The best memoirs and books on the politics of memory

Who am I?

As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, I have always been interested in trauma and memory, racial and ethnic oppression, and gender violence. I want to make visible what has been marginalized, forgotten, or repressed. I am also moved by the way that personal stories connect us to larger collectivities and histories. When I visited the lynching memorial in Montgomery, my parents’ hometown in Poland, or the memorial to Walter Benjamin in Portbou, Spain, I felt compelled to write about the embodied experience of place and the importance of activist memory. I have also written about the imagery of lynching, war and ruins, and artworks by the offspring of Holocaust survivors.

I wrote...

Calling Memory Into Place

By Dora Apel,

Book cover of Calling Memory Into Place

What is my book about?

How can memory be mobilized for social justice? How can images and monuments counter public forgetting? And how can inherited family and cultural traumas be channeled in useful ways? From the street memorials for Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to the national lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama, to my own family's experience of the Holocaust and its impact on my experience of breast cancer treatment, my book explores the dynamic nature of memory, memorials, and the inscription of trauma on the body as a site of memory. Focusing on the relations among place, memory, and identity, I consider the dynamic and productive nature of memory as it crosses geography and generations.

The books I picked & why

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Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

By Dani Shapiro,

Book cover of Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

Why this book?

What excites me about this book is the way that Dani Shapiro spins a shocking discovery about her genealogy--that her father is not her biological father--into a moving story about family secrets and the meaning of identity. She has written earlier memoirs, which are also great, but what she believed about who she was is shattered in this one and beautifully explored. When I read it, I thought, This could happen to any of us.

The Year of Magical Thinking

By Joan Didion,

Book cover of The Year of Magical Thinking

Why this book?

I am amazed by the way Joan Didion probes her own sense of sanity following the sudden death of her beloved husband, the way she questions everything she thought she knew as she examines her marriage and the workings of her grief and loss. Her candor is brave, memorable, and inspiring, and helped me get through my own grief when my mother died.

The Argonauts

By Maggie Nelson,

Book cover of The Argonauts

Why this book?

I love how intellectually and emotionally daring this book is, how fearless and willing to challenge conventional notions. Maggie Nelson writes beautifully and honestly about sex and sexuality, queerness, desire, language, and the meaning of family, pregnancy, and motherhood. I am inspired by the way she blends the intensely personal with the philosophical and with critical inquiry.

Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture

By Alison Landsberg,

Book cover of Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture

Why this book?

I really appreciate Alison Landsberg’s focus on the fact that all of us, regardless, of race, gender, or ethnicity, are able to experience empathy for people whose experience is historically different than our own. I find this argument especially important in an era of alarming race essentialism, such as the protest against a painting of Emmett Till because the artist was White.

The Stages of Memory: Reflections on Memorial Art, Loss, and the Spaces Between

By James E Young,

Book cover of The Stages of Memory: Reflections on Memorial Art, Loss, and the Spaces Between

Why this book?

Whether he’s talking about Holocaust memorials or the 9/11 memorial, James Young is always eloquent and poignant. The most important thing I have learned from all his writing is that memorials can never be redemptive, but must express the void of loss without attempting to fill it with consoling meaning.

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