From the Man Booker-nominated author of the novel Far to Go comes an unflinching, moving, and unforgettable memoir about family secrets and the rediscovered past.
Alison Pick was born in the 1970s and raised in a supportive, loving family. Then as a teenager, Alison made a discovery that instantly changed her understanding of her family, and her vision for her own life, forever. She learned that her Pick grandparents, who had escaped from the Czech Republic during WWII, were Jewish—and that most of this side of the family had died in concentration camps. She also discovered that her own father had not known of this history until his twenties and then he, too, had kept the secret from Alison and her sister.
In her early thirties, engaged to be married to her longtime boyfriend but struggling with a crippling depression, Alison slowly but doggedly began to research and uncover her Jewish heritage. Eventually she came to realize that her true path forward was to reclaim her history and identity as a Jew. But even then, one seemingly insurmountable problem remained: her mother wasn't Jewish, so technically Alison wasn't either.
In her memoir, Between Gods, published today, Alison recounts her struggle with the meaning of her faith, her journey to convert to Judaism, her battle with depression, and her path towards facing and accepting the past and embracing the future—including starting a new family of her own.
Here, Alison Pick shares a list of Canadian memoirs that have been fundamental to her understanding of the form.
Tangles: A Story about my Mother, Alzheimer’s and Me, by Sarah Leavitt
This extremely moving graphic memoir was a finalist for the 2010 Writers’ Trust of Canada Non-fiction Prize, and it was the first graphic narrative ever on that list. Imagine being able to both write and draw! Amazing.
Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter, by Alison Wearing
This gorgeous memoir is about growing up with a gay father. When I was writing my own memoir, Between Gods, I gave it to my dad to read as an example of what the genre can do at its best. Turns out Alison Wearing’s father taught my father at school. My own dad loved the book, and it helped him see how the personal can also be universal.
Incidentally, Confessions is based on Wearing’s one-woman show, which, if you ever get the chance, you should definitely see.
Drunk Mom, by Jowita Bydlowska
I can’t say enough good things about Drunk Mom, by Jowita Bydlowska. It is a classic example of the redemptive power of honesty; it also gorgeously written. There is a chapter towards the end when Bydlowska free-associates about all the “reasons” she became an alcoholic—it’s perfectly placed in the memoir and one of the most powerful pieces of contemporary writing I’ve read.
The Mother Zone, by Marni Jackson
I remember reading this book before becoming a mother and being both terrified and exuberant. Here was somebody who had done it and lived to tell the tale; not only that, she had turned the experience of motherhood into the best kind of art. I recommend this book frequently, not just to new mothers but to everyone.
Nocturne, by Helen Humphreys
I will read anything Helen Humphreys writes. This memoir, like her novels, is spare and uncompromising. Humphreys tell us about her brother’s life and sudden death, putting, as always, the perfect words in the perfect places. I reviewed it here.
PaddleNorth, by Jennifer Kingsley
In 2005 I went on a 50-day canoe trip down the Back River in Arctic. One of my trip-mates has just published a memoir about her experience on that trip. In a year when I am publishing my own memoir, Between Gods, it was very helpful to understand what it’s like on the other end of the equation, to be the one being written about. It’s a beautiful book, and I’m glad to have been part of it.
The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood, edited by Kerry Clare
Confession—I am included in this collection of essays about motherhood in all its guises: the drudgery, the exhaustion, the sheer marvel. There are short memoirs in here about infertility, about the choice to have one child or many; about adoption, abortion, and the decision to have no children at all. So many great Canadian authors between two covers.
Touch the Dragon: a Thai Journal, by Karen Connelly
I read this book (along with Karen Connelly’s poetry) when I was just starting to write, around the year 2000. I associate it with those first heady days of falling in love with metaphor, and with the symbolic possibility of language.
Out of Grief, Singing, by Charlene Diehl
Diehl’s memoir tells the story of the early birth and death of her daughter Chloe. I recommended it in the Globe and Mail: “I read much of this book not weeping, but sobbing—and yet, the overall experience is one of hope. Out of Grief, Singing will appeal to anyone who has lost a child, to anyone who has lost a loved one, and to anyone engaged in the grueling and marvelous work of being human.”
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