Having always wanted to feature a graphic memoir here on Writing Lessons, I knew I had the right writer when I read a review of Lila Quintero Weaver’s astonishing book, Darkroom, A Memoir in Black & White. A debut work, the book is about race and identity, as told through the story of her family’s emigration from Buenos Aires to Alabama in 1961. When I asked Lila about her topic for the how-to all Writing Lessons posts include, I was delighted that she wanted to explore how to more finely hone memory and get better at recalling details while writing memoir. Let’s see what she has to say.
How to Hone in on Memory When Writing Memoir
by Lila Quintero Weaver
Memory is the thing with feathers
Retrieving memories is akin to feeding wild birds. I stumbled on this association while working on my memoir.
Two tangled threads ran through my childhood as a Latina in 1960s Alabama: race and the immigrant experience. Some things I could never forget because society hasn’t forgotten them, like whites-only signs and segregated water fountains, still in place when my family arrived from Argentina in 1961. Some things I could never forget because they were personally explosive. At fourteen, when I befriended a black male teenager, I became the object of intense small-town gossip and carried the shame and indignation of it for years. There was no need to reconstruct memories that had never left me.
But I wanted to present a keener observation of the racism I witnessed. I needed nuanced stories and telling details that went beyond the scope of historians and journalists.
The problem with reconstructing the past is memory’s ephemeral nature, and the material for Darkroom had lain dormant for fifty years. So I began writing those memories within my grasp, no matter how spare and murky, all the while enhancing them through research. As a result of sustained attention, deeply buried memories started to resurface, often when my mind was on other things. I learned to keep a notepad handy. Once the phenomenon of retrieved memories kicked in, a metaphor helped me accelerate the process: bird-feeding.
The birdfeeder my husband built in our home basement will never make it to the pages of Better Homes & Gardens. It’s a 7-foot steel-rod post topped with a rectangular platform. There’s no roof. A wire-mesh inset keeps the birdseed from getting soggy.
For two weeks after he installed it, the feeder was a lonely sight. But then birds started coming, and I spent enchanted hours watching from my dining-room window, careful not to spook them by standing too close. I wasn’t surprised by the appearance of cardinals, who’d always been visible in our environment. But soon our visitors included birds that looked only vaguely familiar. When I consulted a birding guide, I discovered that brown thrashers had been in our backyard all along, scratching for grubs under the azaleas, camouflaged and unnoticed. Some birds struck me as exotic, but according to the birding guide, indigo buntings and rose-breasted grosbeaks were not strangers to our corner of Alabama. Why had I never seen them? The more I trained my eyes on the birdfeeder, the more astonished I was by the variety of species that passed through our backyard or even called it home. The feeder had lured them out of their hiding places.
Associating memory retrieval with the feeding of wild birds helped me adopt a patient, soft-focus approach, as if taking care not to spook memories darting nearby. As I continued writing, long-forgotten episodes drifted in with little additional effort on my part. Before I knew it, I’d recovered smaller, but powerful stories, like that of the African American school librarian that my principal asked white children to spy on, and the school play I didn’t invite my parents to attend because their foreign accents brought me unwanted attention. These episodes were locked in the recesses of my brain. All I had to do was build the platform of early drafts, and like shy birds, some colorful and exotic, others wrapped in camouflage, they came out of hiding.
Darkroom, an excerpt
Lila Quintero Weaver was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1955. At age five, she immigrated to the U.S. with her family and spent her school years in a small Alabama town where she absorbed the material that makes up her illustrated memoir. She is a graduate of the University of Alabama. Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White is her first major publication. Lila was named a finalist for the Small Press Expo 2012 Ignatz Award for Promising New Talent and for the 2012 Cybils Award in the Graphic Novels category. The Children’s Literature & Reading Special Interest Group of the International Reading Association awarded Darkroom with a Notable Books for a Global Society designation. She is represented by Adriana Dominguez at Full Circle Literary. You can read more about her on her website. You can purchase a copy of Darkroom, A Memoir in Black & White here.
AND THE WINNER IS…
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment of the series will take on one short topic that addresses how to write memoir, and will include a great big book giveaway.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
The contest for this book is now closed. Please see the next installment of Writing Lessons.
The winner of Lila Quintero Weaver’s fine book is Melinda. Congratulations, Melinda! I’ll be in touch to send your book.