Memoir Mini Reviews: Wiving, Negroland

Wiving is poet Caitlin Myer’s memoir about growing up Mormon with a skewed view of relationships with men based on religious tenets and how her own experiences developed, and how that changed as she came into her own and achieved a form of independence. It also covers her relationship to her mentally ill mother and her own health struggles as an adult, as well as a pivotal time around her mother’s death as she works toward a type of freedom.

I thought this would focus on her relationship to Mormonism, and leaving the religion, but it deals more with her tumultuous romances and exploring something around what seems to have been a compulsive drive towards these kind of relationships. To a different but also significant extent it looks at her relationship with her family, especially her mother, who suffered with bipolar disorder.

The style is jumbled, skipping back and forth frequently between past and present. The many breaks and time jumps along with a dreamily poetic writing style made it hard to always understand where exactly in time the narrative was, or even why what was happening was significant. This loose narrative style doesn’t always bother me, but sometimes I’m not in the head space for it, I suppose. If it’s a style that you always appreciate, this won’t present a problem.

I think readers who appreciate this most will probably have relatable experiences, that is, a progression from relationship to relationship without a clear sense of self or defining boundary of the same, until something finally sets that process into motion. At its core it’s an argument for forging an identity of one’s own outside of any relationship and the long and fraught journey that requires.

And it requires a bit of a meditative mindset, I think. But it’s a memoir that I can see helping a lot of people who see themselves and their experiences in it, and especially enjoyable if you connect with the poetic style and don’t mind some narrative jumpiness.

Wiving: A Memoir of Loving Then Leaving the Patriarchy, by Caitlin Myer. Published July 28, 2020 by Arcade. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Why should black people behave well to get their rights? White people don’t behave and they get all the rights they want. That’s been our mistake as privileged Negroes. Believing all that “We have to be twice as good to be acknowledged just as good. Everything we do must reflect well on the race.”

A memoir that similarly plays with form but in different and more experimental ways is Margo Jefferson’s Negroland. Jefferson grew up in 1950s-1960s Chicago in an upper middle class Black family, her father a respected physician and her mother a socialite. 

This is one of those memoirs that, aside from addressing deeply compelling and important topics, does such interesting things with the genre as form. Instead of a more linear narrative, Jefferson draws on scenes and concepts and builds her story out from there. Not unusual for memoirs, of course, but the way Jefferson does this struck me as very unusual.

She dips in and out of the recollection using short sentences, quick observations that almost belie their gravity, and intersperses with scenes from her parents’ lives. It’s all funneled towards the way she parses her own experiences around class and race, and the perceptions she had versus what others had, and how those changed during these pivotal years for race relations in America.

As time progresses within the book’s context, her childhood opens up into the years of expanding civil rights, and she lives these times and experiences through the lens of her youth within “Negroland” — that upper middle class Chicago sphere her family occupied, which in a way had sheltered her from so much but still left her to experience racism, as well as classism and a different kind of slant of her own towards feminism.

The focus is heavily on childhood and adolescence, tied to her parents’ lives as well, an angle I always love when done right. She captures so beautifully the universal stabs of growing up, like lacking the confidence to say someone is your best friend because “I was always competing with others for her attention.” Jefferson is a theater and literary critic in addition to being a professor, so it also often focuses on themes around her early discoveries in literature and theater, and the strength of her academic background is evident.

This came up on many reading lists around anti-racism and Black Lives Matter, and I think it’s a perfect book for seeing the world from another angle, not to mention for observing Jefferson’s deft manipulation of narrative structure. I absolutely loved this crafting — it was like there was always an exciting surprise coming in how she would tell a story and where she would take it. The down side was that it could occasionally be somewhat confusing, but this is definitely not a one-read book if you really want to absorb more of it.

She’s an extraordinary writer, and she turns scenes so quickly from meditative to analytic, while weaving together an incredibly expressive portrait of the times, and herself.  Some favorite lines:

“You bask in your own innocence. You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles. I don’t want this kind of indulgence to dominate my memories.”

“Do you really want to know as little as your white schoolmates know about where we came from and what we’ve accomplished?”

There are days when I still want to dismantle this constructed self of mine. You did it so badly, I think. You lost so much time. And then I tell myself, so what?

So what?

Go on.

Negroland: A Memoir, by Margo Jefferson
Published 2015 by Pantheon


10 thoughts on “Memoir Mini Reviews: Wiving, Negroland

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  1. Really taken by your review of the second book. Ordering it now! I’m writing a memoir myself heavily focused on youth and adolescence so it should be a good read for me for technique as well as pure literary enjoyment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I’m so glad I could introduce you to that one! I think it’s a great study in technique and doing something different with memoir in general. Absolutely a great reference. Looking forward to hearing what you think of it!


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