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December 20, 2005 > Memory


Isn't it odd how reality and fantasy blend to create truth? As I reflect on the past, I realize that the truth is in the telling. We fill in the blanks to make it fit and sometimes, if we repeat it enough times, it becomes "true."

Behind each of us is a family history - parents, ethnicity, era, family, home, etc. And yet we all share this time on earth, this place, and this family. Each family member experiences something very different - how rare it is when we are all on the same page.

Authors say that writing one's memoir is far more difficult than fiction. Despite your being there and being the source, you have to peel away layers to get to the core. The author might get some of the details wrong or others might disagree on interpretation. Despite what others remember, the memoir is the author's truth and invention. Two recent memoirs I've read seemed the "truest" to me. The authors are their families' first college graduates. College provided the tools for them to share their story.

"Golden Mountain" by Irene Kai, Silver Light Publications, $14.95 (2004)
I recently attended a booksellers convention when I came across an author with a name familiar to me, Irene Kai. Sitting there signing her book about four generations of women in her family, I tentatively approached her and said "Irene," afraid that I might me making a mistake. She looked up wondering who I was. "I'm Joyce." We stared at each other in amazement because we are first cousins, a year apart in age, who had not seen each other in 30 years. "Golden Mountain" has given me a glimpse into those lost years and fills in the gaps of family history as they occurred in Hong Kong. You see, I am the American-born cousin who as a child heard hazy hints of family scandal.

"Golden Mountain" is about my great-grandmother, her daughter-in-law (my grandmother), my Aunt Margaret (her daughter-in-law) and Irene (Margaret's daughter). This is a memoir of Irene's struggle to be a good, Chinese daughter born in Hong Kong, coming to America in her teens and her quest to be a happy, strong woman. All four generations of women were trapped by cultural expectations and bent by the will of men. Because they are family, it is hard for me to separate my personal sorrow about their circumstances from my response to the book as a neutral reader. Kai's Chinese-American woman's experience is unique. What is universal is that the book shows how women must be incredibly strong to overcome oppression and our own desire to comply and be accepted.

The book has sexual situations and drug use that are more appropriate for adult or mature teen readers. The description of a back alley abortion is an excruciating reminder of the dangers of illegal abortions.

"Teacher Man - A Memoir" by Frank McCourt, Scribner, $26 (2005)

In 1996, "Angela's Ashes" was the breakout book for the then 66-year-old retired New York City high school teacher. McCourt is a born storyteller who continues to entertain in "Teacher Man." In "Angela's Ashes," he describes his horribly poor "Irish" childhood in Limerick - "worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood." You can imagine how his students must have reacted when Teacher Man spoke of extreme hunger and cold without indoor plumbing. It makes New York City public housing look grand.

"Tis" continues with his struggles in America - working the docks, army and attending New York University through the GI bill. The second book is written with the bitterness of an adult's view of life and his writing is constrained by the unexpected fame and scrutiny from his first book. His ex-wife is not much discussed possibly because she would not approve. Some people in Limerick had been upset by his description of life there.

"Teacher Man," the last of this trilogy, takes place in 1958 as McCourt begins his teaching career at McKee Vocational High School in Staten Island. High school students smell his inexperience and are out to trip him. They are masters at distracting him from the boring grammar lessons at hand with questions designed to get him off topic and to glean personal information (both big mistakes according to experienced educators). McCourt had never attended high school and was unprepared for the world of American teens with big city attitudes. Vocational students whose fathers are in the trades aspire to be no more and have no use for literature. He doggedly puts one foot in front of the other and retires after 30 years. Along the way, he makes mistakes and inspires.

"Teacher Man" is a tribute to teachers. Unlike movies where a heroic teacher only has one classroom of students, he reminds us that high school English teachers handle five classes a day. Over time, McCourt would transform into a "drill sergeant, rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar." He would find himself the star and comic foil of the "great American drama... the clash of adolescence and middle age." He is always the outsider with his Irish brogue, a fraud from poor surroundings who mentors young minds.

McCourt is cynical at times, frustrated but always a uniquely, honest writer. "Teacher Man" is recommended for those considering high school teaching or thankful that someone else is willing to do the job.

Record your holiday memories this year. Take time to write down or video your family's story. There is a book in each of us. Happy Holidays.

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