What Family Trouble Taught Me
September 16, 2013 § 8 Comments
A guest post from Joy Castro, editor of the new nonfiction anthology Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family:
All of us have family we deeply love—or if not deeply love, then at least are fond of. Or, at the very least, have no wish to hurt. Yet family stories are so compelling, so blistering, that many of us long to write them, despite the exposure they risk. Whether we’re memoirists drawing directly from life, fiction writers rolling and patting our autobiographical material into new shapes, or poets pulling images and people from our own lived pasts, when it comes to family, we all wrestle with responsibility. How much to reveal? How much to protect?
After my memoir The Truth Book was published in 2005, audiences everywhere most wanted to know how my mother responded, what my brother said. They asked with an urgency and energy that didn’t accompany their questions about form, or how long the book took to write, or who my literary influences were. It was how my family responded that mattered.
I wondered if other memoirists faced similar questions, and I wondered how they’d dealt with family concerns while writing. I wanted to invite all the memoirists I admired to have a long conversation about it.
This curiosity and hunger for dialogue led, over a span of several years, to Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family a new collection of essays by 25 memoirists who’ve lived to tell the tale.
The award-winning authors, many of whom are college educators and have published texts on craft, come from a wide range of cultural backgrounds and family configurations. They’ve published memoirs about parents, children, siblings, spouses, and extended family, each of which raises its own unique and delicate questions.
For Family Trouble, they wrote thoughtfully about the careful ethical choices involved, the boundaries they drew, and the practical strategies (on the page and in real life) they developed. Their essays probe the central question at stake: When do we privilege our own art and vision, and when do we privilege the privacy of real people in our lives?
For example, it’s one thing to write about family members who are deceased, but what if they’re still alive? Writing about parents is vexed enough, but writing about our vulnerable children is another matter entirely. How does disability complicate these issues? Adoption? How do different ethnic traditions view (and censure) the revelation of family material to the public? On a practical level, do we leave names in or take them out? Do we share our manuscripts with family members before publication, or not?
The 25 authors don’t come to neat consensus; their earned stances are as varied as their subject positions in our complicated world. Although no one-size-fits-all set of commandments emerges, what I learned is that a variety of tested strategies can make this endeavor less fraught. What is consistent among the pieces is a sense of earnest searching: the desire to see, to understand.
Family Trouble offers a shimmering array of smart, sensitive suggestions for writers who want to navigate family material. The authors’ explorations of this sticky subject are challenging, candid, funny, and moving. The essays schooled me. They excited and grew me.
I hope Family Trouble will provoke new conversations and help other writers and teachers of writing. I know it has already helped me.
Joy Castro is the author of the memoir The Truth Book and the New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water and Nearer Home. Island of Bones, her collection of personal essays, is a PEN Finalist and the winner of an International Latino Book Award. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Seneca Review, North American Review, and The New York Times Magazine. She teaches literature, creative writing, and Latino studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.