Showing-and-hiding Emotions in Memoir: A Guest Post from Josianne Behmoiras

Some memoirs are written from the bottom of a heart that has been burdened with an unresolved story. Such was my memoir, Dora B (reprinted with a new title, My Mother Was a Bag Lady), in which I wrote about my mother at the time she was still living on the streets in faraway Israel. I didn’t have the means to go and rescue her. All I had was my pen, which I used to recover the memories of living with her and in this way I attempted redeeming the person she had been, acknowledging the immense love she had given me, which was, in turn, all she had had to give.

When I started writing I was dreading each day the inevitable misadventures that could befall my mother in her state of homelessness. My writing voice was that of trauma. This voice of trauma came out in fragments, snippets and peculiar images, like the silver teapot left on the dirt by a neighbour as he rushed to protect my mother from her enemies in the Israeli migrant settlement. My writing about my life with my mother imitated the action of a camera, panning over landscapes, people, objects, recording their configurations as they arranged and rearranged themselves on the world’s stage. I left for the reader to infer meaning from the text. I didn’t feel I needed explicit commentary about my emotional state: for wasn’t the ‘showing’ of my story in itself a colossal statement, an act that surpassed any attempt at explanation?

dora vis

Three years before the manuscript was completed, my mother passed away. I had travelled to Israel and held her hand in a hospital bed, and back in the nursing home when she had been forcibly incarcerated. Without her freedom and independence, she had lost the will to live and was trying out an implicit hunger strike, eating the bare minimum to avoid being forced-fed.

From beginning to end of my memoir I kept that voice of trauma, showing, not explaining. When you tuck your mother into bed and sing to her a French lullaby – she remembers the song and hums along with you – and it is the last night of your visit, most likely, the last night ever of your joint life, what is there to explain?

The story of my mother ended fourteen years ago. Time heals the wounds, and the scars are somewhat fading. Now, when I read a passage from my book, I envisage all the ‘telling’ I could add to it in an act of expansion, of opening up the text to the world.

What is the telling that I would be doing now? What is it that you include in the space of reflection? And what of the show-don’t-to-tell edict? Reflecting upon the limitations I have imposed on my writing, I realise that memoir is at its best when the text is opened to both ‘showing’ and ‘telling’.

The show-don’t-tell mantra so often drummed-up in writing classes entirely misses the point. Telling is not about explaining the described ‘images’. It is rather about lifting the narrative to a higher plane. In all its forms, it ought to assist in reshaping private life experience into a metaphor or allegory for the greater story of the human race.

In the telling, the writer can draw from the vast compilation of private and collective memory, of cultural references, scholarly investigation and all other manner of research. In addition to those, the writer can (and ought to) include observations and thoughts that are not directly relating to the plot but instead allude to a certain mood and underpin the character’s actions. Those are not necessarily digressions (although they can be) but any details that tell us more about what makes the character/s who they are and elucidate their motives.

Josianne Behmoiras

Josianne Behmoiras

Turkish Nobel literature laureate, Orhan Pamuk, weaves a beguiling tale of intertwined showing with telling in his novel Strangeness in My Mind:

Hearing the things the city told him at night and reading the language of the streets filled Mevlut with pride. But when he went back to his rice cart in the morning and stood in the cold with his hands in his pockets, the power of his imagination waned, he sensed that the world was hollow and meaningless…

One of the things the city ‘tells’ Mevlut at night is that ‘… the shadow of the trees in some neighbourhoods moved even when there was no breeze at all…’ In this sentence, Pamuk demonstrates his mastery in both ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ us something within the same words, which is something I have aspired to do in Dora B. He shows the night shadow of trees, and then the text is unhinged by telling us about shadows that move despite the stillness in the air. The ‘showing’ is on the surface of the text: ‘the shadow of the trees moved’. The telling is about the magical element: the shadow of trees can’t move if there is no breeze, however, we can ‘believe’ that Pamuk, through his protagonist Mevlut, expresses the city’s mystical dimension. The narrative in this way is enriched. Perhaps the best explanation of ‘telling’ is that it is most effective when using a variety of methods alongside (or as well as) shadowing the showing.

In memoir, it could be that the act of telling in all its possibilities requires the author to take a certain distance from the personal state of trauma: writing down the events after attending to our heavy heart, which in the first place generated the urgency to write down our story.

 

Josiane Behmoiras is a Melbourne-based author. Her essays and short fiction have been published in various literary magazines and her memoir, Dora B, was published in Australia, the UK, Germany and France, and shortlisted for the NSW Premier Awards. Josiane has been teaching creative writing at various community settings and at The University of Melbourne, where she was awarded a creative writing PhD on the topic of the literary imagination of utopia and dystopia in times of instantaneity and ubiquity. She is a mentor and manuscript assessor. For more information please visit www.josianebehmoiras.com

Comments

  1. says

    I truly appreciate this post and have sent an excerpt to my writing buddies. I feel we are getting too bogged down in the ‘edicts’ of what the gurus call good writing such as show don’t tell, etc. Thanks for helping me put thoughts into words.

