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.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

The Light of the World: A Memoir

By Elizabeth Alexander,

Book cover of The Light of the World: A Memoir

Why did I love 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.

By Elizabeth Alexander,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Light of the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD, Elizabeth Alexander finds herself at an existential crossroads after the sudden death of her husband. Reflecting with gratitude on the exquisite beauty of the intimacy they shared, grappling with the resulting void, and finding solace in caring for her two teenage sons, Alexander channels her poetic sensibilities into rich, lucid prose that universalizes a very personal quest for meaning and acceptance in the wake of loss. THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD is both an endlessly compelling memoir and a deeply felt meditation on the blessings of love, family, art, and community. For those who…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Emily Bernard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Black Is the Body as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Blackness is an art, not a science. It is a paradox: intangible and visceral; a situation and a story. It is the thread that connects these essays, but its significance as an experience emerges randomly, unpredictably. . . . Race is the story of my life, and therefore black is the body of this book.” 

In these twelve deeply personal, connected essays, Bernard details the experience of growing up black in the south with a family name inherited from a white man, surviving a random stabbing at a New Haven coffee shop, marrying a white man from the North and…

Book cover of Season of the Body: Essays

Why did I love 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.

By Brenda Miller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Season of the Body as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A memoir in essay form, with the body as its central reference point.

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

Why did I love 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.

By Melissa Valentine,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Names of All the Flowers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Set in rapidly gentrifying 1990s Oakland, this memoir—"poignant, painful, and gorgeous" (Alicia Garza)—explores siblinghood, adolescence, and grief in a family shattered by loss.

Melissa and her older brother Junior grow up running around the disparate neighborhoods of 1990s Oakland, two of six children to a white Quaker father and a black Southern mother. But as Junior approaches adolescence, a bullying incident and later a violent attack in school leave him searching for power and a sense of self in all the wrong places; he develops a hard front and falls into drug dealing. Right before Junior’s twentieth birthday, the family…

Heart Berries: A Memoir

By Terese Marie Mailhot,

Book cover of Heart Berries: A Memoir

Why did I love 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.

By Terese Marie Mailhot,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Heart Berries as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Whiting Award for Non-Fiction
Selected by Emma Watson as an Our Shared Shelf Book Club Pick

'I loved it' Kate Tempest
'Astounding' Roxane Gay
'A sledgehammer' New York Times

Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman's coming of age on an Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalised and facing a dual diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder, Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma.

The triumphant…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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

9,000+ 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 677 books about African Americans
African-American Men Explore 27 books about African-American men
Loss Explore 93 books about loss