What to Read When You Need to See Someone Else’s Light and Darkness

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During my year of editing and publishing my recent memoir in essays, One Day on the Gold Line, I needed to go deeper but wanted to flee the pain, to live in someone else’s world. And during the years of writing my memoir, I was often on the lookout for literary mentors and inspiration. I dipped in frequently over my publication year when I had to go down into my own darkness and face my flawed humanness while editing my memoir, then later while reading and talking about my book and my life.

Already imperfect, memory is often fragmented and fragile with trauma, making telling our stories more elusive. Just as life does not usually move in a straightforward, organized narrative, my stories were not always moving toward a linear, traditional format. In fact, while I was working on my manuscript, I found that its main characters kept messing up my story arc. Sometimes writing in alternative forms can help to excavate this material, so this is one of the things I looked for in my reading.

The books below were my friends on the road to publishing One Day on the Gold Line, waiting on my bookshelves whenever I needed their company.

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My Body Is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta
In her debut memoir, My Body is a Book of Rules, Elissa Washuta approaches key themes of her life from several different angles, using such structures as an interview format, an annotated list of psychopharmaceuticals, and even dialogue mimicking the TV show Law & Order: SVU. Washuta’s memoir is a brilliant example of collage writing at its best, and it inspired me to start experimenting with alternative forms as a writer, and as a teacher. I loved jumping into her world. Even in collage form, this memoir has a distinctive narrative arc.

 

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn
This is another memoir I looked to for alternative forms as a way to deal with the slippery nature of memory washed over with trauma.  It is an intense and difficult story about a young man who runs into his father at the homeless shelter where he works. The story of their painful relationship is told as a wild ride through eighty-one (mostly short) chapters that vary in form from interviews to rants to a stream of drinking-related slang. There are forms and quizzes, and the pieces are not in chronological order. Yet I never felt lost or ungrounded; rather, I felt the author had planned the ride meticulously. From a reader’s standpoint, the content seemed more digestible in this alternative form than it would have been as a chronological, traditional memoir.

 

Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón
I picked out a poem, “We Are Surprised,” by this wonderful poet and human to be read at my wedding in 2016 and dipped into this collection over the years, but I kept it close during my publication year for my debut memoir. The language, the musicality, the willingness to go down into grief, to dissect loss and find light, to contemplate a hidden shame or confession, the wildness and risk in living life to its fullest, then finding a way to go forth and to love fiercely—these are all parts of what I pulled out of this book. Note the courage and strength that pulsates from this work. With poems like “Triumph Like a Girl,” I am ready to go out and reclaim my own longtime tomboy persona, “Sammy Boy.” In this collection, Limón is unafraid to show all that is contained in a life. To revel, while being unashamed to show pain.

 

Naked in the Promised Land: A Memoir by Lillian Faderman
There are a number of books on my list that I carry with me emotionally as guideposts and inspiration for how I wish to tell my story. I always wondered who this amazing woman was who told this story about her journey growing up in New York City, the daughter of an immigrant mother, a garment worker who was deeply impacted by the loss of her family in the Holocaust. Some of this felt familiar to me, being from a Jewish family—my immigrant grandparents also toiled in the garment industry in NYC.  Faderman’s journey is a wild ride of discovering her intellect, sexuality, and attraction to women, of pursuing her ambitions while fighting to survive in the world, and of doing whatever is necessary. Her story is raw and engrossing as it propels readers through her life. In the last decade or so, I have picked up this book over and over again, and I have treasured the escape into Faderman’s riveting story, which I have read multiple times. Years later, through a series of shared connections, I met her again, off the page, and was able to see this brilliant, vibrant woman who is still writing and publishing stellar literary works, including her latest book on Harvey Milk.

 

Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience by Anuradha Bhagwati
I originally bought this book for my wife to read after I heard the author speak on a panel. Bhagwati’s memoir covers the brutal struggle to fight for justice while serving in the Marines as a bisexual woman of color. My wife left the Coast Guard during “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and returned as a reservist. I have learned a lot about the sexual trauma, racism, homophobia, and violence that exists in the military. Being raised in a rather anti-military family, I am fascinated by the participation of women in the military, particularly LGBTQ and WoC, and I now have a better understanding of the myriad reasons people join. I stole/borrowed the memoir from my wife and raced through it, rooting for this courageous, badass writer who is unafraid to speak and write her truth.

