In January, I’ll be teaching a course in writing memoir. Memoir can be a hard form to define, but to my mind, memoir is all about place – a writer’s relationship with the place they grew up in, and their struggle to find their place in the world. These writers use place to explore further issues of identity and belonging. I recently read two memoirs which gave two very different definitions of Britishness. Britain’s former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion wrote a memoir of his childhood, In the Blood, which gave a more traditional portrait of Britishness. Yasmin Hai’s The Making of Mr Hai’s Daughter portrayed a newer version of Britishness.
Britishness is more of a background detail in Andrew Motion’s memoir. His book is largely concerned with his relationship with his mother and family, and the making of him as a poet. It is bookended by a horrific riding accident his mother suffered. But Motion’s role as Poet Laureate shows that he is very much part of the British establishment. Many staples of traditional British life appear in Motion’s narrative: days spent hunting and shooting, tales of boarding school life. Interestingly, Motion struggled with these traditions, but he remained respectful of his heritage, and found ways to work within it.
The search for British identity is at the centre of Yasmin Hai’s memoir. She makes it plain that she is using her memoir to explore what Britishness means if you are the child of a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan. While Motion’s Britain is sepia tinted, Hai’s is edgier and more current. She movingly describes her struggle to define herself. Raised by a secular liberal father, she finds herself torn between two worlds, Cool Britannia, which is starting to emerge as she comes of age in the 1990s, and the Asian Muslim community that she grew up in. The search for belonging is to the fore in her memoir.
What memoirs have you read that evoke a strong sense of place? Have you read memoirs that deal with issues of identity and belonging?