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3.9: Memoirs

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    This chapter is brought to you by Sybil Priebe and edited parts of this Wikibook39

    You Are Now About to Know More About Memoirs Than Oprah. Yes, You Read That Correctly.

    In 2006, James Frey wrote a memoir about parts of his life when he was under the influence of drugs called A Million Little Pieces, and after Oprah had him on her show to discuss the book – it was featured in her popular book club, of course – she was told that he “lied” about certain parts. Well, he didn’t lie. Memoirs contain what we remember. What we remember isn’t always “fact.” What I always say is that if you have all of your family members report what happened at a family gathering – like a birthday party or Christmas – whose report would be correct? No one’s! That’s what memoir is. It’s still nonfiction because it’s what the person remembers, but it’s not false on purpose. If I remember that my sister responded to me in a snotty way one day and my other sister didn’t think so, no one is correct. It’s just my memory versus hers.

    Now, typically, memoirs encompass just a chunk of someone’s life, like when James Frey wrote about his drug years, but sometimes, some famous person in their 70s (or older) will write his/her memoir. No matter what, it’s simply what they remember, and I suppose if someone’s on drugs or has an awful memory, the stories could appear to be false. But they aren’t. That’s why they say, “life is stranger than fiction.”

    Memoirs are part of the nonfiction category of literature; they contain a lot of description and detail, and they are typically very, very personal in content.

    The Bits and Pieces of Memoir

    Memoir40 is a specific type of narrative. It is autobiographical in nature, but it is not meant to be as comprehensive as biography (which tells the entire life story of a person). Instead, a memoir is usually only a specific “slice” of one’s life. The time span within a memoir is thus frequently limited to a single memorable event or moment, though it can also be used to tell about a longer series of events that make up a particular period of one’s life (as in Cameron Crowe’s film memoir Almost Famous). It is narrative in structure, usually describing people and events that ultimately focuses on the emotional significance of the story to the one telling it. Generally, this emotional significance is the result of a resolution from the conflict within the story. Though a memoir is the retelling of a true account, it is not usually regarded as being completely true. After all, no one can faithfully recall every detail or bit of dialogue from an event that took place many years ago. Consequently, some creative license is granted by the reader to the memoirist recounting, say, a significant moment or events from his childhood some thirty years, or more, earlier. (However, the memoirist who assumes too much creative license without disclosing that fact is vulnerable to censure and public ridicule if his deception is found out, as what happened with James Frey and his memoir, A Million Little Pieces.)

    Furthermore, names of people and places are often changed in a memoir to protect those who were either directly or indirectly involved in the lives and/or event(s) being described.


    Some of my friends describe the North side as the ghetto. Peers from college say it is extremely dangerous. I called it home for most of my life. The faint smell of grilling as I drove through the streets was a reminder that it was getting warmer out. In the summer, there were kids out throwing balls in the streets. Corner stores and gas stations were frequently busy. As a Hmong daughter, raised in a traditional home on the North side of Minneapolis, there were expectations of me since I was young. I had to learn the basics of cooking a meal, making sure there was rice, and doing well in school. I had to clean, do laundry, and help babysit as needed. It was an expectation for me to help my parents as much as I could. The decision to move in with my significant other was not an easy one as it took me a year to come to the conclusion. However, the more I did of what I wanted, the happier I felt.

    Growing up, my dad had to learn how to hunt, how to farm, how to survive during a war, and how to provide for his family. He was reliable and smart. He was the oldest and the only son for most of his life. He has a younger sister and many years later, he has a halfsister and a half-brother.

    When the war was ending and the American soldiers were leaving, Hmong people were completing forms and hoping to earn a spot to come to the U.S. It was a dark and gloomy day. The voices in the living area of the home became louder. My grandfather refused to go. “There are giants in the land you are moving to! You will get eaten if you move!” My dad made his decision to immigrate to the U.S. He is determined to live his life in a promising land, far away from the one he knew.

