Writing I Am Yours was a journey of revolution. I gave myself a year to write the first draft because it takes a year for the earth to orbit the sun, and revolution is another word for orbit. Writing my memoir was less an exercise in finding my voice than it was of reclaiming my voice. As a woman, as a marginalized person of any kind, that is what finding entails. We humans are born with a voice. The world then begins to lay its hands upon us, sculpting, bruising, imprinting. Our voice is forcibly hidden under threat and reality of danger. We are shown repeatedly that to speak is to incur harm. Decades later, when we set forth to assert ourselves, we find our voice by reclaiming what was always ours but had been lost, abandoned, forsaken. Silenced.
Life is often a lonely path but no person or writer is every truly alone, especially if you’re an avid reader. In I Am Yours, I speak of being in a lifelong quest to find a book whose world mirrored mine, that could hear and hold my heart, to help mend the gashes gathered. In nearly every chapter, I write of the books that spoke most vividly to me during that stage in my life. Below are some of these books that have been essential in my path to becoming my most full-throated self. They are listed in the order they entered my life.
To speak is a revolution. These are the voices who helped me reclaim mine.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
My father is a brilliant scholar. He and my mother were very young when they had me. I reserve a protective compassion for any person who becomes a parent young. Parenthood is already complex. It must be unduly difficult to parent whilst still trying to create and find oneself through young adulthood. I grew up in the same home with my father but my near-constant search for his affection and approval was fundamental in my formation. I love Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time not only for its stunning construction but also the parallelism of one’s search for Father, the human struggle with Time, the racing pace that some experiences and characters require from us, in hopes that we can at long last stand on the same metaphysical plane, to look into each other’s eyes to say, I see you. I am here. I love you. I am yours. I’m grateful to say that my father and I, today, we can indeed speak these truths.
Paula by Isabel Allende
I’ve loved Isabel Allende’s books since I was a young teenager. Among all the books I read, the lives of her characters, the vibrant richness and largess of their emotions, settings, and struggles felt the closest to my family’s, my culture’s, and my own. I love magical realism. I believe our brains invent poetic language and fantastical literary architecture because beauty helps soften the cruelty of life. It is not an accident that so many magical realist authors hail from war-torn countries with corrupt governments, rampant poverty, and generations of subjugation by white colonialism. Paula is Isabel Allende’s memoir about her daughter’s sudden terminal illness and the devastation felt by all who loved her. Isabel writes of loss, trauma, and sickness in impossibly beautiful prose. Her writing taught me young that to survive life’s wounds, beauty is necessary. This is why all of us seek beauty in some form: in art, in love, in family, in faith, in science, in connection, in nature. We seek and create beauty to soothe the ache of being human. Beauty as a literary element allows the reader to sit inside the pain with you while you guide them through the darkness, toward acceptance, closure, healing, and release.
Eat, Pray, Love and Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert
I tried to read Eat, Pray, Love when it first came out in 2006. I was twenty-two, had just graduated from college, and being so young, my first response to the memoir was arrogant dismissal: “Why is she complaining? She’s blonde, white, had a big house, a successful career, and a man who loved her. That’s the ideal, isn’t it? What could possibly be missing?” Eat, Pray, Love snuck back into my life when I was twenty-four. I read a few pages, before my then-boyfriend borrowed it, loved it, and kept the book. The memoir re-entered my life a third time, as the movie, when I was still married to my first husband, a tortured man I write of in I Am Yours. We saw the movie and afterward, my body was overtaken by sobs I couldn’t control or halt. I very rarely cry, let alone sob. I cried so hard, for so long, my husband thought I would fall ill. I kept gasping, “I d-d-don’t think we’re happy. I don’t thi-thi-think we’re happy.”
