TW: domestic abuse, IPV
As a reader, I love to stumble upon books that defy genre, books that combine all of my favorite genres into one delicious mishmash of literary goodness. I love to read memoirs that play with form and chronology. Works of horror where the supernatural takes a back seat. Horror that comes in comic form. Horror that contains books within books (can you sense a theme?).
As a writer, I am not nearly so experimental. But I wish I were.
So when I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference (AWP) this past March (the largest writing conference in North America), my top priority was attending a panel on myth and monsters in memoir. It was there that I first heard the phrase “speculative memoir.”
As I sweat my ass off in the standing-room-only conference hall, my blazer crumpled at my feet, I listened, rapt, as Jess Zimmerman, Carmen Maria Machado, Jami Nakamura Lin, and Sofia Samatar spoke of how they used folklore and mythology and fictional monsters to shape their personal nonfiction.
Machado used a series of narrative tropes, including those from horror, to structure her story of queer domestic abuse in her acclaimed memoir, In the Dream House (reviewed by Claudia here). For her forthcoming memoir-in-essays The Night Parade, Lin created a collection of braided personal essays on everything from grief to bipolar disorder to racism that drew on the Japanese myth of the hyakki-yagyo. In her hybrid work, Monster Portraits, Samatar used her brother’s drawings of made-up monsters as jumping-off points to explore the concept of the monstrous. And in Women and Other Monsters, Zimmerman, the panel moderator, wrote a cultural analysis of female monsters from Greek mythology, exploring how, as feminists, we might draw inspiration from them.
Though the word “speculative” is typically used alongside “fiction,” referring to works of literature that contain elements of the uncanny, the supernatural, the futuristic, and the otherwise out of this world, the label of speculative memoir actually felt quite perfect for the cross-genre works they’d created.
The What and Why of Speculative Memoir
According to author Laraine Herring (A Constellation of Ghosts), writing for Brevity magazine, speculative memoir is “an umbrella genre in which the questions of the memoirist’s book are addressed through speculative elements, which may include ghosts, metaphors, what-ifs, imaginative scenarios, and fantasies.”
But in a literary form in which the facts of the story are supposed to be unimpeachable, is a memoir still a memoir if it contains speculative elements? If not everything is true, what can we trust?
Elsewhere, Herring has pointed out that truth can be a slippery thing and, in fact, in other cultures, many of these spiritual and supernatural elements are not necessarily considered “untrue.” In questioning what is and is not speculative, she brings up a question we’ve pondered here in the past: Which voices and which stories get to be told? And which are considered truth?
Our own beliefs aside, might speculative elements — when woven into memoir — help a writer inch closer to a sort of emotional truth? Might it help them find answers that have thus far remained elusive…answers to questions they didn’t even realize they were asking?
Though I’ve admitted on this very site that the idea of emotional truth (versus factual truth) makes me feel uneasy, I couldn’t help but be intrigued as I listened to writers I’d long admired speak of how, sometimes, fictionalizing an incident in their lives makes it easier for them to then tackle it as nonfiction.
As if coming at a thing sideways can help you sneak closer.
I spent years writing and rewriting the story of an abusive relationship before I had enough distance from the experience to be coherent or thoughtful or reflective. What might my journey have looked like if I’d used metaphor, written my abuser as Ammit, the Egyptian Eater of Hearts, or as one of the soul eaters of African folklore, or even as Rumpelstiltskin, that damn imp from the well-known German fairy tale. In the fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin demands the protagonist’s firstborn child. In my own life, my abuser ripped innocence from my body. Is there something there? Would writing him as a small, mischievous devil have helped me see the truth of him sooner, released me sooner from the hold that experience had on me?
I’m also interested in the ways in which speculative memoir might help a writer explore their own monstrousness. In Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch, we’re introduced to a woman who — deep in the desperate throes of early motherhood — finds herself transforming into a feral dog. Is it real, or is it all in her head? We’re never quite sure.
Nightbitch is fiction. A satire. But it may as well be the memoir of every new parent who finds themselves feeling similarly desperate and savage in those early, thankless days.
And then there is the fact that writing memoir is, in itself, a sort of myth-making. As I mentioned in that earlier post about memoir and memory, when one publishes a piece about their life, their version of the truth becomes the ultimate version of the truth.
But what myths do we tell ourselves about…ourselves? What lies do we carry around inside ourselves, accept whole cloth?
Other Works of Speculative Memoir
As you can see, I’m mildly obsessed with the concept of speculative memoir, both as a writer and as a reader. Which means I’ll likely be reading a lot of it in the coming months as I play around with the possibility of using it in my own work. If I’ve convinced you, too, that it’s a genre worth exploring, here’s the reading list I’ll be working my way through. Just a note that genre labels are just as slippery as memory and truth.
Myriam Gurba’s Mean. I’ve actually read this one already and loved it, but I plan to revisit it with an eye toward its speculative elements. It’s a coming-of-age story about Gurba’s life as a queer, mixed-race Chicana, and an exploration of sexual violence, guilt, culpability, race, misogyny, and homophobia. In it, Gurba explores her own monstrousness, asking readers (and herself) what she owes the world. And hiding in the shadows is a ghost story.
Michelle Tea’s Black Wave. This book is at once a work of autofiction and dystopian adventure.
Ariel Gore’s We Were Witches. This one is billed as a novel but appears on multiple lists that attempt to round up works of speculative memoir. Many have wondered if it is a work of autofiction.
Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary. This one, meanwhile, is labeled as literary nonfiction but makes use of fairy tales and folklore in its explorations of identity, family, friendship, addiction, and more.
Samuel R. Delany’s The Motion of Light in Water. In this autobiography of life as a queer Black man, Delany plays around with the idea of the unreliable narrator.
J. Nicole Jones’s Low Country. This one uses old ghost stories and other folklore to explore a childhood growing up in the south.
In researching this post, I also stumbled upon this online lit mag called — wait for it — Speculative Nonfiction. It contains stunners like this story by Caite McNeil. Can I just give us all an assignment to try writing something to submit to this magazine?
Please. If you have a favorite work of speculative memoir, share it in the comments below!