    My dad would share stories about how poor he was as a child. He would tell us how far he had to walk just to go to school. It was so bizarre I almost don’t believe it. He would have to wake up and prepare three hours ahead before his journey to school every morning.

    In the dark, before the bright yellow sun rises, my dad would wake up at the crack of dawn. The loud “cock-a-doodle-doo” from outside meant it was time to start the day. There were no alarm clocks and the family’s rooster was the only reliable alarm.

    In the small corner of the house made of bamboo and hay, would be a small shadow of a young boy, turning pages of his one and only notebook he owned. My dad was always studious, trying as hard as he could to be ahead of his classmates. Although the rooster was the only other living creature up, there was no light to read or to study math by. My dad refused to be defeated by the lack of resources. It would have been easier for him to sleep in and wait until the sun rose for him to have light to study. Instead, my dad would gather sticks and logs of wood to start a little fire. He used the ashes from the fire as his light to study.

    My father grew up with only one sister. She was about two or three years younger than him. While he was up studying, she was sleeping. While my father attended school, she stayed behind with my grandmother to farm and to feed the animals. They had three large plots of land to harvest fruits, vegetables, and rice.

    When the sun started to rise and the temperature started to increase, it was time to start the long walk of five miles to school. Other children in the neighborhood followed one another to the same destination. The staggered group of young students traveled on the brown, dirt roads without any shoes, hoping they didn’t step on anything that could cause infection.

    There were days when he was late, and he would know what was coming once he gets to school – punishment. In front of his class, his teacher would make him kneel while holding a large rock in each hand. His hands had to remain at a 180-degree angle and if his arms fell below it, his teacher would use a long stick to hit the arm that was falling. The punishment was purposely done during class, as a way to publicly humiliate students who were late, who were caught cheating, or who misbehaved.

    An hour later, he would wipe the dust off his black uniform pants and join his class. The day would go on as if he was never punished because students were frequently punished. Students were publicly disciplined so they would become more motivated to do better and to be more studious. There were not many options for the youth in the villages. They often had to pick between going to school or helping the family farm. Some youth did not have the luxury of picking and often times, those were young women. I think it is unfortunate that the girls, more frequently than not, automatically have to help the family babysit younger siblings and farm. The freedom to learn is sacrificed and I wish there were more opportunities for the young women to choose how they want to live.

    I grew up very differently. My parents were more involved. I know I have more control of how I live my life. My mother and father did their best with what they had to raise the ten of us. Half of us shared the same father and the older half had their own. Their father died in the Vietnam War and a few years later, my mom married my dad. I have always viewed my older siblings the same as my other siblings. We all fought one another at some point and ganged up on each other at another. The rivalry was real. We built alliances and held grudges. We got even and this made my childhood complete.

    The white truck with distinct music defined my childhood. The catchy loud song from a block away lets me know that the ice cream truck is getting close. Although my parents always warned us about buying ice cream from the ice cream man, my siblings and I would always beg my parents for some spare change just to be able to enjoy a small popsicle in the heat, on a sunny summer day.

    On days when my parents didn’t have money, my siblings and I would gather and hide inside the house and crack the windows wide open. When the ice cream truck rolled by, we would yell, “Stop!” as loud as we can. Once the truck stopped and we saw that no one was in line to buy ice cream, we giggled and lightly hit each other out of happiness that we got him. As soon as the truck started moving again, we would all yell, “Stop!” We did this until the truck passed our block. We had a ball.

    As a child of ten, there wasn’t always enough to go around. We all had our own hiding spots for popsicles in the freezer. It was survival of the fittest and we all made sure we’d make it.

