In this episode of Voice to Books, our readers review memoirs written by people from a variety of backgrounds. Everyone has a story to tell, and firsthand accounts of struggles are powerful instruments of change and understanding. Reading underrepresented voices, especially in memoir, helps to cultivate compassion and awareness for cultures and experiences that are not our own.
Consent: A Memoir by Vanessa Springora (translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer)
Reviewed by A.E. Santana
Writing can be transformative and healing. It can thread together themes in the lives of authors or make sense of a situation they’ve lived. For Vanessa Springora, writing her memoir, Consent, was also an empowering campaign to take back her life that seemed to have been stolen away by someone who was older, manipulative, and, unfortunately, more protected than she was.
Disclosing what took place between her—at the time, a fourteen-year-old girl—and a fifty-year-old man (known only as G.M.) is a crucial piece of the author’s journey of understanding what happened to her, how it came to happen, and, in a way, why it happened. The book is structured in a neat, calm manner with six parts that help to frame the chaos of Springora’s childhood, teenage years, and the aftermath of her time with G.M. The topics Springora discusses, even before her interactions with G.M., may be uncomfortable for some, but her composed and steady honesty of the situations and how she felt in those moments as a child and pre-teen girl fully shape her experience for readers.
Moving the reader through the stages of her development from child to teen, Springora channels the person she once was, creating a pathway of compassion for her younger self. Her hindsight and understanding come later in the memoir, as it did for her in real life. Placing the narrator and reader together in the moment is a testament to Springora’s ability and strength to tell her story thoughtfully and concisely—a harrowing but attainable feat for any survivor.
Since the memoir discusses underage relationships with an adult, this story may not be suitable for everyone. But it can be inspiring, cathartic, and validating for anyone who may need to know they are not alone in these experiences.
This Is One Way to Dance: Essays by Sejal Shah
Reviewed by David Martinez
“What do you do with a language you never use?” Shah asks in her painful essay “Street Scene” from This Is One Way to Dance. It’s a line, like so many others in the collection, that stops the reader, makes the eye pass over it again and again. A language. A culture. Like the lines we reread, Shah makes us question: What do we use? What are we expected to use? What are we forced to use?
In “Street Scene” Shah is using the language of grief, a language unique to the bereaved. In “Who’s Indian?” her forgotten and unused Gujarati becomes a central character as the language of her regret. The wedding in “Saris and Sorrows” details the language a couple never got to use with their oldest son, a language that over time is modified for new surroundings, the way living languages change over time in new locations, like immigrants, like lives. “Voice Texting with My Mother” asks us through a typo, “Do you have Old / sorrows I can use?”
Shah does have these sorrows we can use, and she gives them to us wrapped in a beautiful fabric of words. These essays—many of which border on poetry—explore and contemplate the experiences of an American other and the languages lost, found, and inherited for children of immigrants. Each piece, whether about cooking, weddings, traveling in both foreign and familiar places, carries the weight of Shah’s history, the history of her blood, and the history of a language we never knew we used until we start to read.
Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change by Anjali Enjeti
Reviewed by Daniela Z. Montes
Southbound by Anjali Enjeti is a collection of twenty essays detailing Enjeti’s life experiences, exploring themes of racism, feminism, voter fraud, identity, and growing up in the South. The collection is separated into three sections: “Identity,” “Inheritance,” and “Social Change.” The three sections flow seamlessly.
The reader learns what made Enjeti who she is, then we see what issues she faces as a mixed-race American woman. Finally, she talks about how she has made social change, emphasizing the importance of uplifting the voices of people who are on the ground. Before the first section, Enjeti introduces herself in an essay titled “What Are You? Where Are You From?” The essay highlights the microaggressions she’s faced throughout her life and sets the stage for the essays to come.
In the section titled “Inheritance,” Enjeti diverges from the classic essay style in “Alias” and “In Memory of Vincent Chin.” The seven poems in “Alias” allows Enjeti to cover a lot of emotional ground in a few lines as she discusses hyphenating her surname. By breaking “In Memory of Vincent Chin” into nineteen acts she is able to interweave memory, facts, and fantasy to create a heartbreaking essay.
Most of the essays in the collection are a marriage of personal experience and historical context. The historical context is there not to make a point or to show that Enjeti is right but as a backdrop. History shapes us and the context it provides our lives is invaluable.
Enjeti’s personal stories capture the reader’s attention, and the historical context strips away the facade from American History. By using a mixture of classic and non-classic essay forms, she is able to present her stories in a way that is beautiful, thoughtful, and fresh.
Voice to Books is a monthly short list of reviews from a variety of voices, curated by Daniela Z. Montes and A.E. Santana. Like the authors and their characters, each of our reviewers comes from a marginalized or underrepresented group. Interested in contributing a review to Voice to Books? Please send inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.