Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review: Revolutionary Memoir Do's and Don'ts

Fugitive Days, by Bill Ayers
Arm the Spirit, by Diana Block
Footnote, by Boff Whalley
Granny Made Me an Anarchist, by Stuart Christie

In my quest to understand the revolutionary movements of the past century, and the ways in which they have and have not succeeded, I've been reading a lot of memoirs by revolutionaries/anarchists this month.  Reading the four above listed tomes brought me moments of euphoria, of hope, of understanding, of disappointment, etc., et. al.  Actually, the American writers left me with some more comprehension of why some revolutionary movements have failed, and unfortunately with less comprehension of how to move forward. The Brits are more inspiring.

Bill Ayers may be familiar to many readers for his actions in the Weather Underground, a radical group in the sixties (about which I've written previously).  Diana Block was an important member of many underground movements, and her husband was on the Ten Most Wanted list of the FBI for a while; she herself is not a household name, but she and her family and friends were forced underground because of their support of the Puerto Rican liberation movement.  Boff Whalley is the guitarist/ideas man behind Chumbawamba, my very favorite band, and a committed anarchist in England.  Stuart Christie's book has already received a full review in this blog. He is most famous for his participation in an attempt to assassinate General Franco, the Spanish dictator, in 1961.

In my brief survey of the revolutionary memoir, I notice a few things.
 ** The less sex, the better narrative.  This might be my own personal bias, I suppose, but really--one-night stands turned into one-sentence memories are all the same, and you should keep your own memories on this unless the nudity is integral to the plot of the memoir. 
**Humor and hope are vital.  No one will gather to revolutionary causes unless we can forsee a better, happier future for most people.  No one wants to be harangued (yes, I need to learn that one); laughter is good, evidence of success is good. 
**Being proud of your actions is good; don't disavow your former self completely unless it is legally necessary.  At the same time, none of these guys brought the revolution.  Self-importance can ruin any narrative, and crush the hope you may wish to impart.  
** The audience of a revolutionary narrative is interested in the injustices that outraged the writer and spurred her/him to action.  Include enough info that we can feel the fury with you.

Of these four writers, Christie has by far the least education and the least 'professional' pedigree, yet his memoir is by far the most competent.  I loved his book.  He created sympathy for his cause, wrote with a sense of humor, and recorded injustices straight up without any hand-wringing or false modesty.  He also recognized that perhaps the whole world did not need to know of his sexual exploits!  
Bill Ayers should have taken a page from Christie on this one.  Even though I started out his memoir in sympathy with him and his causes, by the end of the book I didn't really ever want to meet him.  He paints himself as a lothario, and his attempts to bring in humor feel forced and disingenuous.  Despite nearly fifty years of perspective, he hasn't seemed to realize the short-sightedness of the Weather Underground exploits.  H
e writes an exciting yarn, and I did feel like I was with him stampeding the streets of Chicago in the Days of Rage.  Parts of the book r
ead as a dime novel; the parts dealing with his relationship with Diana, who died in a bomb-building project gone wrong, pull at the heartstrings.  But his self-importance overwhelms the force of the narrative.  After reading his work, I understood a little more why so many people of his generation turned against the social movements.  I wouldn't want to follow him into a supermarket, much less trust him in a demonstration or organization.  It's true that Ayers has an eye for injustice, but still--the focus was always on him. 
Diana Block's memoir was a lot more enjoyable to read; she didn't attempt humor--her natural style is outraged and overwrought.  That matches up with my priorities just fine, but I don't think her writing is for everyone.  She writes about her experiences in the radical fringes of the feminist movement.  It was really neat to read about the creation of a lot of the theory that became standard in gender studies--in small study groups, in late ni
ght conversations and arguments, in passionate 'zines distributed on the streets of San Francisco.  Just think--the dialogues that I have with my feminist collaborators are just as valid as Judith B
utler, as Gloria Steinem, as Adrienne Rich!  They, too, were once writing and reading on the ground and were not reified, and any force that does reify them takes away from their message. 
Arm the Spirit also discusses coping mechanisms for staying sane and maintaining hope when she was living underground with her husband and children, in touch with only a few friends, uncertain if they would ever be able to participate in full society again.  While I certainly don't live underground, all her knowledge about staying hopeful in difficult circumstances really helped me arm my spirit, to be sure.  These are bad times for leftists. We need more statements like Diana Block's.

Finally, Boff Whalley's memoir is a chaotic mess, but I loved it.  He, like Christie, manages to incorporate humor with genuine testimony to the craziness of the world.  He manages to understate his importance and fame, a memoir trait I enjoyed after
Fugitive Days.  Unlike the other three memoirs, which had a linear trajectory, Footnote hops all over the place, from band life to personal life to anarchist principles to the stories behind specific songs to tour drama.  The book's various chapters could have been published as blog posts, perhaps; it's not a unified field theory of anything, but it does relate a lot of joy and laughter and successful stabs against authority (ie throwing ice water at authoritarian officials,
tricking a skinhead music anthology into including a mocking song of Chumba).

Later this month, I'm getting a book of writings by International Workers of the World--the IWW (aka the Wobblies).   We'll see how they do on my list of revolutionary memoir dos and don'ts.

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