Autobiography

  • ⇢ Reyna Grande, The Distance Between Us: A Memoir


    Reyna Grande, The Distance Between Us: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster).

    From the publisher: Reyna Grande vividly brings to life her tumultuous early years in this "compelling ... unvarnished, resonant" (BookPage) story of a childhood spent torn between two parents and two countries.  As her parents make the dangerous trek across the Mexican border to "El  Otro Lado" (The Other Side) in pursuit of the American dream, Reyna and her siblings are forced into the already overburdened household of their stern grandmother. When their mother at last returns, Reyna prepares for her own journey to "El Otro Lado" to live with the man who has haunted her imagination for years, her long-absent father. Funny, heartbreaking, and lyrical, The Distance Between Us poignantly captures the confusion and contradictions of childhood, reminding us that the joys and sorrows we experience are imprinted on the heart forever, calling out to us of those places we first called home. 

    Alex Bennett, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, discusses The Distance Between Us with the author, Reyna Grande. The Distance Between Us is among the final five selections, in the category of Autobiography, for the 2012 NBCC awards.  The interview was conducted via video chat on 2/11/13.


    Alex Bennett is from Kansas City, Missouri. She is studying poetry at The New School and lives in Brooklyn.

  • ⇢ Maureen N. McLane, My Poets


    Maureen N. McLane, My Poets (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

    From the Publisher: A thrillingly original exploration of a life lived under poetry's uniquely seductive spell. "Oh! there are spirits of the air," wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley. In this stunningly original book, Maureen N. McLane channels the spirits and voices that make up the music in one poet's mind. Weaving criticism and memoir, My Poets explores a life reading and a life read. McLane invokes in My Poets not necessarily the best poets, nor the most important poets (whoever these might be), but those writers who, in possessing her, made her. "I am marking here what most marked me," she writes. Ranging from Chaucer to H.D. to William Carlos Williams to Louise Glück to Shelley (among others), McLane tracks the "growth of a poet's mind," as Wordsworth put it in The Prelude. In a poetical prose both probing and incantatory, McLane has written a radical book of experimental criticism. Susan Sontag called for an "erotics of interpretation": this is it. Part Bildung, part dithyramb, part exegesis, My Poets extends an implicit invitation to you, dear reader, to consider who your "my poets," or "my novelists," or "my filmmakers," or "my pop stars," might be.

    Meredith Russo, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, discusses My Poets with the author, Maureen McLane.  My Poets is among the final five selections, in the category of Autobiography, for the 2012 NBCC awards.  The interview was conducted on 1/20/13.


    Meredith Russo is a first year MFA Creative Writing student with a concentration in Fiction.  She graduated from Dartmouth College in 2008.

  • ⇢ Anthony Shadid, House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East


    Anthony Shadid, House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). 

    From the Publisher: In spring 2011, Anthony Shadid was one of four New York Times reporters captured in Libya, cuffed and beaten, as that country was seized by revolution. When he was freed, he went home. Not to Boston or Beirut — where he lives — or to Oklahoma City, where his Lebanese - American family had settled and where he was raised. Instead, he returned to his great-grandfather's estate, a house that, over three years earlier, Shadid had begun to rebuild.

    House of Stone is the story of a battle-scarred home and a war correspondent's jostled spirit, and of how reconstructing the one came to fortify the other. In this poignant and resonant memoir, the author of the award-winning Night Draws Near creates a mosaic of past and present, tracing the house's renewal alongside his family's flight from Lebanon and resettlement in America. In the process, Shadid memorializes a lost world, documents the shifting Middle East, and provides profound insights into this volatile landscape. House of Stone is an unforgettable meditation on war, exile, rebirth, and the universal yearning for home.

    Anna Fridlis, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, discusses House of Stone:  A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East, by Anthony Shadid. House of Stone is among the final five selections, in the category of Autobiography, for the 2012 NBCC awards.  


    Anthony Shadid's House of Stone begins with the author's visit to his 100-year-old family home in Marjayoun, Lebanon. It is the summer of 2006. The violence that Shadid's grandparents fled during the fall of the Ottoman Empire echoes in the present upheaval of the region. Recently divorced and suffering a separation from his young daughter Laila, Shadid takes a leave of absence from the Washington Post, where he is Middle East Correspondent, to rebuild his great-grandfather Isber Samara's once stately, now crumbling house. 

    Before he can begin building, Shadid must demolish. The cement covering the stone stairs and marble floors, the walls added during the decades of the house's decay to accommodate renters, are stripped to reveal the foundation of stone. Parallel to Shadid's account of the house's de- and eventual re-construction is the story of his ancestors' emigration and the rebuilding of their lives in the state of Oklahoma, among others. Along the way his ancestors experience the greatest loss — that of their homes, their identities — leaving them to start over in building their lives.