When he and I separated, I finally read Eat, Pray, Love. I finally and fully understood what had been missing in Elizabeth’s life and in my own. I devoured Eat, Pray, Love and immediately read Committed, Liz’s memoir on marriage as an institution, a promise, and a ritual, a deeply researched and empathic book that I loved and needed with equal ardor. In the wake of my divorce, it brought me peace and kept me company as I wrote my own daily essays on love, betrayal, and healing to regain my strength. Liz’s candor and charm have kept some readers from recognizing the profound wisdom in her work. The authentic charisma is part of her work’s profundity. A loving, endearing voice helps sustain the attention of a reader so that together, we may grapple and unpack painful experiences to arrive at clarity and illumination. It is also extremely difficult to write a book that breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the reader successfully. To do so masterfully requires subtlety, pacing, and craft. Any time I doubted my choice to write a memoir that addresses my reader directly, Liz would remind me, Dear One, it can be done.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
I started writing I Am Yours on November 28, 2013, eight days after my thirtieth birthday. I received a paperback copy of Wild as a birthday present from my sister-in-law. It was the book I was reading when I decided I would and could write my own memoir. Beyond the vast wisdom woven so masterfully by Cheryl in those pages, she gave me permission to express my full spectrum of self as a woman. Before Wild, I’d never come across a woman who so boldly and unapologetically stood in her seemingly dichotomous truth: the narrator—Cheryl—is a woman at once a fiercely intelligent, cerebral thinker and doting daughter, as well as someone who engaged in promiscuous sex and drug use, and who, most shockingly of all, expressed rage against her mother for dying so young. A roaring howl of a book that is one of the truest, most powerful, heart-wrenching tributes to love. Cheryl teaches us that to be human is to be infinitely intricate and wholly lovable in our supposed contradictions. Prior to meeting Wild, the world had taught me that to be an acceptable woman, to draw and keep a person’s love, I had to be continually pleasing and perfect. Falling in love with Cheryl’s voice, book, and person disproved that myth. She freed me to embrace—and write—my full self. Four and a half years later, I met Cheryl in person when she invited me to be a guest on her podcast, Dear Sugars, for an episode on the fraught, complex topic of emotional abuse. After we recorded, she squeezed my hand, smiled, and thanked me for sharing my truth. After dreaming for years of standing beside her, I was able say, “I am only here because of you. My words are what they are because of yours.”
Dear Mr. You by Mary Louise Parker
I started reading Dear Mr. You in December 2015, when I Am Yours entered its first round of copy edits with my agents. Mary Louise’s memoir is written in letters, each one addressed to a different man in her life who has played or will play a pivotal role: letters for her father, for her first love, for her daughter’s future husband. All my life, I have craved enormous amounts of closeness, far more than the usual intimacy that a healthy human will desire and seek. I live for closeness. While intellectually I can understand why some (most) people enjoy not speaking to their neighbors when standing in line to buy groceries, I find it staggering that here we are not using each precious minute to connect deeply. I will always start a conversation with you. Therefore, I love epistolary works and when a narrator or character in a book, play, or film addresses the audience. Mary Louise uses the epistolary form as a backdrop to engage in difficult, heartfelt, intimate conversations about love, loss, identity, belonging, loyalty, and the people in life who matter so much that they deserve a love letter, carefully penned and published.
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, like Cheryl’s, came to me as a gift. It was August 12, 2016. My agent had just started submitting I Am Yours to various publishers. Although by that time I had been in Portland for a few years, it wasn’t until the manuscript left my hands that I began venturing into the literary community; instinct told me that to write my memoir, I had to develop and incubate it on my own. My first foray into our community was to attend Lidia’s reading at Powell’s in Portland for the paperback launch of her novel, The Small Backs of Children. The event was packed, a few hundred people deep, and I was one of the people standing in the back of the crowd. The room pulsed with effervescent love. Everyone seemed to know each other. I remember looking around in awe and thinking I want in. These are my people. I felt the certainty of kinship so strong that I confessed my feelings aloud to the woman beside me. She smiled, asked if I had read The Chronology of Water, and when I replied that I hadn’t, she reached into her purse and handed me her copy, well-worn and dog-eared. I read it swiftly with the hungry urgency that befalls us when we know that the book we hold is the precise one our soul needs at that exact moment.
I’m profoundly grateful that Lidia’s voice came into my life after I had honed mine. She and I say often that ours is a seamless love: the call of two voices reaching to find each other. I’ve been able to be mentored by her without risk of imitating her out of sheer adoration. As a writer, the most crucial gift she gave me was the validation of my rage. When I began to write I Am Yours, I was shocked by the volume of anger inside me. Decades of suppressed rage toward the looming stack of injustices I had experienced and witnessed as a woman, a marginalized being, a person of color was throbbing under the surface. Reading Chronology made me proud of my female rage and the manuscript I had just sent into the world. I realized that as my rage was a signal that injustice had been committed, time and time again, it wasn’t shameful—it was honorable, logical, and wise. The riot in my soul deserved to be voiced. The opening of I Am Yours became a warrior song of solidarity for the women before me, the women around me, the women to come.
