The Golden Age of Mem­oir

Toronto Life - - Editor’s Letter -

A year ago, Toronto Life pub­lished “The Good Wife,” a pow­er­ful mem­oir by Samra Zafar. In vivid, heart­break­ing de­tail, she wrote about her ar­ranged mar­riage, her forced move from the Mid­dle East to Canada, her abu­sive hus­band, and her heroic es­cape, which in­volved se­cretly putting her­self through uni­ver­sity. She’s now an ac­count man­ager at RBC. Her story, which was both hor­rific and in­spir­ing, res­onated deeply with read­ers around the world and be­came the most-read ar­ti­cle on toron­to­ in 2017.

It also trans­formed Samra’s al­ready re­mark­able life. She be­came a sought-af­ter in­spi­ra­tional speaker. She’s launch­ing a non-profit, Brave Begin­nings, to help women like her who have es­caped abu­sive mar­riages. And she’s work­ing on a book about her life, which is slated to be pub­lished early next year.

I loved Samra’s story: the in­ti­macy, the hon­esty, the raw­ness of it. I also learned a lot from it: the way ar­ranged mar­riages work, the way abuse can be hid­den in plain sight and the sup­port women in abu­sive mar­riages need to gain in­de­pen­dence. Great first-per­son jour­nal­ism goes be­yond the au­thor’s ex­pe­ri­ences to tell us some­thing about the world in which we live. It’s of­ten my favourite kind of jour­nal­ism.

As it turns out, I’m not alone in my love of the genre. Long-form mag­a­zine me­moirs are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing some­thing of a golden age. Last year, Chart­beat, the Amer­i­can com­pany that tracks reader en­gage­ment, re­vealed that the most-read ar­ti­cle on­line in the U.S. was a jaw-drop­ping mem­oir in the At­lantic called “My Fam­ily’s Slave.” In that story, the late Filipino-Amer­i­can writer Alex Ti­zon de­scribed, with con­sid­er­able shame, the woman who lived with his im­mi­grant par­ents for decades pro­vid­ing un­paid labour. It seems like ev­ery day I read an as­ton­ish­ing piece of con­fes­sional writ­ing: Salma Hayek’s ac­count of the night­mare of work­ing with Har­vey We­in­stein or Lena Dun­ham’s mem­oir of her hys­terec­tomy at age 31. One of the most eye-open­ing things I read in the Globe and Mail this year was Hadiya Roderique’s mem­oir “Black on Bay Street.”

Why are per­sonal sto­ries so pow­er­ful in the In­ter­net age? Is it be­cause in the ca­coph­ony of our so­cial me­dia feeds, where peo­ple so of­ten bab­ble just to get at­ten­tion, a thought­ful, care­fully crafted, true con­fes­sion is so wel­come?

Or maybe mag­a­zine me­moirs have al­ways been pop­u­lar; it’s just that now we are bet­ter able to quan­tify read­er­ship. In the pre-dig­i­tal age, when me­dia com­pa­nies couldn’t track a story’s reach, mem­oir writ­ing, con­sid­ered un­se­ri­ous, was rel­e­gated to news­pa­per life­style pages, women’s mag­a­zines and other are­nas de­signed pri­mar­ily for fe­male read­ers. Now we have data prov­ing that me­moirs are one of the most pop­u­lar forms of sto­ry­telling and that they can be just as pow­er­ful, high­im­pact and mem­o­rable as more tra­di­tional re­portage—if not more so.

In “My Bro­ken Heart,” on page 90, Shan­non McKin­non writes about her strug­gle with en­dometrio­sis, and how a Per­co­cet pre­scrip­tion for the pain turned into an OxyCon­tin ad­dic­tion, which led her to heroin. It’s a cau­tion­ary tale if ever there was one. Along the way McKin­non lost her job, her home and her mar­riage. In ad­di­tion, her long-term drug use left her with en­do­cardi­tis, a life-threat­en­ing heart con­di­tion. It’s a chill­ing case study in how drug ad­dic­tion works, how easy it is for a sta­ble per­son to find her­self in trou­ble, and how re­cov­ery, with the right sup­port, is pos­si­ble.

—Sarah Ful­ford Email: edi­tor@toron­to­ Twit­ter: @sarah_ ful­ford

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