parentage. During the 1980s, Bilton’s gay mother, Debra, decided to have children. With a handsome man named Jeffrey Harrison serving as a sperm donor, she became pregnant and gave birth to Bilton. Decades later, Bilton makes disturbing discoveries about Harrison, who harbored secrets about his donor experiences. Discussion topics such as identity, honesty and traditional parenting roles make this a standout pick for book clubs.

4 intriguing memoirs explore the nature of family secrets.

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