    The account of his family's struggles, spanning the years preceding World War I through the 1970s, serves as the backdrop both for the author's own sense of rootlessness and for his reflections on the violence of the current Middle East. This book is both a personal narrative of seeking one's place in the world — "bayt," home — and of an entire town, country, region of the world caught in the struggle for identity, a struggle that costs nothing more or less than peace. What has been lost by each member of the Shadid family, and families like it, echoes the larger loss of tolerance in a region that was once marked by it. 

    Shortly after his arrival in Lebanon and following one of Israel's deadliest reprisals against Hezbollah, Shadid witnesses a small group of women silently mourning over 86 graves: "The women in Tyre did not flinch, did not speak; they did not ask that their sorrows be noticed. They were here for others, and as long as the caskets remained, waiting to be interred in the same gaping hole, the women would not depart. Their presence said that life was still sacred, that the loss of it mattered, even now." 

    The role of mourner, of witness sanctifying loss on every scale, was his also. Shadid's sense of journalistic responsibility was to the victims, the dispossessed. "Our [American public] tendency is to consider the resolution of the battle or the war or the conflict, not to take in the tragedies that outlast even the most final sort of conclusion. We never find out, or think to ask, whether the village is rebuilt, or what becomes of the dazed woman who, after one strange, endlessly extended moment, is no longer the mother of children." 

    Both as the author of House of Stone and as journalist covering the impact of violence on the people of the Middle East, his voice was that of compassion. His colleagues attested to this quality one year ago. On February 16th, 2013, while on assignment in Syria from The New York Times, Shadid died of an asthma attack. The following day the Twitterverse abounded with colleagues' and readers' expressions of grief and respect. Peter S. Goodman, Executive Business Editor at The Huffington Post and a former correspondent for The New York Times and The Washington Post wrote, "Rarely does a journalist die and the world is different, but without Shadid we will know less, and settle for less nuanced, less human truth." Wall Street Journal Reporter and Arab-American Tamer El-Ghobashy tweeted, "Shadid was the most elegant example of how you can be an Arab and a journalist in American media without the whiff of pander or bias." During his 20-year career Shadid earned two Pulitzer Prizes, in 2004 and 2010, for his coverage of the Iraq war.

    Reflecting in the memoir's epilogue on the future of the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring Shadid writes, "I thought of what was lost and what might, somehow, return. I envisioned desert wanderers of different faiths and creeds, offering aid and succor to each other as they crossed the steppe. I recalled the silent respect of the women in Tyre mourning in black before 86 numbered coffins, destined for a single grave. I remembered Tahrir Square and what had once more, for a moment, been imagined." 


    Anna Fridlis lives in New York City, and is an MFA student at The New School Graduate Writing Program.

  • ⇢ Leanne Shapton, Swimming Studies


    Leanne Shapton, Swimming Studies (Blue Rider Press). 

    From the Publisher:  Swimming Studies is a brilliantly original, meditative memoir that explores the worlds of competitive and recreational swimming. From her training for the Olympic trials as a teenager to enjoying pools and beaches around the world as an adult, Leanne Shapton offers a fascinating glimpse into the private, often solitary, realm of swimming. Her spare and elegant writing reveals an intimate narrative of suburban adolescence, spent underwater in a discipline that continues to inspire Shapton's work as an artist and author. Her illustrations throughout the book offer an intuitive perspective on the landscapes and imagery of the sport. Shapton's emphasis is on the smaller moments of athletic pursuit rather than its triumphs. For the accomplished athlete, aspiring amateur, or habitual practicer, this remarkable work of written and visual sketches propels the reader through a beautifully personal and universally appealing exercise in reflection.

    Larissa Zimberoff, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, discusses Swimming Studies with the author, Leanne Shapton. Swimming Studies is among the final five selections, in the category of Autobiography, for the 2012 NBCC awards.  The interview was conducted via phone on 1/20/13. 


    Larissa Zimberoff is a freelance writer living in Manhattan. She is currently working towards her MFA in creative nonfiction at The New School. Her writing has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, and The Brooklyn Rail.

  • ⇢ Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, In the House of the Interpreter


    Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o,  In the House of the Interpreter (Pantheon).

    From the Publisher:  World-renowned Kenyan novelist, poet, playwright, and literary critic Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o gives us the second volume of his memoirs in the wake of his critically acclaimed Dreams in a Time of War.

