Memoir strikes common chord
The Poet’s Wife By Mandy Sayer Allen & Unwin, 432pp, $32.99
‘NO one will take you seriously as a writer if all you can do is write about yourself,’’ said Mandy Sayer’s first husband, African-American poet Yusef Komunyakaa, when she was publicising her first (semi-autobiographical) novel, Mood Indigo. But Sayer’s life writing has been taken very seriously indeed, winning multiple awards.
Her first memoir, Dreamtime Alice (2000), told the story of her years performing on the streets of New York and New Orleans, tapdancing as one-half of a duo with her eccentric, flawed, much-loved father, Gerry. Her second, Velocity (2005), rewound to explore Sayer’s fractured childhood and adolescence in the shadow of her parents’ repeated separations and reunifications, including years on the run (with her mother) from an abusive stepfather.
Both are textbook examples of memoir at its best, combining engrossing storytelling (and unusual stories) with meticulous personal insight that coaxes the universal out of the particular. Like fellow three-time memoirist Mary Karr ( The Liar’s Club, Cherry, Lit), Sayer tells the dark truth of growing up in poverty in a dysfunctional, eccentric family and manages to imbue her telling with a deep, complex familial love and a steely lack of self-pity.
The Poet’s Wife takes up where Dreamtime Alice left off: we meet Mandy as a self-described hobo living with her father in a closet-sized room behind a witchcraft shop in New Orleans. By the end of the book, she is studying for a PhD in English literature, has published three novels and is under contract to write her first memoir. Subtitled A Memoir of a Marriage, this book is also about self-creation.
The themes are twinned; her husband, Yusef, is a master of the latter. He has changed his name, altered his birthdate and adopts different accents and personae according to who he’s with. He transformed himself from an unedu- cated Vietnam War veteran from an abusive background to a literature professor and Pulitzer prize-winning poet and is relentlessly selfvigilant as a result. Yusef explains his shapeshifting behaviour as “switching codes’’, something he describes as ingrained and necessary for black southerners. Sayer wonders, early in their relationship and as a narrator, “which code represented the real Yusef’’. Throughout their 10-year marriage, she attempted to decode his behaviour, from carefully reading his body language to snooping through his study and briefcase for clues of a parallel life and the truth about the other women who always hovered at the fringes of their relationship.
The second mystery Sayer investigates in this book is a deeper one: what held her in her marriage so long when from the distance of the present it was visibly damaging? And how did she go from a confident, independent street performer to an anxious, subservient wife caged by her own self-doubt? In a way, this is a divorce memoir: we know from the beginning how this will end, so we’re watching the hairline fractures appear in the structure of the marriage and waiting for them to break it apart. What