Monday, November 17, 2014

The Unloved Step-Child of the Bookstore: How I Embraced Non-Fiction and Why You Should Too

When I was younger I always used to say I preferred fiction to non-fiction because in fiction anything could happen, whereas non-fiction had to play by the rules of reality and therefore there were less possibilities. This was my super sophisticated way of saying at no point in a nonfiction novel was there ever a chance of a dragon showing up, so why bother?

Throughout my college career, however, I have had to read a number of non-fiction stories, most of them memoirs, and I have come to the conclusion that non-fiction is often far more surprising than any fictional plot twist could be. Turns out there are more rules in fiction than reality.

In fiction the story has to make sense. Character progressions and plot lines need to be logical. We need to be able to understand the motives behind character's actions, and any actions that seem out of character are cause for suspicion and criticism. In fiction we know who the good guys and the bad guys are and, perhaps the most important, we can normally count on the good guys winning.

The real world makes no such promises, and neither does non-fiction. And I think that is what makes non-fiction so powerful, and also what makes it so terrifying. In the real world the narratives all become much more complex and lines are blurred between good and bad. People are forced to live through terrible things for no reason, and more often than not there is no turning point, no deus ex machina miracle, no happy ending. People do terrible things for reasons we cannot comprehend, and sometimes the "bad guys" win. Non-fiction is raw, it is so often beautiful and terrible all at once, and most terrifying of all, it is real.

Non-fiction, particularly memoirs, have come to hold a very special place on my bookshelf and in my heart. I love learning about history from the perspectives of the people who lived it. I love feeling connected to the lives and experiences of people from all over the world and from all different time periods. I have a particular soft spot for memoirs of people who lived through tragedies, because those are the pieces of history that interest me the most. It sounds a bit dark, but I am drawn to the periods and events that involve the greatest suffering, the times when things went terribly, terribly wrong. I think it is partially because I feel like we have an obligation to remember and to do justice to those who suffered, and partially because I truly believe studying past tragedies can help prevent future ones.

I've collected quite a few memoirs over the past few years and I thought I would share a few of my favorites with you lovely people.

Night by Elie Wiesel. 

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed....Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever....Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

Night is a poignant Holocaust narrative on life in the Auschwitz, and later Buchenwald, concentration camps in Nazi Germany. The narration is beautiful, but the material is raw and utterly un-sugar coated. I cried a lot. It is a fairly short book, but I would heavily recommend spacing your reading out a bit as it is extraordinarily emotionally draining. It is a must read for anyone interested in better understanding the Holocaust and the enormous suffering inflicted upon the millions of victims.

Finding MaƱana by Mirta Ojito

To be revolutionary was to be Cuban. To be Cuban was to be revolutionary...The adults contributed with their sweat and loyalty, while we, the children, were expected to turn over our souls.

I recently had to read this for my History of the Caribbean class and I really enjoyed it. The book gives insight into what it was like to grow up in Castro's Cuba, particularly for those who did not support the revolution, and what lengths people had- and more importantly were willing- to go to in order to leave the country. It also provides historical context through chapter narratives of other key people involved in the events that frame Mirta's personal story, so you don't really need to know much about the events for the book to make sense. I personally had no idea what life inside Castro's Cuba really looked like, so the book was a real eye opener for me. I also think it would help people (read as Americans) understand the perspective of a refugee, which is something a good portion of the US is largely blind to, but highly judgmental of.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

This one is actually a graphic novel for those of you who are into that sorta thing- hence my not including a quote for this one. It follows Marjane's childhood growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Again I would argue that no real prior knowledge is necessary to enjoy the book and have it make an impact on you. Marjane is extraordinarily witty and she manages to capture the fear and confusion that engulfed her country while making you laugh all at the same time. She was not the type of girl to keep her mouth shut and that makes her story all the more engaging, in my opinion. Plus she is just absurdly sassy and has 0 time for the sexist culture she found herself in. This book has a sequel, which follows her adulthood, and she only got sassier and more flawless with age. An absolute feminist must read.

A Single Numberless Death by Nora Strejilevich

It's not every day that you open the door and four rooms are ripped apart by a cyclone that shatters the past and yanks the hands off the clock. It's not every day that mirrors crack and costumes unravel. It's not ever day that you try to escape and the clock has moved, the door is unhinged, the window stuck, and cornered you cry through minutes that do not tick away.
Yet another cheery memoir from my collection, A Single Numberless Death takes place in Argentina during what is known as "The Dirty War." During this time the military dictatorship in the country abducted and tortured thousands of people who were believed to be political dissidents; many of them were never seen or heard from again. Nora was one of the disappeared who was later released, and this book narrates her time in captivity as well as her time as an exile in Israel after she was released. I will admit this book is not for everybody. The narration is absolutely beautiful, but it takes some working at to make sense of, especially because she does not tell the story in chronological order. However, I firmly believe it would be a rewarding read for anyone willing to take the time to unravel it.

*This one has a particularly special place in my heart because my English class actually got to skype with the author because she used to teach at my university so my professor was good friends with her. Super cool experience!*

I do of course still read primarily fiction; that has not changed. But I have become far more open to reading non-fiction, whereas 4 years ago I avoided it at all costs. I consider myself very fortunate that I had the opportunity to discover the beauty of this genre that I once so vehemently shunned. It has opened my eyes to so much, and has given me a way to intimately connect with people and experiences that I would never have been properly introduced to otherwise.

Have you read any of these, and if so what did you think of them? And are there any memoirs you think I should add to my shelf?

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