Originally published by Mountain Xpress
Throughout her book A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A memoir in four meditations, Christine Hale recounts penning and reworking a novel. It’s a detail she returns to over and over. “I was a fiction writer [and] weirdly, given this book, I’m quite a private person,” she says. But following the deaths of her parents, Hale’s focus on fiction shifted and she was compelled to write not just about the passing of her mother and father, but their relationship and her own life growing up in Appalachia. “The memoir hijacked me,” she says.
“Working with a lot of memoir projects [over] the past 10 years, it’s not unusual for it to just come out and insist,” says Hale. She teaches writing in the Antioch University Los Angeles low-residency MFA program and the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNC Asheville.
Many MFA in writing programs incorporate memoir into a creative nonfiction concentration. This is the case at Antioch, but not at Warren Wilson College, where Hale completed her own MFA. But the prevalence of the genre remains strong among readers, with The New Yorker asking, “What does the popularity of memoirs tell us about ourselves?” in a 2010 article and, in 2014, Inquiries Journal stating, “In recent years the memoir has come to the forefront of American literature as a popular form for both writers and readers.” Both articles also addressed “the nagging question of how true any autobiographical information really is,” as Inquiries Journal put it.
Hale says that she’s never been to a public reading of a memoir where someone didn’t ask about the difference between autobiography and memoir. “The questioner always wants to know, ‘Is it true?’ or ‘Did you get it right?’” she says.
The former, or the “biography as told to,” Hale says, “is about the facts and achievements, for good or for ill.”
On the other hand, “One has to be careful about calling memoir nonfiction,” she says. “It really is its own category of writing. It’s not fiction, but it’s not necessarily nonfiction in the sense of having its primary allegiance be to fact.”
A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice finds a balance between fact and the malleability of memory by wending, dreamlike, between worlds and time frames. “It began as three things: I’d been writing a lot about my parents and my childhood,” says Hale. “As the years went by, I saw I [was] really delving for a story of forgiveness.”
Of the experience of the together tattoo to symbolize Hale’s bond with her children, “How could you not write about that?” she asks. Indeed, her treatment of that strange and touching event is both raw and tender. As for the final storyline, the Buddhist retreats Hale took: “That’s nonfiction that’s more bizarre than fiction,” she says.
“Somewhere along the line I just sensed these three apparently exceedingly separate stories belonged together,” the author continues. “They were all about me coming to terms with major unanswerable questions in my life.” Hale had been reading collaged nonlinear memoir — the work of Brenda Miller in particular — and began to study the technical means to make associative shifts. Pivoting on an image is one tool she employs. Another is the use of the capitalized second person pronoun.
“Off You toddled in the summer-gold light, unafraid — leaf shadow on your shoulder,” she writes in one section. And, “In my vision You make your way deeper into the field, Mother, through tangled grass, lugging that bucket.” It’s poetic and strange and weighty at the same time. The brief capital-You passages deliver Hale’s prose from a shared story to something deeply personal and breathlessly beautiful.
“When you write about difficult life experience,” Hale says, “One, you have to face it. You have stop denying if you’re going to keep writing. And the second part is that, by writing, you get control of the narrative.” A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice does so gracefully, translating its author’s singular and sometimes strange tale into a relatable journey.