Memoir is a Fighter, Not Your Friend  

Vanessa Willoughby
 About the Writer
Split Lip Magazine

Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and writer. Her work has been featured in Bitch, The Toast, The Hairpin, Hazlitt, and Vice. She is the Creative Director for Winter Tangerine, an online literary and arts journal.

There is an overlooked advantage to writing memoir. Unlike the medium of a diary, the true intent of the memoir is not to conduct a literary magic act or preserve a memory like a wooly mammoth trapped in the unforgiving black mouth of a tar pit. Both the diary and the memoir are acts of personal confession, but the memoir utilizes vulnerability like a thumbprint, a miniature blueprint of behavior. Memoir demands nothing of the impulsive capture of fickle emotions, ropes in truth with chicken wire and leaves opportunity to fester in the sun, either to shrivel like skin soaked in bathtub water or bubble and blister. In memoir, we find other versions of ourselves, longfaced shadows who take refuge in the night. In memoir, we do not run from history. Although we may fear history, we do not even hope to change the past. In memoir, monsters can be trained.

The majority of the men that have crossed my orbit balk at the fierce beauty of memoir,write it off as an embarrassing and not particularly useful reflex of women who honor the habit of oversharing with strangers. They believe that there isn’t an art to the personal essay. They fail to understand that the memoir itself has always had its place in history, that words can make the world snap to attention and transform the voice of the narrator into a catalyst for rebellion. I went on one date with a “liberal” white guy who wasn’t too impressed with my writing oeuvre, especially my penchant for personal essays. He mocked my commitment to combating issues of racial injustices, called the act of writing as a form of protest completely useless, and wondered if I ever did any “real journalism.” Like so many of the white men who attempt to woo me in hopes of satisfying their obvious fetishes, he easily shrouded himself in the role of condescending father, hell bent on teaching his daughter the correct way to be human. Naturally, he viewed my anger as a temper tantrum, insisting that he was a good ally because he’d grown up on welfare and dated black women. He believed that he could speak for black people, was an honorary citizen of this inherited culture.

Without memoir, the voices of these white men would erase the realities of black voices. This man mocked the Black Lives Matter movement, called it worthless, accused me of being a racist for wholeheartedly identifying as problack. The movement was started by black women, largely through social media. I have to wonder if this man would have the same critiques if BLM were started by men. I wonder if he loves(ed) Occupy Wall Street because it is the hollow allegiance of the hypocrite and the twofaced,these white men who don’t trust lives that refuse the white gaze. Growing up, I wasted too much time and effort on wanting to fit in, in being absorb by the monolith of the American mainstream. A force that said I was hopelessly ugly with my frizzy, coarse,thick curls, my brown skin almost as dark as my daddy, my Negro nostrils, my obvious Otherness. My Filipino mother thought America was a great, big melting pot and didn’t mind that melting meant to be whitewashed. I spent so long being ashamed, fixating on self-induced asphyxiation.

For a young black woman who chooses to wrangle the personal into one smooth package, a testimony beyond the singleserving, it is a stiletto blade to the jugular of patriarchal white supremacy. In a way, slave narratives are necessary works that predate icons such as Alice Walker and Maya Angelou. In a period of white supremacy that legally and lawfully denied black people with the ability to read and write English, slave narratives were a radical form of protest, wielding power over the terror of racism and bigotry. These texts literally gave a voice to the silenced and dehumanized. It is now 2016 and the memoir has not losts it purpose for black women writers. White supremacy still exists, still takes the lives of black women without much afterthought. Memoir can serve as a bonfire or a hatchet, can provide a face to brutality.


Maya Angelou said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, not not be lived again.” I do not engage with memoir, either through writing or reading the lives of others, in order to indulge in the mourning of what cannot be undone. Unlike the voracious appetite of white supremacy, memoir cannot be swayed by manmade racial hierarchies. In fact, memoir prefers the souls of the underground, for they are the only ones who can survive roots sown in seasons of trauma. Memoir easily sings anthems of phoenixes who rise from ash and people with wings strapped to their backs who get too close to the sun. History knows that memoir can forgive, but will never forget.