To celebrate Memoir March, we spoke to the authors of this spring’s most exciting memoirs about their research processes, writing roadblocks and biggest fears as they put their personal stories out into the world. Louis Chude-Sokei shares some of the joys and difficulties behind his book, Floating in a Most Peculiar Way, about negotiating what it means to be African in Jamaica and the United States.
What do you love most about your book?
I love that I was able to fit so much life into such a compact space while still being true to all that I couldn’t keep in. With a memoir, you want to be true to the experiences you are conveying, but at the same time you want your particular vision as a writer to come through. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that those things could still occur after cutting so much out.
What kind of reader do you think will most appreciate or enjoy your book?
I hope that readers who care about unique historical and personal experiences will appreciate the book. Also, those who care about writing that aims to make them see the world from a unique perspective, one that can’t be easily shaken off.
What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may have a hard time believing?
Because this is a book about the life I’ve lived, that represents how I see, remember and tell that life, I can’t identify one thing that might be harder to believe than others. It’s only now that I’ve written the book that I’m hearing people say how unbelievable certain things are. To me it’s all eminently believable because it happened to me.
What resistance did you face while writing this book?
One of the main difficulties I faced was the cultural and racial context. When I began sharing my story, readers seemed comfortable with a book that was either about African Americans or about Nigerians or about Jamaicans, but they were challenged by one that was about all of those groups—in one family and in one person. Some were also uncomfortable because the book is so honest about how all those different Black cultures see each other in complicated and at times politically incorrect ways. Writing in a way that honors the differences and the similarities while being true to the tensions and disagreements was a great but necessary challenge.
Was there anything that surprised you as you wrote?
I was surprised by how many memories came to me fully formed. I didn’t have to conjure them up or force them. One led to two, which led to four, and so on. I just had to begin shaping them. It was the creative aspect of dealing with memory that kept me from being overwhelmed with emotion while writing. Of course, now that it’s done, I’m surprised by how easy it is for me to become overwhelmed with emotion when I read it.
Is there anything in your book that you’re nervous for people to read?
I have some family members who will not be happy with how they or others in their family are represented, particularly in terms of how a young boy evaluates racial and cultural attitudes. Even though I disguise their names, they will know who I’m talking about. I’m also bracing myself for those who will find that the overall politics of the book don’t suit conventional narratives or positions around race in America. This is, of course, the point: The book is about new and different ways of thinking about race from the perspectives of those who come to “Blackness” from different angles and experiences. In America there is often great hostility toward those who refuse conventional racial expectations.
"The very moods, tones, worlds and conversations you produce in a memoir depend on the accuracy of your research."
How do you feel now that you’ve put this story to the page?
I’m only now coming to terms with the fact that it’s actually been completed and is being read by an incredible range of people. It’s completely different from my academic/scholarly work, where you have a good sense of who the audience is and what they are likely to say and think. But I feel incredibly proud to have put into the world some ideas and experiences that have not been fully expressed before and some stories that I think get marginalized despite being of huge significance to the country and the world today.
What's one way that your book is better as a memoir than it would have been as a novel?
Easy answer: much less stuff to invent!
Many people think writing memoir means you just write from memory and don’t have to do research, but obviously that’s not true. What is the most interesting thing you had to research in order to write this book?
That’s the thing: Memoirs require research, and I can affirm that as a professional researcher and scholar. However, what is different here is that you do the research not to display it, as you do with academic writing, but to fill in context, texture, flavor. So even if it’s not noticeable, the very moods, tones, worlds and conversations you produce in a memoir depend on the accuracy of that research. For example, the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafra War. It’s been a part of my life since birth, of course, but I had to research it—not to provide just the history of the war but the various interpretations of that history that different members of my family and community had.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Discover more great memoirs this Memoir March.
Author photo credit: Sharona Jacobs