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Whenever people ask about my writing process, I answer, “Discipline, scholarly pursuit, and life.” I feel you become a writer by being a discerning reader, a disciplined editor, and an avid human. You read; you shrewdly observe life; you experience films, music, dance, theater, politics, culture, conversations, relationships, and nature; you interrogate what you love and why; you investigate what you loathe and why. You carefully select books written by wise teachers and fold their lessons into your work. I love The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert with a reverence that is spiritual. For me, these three craft books are sacred.
Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle
Glennon Doyle’s Love Warrior is the memoir that feels most like my own, not in form or structure but in theme and life experience. I Am Yours was on submission for a whopping year and four months. My mantra is, “Success is the intersection between preparation and opportunity.” I took the year and four months to learn how to write and publish essays, to diversify and train myself as a speaker and launch that part of my career, and to read books that would help sharpen my skills as a writer and speaker on issues that impact the female condition. Glennon’s memoir is a probing meditation on marriage, betrayal, forgiveness, and selfhood, set in the wake of her husband revealing that for their entire thirteen-year-long marriage he had been having sex with other women. From the very first page, the reader is swept into Glennon’s ravenous search for answers. This hungry curiosity mirrors a deeper truth: her vivid hunger is fed by decades of physical and emotional starvation, from bulimia and from being raised in a society that continually demands smallness, perfection, and docility from girls and women. The fear and seeming impossibility of defying this doctrine lead countless women to shrink and obey mandates on how we should behave, who we should marry, and what we should accept. Glennon’s memoir examines these issues with a voice both radically loving and audaciously determined. Her indomitable spirit holds the reader captive through the book to deliver us to healing, alignment, and strength.
Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Path Forward by Gemma Hartley
In November 2017, I Am Yours found its perfect publisher: Amberjack Publishing. My editor received the manuscript in its seventh draft. The blessing of having five years from conception to publication is that, as a woman and a thinker, I had evolved—and society had evolved, too. In our final draft of the book, I folded in my matured voice, wizened by the books and women I’ve met in recent years and the sociopolitical landmarks we’ve experienced from Trump to the #MeToo movement to the Kavanaugh hearings. In early 2018, I was honored to read an early copy of Gemma Hartley’s Fed Up and to be included in one of its chapters, on the emotional labor of abusive relationships. Change in any nuanced landscape or matter can only come about after we’ve created a language to understand the complexity and find solutions. Gemma’s work as an essayist and author has helped me create a language to discuss heterosexual relationships, the challenges and dynamics therein, and our way toward gender equity. Her book is a brilliant, compact, essential read.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
The only novel on this list, I believe An American Marriage should be required reading for all human beings. My most recent read, this book has been a wise teacher as I prepare for my publication date, for the critical conversations I will have during my book tour, and all else to come. The largess of the title is thoroughly deserved. Tayari defies the expected narrative of what this novel could have been in less masterful hands. She knew she wanted to write about the systemic, wrongful mass incarceration of Black men in America in a way that would allow readers to have a deep, meaningful, complex, empathic conversation. She knew that to do that well, she had to ground the story in her characters, not in themes and concepts. Powerful stories are driven by characters and relationships, not ideas and statistics, and the most engaging entry into a larger sociopolitical conversation is always a personal narrative. Tayari wrote a wholly new, timeless and timely book that deftly interrogates every pressing universal quandary. The book is experienced through the eyes of three characters: a woman who is an artist, the man who is her wrongfully incarcerated husband, and the man who is her best friend and becomes her lover. Tayari guides us through the complex marriage of the personal and political, and the novel’s axis is the moral ambiguity among and within the characters. Tayari’s novel is a master class on writing, on love, on race in America, on belonging, on selfhood, and on the human condition.
These are the women I thank in the Acknowledgments in my book. Without their words, mine would not exist. The fire of their voices raised mine.
And to close out this special list, we just had to include Reema’s debut memoir, I Am Yours, forthcoming February 5 from Amberjack Publishing! – Ed.
I Am Yours by Reema Zaman
In Reema’s own words: “For too long, through the most intimate acts of erasure, women have been silenced. Now, women everywhere are breaking through the limits placed on us by family, society, and tradition. To find our voices. To make space for ourselves in this world. Now is the moment to reclaim what was once lost, stolen, forsaken, or abandoned. I Am Yours is about my fight to protect and free my voice from those who have sought to silence me, for the sake of creating a world where all voices are welcome and respected. Because the voice, without intimacy, will atrophy. We’re in this together. You are mine, and I am yours.”