Welcome to week 3 of Nonfiction November! This week’s host is Becca of I’m Lost In Books, and this week’s topic is Nontraditional Nonfiction.
I think my first encounter with Nontraditional Nonfiction was probably in high school. Up until that point, I thought of nonfiction as the dry, boring section of the library where I was occasionally forced to delve into overweight tomes written by crusty academics in order to construct research papers. Yawn!
One of my high school history teachers, however, was eager to change our minds about nonfiction – and about U.S. history. She taught us the sort of American History X version of events, and we tackled difficult subjects that had previously been swept under the rug by the rah-rah “Go Team America!” type of history lessons we’d had shoved down our throats for years. We talked about genocide, racism, slavery, inequality, unjust wars, colonialism, hypocrisy. We talked about American involvement in the Vietnam War for the very first time in her class (I mean, how do you get to Grade 11 without knowing anything about Vietnam? Puzzlingly, our history textbooks always seemed to end at WWII…), and we were assigned sides to present a debate between Native Americans and the U.S. Government that shoved them further and further west.
I also distinctly remember being assigned to write a paper about a female figure in American history. Bored with all the usual suggestions like Presidents’ wives and the kind of do-gooders I simply couldn’t relate to, my teacher suggested I read about Emma Goldman, an anarchist and feminist who originally came to the U.S. from Russia (or, actually, present-day Lithuania), and to check out her books Living My Life (a two-volume behemoth) and Anarchism and Other Essays. Oddly enough, my relatively small, suburban library had both of these books on their shelves, so I took them home and started reading.
This was the first time I’d really found nonfiction interesting or sensational in any way. Red Emma, as she was dubbed by the press, was a larger than life figure, who seemed to rebel against most every cultural, religious, racial or sexual stereotype of her time. She drank, she smoked, she swore! She had many lovers (male and female), she distributed information about birth control in a time when this was considered absolutely scandalous, but perhaps most importantly she founded her own anarchist journal to disseminate her political ideas.
In short, Emma Goldman was quite the hellraiser, and I enjoyed reading her books, despite having found them in the nonfiction section of the library. Indeed, I found it difficult to distill all of the information packed into those books into just a short paper.
After that, my outlook on nonfiction was forever changed. It wasn’t just about the opinions of crusty academics, rehashing the same tired stories – it could be just as exciting as fiction, and was sometimes even stranger.
I’m still drawn to anything that smacks of anarchy, a bohemian lifestyle, or that promotes free-thinking and skepticism surrounding the status quo. I’ve read lots of nontraditional nonfiction since then, including:
My favorite kinds of Nontraditional Nonfiction are probably memoirs written by unreliable narrators. In some respect, you could argue that all memoirists and autobiographers are unreliable, and possibly even writers of fiction, rather than nonfiction, depend on how creative they get with their artistic license! But I love to see how different people tell the stories of their lives, whether they’ve lived quite remarkable lives or truly mundane ones.
Related to this, I also enjoy the roman à clef – a type of fiction that uses roots in the author’s real life to spin off into the fictional realm. You can amuse yourself by trying to guess which bits are real and which are made up, and sometimes you can find yourself quite annoyed with the author for giving you this tantalizing peek into their life, without taking any responsibility for their own actions.
What about you?
What kinds of Nontraditional Nonfiction have you read, and what got you interested in those books?