 

Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines by Nick Sheff

These memoirs kept me alive during the dark years of my teenage son’s struggle with active addiction. I needed to find compassion and the knowledge that one can write one’s way through, and these books provided this. Though, to this day, I cannot imagine writing my way through a mother’s worst fear, the death of a child. I read as many books by addicts and families of addicts as I could during those years, and again when I was working on my memoir. My son and I had the opportunity to meet David and Nick Sheff during my publication year, and looking at David’s signature on my copy of Beautiful Boy reminds me again of how much his book has meant to my survival and my drive to write my story.

 

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller
This is a wild, fearless ride and a shocking escape that helped me understand my South African wife better. Fuller is not afraid to show her blemishes, which include the racist environment she inherited growing up. When it came time for me to write about my most shameful and insane moments, I thought of Fuller. I read somewhere, perhaps in an interview with her, that she tried to write this as fiction several times before writing the memoir. I am glad she wrote the truth, as nonfiction, giving courage to those who followed.

 

Ordinary Girls: A Memoir by Jaquira Díaz
From the title to the cover art to the last page, this memoir is a rich voyage through the life of the author as she moves between Puerto Rico and Miami, navigates the trauma of a mentally ill mother, and seeks love and comfort where she can. We feel all that happens to Díaz as she grows into a young woman—the violence, the grit and gifts, the pain and possibility enveloped in this life she invites us into. Memoir brought alive in vivid color, easily devoured, raw with lush, painful, lyrical details of family, addiction, sexuality, race, colonialism, and culture. I could not put it down—honestly, it went wherever I did for about twenty-four hours. There is a lot packed in: language, poetry, music, sabor, lightning dialogue, and story! I see a movie coming from this badass book.

 

Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis
Taking place in the dark days of the Uruguayan military dictatorship, which included brutal persecution based on homosexuality, this book chronicles the lives of several women who bonded together and found a beach refuge. It is a lovely and visceral entry into the world where these women lived, and I was happy to escape there during my publication year.

 

Slow Lightning by Eduardo Corral
This poetry collection, with poems that traverse worlds, tells stories of immigration, sexuality, violence, racism, lust, love, and more—in Spanish and English—was a way for me to dip my toes in fresh water, away from my own story and into the poet’s world, where you could hear from multiple voices in one poem (example: “Border Triptych”) and see mind-altering word combinations, luscious, raw, breath-stopping. I turned to this book as escape, as inspiration, as an offering to my students, as an example of what poetry can accomplish. Like the poet himself, the work is extraordinary, generous in the territory it mines, unflinching in choosing the right words that gut you in Spanish or English. Each poem is a separate work of art, a voyage, with its own rhythm, music, form, and language. Not afraid to go there no matter how bloody, bright, or brutal. I still need to keep this close by.

 

And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Carla’s debut book, One Day on the Gold Line: A Memoir in Essays, out now from Black Rose Writing! – Ed.

One Day on the Gold Line: A Memoir in Essays by Carla Rachel Sameth
Through meditations on race, culture, and family, One Day on the Gold Line tells the story of a lesbian Jewish single mother raising a black son in Los Angeles. A memoir-in-essays, it examines life’s surprising changes that come through choice or circumstance, often seemingly out of nowhere, and sometimes darkly humorous—even as the situations are dire. While escaping from a burning boat, Carla realizes that if she died, her one regret would be not having children. She overcomes miscarriages to finally give birth to a son. Motherhood’s usual struggles are then complicated by identity, community, and the challenges of creating a blended family. The overarching theme of these loosely woven reflective tales is the storyteller’s dream of the “perfect” family, the pursuit of which hurls her from one crisis to the next, ultimately meeting its greatest challenge in the form of her teenage son’s struggle with drug addiction.

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Carla has also created a Spotify playlist to accompany One Day on the Gold Linelisten below!


Carla Rachel Sameth is a writer living in Pasadena. Her debut memoir, One Day on the Gold Line, was published July 2019. Her work on blended/unblended, queer, biracial, and single parenting appears in a variety of literary journals and anthologies including: Collateral Journal, The Nervous Breakdown, Brevity Blog, Brain, Child & Brain Teen Magazine, Narratively, Longreads, Mutha Magazine, Full Grown People, Angels Flight Literary West, Tikkun, Entropy, Pasadena Weekly, Unlikely Stories Mark V, and La Bloga. Carla’s essay, “If This Is So, Why Am I?” was selected as a notable for the 2019 Best American Essays. She writes about addiction, trauma, and resilience with a sense of humor and connection to her readers. Carla is a member of the Pasadena Rose Poets, a 2019 Pride Poet with the City of West Hollywood, and was a PEN in The Community Teaching Artist. She teaches creative writing at the Los Angeles Writing Project, with Southern New Hampshire University, and to incarcerated youth. Carla has an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte (Latin America). She lives in Pasadena with her wife. More from this author →