    • says

      Tania,
      We all harbour some poetic versions of our thoughts… They come out more or less effortlessly, depending on the season of the year or our lives. Thanks for noticing my efforts on this occasion!

  2. says

    What a beautiful description of Josianne’s memoir, written with the same insightfulness she brought to her story at that time in her life. Time definitely does change how we might write our stories, and I think that the more time passes, the more facets of your growing self can be included in your memoir, but it is a difficult thing to do and have a story read like we would expect a novel to read.

    I thought Josianne really showed *and* told the mother-daughter story of her younger self while at the same time *showing* the current mother-daughter relationship. She withheld the *telling* there, and by holding back on the telling, I could see and feel her trauma there. It is this that probably makes it a difficult book for some people to read, particularly those with an unresolved trauma of their own.

    Having read the book after just meeting Josianne in a writing workshop, I really missed the adult-self I had just met, as in the book you only really get to see her answering the phone with panicked-fear while exercising a calm-resolve with all the responsibilities of an adult-daughter living completely helpless to help in another country, and then her for a short time in Israel at the hospital and all that anyone would be feeling in that situation, and knowing her whole past life with this woman who is in fact the main character of the book. In a way Josianne is the antagonist in the book, her*self* as a child growing up from the youngest of memories, first on the streets of France, then a refugee camp in Israel.

    I had read a couple of paragraphs of this post when I sat down for breakfast. My partner looked at me all concerned and said, “you have a tear.” And yes, I had shed a couple and one was still sitting under my eye. I had to explain that I had shed a couple reading this blog, which I’m sure he doesn’t understand to be a reasonable reason. Real stories are all about the emotion, and that’s a good thing, but not in his world – he sees or feels tears and gets fearful.

    I’m wondering if it might be more accurate to call it an autobiographical memoir, in that it is the fragment of her memories relating to her mother, told through the timeframe of her childhood to early adulthood, with the adult-self telling it while still living another episode in the mother-daughter series? I don’t know, Josianne’s structure has an interesting twisty-ness to it, like it is an indirect telling of her life, because her focus is on her mother. Her two selves, the growing-up child-Josianne is focus on her mother as the star of her life-show, her only friend in a scary and mostly-hospitable world, *and* barely-there adult-Josianne is focussed on her mother, in their separation, a separation that is so personally difficult to explain but so easy in bureaucratic-political economic-law principles. She also has a life as wife and mother on the other side of the story she tells, but she only shows you small glimpses of this. Life is complex, and Josianne has represented this complexity well.

    Um, yeah, it’s a complex life to write! Especially if intended for an Australian audience that largely doesn’t have a direct experience of these places (though that is changing). I really appreciated this short little window into that world, though that was also my criticism, it was too short – I wanted to see more. I understood that Josianne herself might not have been ready to include more of her adult self in her first memoir, completely understand that, but as I have now read numerous Australian memoirs, I get concerned thinking some of the editing decisions are about book length, turning them into something I can read over a lazy weekend… turning people’s lives into something *consumable*. I hope not, because particularly with Josianne’s, I would have appreciated seeing more of her life if there was more to tell, and she was in a place in her life where she could have told it.

    I have just read Hanya Yanaginara’s A Little Life because of Bloc Club. If ‘big books’ are a genre, then I’ve just fallen in love with it! But as a book club book, I’d say reading time should be six months, and online discussions once a month, keeping a bit of activity going through the month two. Discussions could have been organised in parts, so you just join that discussion when you’re ready. Perhaps we could have talked through more of Jude’s traumas then. Because that was *not* a little life!

    Nor was Josianne’s… or is Lee’s. Thank you both for writing your stories.

    • says

      Dearest Katara, thank you very much for this wonderful, generous response. You just wrote a blog post yourself! I agree with you, Josi’s book is fantastic and I could have read more and more of her story (she did publish some fabulous personal essays since). I hope your own memoir is progressing well 🙂

      • says

        That’s not a blog post! But it will probably become a follow-up post to my ‘response’ (review) to Josi’s book when I first read it. Will link this post in it too – that’s what the internet is for! Writing was happening until about three weeks ago when life got incredibly busy. But it will calm down and I will continue on. The writing community is starting to develop down here too, which is exciting to see.

    • says

      Katara, I very much appreciate your thoughtful response to both my memoir and my blogpost. I was hoping that I pre-answered – if there is such an expression- your questions in my post . So much more to think about.

  3. Ingrid Baring says

    It is a great freedom to throw off the shackles of show don’t tell and welcome in the edict to show and tell. Even though showing is exciting and takes us into the action, the written page gives us the space to reflect and elucidate on events, something that we do too little of these days, what with all our immediate responding, liking, following and keeping up with all of life’s relentless tricks. Perhaps it is the balance we are seeking. A wonderful and timely post – thanks Lee and Josianne

    • says

      Ingrid, you really struck a cord here – am always lamenting the ‘information bomb’ that is trivialising and fragmenting our collective daily interaction. Good to know I didn’t have to include a funny cat to capture the attention of the people who commented on my post, the thoughtful followers of Lee. Am grateful to her for offering me this great space!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *