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9 Great Memoirs by Women

Tiny Lights for Travellers, by Naomi K. Lewis, is a memoir that travels across the world and into family history to make sense of the here and now. Writer Lauren B. Davis calls the book "an irresistibly wise, poignant, and often funny memoir, a spiral dance through time and space exploring memory, desire, the roots of family, race, and religion; as well as what it means to belong in one’s own skin." 

In this reading list, Lewis recommends others memoirs that have inspired her as a writer and as a reader.  


Between Gods, by Alison Pick

Between Gods was published to great and deserved acclaim just as I was beginning work on Tiny Lights for Travellers. I was both inspired and intimidated: Pick’s family history and ambivalent Jewish identity were so like and yet entirely unlike my own. Intimidation aside, I was so grateful for Pick’s voice and her story. Her memoir reminded me to strive for honesty in my own when I was tempted to shy away from the undignified truth. And it reminded me, tragically and poignantly, that my own experience of the multi-generational fallout of genocide is one of countless many, each unique and all connected.


The Art of Leaving, by Ayelet Tsabari

Tsebari’s essays, each of which stands on its own as a masterfully told story, together show one woman’s lifelong desire to find home and equal but opposite urge to leave, to find somewhere new. As a secular Jew of Ashkenazi descent—and one with no experience of life in the Middle East—I was particularly fascinated and saddened by Tsabari’s account of growing up in Israel as a Yemeni Jew, her community considered second-class citizens by the dominant culture of white Europeans. This is one of many memoirs that highlights the diversity of backgrounds and experience to be found in Canada, and how much we all stand to learn from each other.


A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Alicia Elliott 

I keep thinking about the moment in one of her brilliant essays when Elliott finds herself reading Indigenous literature in a university class otherwise devoted to diasporic stories. She concurs with the professor that the inclusion is appropriate, because Indigenous peoples are so often displaced by settler culture, even on their own land. I learned so much from this book, both about the experience of this Haudenosaunee writer, who grew up with partly on a reservation, often in dire poverty, with an Indigenous father and a European mother who suffered from bipolar disorder, and also about the personal essay form, which Elliott has absolutely mastered. 


Mistakes to Run With, Yasuko Thanh 

Yasuko Thanh begins at the beginning, and traces the origins of her “mistakes,” how her life slipped early off the tracks of lower-middle-class normalcy and into a world of abusive relationships, drugs, mental illness, and sex work. Thanh is a fantastic storyteller, each of her sentences lovingly constructed. Throughout her struggles and, yes, mistakes, she also recounts how she became a writer, how she never stopped reading and writing. It shows. 


The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family, by Lindsay Wong 

Lindsay Wong cannot mention with her family without using the qualifier “crazy,” and usually “crazy Chinese.” This may seem like overkill at first but her “crazy Chinese family” really is jaw-droppingly eccentric, dare I say abusive and delusional. That Wong managed to write about her childhood at all is laudable, and that she found such a compelling, funny-brittle voice with which to do so is a kind of miracle. She writes with such ease and humour that the reader almost forgets (though not for long) that we’re witnessing a tragic legacy of mental illness without proper diagnosis or treatment.


Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, by Carmen Aguirre 

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Carmen Aguirre perform her one-person show Blue Box, and was hooked on her whip-smart, sensual, and funny voice. Another first-generation Canadian, and another woman with a far-from-ordinary upbringing, Aguirre spent much of her childhood transported around Latin American by her mother and step-father as they worked for the Chilean resistance against Pinochet’s regime. Aguirre does an incredible job of showing the events of her young life through the eyes of her child-self, gradually understanding more context as the story goes on and as she gets older, until she is moved to become an activist  — and then an actor and writer—herself. 


Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother, by Priscila Uppal

When Priscila Uppal was a child, her mother fled back to her home country of Brazil. The two reunited only years later, in a series of tense and bizarre gatherings initiated by Uppal. This memoir is a lesson in honesty and letting go: the reunions offer no healing of past wounds, at least not in any obvious sense. Uppal gets to know enough about her mother to say goodbye again, this time with no regrets. Since her mother is a film critic, Uppal structures the story, brilliantly, around the films her mother loved most. 


All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir, by Elizabeth Hay

In my own memoir, I wrote a lot about my grandparents’ dementia, and how their care fell to my parents, so Hay’s account of her parents’ aging hit close to home—literally, as well, since her parents lived in an assisted living facility blocks from my childhood house in Ottawa. Hay writes lovingly of her parents without shying away from the truth, and since every family’s truth holds some ugly bits, that’s easier said than done. All writers of memoir should strive for Hay’s balance of honesty and compassion—and not just writers, but readers, too, since after all most of us have parents, and most of those parents will grow old.


In-Between Days: A Memoir About Living with Cancer, by Teva Harrison

At 37, Teva Harrison was diagnosed with incurable cancer, and, a lifelong artist, she used drawing to help process what was happening to her. These drawings evolved into a deeply felt and wonderfully idiosyncratic memoir about living with her illness, both the physical effects of cancer and its treatments, and the knowledge that she would almost certainly die young. Teva passed away in 2019, leaving the legacy of her extraordinary passion for life, which infuses this memoir and should make any reader thankful for each of our days.


