On a sunny afternoon last week Lyndall Gordon presented to OCLW the first ever reading for her forthcoming memoir, Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter (Virago hardback 2014; paperback: spring 2015).
Gordon’s talk dealt with the motivations for and creation of her latest memoir, which is primarily about the relationship between herself and her mother. Gordon grew up in South Africa, from a young age acting as a partial caretaker for her mother. Gordon’s mother suffered from a psychological illness which was not discussed in the family, but for which she eventually took medication. Her mother’s illness and reclusiveness was somewhat like Emily Dickinson’s in that it was bound up in the writing and reading of poems and greatly influenced Gordon’s love of literature.
Gordon summed up one of the major issues in family memoir: ‘To write about family is to take as subjects people who most intimately shape our lives’. Gordon opens the memoir with a passage about being four years old and feeling the privilege of being with her mother when she is ill. Illness and the ill mother is a powerful theme for a writer. Gordon quoted from Virginia Woolf’s essay, ‘On Being Ill’, in which Woolf exclaims, ‘what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness’. Katherine Mansfield said of her own illness that it opened her eyes to her writing. In Gordon’s memoir, illness transforms their relationship, for the mother and daughter are alike as dreamers: the mother is a visionary – the daughter is to go on to explore what it means to be a woman.
Gordon’s generation explored women’s lib which she explained was a divergent path from the one her mother wished her to follow: to live in Israel. Gordon remembers being at Columbia University for her PhD and hearing Lionel Trilling speak about literature as being about the “hum and buzz of implication” just under the platform of history. This leads Gordon to question whether family narratives are predetermined – are they chosen from an array of narratives, a generated story familiar to history? A memoirist must attempt to avoid predetermined stories and challenge these popular narratives by plunging the subjects into a testing moment.
However, in writing a family memoir, Gordon warned us, family secrets arise, and it is these hidden things that are at the core of creativity (of the memoir and of the life). Each written life has a unique form – dictated by the life or the art. With memoir, we ask the question, might there be an underlying pattern to each life? This may be more obvious in great lives, but the practice of biography compels biographers to consider their own lives. It is important for the memoirist to distinguish between what is lively detail and what is digression. But the record itself still matters; we do need to know who we are. One secret Gordon discovered was a passionate but unconsummated affair between her mother and a charismatic Zionist man who inspired her mother’s wish that her daughter would go to live in Israel. This also regenerated the story of Gordon’s ancestors who had been Eastern European Jews who migrated to South Africa. This kind of information needs to be remembered and documented, Gordon said. This is only possible with access to family records, papers and letters which are so crucial to the family memoirist.
Continuing along these lines, Gordon asked, how do we turn papers and letters into the coherent narrative of memoir? Gordon’s answer reiterated her earlier thoughts about diverging from predetermined narratives to figure out which story you want to tell. Gordon found that writing the story of the mother and daughter’s shared love of literature was a wonderful experience but writing about the divide was difficult. She had to manage balancing truth from her own point of view alongside empathy for her mother’s.
Gordon has found her life is bound up with her mother’s even as it is and was divided. In a sense, both women’s stories are about thinking about migration and feminism. In her mother’s dedication to the unseen life, to being a poet as well as a mother, she paved the way for Gordon’s love of stories. Both women shared a commitment to literature, which led Gordon to the path of writing lives.