Earlier this week, Dorit Sasson described the self-imposed silence she learned to break in writing her memoir Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service in the Israel Defense Forces. She is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
Going through transformational, life-altering events certainly changes a person, but when it comes to writing these events in the form of a memoir, one has to know how to ground the reader in the story.
Transformation isn’t only for immigrants like myself who typically experience displacement, but for showing any kind of change or growth—cultural, psychological, or emotional. To read just immigrant memoirs would be to ignore the other voices of change. “Not everything that is faced can be changed,” James Baldwin observed. “But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
In Cheryl Strayed’s New York Times bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the young narrator travels back and forth in time from her current Pacific Crest Trail experience to memories of girlhood to find her soul. She struggles to understand her mother’s death at the onset of her journey, not fully understanding that those dramatic moments will give voice to her higher self. Each time I “traveled” with Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Crest Trail, I started to think about ways to translate the cultural, emotional and social obstacles into story material. My character would need to undergo some kind of transformation. As an IDF female immigrant, how would that cultural transformation show up in my story? To show that transformation, I had to go back to the beginning, to where the story started—in New York City. I had to get in touch with that eighteen-year-old again.
Gabrielle Selz and I grew up in the same building known as Westbeth in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York City so our parents already had many things in common. Her memoir Unstill Life tells the story of a daughter of a larger-than-life father known as Mr. Modern Art, curator of the Museum of Modern Art, and her relationship to a world where the boundary between art and life is often blurred. For Selz’s parents, art always came first and children were regarded as “side dishes.” Selz understands that her relationship with parents, especially with her father, is anything but traditional; as she comes to terms with her father’s relationship, she struggles to figure out her purpose in life and whether following in her father’s footsteps in the art world is part of that journey.
Another memoir that particularly spoke to me is Karen Levy’s My Father’s Gardens tells the story of a native-born Israeli who tries to find a sense of home and connection while traveling for most of her childhood and young adult life between her native Israel and equally familiar United States. She feels uprooted most of the time. Karen is also a native-born Israeli woman who ends up serving in the Israel Defense Forces and soon after, travels back and forth between both countries. She, too, has a complicated relationship with her mother as she seeks to escape her for more positive experiences, and it was edifying to study how she handled the cultural-psychological journey of learning to become her own person in her writing as I began to chronicle a parallel path.
Lastly, I’d be remiss to neglect The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah, in which Joel Chasnoff describes his immigration to Israel from an Ivy League with the intention of serving in a high combat unit in the IDF. Chasnoff serves in a high combat unit in South Lebanon, and uses military slang and humor as his way of adjusting to this new militaristic mentality. Chasnoff’s memoir is largely an American-Jewish memoir.
For the past twenty-three years I had lived the events of my Israel Defense Forces service in my head, but I still needed to figure out the best way to tell the story. When I read the memoirs of others, I started imagining myself in their stories. These memoirs gave me “permission” to write about the challenges of my service as a female immigrant at a time when there were no programs for lone soldiers.
These memoirs would quickly become my good friends. These memoirs helped me find my way home.
Dorit Sasson writes for a wide range of print and online publications and speaks at conferences, libraries, and community centers. She is currently touring for the 2016 – 2017 season on her memoir Accidental Soldier through the JBC Network.