Jean Naggar, author of the memoir Sipping from the Nile: My Exodus from Egypt, shares with us some thoughts on the art of the memoir. Enter our drawing for a free copy of Sipping from the Nile by leaving a comment on AJL's Facebook page at facebook.com/jewishlibraries by April 30, 2012! And now, let's hear from Jean, herself:
I never planned to write a memoir. Fiction was my passion, and if I was ever granted time to write, I knew it would be a novel. The catalyst that started the process of writing my memoir came zooming out of left field soon after the births of my first grandchildren. I realized then that they would be growing up so distant from me in generation, time, and space, that they would never be able to imagine the childhood I had experienced, or to know the people who had woven the magical fabric of my young years. Looking back, I realized that the community and the world I had known had completely disappeared. It began to seem increasingly important to write them back into being, to preserve their vibrant personalities and idiosyncrasies, along with the rich and complicated world in which they flourished.
I had grown up in a large extended Sephardic family in Egypt, before the Suez crisis of 1956 put an end to that life and that world. This newborn generation sending billows of joy to my heart held the key to the future, but I held the key to their past. They were entitled to find it, if they ever went seeking.
So I thought I should jot down a few memories of my childhood in moments stolen from a busy life. I never meant to share my reflections with the world. I wrote for my family. But as I began to open locked doors and allow the past back in, more and more memories, more scenes, more scents and sounds of a lost world swelled into being and jostled in my mind for attention. Soon, I began to write for the immense pleasure in the craft, and the satisfaction of feeling that I was rendering homage to those who came before me, and laying a path for those in search of themselves to follow. I began to see that I, myself, was a mere fragment in time, the sum of choices made by unknown ancestors, in a distant past.
The more I worked on draft after draft, the more I came to an understanding that memoir is both unique, and universal. As readers began to respond to what I had written, I learned that each personal memoir holds truths and commonalities way beyond those experienced by the writer. Every life, whatever the circumstances, turns out to be a universal tale of reversals and transformations, shaped by the storms of politics, economics, wars, and losses; the prism through which each tale is viewed is what bends the experience into widely differing shapes for each individual. Every memoir is an attempt to make sense of it all, to seek out a vanished past that leaves its faint footprint in the present.
We live in an era of emails and text messages that leave little possibility for future generations to discover a bundle of letters bound with blue ribbon in an attic. History and biography are always colored by the politics of the day. So I believe that personal memoir will probably be the only true witness for future generations to learn how we really lived, and who we were.
In striving to make sense of our own lives, we are drawn to read about the lives of others. Whether those lives mirror our own or offer a taste of exotica or trauma we have not shared, we enter them for a brief time, taking pleasure or pain in the sharing, and always finding a common humanity.
For me, writing my memoir, Sipping From the Nile, was a transformational experience. I laid the past to rest. The echo of my life bounced back to me across the topography of decades, bringing resolution, self-knowledge, meaning, and substance to the present.
About Jean Naggar
Jean Naggar was born in Alexandria, Egypt. She grew up in Cairo, moving to England, and then New York City, where she currently resides. She is the founder of the prominent Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, Inc. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Village Voice and Publishers Weekly. She is the mother of three adult children and grandmother of seven. Now, she is at last exploring her childhood dreams: to write.
Her memoir of a magical childhood, SIPPING FROM THE NILE, My Exodus from Egypt, is available in print, Kindle and audio versions at the following link: Amazon, or you can visit her at: www.jeannaggar.com and www.JVNLA.com.