The best memoirs to help you see the world through someone else’s eyes

Sarah L. Sanderson Author Of The Place We Make: Breaking the Legacy of Legalized Hate
By Sarah L. Sanderson

Who am I?

I chose to study creative nonfiction during my MFA program so I could learn what makes great memoirs work, but I first fell in love with the genre as a teenager, when I picked up Angela’s Ashes off my mom’s bedside table. I’m grateful for the way memoir gives me a window into the lives of people of other races, religions, abilities, experiences, and even other centuries. While my book The Place We Make isn’t only a memoir—it’s a blend of memoir and historical biography—it was my desire to both understand the view through my research subject’s eyes, and analyze how I was seeing the world myself, that drove me to write it.

I wrote...

The Place We Make: Breaking the Legacy of Legalized Hate

By Sarah L. Sanderson,

Book cover of The Place We Make: Breaking the Legacy of Legalized Hate

What is my book about?

Moving back to the outskirts of Portland, called the “Whitest city in America,” prompted Sarah’s curiosity about the colonization of the West, her ancestors, and the legal exile of a Black man. She examined four city leaders involved in Jacob Vanderpool’s case—Oregon City’s founder, the case judge, Jacob’s accuser, and a local pastor—and the cultural and theological fallout of their decisions. Along the way, Sarah took a hard look at her tendencies, unconscious and deliberate, to ignore the possibility of prejudice in her heart.

Vanderpool’s case proved a fascinating lens on a far bigger story than one trial, illuminating truths to help us all come to honest terms with our past, learn to repent, and contribute to the good of the people and places around us.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Men We Reaped: A Memoir

Why did I love this book?

Men We Reaped blew me away.

Not only does Ward provide an incredibly personal and achingly beautiful glimpse of a culture I was unfamiliar with—a rural, impoverished Black community in the Deep South—but she does so with an innovative structure that simply dazzled me.

One strand of the book opens at the beginning of Ward’s life, while the other strand picks up at the end of her tale, with the most recent of five harrowing deaths due to gun violence that she and her community have endured. Each part of the story then alternately proceeds toward the same point, forwards along her childhood and backwards through each death, until both strands wind up in the middle of the story. It’s brilliantly executed. 

By Jesmyn Ward,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Men We Reaped as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

_______________ 'A brutal, moving memoir ... Anyone who emerges from America's black working-class youth with words as fine as Ward's deserves a hearing' - Guardian 'Raw, beautiful and dangerous' - New York Times Book Review 'Lavishly endowed with literary craft and hard-earned wisdom' - Time _______________ The beautiful, haunting memoir from Jesmyn Ward, the first woman to win the National Book Award twice 'And then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped' - Harriet Tubman Jesmyn Ward's acclaimed memoir shines…

Book cover of Girl in the Dark: A Memoir of a Life Without Light

Why did I love this book?

I have been telling people about Girl in the Dark ever since I read it eight years ago. More than that—I feel like part of me has still been in Anna Lyndsey’s blackout-curtained room, with heavy tape sealing out every crack of light, ever since then.

I had never heard of her condition, which causes extremely painful sensitivity to the smallest amount of light. Lyndsey describes her physical symptoms with vivid detail, but it’s her attention to the psychological effects of being forced to withdraw from virtually all human society that makes this such a jaw-dropping read. 

By Anna Lyndsey,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Haunting, lyrical, unforgettable, Girl in the Dark is a brave new memoir of a life without light.

     Anna Lyndsey was young and ambitious and worked hard; she had just bought an apartment; she was falling in love. Then what started as a mild intolerance to certain kinds of artificial light developed into a severe sensitivity to all light. 
     Now, at the worst times, Anna is forced to spend months on end in a blacked-out room, where she loses herself in audiobooks and elaborate word games in an attempt to ward off despair. During periods of relative remission, she can venture…

Book cover of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir

Why did I love this book?

This whole book is a powerful exploration of alcoholism, homelessness, and the father-son relationship, but it was a single chapter that made me write “WOW” in the margins.

“Same Again” is a four-page chapter composed of nothing but short sentences that contain only euphemisms for alcohol, from “the usual” to “same again.” That sounds like it wouldn’t work, but it does. It’s poetic, gripping, and follows a narrative arc through a single evening at the bar.

Read the whole book, but don’t skip this mesmerizing chapter.  

By Nick Flynn,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Another Bullshit Night in Suck City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Nick Flynn met his father when he was working as a caseworker in a homeless shelter in Boston. As a teenager he'd received letters from this stranger father, a self-proclaimed poet and con man doing time in federal prison for bank robbery. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City tells the story of the trajectory that led Nick and his father onto the streets, into that shelter, and finally to each other.

Book cover of Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Why did I love this book?

Persepolis is the book that made me fall in love with graphic memoirs.

I’ve typically been more of a word person than a picture person, but Satrapi’s stark black-and-white images make such creative use of the space on the page that I was converted. I learned so much about the history of Iranian conflict from this book—through the young girl eyes of its narrator—but my favorite part is the way Satrapi visually depicts her conversations with God.

After I read this book, I started drawing images of my conversations with God into my own prayer journal.  

By Marjane Satrapi,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Persepolis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Wise, often funny, sometimes heart-breaking, Persepolis tells the story of Marjane Satrapi's life in Tehran from the ages of six to fourteen, growing up during the Iranian Revolution.

The intelligent and outspoken child of radical Marxists, and the great-grandaughter of Iran's last emperor, Satrapi bears witness to a childhood uniquely entwined with the history of her country. Persepolis paints an unforgettable portrait of daily life in Iran and of the bewildering contradictions between home life and public life.

Amidst the tragedy, Marjane's child's eye view adds immediacy and humour, and her story of a childhood at once outrageous and ordinary,…

Book cover of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vasso, the African

Why did I love this book?

I sometimes think of memoir as a modern genre, but the truth is that people have been writing about their own lives for thousands of years.

This 1789 account begins with Olaudah Equiano’s day-to-day life growing up in the kingdom of Benin, Africa, and then describes his crossing the Atlantic Ocean via the Middle Passage and subsequent enslavement.

When I first read this book in college, it was the beginning of my realization that the people in history were people with whom I share all the same range of emotions and motivations that comes with being human. This book instilled in me a desire to understand the people of the past.

By Olaudah Equiano,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vasso, the African as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A first-person narrative of Olaudah Equiano's journey from his native Africa to the New World, that follows his capture, introduction to Christianity and eventual release. His story is an eye-opening depiction of personal resilience in the face of structural oppression.

Olaudah Equiano's origins are rooted in West Africa's Eboe district, which is modern-day Nigeria. He details the shocking events that led up to his kidnapping and subsequent trade into slavery. His journey starts at 11 years old, forcing him to come of age in a society that abuses him at every turn. During his plight, he attempts to find new…

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