autobiography, memoir, review

The Road to Becoming a Survivor

road-becoming-survivorEverybody has a story to tell, but not everybody has enough courage to tell it. R.R. Hayden is definitely one of those who has no qualms about washing her dirty linen in public and risking people she cares about throwing furious anger on her way just so she can free her mind of traumatic childhood memories she has and heal. Writing each of those memories out is the only way she knows to accomplish them. So The Road to Becoming a Survivor is her medium to tell the life story which shaped her into a survivor that she is now, and she holds nothing back.

The Road to Becoming a Survivor is an autobiography telling of the writer’s struggle to change herself from a helpless victim of sexual abuse into a survivor. Hayden, a sufferer of Dissociative Identity Disorder, would tell the reader about her unfathomable pleasure of inflicting pain on her own body, namely cutting herself, and how she often did something unbelievably crazy without even realizing it and eventually hurt people she cared about most. She seemed to think that those were the only ways to wash away her recurrent depression and cure herself of deep wounds she had been carrying since childhood. As the narrative unfolds, we will all discover what she had had to go through for the most part of her life: sexual abuse by her father, older brother, neighbor, (ex-) boyfriend, and even someone she barely knew. She had also had to face the situation of her family, where, mainly, her mother didn’t treat her like a mother should have and love her sincerely and then just broke their family into two by filing for divorce. Until she met a man she loved so much and a counselor she could trust, she had to live with her deep-buried trauma and herself being a victim of not only unfair, abusive treatments she got but also of her own past.

Though pretty inspirational, The Road to Becoming a Survivor is not something exceptional, to be honest. The theme and narrative are all what we can expect from any other autobiographical account of sexual abuse victims, and the writing style doesn’t help, either. It is understandable that Hayden writes it the way anybody would write their secret diary gone public, perhaps she wants to make the reader feel related, but I actually expected her to put a lot more effort to make the prose more than just a form of personal ramblings. It is interesting, though, to see how Hayden puts her book together, in which she peels her memories little by little without an orderly chronicle, the way flashbacks work. It seems unintentional, but Hayden will take us to one moment of her life without any explanations, and then a few chapters afterward she will drag us to her past which explains everything. It’s an intriguing way of storytelling, actually, if only the story were more than what we get from the book. It’s not that I don’t have any sympathy for Hayden, but personally, I have heard of so many stories like hers, especially in my country, where children can be victims of sexual abuse by their own fathers/brothers/uncles/even grandfathers. And those children could have gone through a lot worse situations than what Hayden had to and couldn’t even survive. All I’m saying is, had the writing style been better or the form been more of semi-autobiographical fiction, then the story wouldn’t have been a problem at all. It could have even been a blast. Sometimes it’s not about what you write, but how you write it.

Aside from its lack of excellence, the story doesn’t seem to be in accordance with the title. Throughout the blatant narrative, I didn’t find anything regarding the way Hayden became a survivor of sexual abuse. I found merely long-lost memories and stories of her recent past without so much as a glimpse of how she could get through all that except for a very little bit about her coming to a counselor and a support group. There is no particular explanation highlighting her “road” to becoming a survivor that she is now. In short, I’d say that this book is not quite elaborate, or as elaborate as at least I think it should be. However, if there is one positive thing readers can get from it, then it is its message. The Road to Becoming a Survivor and everything within remind us that anything can happen to anyone, but we cannot let ourselves fall victim to it and do nothing. The only way to survive is to fight the horrible past and all the bad memories we carry in our head, and be grateful for everything we have. Be grateful is the key, because that way we will be able to see that we are not the only one suffering and that we are not alone. That we can always rise to victory after the downfall we’ve undergone.

Rating: 3/5

Note: review copy courtesy of the author.

fiction, memoir, review

Life of Pi

Indonesian edition’s cover

Do you believe in God? Yann Martel’s Life of Pi has the answer to it. Or so I think. Without being dogmatic, it talks about having faith in God and what God can give you, indistinctly, in return. Life of Pi is not a boring, complicated drama about having to be stern and strict in practicing our religious teaching. Instead, it’s a demystified way of telling us about how we should be holding our faith firmly in the teeth of extreme, near-to-death difficulties. First published in 2001, Life of Pi has been Martel’s most phenomenal novel and most widely embraced story. And what the novel has tells us that it deserves it.

Set in India, the writer delivers a story of a boy to start with, named Piscine Molitor Patel after the best swimming pool in France which is always alive in his father’s friend’s memory. While having to deal with his friends making fun of his weird, unusual name, Pi finds himself indeliberately dragged into a vacillating state of faith, trying to discover the existence of God in every religion he knows, Hinduism, Islam, and Christian. Each passing day witnesses his growing determination to embrace the three religions all at the same time, which eventually takes form.

Later, the political conditions in India around 1970s forces Pi’s father to make up his mind and take all his family out of the motherland. Bound for Canada, they close their zoo and bring with them some of the animals meant to be sold in America. But without luck on their side, the ship they are on suddenly sinks for reasons unknown on July 2, 1977. No one survives but Pi, a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan, and a Bengal tiger. It’s not only hunger and the sea he has to survive, but also those wild, man-eater animals whose hunger is so much worse and consuming than his. At this very point, Pi realizes that believing in God and resignation take a lot more sacrifices than he’s sometimes capable of making, yet earn him his whole life.

