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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Of memory and history; memoir and fact; mind and brain... and a book review, The Family Orchard by Nomi Eve (2001)

At Margie's lovely, gentle New Year's Eve party, several of us oldies found ourselves talking about memoirs. We're all at that age when we look backward as well as forward, now. Andrea is in a writers group where they're all working on their memoirs. I'm in a writers group where some people do that. Some of those present are already doing various kinds of writing or documentation for young family members who might appreciate hearing our stories at some time in the future. Marlene recommended a terrific teacher at Ollie whose class is a very good place to start. Perhaps it was also Marlene who expressed a concern about how accurate our memories are and, therefore, questioned the validity (or perhaps the truthfulness, or at least reliability) of this kind of writing. We all complain about our memories now; so it's fair to ask how we can assay to write accurate accounts based on such faulty sources?

But here's the problem: I'm not the only one who has noticed that if we don't write our memoirs or in some way document history as we remember it, and generally share what we've learned while we're still able to do it, by the time the next generation (or the one after that) progresses in their personal development and age level to the point where they're thinking of asking us about these things, it will probably be too late for them, and for us, to make the necessary connection. I'm still thinking of things I wish I'd thought to ask my own father and mother when they were still alive, and young enough to remember about this stuff, but I was too caught up in an earlier stage of my own life then, focused on myself at a time when I needed all the focus I could get, just to survive; and it's too late now. The chance will never come again. This dislocation of need vs. possibility among the generations is probably very common, and at least some of what we know might be useful to others later on...

All of which started me thinking about memoirs in two ways. The first was scientific, because lately a lot has been discovered about the very nature of memory itself. In the past we distinguished between "mind" and "brain" and between "fiction" (story telling) and "fact" but in reality, we're now finding that (at least concerning memory) our brains are nothing more than storytelling machines, a position I asserted with some confidence at the party but later thought I'd better fact-check. I'll get to that later. The second way I found myself thinking about memoirs had to do with literature. Regarding fiction and memoir, I remembered a remarkable novel that treats this question in a very original way: The Family Orchard by Nomi Eve.

Book first, science later... Here's a good review I just came across: http://www.bookreporter.com/reviews/0375410767.asp
And here's my own review (adapted from the one I wrote for SLJ in 2001, recommending the book to adults and older teens):

In this novel, history and fiction merge to create the family legends of six generations of Jews in Jerusalem. The narrator's father relates the known facts from 1837 to the present; then, inspired by these sketchy tales, the narrator weaves vivid fantasies about these people. She imagines her ancestors' lives to have been quirky, scandalous, sad, funny, and moving.

The narrator begins by describing the somewhat unconventional sex life of the earliest generation. Then, in colorful and increasingly complex tales of their descendants, she develops this theme into a celebration of the life of a family. Like the citrus orchards they cultivate, they accept "grafts" of spouses from many countries and cultures. The botanical metaphor is so skillfully employed that, by the end of the book, even its "Manual of Orchard Terms" is fascinating. Throughout, the book's pleasing visual design creates a sense of authenticity as it charms with varying typography, historical views of the city and its people, botanical illustrations, and diagrams of the evolving family tree.

The final story is about the narrator herself. A young American, she has come to Jerusalem to discover (and, when necessary, to invent) her family's roots, as she begins a new generation. This is an unusual, richly rewarding book. It is not for unsophisticated readers; but for the right teen, it can be experienced with delight and interest now, then rediscovered later with greater understanding.

Thinking about the book now, in terms of our New Year's conversation, I'd expand on a few things beyond SLJ's short review format. For one thing, in this novel, the author presents the known "facts" of her family history in Jerusalem as related to her by her father. But the reader tends to lose track: is this father - or his account - fictional or real? To the reader caught up in the story, the importance of such a distinction recedes in view of the sense of  authenticity the author conveys. For the record, Eve does state at the outset that the father is fictional ... for what that's worth.

Then, from these unadorned snippets of history as passed down by her father, the fictional narrator creates stories about all these people, her ancestors, that could well be - and certainly feel - true. But is it the author, fictionalizing her own stories? (Nomi Eve the author, borrowing a trope from the fiction of Philip Roth, names her narrator "Nomi Eve.") As a reader I was caught up in the story and it really didn't matter; the result is a novel of poetic truth about human life - and therefore real in a way that the bare facts of the family history cannot convey.

So between history and imagination, fact and truth, there are many interlocking layers, and the novel is a brilliant exploration of this territory of human experience.

After stating clearly that the novel is a work of fiction whose "References to actual geographical terrain and historical records are intended to give the fiction a setting in historical reality," the author adds this:
The word legend comes from the Latin "legere," which means "to read." The word "fiction" comes from the Latin "fingere," which means "to form." From fingere we also get the word fingers. We form things with our fingers. The word history comes from the Greek "istor," which means "to learn" or "to know." I believe in original etymology. I believe that fiction is formed truth. I believe that history is a way of knowing all of this. I believe that legend is how we read between the lines. (p. 3)

Well. Maybe one reason I loved the idea and technique of this novel so much -- I mean, besides the sheer joy of reading such a beautifully written and richly imagined piece of work -- was that it reminded me of my own father and mother: my father, the social scientist-journalist, was always trying to pin down the exact "facts" while my mother, a gifted writer but just as concerned with the state of the real world as my father, tended to adorn her stories with vivid (and not always strictly factual) color that paradoxically made her versions of the same stories the more appealing and thus the more true-feeling. The two writers often edited each other's drafts, and were frequently engaged in friendly disputes over "fact" vs. "exaggeration." As a writer myself, I find both qualities emerging at different times depending on what I'm writing and what my mood is.

