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Sonja Livingston on Hidden Lives

"I’m drawn to people and places that have been stereotyped or even worse, not seen at all. From rural farm towns, Indian reservations, to gritty urban neighborhoods," says Sonja Livingston, an award-winning author teaching at the MFA program at the University of Memphis.

Livingston is author of Queen of the Fall, a memoir of girls and goddesses, and Ghostbread, a story of growing up in poverty that earned the Association of Writers and Writing Programs prize for nonfiction, and is taught in classrooms around the country. Her essay collection, Ladies Night at the Dreamland, blends memoir and biography to provide poetic profiles of little-known American women.

"Memoir often gets a bum rap as a self-involved genre, but the irony is that when it’s done well, a memoir is an exploration of one person’s life that illuminates the lives of many," she says.

"But it’s not enough merely to describe hidden or misunderstood lives. The best memoirs don’t settle for simply shining a light. They hold that light steady enough to look closely and deeply enough to stop time and return to the wonder of running water after years spent living in houses without plumbing, to remember the flame-blue eyes of the prettiest girl on the street, to try and understand the desperate optimism of a girl leaving her loved ones to head North where she hopes to pass as white. What captivates me as both a reader and a writer is the way that by paying close attention to a few lives, I rediscover the weight and majesty inherent to all our lives."

Sonja Livingston offers three books that explore (and exalt) hidden lives:

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood
by Janisse Ray

"I carry the landscape inside me like an ache," Janisse Ray says in her introduction to Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. The book describes growing up poor and white in a junkyard along US Highway 1 in Georgia. While her surroundings are rough and certainly anyone who’d left the highway long enough to see them might pity her, Ray’s imagination is rich. “A junkyard wasn’t a bad place to grow up,” she writes. “It was weird enough to stoke any child curiosity, a playground of endless possibility.”

An environmentalist and poet, Ray’s voice is magnetic and her lyrical writing intersperses her wonderful storytelling and childhood memories with chapters on the vanishing longleaf pine. The result is a book that gorgeously demonstrates how our places and people are inextricably interconnected and a memoir worth its salt is also a study of culture and place.

The Speckled People
by Hugo Hamilton

The Speckled People makes use of a child’s perspective to describe an unusual German Irish childhood in 1950s Dublin. The result is writing that’s both immediate and poignant. Hamilton’s Gaelic-speaking Irish nationalist father rules at home, forbidding the children from speaking English or playing with children who do (which is nearly everyone in Ireland at the time) while his German-speaking mother plies her children with cakes and stories of her own struggle against Nazi Germany. Hamilton’s trying to make sense of a world of haunted pasts and strange cultural divisions is fascinating, but it’s Hamilton’s voice that snags me:

When you’re small you're like a piece of white paper with nothing written on it. My father writes down his name in Irish and my mother writes down her name in German and there's a blank space left over for all the people outside who speak English. We wear Aran sweaters and Lederhosen. We are forbidden from speaking English. We are trapped in a language war. We are the speckled people.

Mount Allegro
by Jerre Mangione

This 1943 account of a Sicilian-American neighborhood in Rochester, New York is a feast of characters. Using his own family and childhood as an anchor, Mangione describes the squabbles and struggles and celebrations of those living in the same six-block neighborhood. Never known as ‘Little Italy’ because of the Eastern Europeans also inhabiting the same streets “on the grimy banks of the Genesee River” near the looming optical factory and tailor shops and New York Central train station, the Sicilians call it “Mount Allegro” and everyone lives there, except for his Uncle Luigi, a renegade who becomes a Baptist and move several miles away. This is one of my favorite memoirs, not only because it’s set in my hometown, but because of the way Mangione serves as a cultural ambassador, acting not only a participant, but as an astute observer of the people he describes: 

"When I grow up I want to be an American," Giustina said.

We looked at our sister; it was something none of us had ever said.

"Me too," Maria echoed.

"Aw, you don’t even know what an American is," Joe scoffed.

"We’re Americans right now," I said. "Miss Zimmerman says if you’re born here you’re an American."

"Aw, she’s nuts,” Joe said. He had no use for most teachers. “We’re Italians. If y’ don’t believe me ask Pop."

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