    In the House of the Interpreter richly and poignantly evokes the author's life and times at boarding school — the first secondary educational institution in British-ruled Kenya — in the 1950s, against the backdrop of the tumultuous Mau Mau Uprising for independence and Kenyan sovereignty. While Ngũgĩ has been enjoying scouting trips, chess tournaments, and reading about the fictional RAF pilot adventurer Biggles at the prestigious Alliance High School near Nairobi, things have been changing rapidly at home. Poised as he is between two worlds, Ngũgĩ returns home for his first visit since starting school to find his house razed and the entire village moved up the road, closer to a guard checkpoint. Later, his brother Good Wallace, a member of the insurgency, is captured by the British and taken to a concentration camp. As for Ngũgĩ himself, he falls victim to the forces of colonialism in the person of a police officer encountered on a bus journey, and he is thrown into jail for six days. In his second year at Alliance High School, the boarding school that was his haven in a heartless world is shattered by investigations, charges of disloyalty, and the politics of civil unrest.

    Hal Walling, on behalf of the New School Graduate Writing Program and the NBCC, discusses In the House of the Interpreter with the author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o.  In the House of the Interpreter is among the final five selections, in the category of Autobiography, for the 2012 NBCC awards.  The interview was conducted via video chat on 1/20/13. 


    Hal Walling is from Sooke, British Columbia. His short stories have appeared in some of Canada's finest literary journals, including The Malahat Review, The Dalhousie Review, and The New Quarterly. 


    Transcription of Audio: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, In the House of the Interpreter

    Hal Walling: I'm here talking to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, author of In the House of the Interpreter. Ngũgĩ is one of the five finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards in the category of Autobiography for 2012. How are you?

    Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: Very fine.

    Hal Walling: Good, good. So I'm in New York City at the Writing Program of The New School and Ngũgĩ is in California. We're going to talk for a bit about In the House of the Interpreter. So this book is the second in a series of your memoirs, following 2010's Dreams in a Time of War. It picks up while you're a teenager in boarding school. I'm wondering what motivated you, more than fifty years later, to revisit this period of your life. Did you reach a point where you felt ultimately ready and compelled to tell these stories?

    Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: Yes, actually. For a long time, I was not able to write on my life. Or rather, when I did, I did it through fiction, drawing from bits and pieces. But now, I don't know how, it seems suddenly to have begun coming together and I felt that I was ready to do my memoir. And I did the first one, Dreams in a Time of War; and the other one which came naturally is In the House of the Interpreter. I'll do another one, a third one, on my college days, because that was the most formative part of my writing career. But the first two installations, or rather the two first memoirs, particularly the last one, In the House of the Interpreter  again, it's like my writing autobiography is like a journey in creativity  my intellectual and emotional formation.  

    Hal Walling: I was wondering about the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction for you. You've written many famous novels and plays. Is the impulse to write personally different from the impulse to write fiction, or is it all personal at its root?

    Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: Yes, in fiction … Well, in the case of memoir, you're very much bound by, of course, your life; the events you can remember. But those are close to fiction in the sense that you are taking those facts and trying to create a continuous story out of it, one that makes sense, you know, to a reader. So even when writing a memoir, you're selecting from a whole range of facts and figures and you try to put them in a kind of logic, in a narrative, that makes sense for you and the reader. So in both cases, you’re trying to create a narrative that gives a sense of order to a chaos. The difference is, in the case of your own life, in the chaos, there are markers that you can't ignore. In fiction, it's simply real … elements in the chaos.   

    Hal Walling: On that note, on one hand, In the House of The Interpreter is the story of your four years at Alliance High School. You've said that this was a hugely formative and influential period in your life. But it's also the story of Kenya during the Mau Mau Uprising. When writing about your personal experience, how conscious are you of educating readers and providing historical background too?

    Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: When I look back at my own life  first of all, it doesn't … the development of my own mind. I've reached a position where I begin to see things in what I call "globalectically." That is, I try to see connection between even the smallest thing in a wider context, or rather what Blake called "seeing the world in a grain of sand." Now, an example … as a child, obviously, during the Second World War, there were many people from my village who were part  or even one of my brothers was  part of that war. But the way the war came to us was in tiny little bits of the every day, like seeing an army lorry pass through near our village, or seeing the military encamp in some of the forests near our village. Or, in my own case, having a military lorry get stuck outside my mother's house, and as my brother and others tried to get it out of the mud, it slid and hit my mother's house, which for many months, that house leaned on one side. So when I remembered the Second World War, it was quite literally in the very personal terms of my mother's hut leaning on one side as a result of being hit by a military lorry that had come to visit our homestead. Now, in the same way in In the House of the Interpreter, not only do I look at the actual concrete things which happened to me, but those concrete things had also other echoes. Okay, so I talk about my Headmaster, for instance, in Carey Francis, who was a very contradictory figure. A decorated officer of the British empire who believed in its ideals but who was also very critical of the failure of the empire to realize its ideals, or when the practice contradicted what he thought were ideals of the empire. So a very contradictory figure. He was a don at Cambridge, then resigned from Cambridge, coming to work in a primary school somewhere in Kenya initially in 1928 [The Maseno School in Nyanza Province]. So, talking about him I saw those kinds of connections because they are very, very fascinating. So my new outlook is trying to see the world in a grain of sand; in other words, trying to see the world in my own life.

