My memoir began with questions about my family—Who are we? What happened to us? Why are we the way we are?
But what I really meant was, Who am I? Why am I this way? And actually, what I really, really meant was, am I haunted by something or someone I can’t name? Who or what is it?
These questions led to long nights on the internet, chasing down traces of my family and the art they’d made as painters, filmmakers, actors, comedians, and musicians. When this wasn’t enough, I learned family names I’d never heard through ancestral research at the library. Needing more, I took a DNA test, traveled to where my ancestors came from, and left with more questions. The questions never let up, and that was my throughline: my questions defined the direction of the story.
In preparing to interrogate yourself via family history, I invite you to consider the path carved via your own curiosity and the ways that drive allows us to better understand ourselves, our families, and our place in the world. I hope these questions serve as a guide for you to find your own.
Question 1: What is your obsession?
The answer can start as a throb in your belly or a tightness in your chest or your jaw. The stress of not knowing can live in the neck, feet, or intestine. What do those points of tension tell you? What do they want to know? How can you ease the tension? At what point do you imagine your body will be satisfied?
I’ve found it hard and essential to sit with the pains and listen, but only for a little while. Then I’ve found it’s good to go for a walk and eat ice cream.
Question 2 (the easy part?): What do you already know about your obsession?
In my case, I had videos on YouTube, interviews with family members, movies they’d made, and other work I could find online. I had my memories, though I knew they’d changed just a little bit every time I called them up.
What I didn’t know was much bigger, and I had to imagine a lot. In my research, I found inconsistent records and that much of my history had been intentionally erased.
What are your sources? What can you collect? What have you been told? What do you remember? Who is still alive? Where are the graves? Who do the babies look like? What do you imagine about your obsession? How many ways have you imagined it?
It will help to organize this information somehow, perhaps chronologically or by family member, by theme or categories you make up.
Question 3 (the fun part): Who has written their obsessions in ways you want to imitate?
I don’t have time to list all the writers I wish I could equal, but here are a few authors and texts I’ve pulled for my class on this subject, in no particular order: Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel; E.J. Koh, The Magical Language of Others; Elissa Washuta, My Body is a Book of Rules and White Magic; Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name; Sophia Shalmiyev, Mother Winter; Porochista Khakpour, Brown Album; Eula Biss, Notes From No Man’s Land; Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
In Turning Ancestral Research into Personal Narrative, we’ll study craft from these and other writers, learn what they did and consider why they did it, then experiment with what we’d like to do with our own stories and how we’d like to do it.
Who are your teachers via books? What have you learned from them? What do you already know you want to imitate, and what do you want to avoid?
Question 4 (the doozy): Where am I in this obsession and search?
This is a trick question: the entire search is yours, your understanding of your material, especially as it changes, is entirely your perception. The hard part is learning the patterns of your questions, the path it takes through your artifacts and documents, and how you want to make those patterns into your story.
Some questions to start: Where do you see yourself most clearly in your research? In old photographs, recordings, documents? In the pieces you can’t find because they’re gone? In the searching itself? Do these versions of yourself have anything in common? What surprises you? What makes you have that of course-feeling? Or an oh no-feeling?
In asking more and more questions, I found inevitable echoes in my family and ancestral history and in my own life, and it’s been my work to make a story of them in search of a clearer sense of self, of connection with others, of the historical understanding I craved, and of the home I’d always wanted. It would be my honor to have you in this class, and to help you come home to yourself through the radical act of storytelling.
Katie Lee Ellison is an author for the Penguin Random House children’s biography series Who was/What was…?, and she is working on a memoir tentatively entitled Everything We Wanted. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Shenandoah, Moss, Crab Creek Review, Arcadia, Jewish in Seattle, and elsewhere. She holds a BA in English Lit from Wellesley and an MFA from the University of Idaho. She was a 2016-2017 Hugo House Fellow, a 2018 alum of the TENT program at the Yiddish Book Center, and 2020 Tin House Summer Workshop attendee.