on writing

Mini nonfiction reviews of two writers’ memoirs: Amy Tan’s Where the Past Begins and Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.

Earlier in the year I had the chance to check out two memoir-in-essays about the process of becoming a writer: Amy Tan’s Where the Past Begins and Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Both memoirs are among my favorites of the year; they’re wide ranging, stimulating, and moving, and they’re full of vivid portraits of places and people from the writers’ pasts. Both address the nuances of Asian-American identity, in addition to exploring what it means to confront personal history.

fullsizeoutput_2c67.jpegOstensibly about Tan’s origins as a writer, Where the Past Begins examines many facets of the novelist’s life and career: her earliest memories, her relationship to her parents, her musical tastes, her interest in linguistics, her revision process. Interspersed between the memoir’s main pieces are impressionistic sketches excerpted from Tan’s journal. In her introduction, Tan frames the book as a kind of “unintended memoir,” having emerged from her editor’s desire to have her write an “interim book” between novels, and the book’s loose structure reflects its spontaneous composition. Not everything in the book is spectacular, but the parts that shine do so brilliantly. Her essays on her mother and her father are especially moving, as are those detailing her childhood in general.

fullsizeoutput_2c65Conversational, but thoughtful, Alexander Chee earnestly engages with the world in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, his memoir about coming of age and becoming a writer. Chee moves at a measured pace in these essays, steadily drifting from subject to subject, scene to scene, memory to memory. He seems less interested in establishing definitive centers for his essays than in exploring a wide range of topics, making his work read as expansive and open minded; a concept groups together each essay’s diverse contents, but in the loosest way possible. The pieces also recall each other, lending the collection a cumulative force. An idea raised in one will be expanded upon in another, a memory referenced early on later fleshed out. Chee’s at his best when he allows himself enough space to delve into the nuances of his material, be it family history or the development of his first novel. Favorite essays included “The Curse,” “Inheritance,” “The Autobiography of My Novel,” and “The Guardians.”

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