“Memoirs are in essence historical documents. They are timeless perennials that not only describe a period of history, but also address the universality of collective human experiences. History, after all, happens to real people. It isn't just cold facts, but a living, organic changing thing. It is about life, human life, with all its triumphs and failures, its increases and decreases, its courage and weakness, its lights and darks.”As educator Eleanor Ramrath Garner writes in the introduction to her 2004 ALAN Review article titled “Memoirs In Adolescent Literature,” there has not been enough written about the significance of using memoirs and personal stories in the classroom. Whether it is because some teachers view memoirs as a grey area somewhere between fiction and non-fiction, or whether it is because of a lack of familiarity on the part of teachers, memoirs are generally a forgotten genre in the world of secondary education. This is strange given that the genre has been steadily rising in popularity with the general pubic since the early 1990s. In fact as early as 1996, New York Times writer James Atlas pointed out, “the triumph of memoir is now established fact.” And it is easy to understand why. As many writers have pointed out, memoirs not only expose readers to truths about the human experience, but they also connect readers to the lives of others. Memoirs, Atlas suggests, are “…a democratic genre -- inclusive, a multiculturalist would say. The old and the young; the famous and the obscure; the crazy and the sane…” Because anyone can be a memoirist, everyone can connect to the memoir.
--Eleanor Ramrath Garner
This is an even more important idea to consider when reflecting on the use of multicultural literature in the classroom. A great deal has been written about the benefits of using the voices of writers from a variety of backgrounds in the classroom setting. Caroline Cavillo suggests,
“One should think of critical multicultural literacy as citizenship or character education, precisely because it concerns itself with issues of power, domination, authoritarianism, and the diversity of human beings and their decisions about how to act, think, and behave with others.”It is for these reasons in addition to so many others that the use of literature from non-western writers has become a priority for many educators. Literature from traditionally under-represented populations not only broadens students’ cultural horizons, but it also aids in the articulation of shared and differing values, exposes students to a variety of writing styles and themes, builds empathy, and connects students to a world that is growing smaller through technological advances.
Although a great deal has been written about the importance of including multicultural voices in the classroom, and some has been written about how memoirs might be used, when combined, there are very few educators writing about the use of memoirs from non-western authors as a way to connect students to perspectives and voices from other walks of life. And yet, this seems to be intuitive. As educator and writer Katherine Bomer points out in her book Writing a Life: Teaching Memoir to Sharpen Insight, Shape Meaning--and Triumph Over Tests, memoirs are “…how we connect to each other, how we find out that other people feel the way we do. It is also how we learn about lives that are vastly different from our own so that our minds and hearts can stretch to understand how life is for others” (Bomer 2). An exploration of memoirs written by non-western authors brings numerous benefits to the secondary classroom. Such works are pivotal for
As a genre, non-western memoirs would benefit from more exposure. More and more writers of non-western memoirs must find their way into our classrooms.
For more information on using non-western memoirs in the classroom, check out these resources:
And here are some great examples of memoirs written by non-western writers that could be used with high school students:
If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them!