Tiny Lights for Travellers, by Naomi K. Lewis, is a memoir that travels across the world and into family history to make sense of the here and now. Writer Lauren B. Davis calls the book "an irresistibly wise, poignant, and often funny memoir, a spiral dance through time and space exploring memory, desire, the roots of family, race, and religion; as well as what it means to belong in one’s own skin."
In this reading list, Lewis recommends others memoirs that have inspired her as a writer and as a reader.
Between Gods, by Alison Pick
Between Gods was published to great and deserved acclaim just as I was beginning work on Tiny Lights for Travellers. I was both inspired and intimidated: Pick’s family history and ambivalent Jewish identity were so like and yet entirely unlike my own. Intimidation aside, I was so grateful for Pick’s voice and her story. Her memoir reminded me to strive for honesty in my own when I was tempted to shy away from the undignified truth. And it reminded me, tragically and poignantly, that my own experience of the multi-generational fallout of genocide is one of countless many, each unique and all connected.
The Art of Leaving, by Ayelet Tsabari
Tsebari’s essays, each of which stands on its own as a masterfully told story, together show one woman’s lifelong desire to find home and equal but opposite urge to leave, to find somewhere new. As a secular Jew of Ashkenazi descent—and one with no experience of life in the Middle East—I was particularly fascinated and saddened by Tsabari’s account of growing up in Israel as a Yemeni Jew, her community considered second-class citizens by the dominant culture of white Europeans. This is one of many memoirs that highlights the diversity of backgrounds and experience to be found in Canada, and how much we all stand to learn from each other.
A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Alicia Elliott
I keep thinking about the moment in one of her brilliant essays when Elliott finds herself reading Indigenous literature in a university class otherwise devoted to diasporic stories. She concurs with the professor that the inclusion is appropriate, because Indigenous peoples are so often displaced by settler culture, even on their own land. I learned so much from this book, both about the experience of this Haudenosaunee writer, who grew up with partly on a reservation, often in dire poverty, with an Indigenous father and a European mother who suffered from bipolar disorder, and also about the personal essay form, which Elliott has absolutely mastered.
Mistakes to Run With, Yasuko Thanh
Yasuko Thanh begins at the beginning, and traces the origins of her “mistakes,” how her life slipped early off the tracks of lower-middle-class normalcy and into a world of abusive relationships, drugs, mental illness, and sex work. Thanh is a fantastic storyteller, each of her sentences lovingly constructed. Throughout her struggles and, yes, mistakes, she also recounts how she became a writer, how she never stopped reading and writing. It shows.
Lindsay Wong cannot mention with her family without using the qualifier “crazy,” and usually “crazy Chinese.” This may seem like overkill at first but her “crazy Chinese family” really is jaw-droppingly eccentric, dare I say abusive and delusional. That Wong managed to write about her childhood at all is laudable, and that she found such a compelling, funny-brittle voice with which to do so is a kind of miracle. She writes with such ease and humour that the reader almost forgets (though not for long) that we’re witnessing a tragic legacy of mental illness without proper diagnosis or treatment.
Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, by Carmen Aguirre
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Carmen Aguirre perform her one-person show Blue Box, and was hooked on her whip-smart, sensual, and funny voice. Another first-generation Canadian, and another woman with a far-from-ordinary upbringing, Aguirre spent much of her childhood transported around Latin American by her mother and step-father as they worked for the Chilean resistance against Pinochet’s regime. Aguirre does an incredible job of showing the events of her young life through the eyes of her child-self, gradually understanding more context as the story goes on and as she gets older, until she is moved to become an activist — and then an actor and writer—herself.
Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother, by Priscila Uppal
When Priscila Uppal was a child, her mother fled back to her home country of Brazil. The two reunited only years later, in a series of tense and bizarre gatherings initiated by Uppal. This memoir is a lesson in honesty and letting go: the reunions offer no healing of past wounds, at least not in any obvious sense. Uppal gets to know enough about her mother to say goodbye again, this time with no regrets. Since her mother is a film critic, Uppal structures the story, brilliantly, around the films her mother loved most.
All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir, by Elizabeth Hay
In my own memoir, I wrote a lot about my grandparents’ dementia, and how their care fell to my parents, so Hay’s account of her parents’ aging hit close to home—literally, as well, since her parents lived in an assisted living facility blocks from my childhood house in Ottawa. Hay writes lovingly of her parents without shying away from the truth, and since every family’s truth holds some ugly bits, that’s easier said than done. All writers of memoir should strive for Hay’s balance of honesty and compassion—and not just writers, but readers, too, since after all most of us have parents, and most of those parents will grow old.
In-Between Days: A Memoir About Living with Cancer, by Teva Harrison
At 37, Teva Harrison was diagnosed with incurable cancer, and, a lifelong artist, she used drawing to help process what was happening to her. These drawings evolved into a deeply felt and wonderfully idiosyncratic memoir about living with her illness, both the physical effects of cancer and its treatments, and the knowledge that she would almost certainly die young. Teva passed away in 2019, leaving the legacy of her extraordinary passion for life, which infuses this memoir and should make any reader thankful for each of our days.
Why couldn’t I occupy the world as those model-looking women did, with their flowing hair, pulling their tiny bright suitcases as if to say, I just arrived from elsewhere, and I already belong here, and this sidewalk belongs to me?
When her marriage suddenly ends, and a diary documenting her beloved Opa’s escape from Nazi-occupied Netherlands in the summer of 1942 is discovered, Naomi Lewis decides to retrace his journey to freedom. Travelling alone from Amsterdam to Lyon, she discovers family secrets and her own narrative as a second-generation Jewish Canadian. With vulnerability, humour, and wisdom, Lewis’s memoir asks tough questions about her identity as a secular Jew, the accuracy of family stories, and the impact of the Holocaust on subsequent generations.
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