Over the summer, I usually like to keep my reading light, but lately I’ve been turning to memoirs. Two of the following memoirs have been on my “to-read” list for a long time, and the other one is a pretty new release. Each one deserves to be added to your summer reading list for different reasons.
#1 Born a Crime – Trevor Noah
Trevor Noah is a South African comedian and current host of Comedy Central’s Daily Show. Noah is as smart as he is funny, and I recommend watching both of his Netflix specials, “Afraid of the Dark” and “Son of Patricia”. Noah has a way of injecting both humor and intelligence into his social commentary. It’s like sitting in a class with a really funny professor. With that said, I’m not sure what took me so long to read his memoir.
Born a Crime has 6,000 near perfect reviews on Amazon right now and after reading it, I agree with the ratings. The title refers to Noah himself who was born to a black South African mother and a Swiss white father. Noah grew up during apartheid, and he describes it as “slavery, Jim crow, and segregation” at the same time.
Because of Noah’s mixed ancestry, he doesn’t really fit in anywhere. He is not white like the ruling South Africans or dark skinned like the majority population. He also doesn’t fit in with the light skinned or “colored” population because his mom is black, and he is raised with her black family.
Throughout the book, Noah writes about both heart breaking and hilarious situations. He experiences things like trying to fit in, escaping his mother’s heavy handed discipline, and avoiding church. Noah also writes about falling in love with 90s American hip hop, escaping poverty, and deciding what kind of relationship he wants to have with his dad.
The book is also a story of modern day Africa – a country transitioning from apartheid to a democratically elected black leader. It’s about the ways that racism is soul crushing and even when laws are changed, continues to punish for generations.
This book could have gone two ways. Written by someone else, it could have been hopelessly bleak, but Noah lifts the narrative with his signature wit and intelligence. I laughed out loud in some parts, I shook my head, and wondered how he and his mother had survived. It was like listening to a close friend tell you stories of his childhood across the table at a restaurant, and you didn’t want it to end.
#2 From Scratch – Tembi Locke
I picked up this memoir on a whim. I was in an airport headed to Los Angeles, and I needed something to read on the five hour flight. I had already finished the novel I had planned on reading, so I sucked it up and paid the inflated airport bookstore price. (spoiler alert: it was worth it).
From Scratch tells the story of Tembi Locke, a black woman from Texas, who moves overseas to spend a semester studying in Italy. While there, she meets Saro, an Italian chef, and they fall in love. For Saro and his family, feeding someone is an act of love, and Tembi falls in love through his carefully prepared meals.
The couple continues their relationship long distance until Saro can join Tembi in New York. Not long after that, the couple marries, but because Tembi is a black American, Saro’s family does not accept their union. The family refuses to fly out to meet Tembi or even attend the wedding.
Soon after the wedding, the couple moves to Los Angeles for Tembi’s burgeoning acting career. In Los Angles, the couple expands their family through adoption, and they adopt a baby girl, naming her Zoela.
Saro is suddenly diagnosed with cancer, sending Tembi’s life into a tailspin. During the ten year cancer battle, Tembi becomes a source of strength for her husband and daughter, and she also begins to bridge the gap between her in laws. The family slowly starts to come around, and several years into their marriage, Tembi finally meets her in laws.
Tragedy strikes, and Tembi has to find a way to forge a relationship with Saro’s family on her own. She travels back and forth between Sicily and Los Angeles, on a journey to discover more about her husband, his family, and herself.
What made this memoir so interesting was Tembi’s reflection on families and cultural differences. I especially enjoyed reading all of the food scenes. It was refreshing to read about the slow preparation and enjoyment of a meal since we often prioritize speed and convenience over quality.
I also loved reading about the tiny little town in Sicily that Tembi and Zoela started spending their summers. It was a town in which everyone knew each other, shops closed in the afternoons, and food was grown and made at home.
The memoir deals with grief, interracial relationships, and the meaning of family. The story wasn’t told in chronological order, but it skipped around the timeline, which I didn’t mind. When we remember our loved ones, our memories often come back in pieces, connected by a smell, a special place, or an item of clothing. Ultimately, From Scratch offers a satisfying story of love and loss and how to move forward.
#3 Hunger – Roxane Gay
On Twitter, Roxane Gay tells it like it is. She is quick to “clap back” at people who criticize her, and she doesn’t hold back or filter herself. Gay, in a way, takes that same approach to this memoir that address her relationship with her body.
In the memoir Hunger, Gay explores the reasons why she is overweight. At the age of 12, Gay is assaulted by a group of boys and in the years that follow, she hides herself by gaining weight. She documents years of unhealthy and destructive behavior that she traces back to the trauma of her assault.
When Gay writes about the incident, it makes the rest of her writing make sense. I am a huge fan of Gay’s writing, but some of her writing is too heavy, too dark for me. I first read Bad Feminist, which is a book of essays detailing how Gay feels that she is not a perfect feminist. She likes rap music. She reads the vapid Sweet Valley High books. She, like most of us, is full of contradictions. It is probably the lightest of Gay’s books, and even then I had to take a few breaks. It was a lot to digest.
The next book I read from Gay was Difficult Women, and I did not finish reading it. This was a book of short stories, and I felt like each story was more violent, more disturbing than the last. I tried really hard to finish, skipping scenes when it started getting graphic, but it turned out to be too much.
But after reading Gay’s memoir, Difficult Women makes sense. Gay admits in her memoir that she is still coming to terms with the assault, and maybe Difficult Women was her way of writing her way out of it, of making her female characters endure the same pain that she did.
Hunger is not as dark as Difficult Women though. It offers a window into the life of a woman who struggles, but knows why she struggles. Gay knows how to lose weight, and is successful several times. But losing weight, for her, also means being vulnerable.
Hunger is also a social commentary of how we treat bodies, especially women’s bodies. Gay writes about our fascination with weight loss shows, with dieting. She writes about her humiliation in circumstances that many of us don’t think about: flying, eating in public, and working out.
Gay’s memoir was bravely honest. In short essays, she shows us her struggles, not wanting pity, but maybe empathy. Perhaps empathy for her, but also for the women around us who wear their trauma. Or for those who are hiding it. Still working on it. And ultimately, Gay’s memoir is a reminder that we should be gentle with ourselves.