Even memoir writers need to do research

Maybe you’ve heard about the controversy with the newly published novel American Dirt, where a “white person” has written about what’s left of a Mexican family escaping violence by illegally crossing into the US. Apparently it’s a romantic drama thriller or something like that, which Oprah has endorsed for her famous book club, thus launching it to fame and misfortune. I’m appalled at the level of vitriol against the author, who seems to be well-intentioned but… let’s get to that in a bit.

Seems the publisher saw a book pertinent to the times, attractive fiction for non-Latinx masses to gobble up, and they ran for the dollar signs ahead. Oprah doesn’t know life in Mexico so she wouldn’t catch any inconsistencies, she just saw a gripping story. A couple famous Latina writers thought that at least it would get into the hands of people who need to learn a different perspective, even though it wasn’t perfect. Many others launched into ugly diatribes.

Looks like nobody vetted the book for accuracies in culture or Spanish language. Big mistake. The author wrote “out of her lane” with not enough knowledge and got a huge advance—something no Hispanic/Latinx person would ever get. Therein lies the other half of the controversy. Somebody getting big rewards for writing somebody else’s story, where those somebody elses would never get that kind of acceptance or fine treatment despite their authentic stories. That part is not the author’s fault, that’s a problem with the traditional publishing industry. And maybe it’s a problem with readers, too. Would we buy into bestseller status a novel by someone not of our color or culture?

Anyway, this gets to lessons for life writers (any writers): do your research! Even though it’s your experience and your memories, make any historical and cultural details accurate or somebody will notice. If you are writing about other people’s experiences (a parent, grandparent), you probably need to research around them. Even if your book is just for family, you owe it to them to be as accurate as possible about common details that can be verified, especially historical dates.

For my mother’s memoir, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, I did a LOT of research and had a Japanese man vet the book’s details. He was near the same age as my mother and had also lived through WWII in Japan as a teen. He caught a few errors I would have been embarrassed about. When I wrote Battlefield Doc, I did a LOT of research about the Korean War, learning about different weapons, the weather, medical care so I could help explain things better and ensure what Doc remembered was correct. (Military people and military history fans are sharp-eyed and quick to point out discrepancies.) When I edited a multi-lingual man’s multi-country memoir, I did a LOT of research on those countries and how to spell foreign words.

Details of history and culture give life stories a setting in time and place, giving readers a bigger picture and richer experience. Readers expect these details to be accurate. If you’re not sure of something and could not find an answer and it’s important to include, you can simply say “I think” or “As I remember.”

(By the way, do not post a review for a book you’ve never read)


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New Year resolutions to ask for stories, write the stories

It’s a new year and in the next several weeks I will be speaking to a couple seniors groups to persuade them to adopt new year resolutions to begin writing the stories of their lives – mostly because it’s fun to do! Hopefully they will have lots of happy memories to write about while also sharing the history and culture of earlier times, wherever they lived.

The oldest among us have wonderful stories of an era of incredible changes. My mother-in-law has stories of their first electricity and their first indoor plumbing and of picking cotton in the fields as a small child. My father has stories of when O’Hare Airport in Chicago was a big cornfield and when gangsters took over their barn to put a still in it. My very elderly neighbors had stories of the Depression years and early history of our area. My Korean War vet friend has incredible stories of that war but also fun stories of famous ice skaters and tennis players and local celebrities he hobnobbed with. One of my mother’s friends in the nursing home became mother at the age of sixteen to her three little brothers when their parents died.

My project for the year is turning my dad’s slide collection into high resolution .jpg photo files using the Wolverine Titan film to digital converter (which I highly recommend). Then I need to go through a stack of letters he wrote home to his parents when he was stationed in Japan during the late 1950s. Fabulous photos of old Japan and I’ll get to learn more about my dad as a young man in a very foreign place.

People you know have fascinating stories – you might be surprised. Maybe you’ll make an easy new year resolution of getting to know your older family members better!


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The Last Cherry Blossom – WWII Japan for kids

I’m an adult, but recently I enjoyed reading a middle-grade historical fiction book by Twitter friend Kathleen Burkinshaw. The Last Cherry Blossom is based closely on her mother’s stories of WWII and surviving the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. These days, whenever I search Amazon for “Cherry Blossoms” to find my mother’s memoir, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, up pops The Last Cherry Blossom, first on the list, and that’s how I discovered Kathleen on Twitter.

Few memoirs have been written by Japanese civilians who survived WWII, which is why I published my mother’s story way back then. They are reticent to tell their stories, even to family. The past is over and nightmares are best kept in the dark. I appreciate the courage of Kathleen’s mother to tell such painful stories. Kathleen also decided to write for middle-grade kids, so they could easily learn about this history and to see that “the enemy is not so different from ourselves.” The effects of the bomb are told gently enough to be suitable for fourth-fifth grade and up, with the possible exception of a couple brief descriptions of horrifically affected people, but even young readers need to get the idea of how awful this was.

Last Cherry BlossomI like how the first page of each chapter features a piece of actual propaganda or news headline. Most people don’t realize the propaganda that went on in Japan, how the media was censored and bad news hidden, how children were indoctrinated in school. Like in Germany. Disagreeing could make you disappear in the night. The Last Cherry Blossom mentions this.

My surprise was that Yuriko’s family was so outwardly loving. My mother’s biggest regret in life was never being able to hug her father or tell him she loved him – it was simply not done, which was normal for that time. You bowed to show respect and love was only shown by work done for others. Overall, The Last Cherry Blossom is a sweet story of culture, family dynamics (including an intriguing family secret), the tragedy we know will come, and a ray of hope. A lot is going on in this book besides war, and for several reasons it is a story each generation needs to hear.

November is Family Stories Month and National Lifewriting Month. Will you be working to somehow save your family’s history?

*Kathleen’s blog recently featured a beautiful post about the International Friendship Bell in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town “born of war” to support the Oak Ridge National Laboratory which secretly produced enriched uranium for the atomic bombs.

Secret City and its Song, Part 3


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