The human experience is at once both difficult and inspiring. Stories that capture the astounding tale of a person or people who struggle, tirelessly, unwaveringly, to find themselves, overcome opposition and discrimination, and lead lives of purpose and enthusiasm are not only engrossing, but also serve to lift readers beyond themselves. At turns humorous, touching, mournful and cathartic, these memoirs and true stories expand the understanding of the world, whether the original raconteur is from a city next door or a country on the other end of the globe.
Memoirs and biographies come in many forms, from straightforward narratives to graphic novels. It’s no wonder they’re one of the most popular forms of nonfiction books—the intimate feeling that comes from discovering someone’s deeply personal journey is often indescribable. The impact, however, is often far-reaching, and while there are thousands of profoundly moving examples, here are a few contemporary picks that are poignantly resonating with readers.
“Chickasaw: Unconquered and Unconquerable” by David G. Fitzgerald, Amanda J. Cobb and Linda Hogan
Sometimes the most moving stories are those of an entire people instead of just one individual. Follow the journey of the Chickasaw from ancient times to modern day. The Chickasaw were remarkable in their successes with diplomacy when settlers forced them to move off of their land, part of why they call themselves “unconquered and unconquerable.” Today, they’ve taken many innovative steps to preserve their language and their culture. The book ends with the personal stories of current tribe members.
“Are You My Mother?” by Alison Bechdel
It’s true that most memoirs typically come in a novel form, the story simply visiting events the same way they occur in real life. Alison Bechdel’s tale of self-exploration via relationships with her distant mother and varied significant others, on the other hand, is exceptionally fascinating in its unconventional graphic memoir style. It provides an additional visual stimulation that enhances the humor and deepens the revelations. Less a story about homosexuality or familial troubles, this book enriches every reader because it discusses, in a singularly light but intellectual way, the nuance and absurdity of interpersonal relationships.
“Sometimes There is a Void” by Zakes Mda
There are many affecting stories about life in South Africa, from many points of view. Perhaps this is why Mda’s memoir of growing up during the end of Apartheid feels so fresh and absorbing, he manages to illuminate the roles of a diverse set of people, from many classes and positions, in a way few writers have before. His detailed struggle, beginning with exile and escape, speaks of the author’s adaptability, clarity of self-awareness and understanding of wider issues. Whether modestly discussing his accomplishments and involvement or objectively elucidating the problematic and misunderstood political situation, Mda maintains a thoughtful, considered and intelligent view of a unique and inspiring experience.
“Memoir of a Debulked Woman” by Susan Gubar
Cancer is an awful, debilitating and often terminal disease that touches nearly everyone at some point. Susan Gubar, a celebrated feminist writer and scholar, tells a story that isn’t unheard of, but is acutely relatable. Walking into her late-stage ovarian cancer diagnosis with perceptive understanding of her likely death sentence, Gubar recounts the uncomfortable and enlightening symptoms, setbacks and side effects of this struggle to squeeze every useful day out of her life without succumbing to an existence that barely qualifies as one. Deftly utilizing the “debulking” analogy in many areas of her experience, the author educates readers on cancer’s internal and external cost.
Every year dozens, maybe hundreds, of memoirs freshly stock the shelves at bookstores in the mall and online. The best tales discuss the hardships inherent in a unique life with a wit and comprehension that makes it possible to find the same beauty in the individual readers’ lives. Whether humorous, prevailing or enlightening, stories of struggle and triumph help each person find a connection with someone just like them, or wholly different.