On another personal note, another reason I like this novel is that it uses citrus-orcharding as a metaphor, something I can understand very well on a number of levels since I spent some of the least traumatic times of my childhood in such orchards, and as an adult rediscovered a love for botany. And finally, I'm drawn to the universal, trans-national quality of the family story set in a part of the world that I feel a personal connection with, thanks to brief but intense experiences in my youth.


So much for "fiction"... As to the "fact," or current state of the science of memory, I thought I'd better double-check my own memory on that score so I went to my favorite source, New Scientist, for the latest info. Here's one way of looking at how memories are stored (From: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn9970-faq-the-human-brain.html ):

There are several types of memory - for facts, skills or events - and several brain areas devoted to it. At a neuronal level, memory is any change that increases the chance of a signal passing along a particular pathway, or that increases the size or strength of this signal. At first the change can be a simple increase in the amount of signalling chemical released. Gradually, the connections are built up physically with more and bigger synapses. Eventually more branches may form.

For these more permanent changes, genes become active and produce building materials to form the structural changes. But memories are never stored in an immutable form - they are continually being changed and reactivated. (emphasis added.)

Isn't that lovely? For more articles, go to:

(When I find the one about the storytelling machine, and how the brain connects memories in different places by making up stories to link them, I'll add that here too....)


Meri said...

I, too, have been thinking alot about memoir since our conversation New Year's Eve, Chris. Glad to read all this here and to understand more about your thinking about memoir and memory. And the book sounds very interesting.

For myself, after almost four decades of thinking I really knew something about the difference between fact and fiction, my own thinking is shifting. Seems like after fifty, with every passing year, I've come to realize more st

rongly that my certainty was, itself, a fiction. The truth for me at this point is that I don't have the foggiest idea what is fact and what is fiction - particularly when it comes to the experiences of my own life. I have "stories" I tell about my experiences, but I have to admit that those stories have changed over time. Some of them that used to have happy endings have turned out to be full of denial. Some of them that used to have tragic endings have turned out to be full of complexities that softened, instead, into sweet regrets for which I feel a genuine sense of gratitude.

Having been trained as a journalist, I know the difference between a fact and an opinion. But when it comes to the stories of our own lives, I'm not sure human beings are actually as capable of drawing firm lines between fact and opinion (fiction) as we might wish we were. When I was younger, I was sure I knew exactly where to draw the hard lines. As I get older, and have a bigger pool of experience to draw from, my perspective is changed by that bigger pool of experience. Consequently, I'm a lot less certain about where the "hard" lines fall. Things that used to be a lot more black and white are now hardly ever either black or white - they're an infinite continuum of grays. And that's getting to be okay with me.

Earlier this year, I read a biography about the relationship between Margaret Meade and Ruth Benedict and the narrative presented a BRAND NEW and HIGHLY CONTROVERSIAL look at the lives of both women and the "meaning" of their friendship. The work was scholarly and well supported by letters and journal publishings and personal accounts of dozens of their friends and associates, etc. And yet, I would venture to say that more than half the people who were quoted in it would have created a different story than the "story" presented by the biographer. I've spoken to one of them myself and she told me as much.

So, who's right about "what happened?" Certainly there were specific events but what "happened" at them is a matter of interpretation. And in the end, what difference does it make to say one interpretation is right and another wrong? How can we really make that call, anyway? The principals are both dead now and even if they were alive, who could say that their "versions" of the story would be more or less true than the biographer's'?

I think we need to write memoirs because we need to make sense of our lives - for ourselves. Maybe we want others to listen to our stories, too. We want to see and hear ourselves and we want others to see and hear us, too. But maybe others will always see things differently than we did...even if they were there with us.

It seems to me that the more we learn about how the brain really works, the more our previous ideas about "definitive authority" are eroding away...."Expertise" is becoming an obsolete idea.

In the end, maybe all we will be able to say is that "Life is but a dream... "

What do you think?

Christine Menefee said...

Well put - having a lifelong background in journalism myself, I've always been aware how little accuracy (much less truth) there is out there - and with maturity, I also understand that's not what's important anyway. Memoir writing is basically something we do for ourselves, as you say. On some level it's a kind of poetry, a form of personal mythology made up of allegory and meaningful symbols. One of the best memoirs of all time is a poem, in fact - Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality, which contains references to current events, history, politics of his time, but all through the personal lens of his own mythology. And it hangs together beautifully and nobody can say whether it's right or wrong because that isn't what matters about it.

Christine Menefee said...

PS Have done a shorter version of this for WomanSource Rising, Southern Oregon eco-feminist print bimonthly, at their request. Should be in the next issue.