    When my parents came home from the grocery store, we all rushed outside to help bring groceries in. When it was time to divide the bag of candy, we all gathered at the table to make sure we each had a pile. The oldest at the table was responsible to evenly distribute the candy. Any leftover candy would end up in my parents’ pile. Once we collected our pile, we all look for my dad to tell us where to hide our goods so that no one can get to them. One by one, we lined up to hear where my dad’s secret spot was. When it was my turn, I leaned in and my dad whispered, “In your basket of clothes.” It took me many years to figure out that we all had the same hiding spots, in our own basket of clothes.

    At Washburn High School, I was taking some advanced classes and I was eager to figure out the next step in my life. The St. Olaf TRiO Educational Talent Search program did a tremendous job helping me apply to colleges. TRiO Educational Talent Search is a federally funded program that provides services to first generation, low-income and under-represented students. On the way home from the bus stop, I grabbed the mail and saw something for me. I knew right then that I had been accepted to St. Olaf College because of the thick white packet. I was ecstatic! Although I had many responsibilities at home, my parents always supported my academic endeavors. They knew my heart and they knew that I would come back with a degree.

    In May 2014, I became the second person in my family of ten children to graduate with a Master’s Degree. I earned a Master’s in Non-Profit Management from Hamline University. At the time, I thought about running a program, because I believed in the outcomes. I have continuously set goals for myself with the support from my parents. I started seeing that my accomplishments were bigger than me. It was a chance for my parents to experience a glimpse of their dreams through me.

    My dad was in his room, clicking away on his black Sony laptop. I sat down on the small stool and broke the news. I told my dad my decision. My dad didn’t say much. He told me that when he made the decision to leave his father behind in Thailand to immigrate to the United States, his father and relatives felt neglected by him. My dad said, “Perhaps this is karma because I left my family.”

    “Dad? Today I’m moving out. It’s not because I’m tired of living here with you and mom. I want to live on my own and I need to have my own space.” I explained that I would still be around to help. I will come visit and buy groceries every now and then. As my dad was sitting down, I gave him a hug to reassure him that I will still be present in his life, even if I am no longer living with him under one roof.

    After living with my family for five years after I graduated from college, I had decided to move out. Although I was nervous, I figured that it was time. I was in my late 20’s, with two degrees, a car of my own, and a secure job. This is widely expected of adults in America. However, moving out before marriage is frowned upon in the Hmong community because I am a woman and I am not married.

    I moved into a one-bedroom apartment in a suburb on the outskirts of the city. My roommate is my boyfriend. The quietness of the place brings both serenity and boredom. You can hear the clock tick when the TV is turned off. There is no one to fight over the remote. There are no more secret hiding spots in the fridge. I feel so thankful for my parents and the way they raised my siblings and me. I have always felt lucky to have such wonderful childhood memories. It contributed to my humility and it makes me want to do nice things for my parents as a way to thank them for raising us to be the best we can be.

    Although some of his stories are not relatable, I have always admired my dad. I have had the privilege of living in a safe home with electricity and running water. I am thankful that my parents show that they care, and they support me. I rarely heard my dad complain about how hard life was. It was a way of living and it was what he only knew. His persistence and ambitions is what makes me want to be just as great as my dad. He is often the light that guides me when I am lost. My dad made decisions that will better his future, just like how I am making my own decisions to better mine as his daughter.

    Assignments and Questions to Consider

    Assignment Description: This project is a small autobiography, also known as a memoir, about you. The TWIST is that it will be written in 3rd person. At the minimum, include the following criteria:

    • Content in third person
    • Some sort of structure

    39 “Basic Writing/Print version.” Wikibooks, The Free Textbook Project. 9 Sep 2008, 16:02 UTC. 11 May 2016, 16:53 . Licensed CC-BY-SA.

    40 “Basic Writing/Print version.” Wikibooks, The Free Textbook Project. 9 Sep 2008, 16:02 UTC. 11 May 2016, 16:53 . Licensed CC-BY-SA.

    41 Following my Father’s Courage by Betty Yang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International license. https://

    This page titled 3.9: Memoirs is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sybil Priebe, Ronda Marman, & Dana Anderson (North Dakota University System) .

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