The best lyrical memoirs that act as salve to the soul

Who am I?

My writing background started in the newsroom where, as a reporter, my job was to interview and tell the stories of others. At one point in my career, my editors assigned me a bi-monthly column, and while I used this space to write about a variety of issues happening in the community, I also used it occasionally to write personal essays. I love this form because the personal story helps us drill down on an issue and, in essence, make deeper connections with the collective. When I left the newsroom, I continued to study and write in essay and memoir form. In my MFA program, I was able to focus on this form exclusively for two years, and I have spent many years crafting my first book-length memoir into form. 

I wrote...

We Are Bridges: A Memoir

By Cassandra Lane,

Book cover of We Are Bridges: A Memoir

What is my book about?

When Cassandra Lane finds herself pregnant at thirty-five, the knowledge sends her on a poignant exploration of memory to prepare for her entry into motherhood. She moves between the twentieth-century rural South and present-day Los Angeles, reimagining the intimate life of her great-grandparents Mary Magdalene Magee and Burt Bridges, and Burt's lynching at the hands of vengeful white men in his southern town.

We Are Bridges turns to creative nonfiction to reclaim a family history from violent erasure so that a mother can gift her child with an ancestral blueprint for their future. Haunting and poetic, this debut traces the strange fruit borne from the roots of personal loss in one Black family—and considers how to take back one’s American story.

The books I picked & why

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The Light of the World: A Memoir

By Elizabeth Alexander,

Book cover of The Light of the World: A Memoir

Why this book?

I absolutely love when poets write memoirs. They bring their vision and facility for sparse and exact language to the task, and Alexander’s memoir about the loss of her beloved husband is a shining example of a story that is both full and tightly woven with imagery, emotion, and action. Her words and sentences slay you, then, like a battery, or rather, lightning, shock the stunned thing in your chest back to life again. How can we write beautifully about grief and pain in a way that also heals by the sheer power of language and deep reflection? This. This is how.

Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother's Time, My Mother's Time, and Mine

By Emily Bernard,

Book cover of Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother's Time, My Mother's Time, and Mine

Why this book?

Faithful to its title, this brilliant book starts with the body — an unspeakable injury to the narrator’s body, a crime, a horror. Bernard writes with a specificity that is gut-wrenching without being sensational. And all along, running alongside the sensory language is the author’s intellectual river, constantly washing over and over a moment, a scene, a feeling, a thought. This book includes twelve interconnected essays, each building on the other despite how many years – and miles – separate them.

Season of the Body: Essays

By Brenda Miller,

Book cover of Season of the Body: Essays

Why this book?

Brenda Miller, a former professor of mine, was one of the first people whose work opened up for me the endless possibilities in creative nonfiction and memoir. Season of the Body is a sumptuous collection of lyric essays that can teach the close reader how to come at a subject “sideways”. A flash essay offered by Creative Nonfiction magazine had a subtitle that reminds me of the genius of Miller’s book, “Distill experiences, big or small, into their purest essence.” Whether she’s writing about heartbreak or meditation, Miller’s poetic attention to detail and philosophical tone act as distiller.

The Names of All the Flowers: A Memoir

By Melissa Valentine,

Book cover of The Names of All the Flowers: A Memoir

Why this book?

I have not read a book like Melissa Valentine's The Names of All the Flowers, which is a beautiful, painful, and exquisitely written narrative about her brother Junior, who was gunned down on the streets of Oakland when he was 19. "Say his name, say her name," we chant when yet another one of our brothers or sisters is killed. In this memoir, Valentine gives us not only Junior's name but an intimate look into his head, his heart, his fears, his dreams, his joy.

Heart Berries: A Memoir

By Terese Marie Mailhot,

Book cover of Heart Berries: A Memoir

Why this book?

This slim volume of a memoir packs a punch in its sheer power, structure, and sentence-by-sentence craft. It is innovative, and it is a story this country needed. People talk a lot about the importance of “voice” in writing. Mailhot’s voice is searing; it lifts off the page and soars right into your soul.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in African Americans, African-American men, and loss?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about African Americans, African-American men, and loss.

African Americans Explore 435 books about African Americans
African-American Men Explore 18 books about African-American men
Loss Explore 40 books about loss

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Waiting to Exhale, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Forged in Battle if you like this list.