Memoir: A narrative, nonfiction account typically written by an individual that depicts things, persons, or events he or she has known or experienced. Memoirs combine elements of autobiography and biography but are nonetheless distinguishable from both of these genres in scope and focus. Unlike autobiographies and biographies, both of which typically cover an individual’s life, memoirs often cover a much shorter or longer timespan, addressing a particularly important or memorable period or extending back into the past, for instance by recounting family history. Memoirs further differ from autobiographies, which concentrate on the writer’s unfolding life and character, in their degree of outward focus and from biographies, which are typically the product of extensive research, in their focus on subjective, personal recollection.
Some novels purport to be or to include the memoirs of characters or other fictional persons whose writings have been discovered, recorded, or otherwise preserved.
EXAMPLES: William Godwin’s Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft (1798), a memoir about the life and loss of Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), by her anarchist husband; Władysław Szpilman’s Śmierć Miasta (Death of a City) (1946; first published in English as The Pianist in 1999 and adapted to film in 2002), a Holocaust memoir describing the German occupation of Warsaw in World War II and how Szpilman, a Jewish classical pianist, survived; Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1991), an epic account of three generations of Chang family women; Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995), which describes his struggle with biracial identity; Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), recounting both the author’s experiences teaching in Iran after the Islamic revolution and the experiences of some of her female students; Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), an account of the author’s grief over the sudden loss of her husband and concern for their gravely ill daughter; Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone (2007), an account of the author’s experiences as a child soldier in Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war; Tina Fey’s celebrity memoir Bossypants (2011); Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala (2013), written with Christina Lamb and subtitled “The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban”; and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015), an epistolary memoir, written as a letter to the author’s son, exploring race in America.
Examples of works that blur the boundary between memoir and other genres include Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), an account of the author’s family and of growing up poor in Ireland that has also been categorized as autobiography; James McBride’s The Color of Water (1996), which focuses on McBride’s mother, a Polish Jew who married a black Baptist minister, and which has also been categorized as biography; and James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (2003), a memoir which the author later admitted was partly fictionalized, leading the publisher to note that the book combined facts about Frey’s life with “certain embellishments … for literary effect.”