About Tiny Lights for Travellers, by Naomi K. Lewis

Why couldn’t I occupy the world as those model-looking women did, with their flowing hair, pulling their tiny bright suitcases as if to say, I just arrived from elsewhere, and I already belong here, and this sidewalk belongs to me?

When her marriage suddenly ends, and a diary documenting her beloved Opa’s escape from Nazi-occupied Netherlands in the summer of 1942 is discovered, Naomi Lewis decides to retrace his journey to freedom. Travelling alone from Amsterdam to Lyon, she discovers family secrets and her own narrative as a second-generation Jewish Canadian. With vulnerability, humour, and wisdom, Lewis’s memoir asks tough questions about her identity as a secular Jew, the accuracy of family stories, and the impact of the Holocaust on subsequent generations.

July 30, 2019

Books mentioned in this post


Tiny Lights for Travellers

by Naomi K. Lewis
edition: Paperback
also available: eBook Audiobook
tagged: personal memoirs, western, canadian

Why couldn’t I occupy the world as those model-looking women did, with their flowing hair, pulling their tiny bright suitcases as if to say, I just arrived from elsewhere, and I already belong here, and this sidewalk belongs to me?

When her marriage suddenly ends, and a diary documenting her beloved Opa’s escape from Nazi-occupied Netherlands in …


Between Gods

A Memoir

by Alison Pick
edition: Paperback
tagged: personal memoirs, jewish, religious

"A courageous and heart-opening journey, exquisitely told." --Edmonton Journal
     Alison Pick was born in the 1970s and raised in a supportive, loving family. She grew up laughing with her sister and cousins, and doting on her grandparents. Then as a teenager, Alison made a discovery that instantly changed her understanding of her family, and he …


The Art of Leaving

A Memoir

by Ayelet Tsabari
edition: eBook
also available: Audiobook Paperback
tagged: literary, personal memoirs



An unforgettable memoir about a young woman who tries to outrun loss, but eventually finds a way home.

Ayelet Tsabari was 21 years old the first time she left Tel Aviv with no plans to return. Restless after two turbulent mandato …


A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

by Alicia Elliott
edition: Hardcover
also available: Paperback
tagged: native american, native americans, dysfunctional families

A bold and profound meditation on trauma, legacy, oppression and racism in North America from award-winning Haudenosa …


Mistakes to Run With

A Memoir

by Yasuko Thanh
edition: Paperback
also available: Audiobook (CD)
tagged: literary, personal memoirs, women

A devastatingly frank memoir that tears open the past to examine how circumstances--and the choices we make--dictate the people we become, for fans of Educated and The Glass Castle.

Mistakes to Run With chronicles the turbulent life of Yasuko Thanh, from early childhood in the closest thing Victoria, BC, has to a slum to teen …


The Woo-Woo

How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family

by Lindsay Wong
edition: Paperback
tagged: cultural heritage, asian american studies, women


Shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust of Canada Prize for Nonfiction; Winner, Hubert Evans Nonfiction Prize; Longlisted for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour


In this jaw-dropping, darkly comedic memoir, a young woman comes of age in a dysfunctional Asian family who blame their woes on ghosts and demons when t …


Something Fierce

Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter

by Carmen Aguirre
tagged: personal memoirs, women

#1 NATIONAL BESTSELLER (The Globe and Mail)
A Globe and Mail Best Book [2011]
A Quill & Quire Book of the Year [2011]
A National Post Best Book [2011]
A BBC Radio Book of the Week [October 2011]
One of the CBC’s 15 Memoirs by Canadian Women Worth Reading [2015]

Six-year-old Carmen Aguirre fled to Canada with her family following General August …



Encounters with My Runaway Mother

by Priscila Uppal
edition: Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged: personal memoirs, cultural heritage, women

2013 Governor General’s Literary Award — Shortlisted, Non-Fiction
2013 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust — Shortlisted, Non-Fiction

Projection is the story of this mother-daughter meeting in Brazil, of how two strangers, connected by little more than blood, spent ten days together trying to build a relationship.

In 1977, Priscila Uppal’s fathe …


All Things Consoled

A daughter's memoir

by Elizabeth Hay
edition: Hardcover
also available: Paperback
tagged: personal memoirs, women, death, grief, bereavement

From Elizabeth Hay, one of Canada's beloved novelists, comes a startling and beautiful memoir about the drama of her parents' end, and the longer drama of being their daughter. Winner of the 2018 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonficiton.

Jean and Gordon Hay were a colourful, formidable pair. Jean, a late-blooming artist with a marvellous s …


In-Between Days

A Memoir About Living with Cancer

by Teva Harrison
edition: Paperback
also available: eBook Audiobook Audiobook
tagged: personal memoirs, medical, biography & memoir

2016 Governor General's Literary Award Finalist

2017 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize Winner

2017 Joe Shuster Award Nominee

Teva Harrison was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at the age of 37. In this brilliant and inspiring graphic memoir, she documents through comic illustration and short personal essays what it means to live with the disease. She …

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