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Sunday, May 6, 2012

On Death and the Memoir

     On Tuesday evening, I attended an inspiring Fordham University celebration “The Art of the memoir,” marking the recent publication of four memoirs and a collection of personal essays written by five faculty members of the university’s English Department. The writers, including Mary Bly (Eloisa James), Richard Giannone, Eve Keller, Kim Dana Kupperman, and Elizabeth Stone, discussed the genre and read from their work. Topics included love, loss, the AIDS crisis, the Holocaust, and the experiences of an American temporarily living in Paris. During the Q&A period, Susan Greenfield, another faculty member in the university’s English Department, noticed a common death theme in all five works and asked whether death is a prerequisite for memoir writing.
     The moderator, Susan Kamil of Random House and Dial Press imprints, replied that the requirement to write a memoir is not necessarily death but a strong urge to tell a compelling story the writer must share with others. I agreed wholeheartedly. But when Professor Greenfield asked her question, it hit me that my own memoir War Widow is filled with deaths: my own widowhood and the deaths of my infant brother whom I had never seen, the deaths of my premature newborn, my brother-in-law, my sister, my parents, friends who were taken by war or disease, a former lover, the death of relatives who perished in the Holocaust and the deaths of others who lived long and productive lives.
     But my memoir is not about death; it is about strength and courage, hope, determination, resilience, endurance and triumph.
     Yet, I must admit that I think of death when I realize how quickly time is passing as I get older. But it is not the fear of death or my afterlife that preoccupies me, for I do not know if human consciousness exists after we physically leave earth.
     But what if there is an afterlife? Séance practitioners say that we can connect there with the same people with whom we knew on earth. If so, will my mother be finally happy? Will she be pleased that I defended her when my aunts spoke ill of her, or will she blame me for not doing so forcefully enough? Will my father be able to show his affection for me openly instead of waiting for me to be asleep, unaware of his kiss on the cheek? Will my sister and I be as close in heaven as we were on earth?
     And Yigal, my husband who died in war, I can’t help but wonder:  Will I finally confront him about the lack of trust I had for him because of that French woman on the beach and the other women? Will I tell him how I got even that one silly time? And what about his best friend, Aaron, who raped me when Yigal was no longer on earth? Will I tell Yigal that I resented him for having such friends? Will I tell Aaron that though I had never forgiven him, I learned to make peace with that dreadful event?
     And Danko, my powerful, charismatic married lover who was the reason I left my familiar life behind: Will I ask him why he shunned me after I had my abortion? Did I dishonor him when I aborted his child without his knowledge? Will I have closure with him there?
     But why wonder about death and the afterlife when I can rejoice at the richness of the life I have created for myself here on earth?
     Perhaps like many of us I wonder whether the afterlife, if it exists, is the place we’ll be accountable for our lives and how we lived them. That’s what a memoir is, too. It’s not just telling a story, but it’s also taking responsibility for it. It’s also the place the memoirist shapes a story and frames it the way she or he wants it framed. 

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  1. To those of you who wrote me that you were trying to post comments but couldn't do so, we are investigating the problem. Please keep trying.

  2. Ziva, what an interesting post. I agree with; I think people should use the bitter moments in their lives as learning tools, which could help them find their inner strength.