The reader may regard Pi as a confused, wavering, uncertain adherent of any religions, for he chooses to embrace three beliefs with three, or more, different Gods to worship. This portrayal of a character may get chided by some of you, but as I see it, Pi is just someone who tries to be open to any religion so long as it ushers him to the grace of God. For him, faith is faith, and you cannot limit it with any kinds of teaching. It is God he is seeking for, not acceptance into any particular group. He is just a boy with thousands of questions in his mind, no doubt about it, but he is certain about what he holds and believes, that God can take any form in this universe.

Despite its sequence of adventurous events, Life of Pi is not exactly an adventure story. It’s an exciting experience of a person who has to hold on his faith steadfastly to undergo it. Its plot has successfully drowned me into its thrilling narrative surrounded by the sea. The characterization is just believable and natural yet controversial, without demanding approval from the reader. Its hilarious tone makes it enjoyable to follow till the last page, although the character is described going through such a hardship. Nevertheless, the story itself, though enchanting and inspirational, as well as the character’s own confession leave some questions unanswered. Is it really his personal experience, or merely a fictional tale he had woven on his own even before the writer came to him? If it is real, is it really how the story goes? Can you really escape a starving tiger for 227 days without being any the worse for wear? Sadly, those intriguing questions are only for us to wonder on end.

Be that as it may, I love this book. Life of Pi is not only entertaining and mind-opening, it’s stating an opinion about having faith in God without being dogmatic and strict, without any intention of “teaching” and forcing the reader to follow any belief. It’s magnetic and everything I want (and need) in a novel. Fictional or not, I don’t really care. I highly recommend this book to everyone.

Rating: 4/5

memoir, review

Istanbul: Memories of a City

Indonesian edition’s cover (source: http://pustakakendal.blogspot.com/)

Trust Orhan Pamuk to weave together culture, history, religion, social condition, political issues, and his own point of view on his troubled yet quiet country into a detailed, wonderful tale. Either historical or contemporary, Pamuk’s works of fiction never fail to capture people’s attention. Or raise endless arguments, for that matter. But now he comes up with a memoir, Istanbul: Memories of a City. True to his writing nature, Pamuk doesn’t make Istanbul a sole account of his life and experiences, but he recounts the historical events ever happened in the past to the place he lives in, which in turn shape what he is and the choices he makes. First published in 2003, Istanbul offers so much more than a merely written docu-soap, if I may say so, and has particularly amazed me in any possible way.

Pamuk begins his memoir with the story of his childhood, in which, as a kid, he is suspicious that in another part of the world, in another house out there, there is another him. He’s so convinced of having a “twin brother”, of being different from the one in that other house that he creates a belief in his mind that one day he will also have another life, live in another world. Subsequently, he imagines living in two separate worlds, one of which is a world of art. When he draws or paints something (most of them are of scenery of Istanbul, especially scenery of the Bosporus), he feels as though he exists in that another world, being far away from his real life. He continues to feel so; even as he’s in the presence of his friends, he can be different persons.

Alongside the story of his life, Pamuk tells the reader about the city of Istanbul itself and everything within: the ruins and the piles of rubble, the mess, the poverty, the ignorance, the sorrow, the gloom, even the pretense of being “rich and modern” performed by its people. Somehow, Pamuk has intertwined those articles with historical facts and events taken place at the same spot and also books and encyclopedias he deems proper as references and sources of inspirations. And amidst his complicated yet readable description of Istanbul and everything it has, he irreluctantly conveys the secret of his family and even his feeling about it. That unconventionally unashamed part of him is what makes this memoir more gripping and alive, sinking us into a whirlpool of fantastic blending of a particular place, its history, its society, and the persons living in it.

Pamuk presents all this in a somewhat sorrowful atmosphere. He thinks the fall of the Ottoman Empire has brought the fall of Istanbul, and the fall of Istanbul has brought the fall of its people, one of whose is Pamuk himself. He was growing up within and with the sorrow of the city, which is truly undeniable after the last war bringing down the old kingdom. Pamuk can’t help but reveal the irony where the people of Istanbul think that being westernized and secular is the only way to recover from their sufferings of the fall. They think that being “western people” is the best way to get back to the glory of their country as a “new republic”. Yet they can’t be true “western people” because they are not, in any sense of the word.

Though personal, Istanbul: Memories of a City is not a dramatically written account of someone’s life and experiences. Rather, it is a complete narrative of events, connecting people with place and time. Pamuk’s way of narrating it is unexpectedly not boring for a memoir, and he equips his with beautiful images of classical paintings and childhood photos. This memoir is presented, very normally I’d say, in a total narrative and description, giving almost no room for dialogues nor utterances. However, the honest and nostalgic tone of the book has successfully put me through a better understanding and insight into a country I consider as the cultural and social “twin” of my own.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although I don’t enjoy memoirs nor biographies as a general rule. Not because Orhan Pamuk is one of my favorite authors, but I found this book comprehensively written and very much attractive, both visually and narratively. So in the end, I would like to recommend Istanbul: Memories of a City not only to Orhan Pamuk’s fans, but also to everyone who seeks for something more than a memoir.

Rating: 3.5/5