    Hal Walling: I'm happy you brought up Carey Francis. I was going to ask about him. He's such a prominent figure in the book. He was the principal of Alliance during your time there, and so I was wondering, you write about his Franciscan principles and how they had an effect on you, could you talk a bit more about that?

    Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: Yeah, as I said he was a contradictory person in my [view], but he was completely selfless. In other words, he was totally devoted to his mission. As I said, he had many contradictions, like, he actually believed in the British Empire. In fact, he was a decorated officer of the British Empire. He believed in a kind of, in his own mind, a … kind of ideal, but for him that was also very personal. It's what he did in the school … the way he got to know each and every student in that school for all the years that he was there. He knew where they lived. A very contradictory figure. You could disagree with him, but you at no moment would ever doubt his honesty. So he was a very fascinating figure in so many ways. Let me give an example. For instance, in Kenya at the time, there were schools for Africans and schools for Europeans. He, Carey Francis, literally seemed to believe  and I remember him saying this, I've said it in the book -- that in all his life teaching mathematics, he has not found a single African student who could be accepted to Cambridge to do mathematics on the basis of merit, except one. This always struck me as being racist even at the time. But the same guy was so elated when any Alliance High School beat the daylight out of the European schools; whether in sports, or academically, or whatever Alliance High School was able to do. So you could see he wanted to work for his students to achieve the very best intellectually and even morally, obviously in terms of his definition of morality, but still he was that kind of person.

    Hal Walling: In the book you describe your "sense of dislocation" having been educated and read books "exclusively rooted in the English experience," so this goes along with what you were just saying. How important was it for you as a student to seek out other reference points, and later to begin writing your own?

    Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: First of all, let me just say that in the book, In the House of the Interpreter, I describe how I see a library for the first time in my life. We didn't have a library in the village. Or rather, the only library we had was whatever we were able to borrow from our African headmaster. He was incredible in so many ways. So, I come to Alliance High School. I see a library for the first time. The fact that I could go in there, sign a piece of paper, and I could get a book, any book, seemed to me like a magic opportunity. And I remember vowing to read all the books written in the world at that time. Of course, needless to say, I never even finished three or more shelves of our own library at Alliance. But the books we read were a really mixed lot. There were some which were really, sort of, narratives of the Empire. But equally, that's where I found Emily Brontë, also, Wuthering Heights. That's where I found Tolstoy, Childhood and Youth. And of course Shakespeare and H.G. Wells. So, it was a mixed bag, and like anything else you had to choose and hope that life itself helps you pick and choose. Just remember, in the end, for me  and this is what I describe in the book  the check-in was always the reality of the life around me. Because my life was between two systems: the boarding school, where everything seemed to be orderly and there was a system of rules that applied to everybody; and then, outside the walls of the school was a different set of rules which did not apply equally to everybody. So leaving school always meant for me going back to the outside world, which was dominated by British military presence. So you walk outside the school walls and there were killings, arrests. In the book, I describe a number of times I myself was held by the British military forces, after I left. Whenever I went home from school, I would get involved in one incident or another. Especially because my older brother was in the mountains fighting against the British. So outside Alliance, the school, and the outside of the school, checked each other.

    Hal Walling: That leads very well into the final question we have time for, which is about the ending of the book. It would have been a much different book if it had simply ended with your graduation from Alliance. So how important was it for you to include the final section of the book? What did that experience teach you or reinforce in you?

    Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: Yes, well, there were two things in the final section. The theme of In the House of the Interpreter is actually both what was happening in the school and what was happening out of the school. And it always felt to me like the moment I left the school, what I had always been avoiding or what I had escaped in all those years of being inside the compound of the school, now caught up with me. So the final chapter was very, very important. It's dramatic … It haunts me even today, so to speak. So it's important for me to put in there. The book would not have been complete without what happened to me three months after leaving Alliance High School.

    Hal Walling: Thank you so much. That's all the time we have for today. This is Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, author of In the House of the Interpreter, which is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in the category of Autobiography. Thanks again. 

In conjunction with the National Book Critics Circle, this site is the work of students and faculty of the The School of Writing at The New School.