My mother-in-law is 88. As is common with people her age, more and more frequently she recounts little stories from her childhood. She’s a literate woman, adept at crosswords, and with a flair for naughty little poems, so it didn’t seem unreasonable to suggest to her that she write down some of these tales. In fact, we gave her a beautiful notebook several years ago, and instructions to jot down memories as they come to her during the day. The beautiful notebook is still blank, but she persists in telling us the anecdotes, as if we will be the ones who will pass them on. And lately, I’ve realised that perhaps we could. I’ve realised I’d like to record her story, and that of her sisters. After all, any large family provides plenty of material, especially one that was close-knit , and lived through the depression and WWII. By and large the anecdotes are the type I enjoy reading. But is their story my story to tell?
I also have an uncle who entertained us as youngsters with amusing anecdotes of his life: dodging crocodiles in the Solomon Islands in the 60s, dodging police when he was involved with the first pirate (and private) radio station, working for the American Embassy in the 1980s, his incarnation as “my uncle the clown,” followed by his gipsy years, and now, in his 70s, helping Canterbury TV get back on its feet after the loss of its building and many of its staff in the February earthquake. He is a born raconteur. His long-suffering wife was a journalist, and therefore very capable of recording these tales. But if they’re not writing his story, their story, then I’d like to do so. But is it my story to tell?
About ten years ago, when I was travelling regularly for business, I used to stop in to Singapore for a night or a weekend to visit my brother-and-sister-in-law, niece and nephew. One weekend we went for a traditional tiffin (tea) with my sister-in-law’s oldest sister, and a cousin, down to visit from their homes in Malaysia. They started reminiscing about life as children in Malacca. The stories were fascinating, pictures of another world, not to mention very funny, and as they screeched with laughter at the memories, I felt a strong desire to write their story. I still do. My niece now is 20, and a keen writer, but not of non-fiction. It’s probably her story to tell, but she’s both too young (and therefore not appreciative of the history), and not that interested. So could it be my story to tell?
Our lives are almost always more interesting than fiction – and I think these are the stories I would like to tell. I almost applied for a place in a prestigious MFA in creative non-fiction here, but was over-whelmed with both lack of time (applications closed shortly after I returned from Europe), and lack of confidence. I don’t have a literary CV, and couldn’t cobble together a research plan in time. But perhaps, I should try writing these stories anyway? After all, if I don’t, maybe nobody will. And that would be sad.