Research and Memoir: Toggling Between Yourself and World, Part 1
May 2, 2023 § 3 Comments
By Jody Keisner
A Q&A WITH MINNA DUBIN, SOFIA ALI-KHAN, and ERICA BERRY
It sometimes surprises readers when they finish my memoir, Under My Bed and Other Essays, and find a selected bibliography at the back: six pages of sources I used to further my exploration of fear as a woman, mother, and person living with a chronic illness. Writers of creative nonfiction often investigate familiar topics such as body, home, nature, identity, and family within the frameworks of science, culture and society, gender studies, religion, anthropology, history, psychology, and more. This research gives us the freedom to investigate our questions beyond the borders of our own lived experiences, which if we stay within, might never provide the answers we seek or expand toward the universal. Finding the balance between research and memoir, however, can prove challenging.
In this Q&A, I talk with three authors about how they balance personal storytelling with research-based writing in their memoirs. Sofia Ali-Khan is the author of A Good Country, a braided Muslim-American memoir, which explores the history of America’s color lines and racialization of American Muslims. Minna Dubin’s researched memoir MOM RAGE: The Everyday Crisis of Modern Motherhood is about the phenomenon of maternal anger sweeping the globe due to the combined stress of modern motherhood, lack of family support, and systemic neglect. And, Erica Berry is the author of Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear, which blends cultural criticism, memoir, history and science to explore how we live beside wolves both real and symbolic.
Jody Keisner: Why was research crucial to the story you were telling?
Minna Dubin: With my book, I’m claiming that mom rage is an international emotional crisis. Society likes to put women’s problems–especially mothers’ problems–in the “personal failure” category and rid itself of any culpability. I needed other mothers’ stories to back mine up to “prove” the legitimacy of mom rage; including research felt necessary.
Sofia Ali-Khan: As the 2016 elections passed, I went from someone who had always believed that the moral arc bends toward justice to someone who felt that I loved a country that could not love me back. I wanted to understand the recent racialization of American Muslims. In examining the origins of the color lines in my twelve homes across America and the forced migrations that created them, I found that my education and fifteen-year career practicing civil rights and public interest law had elided much of American history. What I learned so deeply reshaped my thoughts and priorities, that I needed to share it.
Erica Berry: Nearly a decade ago, I started what would become Wolfish with a research question—why is wolf repopulation so controversial in the American West, and what does the wolf conjure beyond itself? So often, in dominant wolf stories of the western canon, the wolf is made into a vessel for fear and danger, but it took a few years for me to accept that—research aside—I was really struggling with those emotions in my own life. I had had a few encounters with strange men that made me think of “Little Red Riding Hood,” and I was uncomfortable with the conflation. My personal grappling with fear spurred me to research what I call the “cultural taxidermy” of the wolf, just as my research around real and symbolic wolves nudged me to interrogate those narratives around fear I had metabolized in my own life.
JK: Of the many research methods at our disposal—interviewing, public records, the reference library, the internet, and immersion, some of which you’ve already mentioned——which did you use?
MD: I most heavily used interviewing, both of moms and experts. My next biggest source was published books, bought or borrowed from the library. For articles I used the almighty internet. Because I’m not affiliated with any university and was doing most of my research in 2021, when academic libraries were closed or had minimal hours of operation, I had trouble getting my hands on academic journals. I found it frustrating that when I’d find an article online that was published in an academic or scientific journal, I often couldn’t read it unless I paid like $45. It’s a real barrier to the democratic sharing of information and felt like gatekeeping capitalism at its worst.
SAK: I subscribed to JSTOR, an online portal that provides reasonably good access for academic articles. I also visited academic libraries, did literature reviews through Google Scholar, and had academic friends pull materials. My research process was rigorous, but also a real playground because I got to follow my curiosity. I cold called, networked, and messaged. I interviewed academics, scientists, journalists, filmmakers, and activists. Museum curators with subject area expertise were also very helpful.
EB: My research was stymied by COVID-19 shutdowns, but my public library gave members free access to JSTOR and other academic databases, which was a lifesaver. I relied on library databases of old newspaper archives to search for code words like “wolf” or “lone wolf,” and it was amazing how many new rabbit-holes I’d find. On-the-ground research felt critical for narrative scene-building and expanding my own POV, whether it was walking around rangeland with ranchers who lived in places wolves had returned to or following a biologist around on a mountainside trying to trap and collar a wolf to monitor. Because Wolfish threads research and ideas very associatively, one research path would often bloom into another without my planning it.
Look for the second half of my interview with Minna, Sofia and Erica about research and memoir writing, which will be posted on the Blog in a few days. –JK
Jody Keisner is the author of Under My Bed and Other Essays. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Brevity, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her essay “Runaway Mother” was a notable Best American Essay 2022. She teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Reach her @JodyKeisner.
Minna Dubin is the author of MOM RAGE: The Everyday Crisis of Modern Motherhood, forthcoming from Seal Press (September 2023). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and Parents. Follow her @minnadubin.
Sofia Ali-Khan is the author of A Good Country: My Life in Twelve Towns and the Devastating Battle for a White America (RH 2022). Her work has appeared in the LA Times, TIME Magazine, and elsewhere. Find her at sofiaalikhan.com and on Facebook.
Erica Berry is the author of Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear (Flatiron, 2023). Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Yale Review, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. Find her @ericajberry or at www.ericaberry.com.
During the pandemic I too had problems accessing academic articles that weren’t normally available to the public without paying. What I did was to email the research librarians at a local public library, who had special access to academic databases that I didn’t have. They would then email me a PDF of the article I was seeking. No charge. Wait time was anywhere from half an hour to two days.
Prior to the pandemic, I’d planned to purchase a library card at a college local to me, available for $35 if I remember correctly.
The librarians also helped me track down newspaper and magazine articles about incidents in my past that I wasn’t sure how to locate. Great people, research librarians!
Jody: I enjoyed this interview so I went to find your ‘under the bed’ book. Your opening chapter — it’s like you’ve been in my head! What you write is how I am/what I feel. Will read more and see how much else of me I see in your work.
[…] Here is the second half of my interview with Minna, Sofia and Erica where we dig deeper into how to use research in writing memoir. If you missed Part 1, the first half of our discussion, you can find it here. […]