6 Immersive Memoirs with a Strong Sense of Place

September 24 2021
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Memoirs can stick with us for various reasons—whether it’s a relatable writer, an emotionally moving story, or—and sometimes most salient—a setting that resonates with us. These writers capture it all—the places we would rather be, places we run away from, and the individual moments that make some places special to us. The six memoirs highlighted below whisk us away to drastically different settings, ask us to take a good look around, and call on us to feel everything the characters feel. 

Three Girls from Bronzeville
by Dawn Turner

During the 1970s in the historic Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville, we follow the story of three girls navigating heartbreak, loss, and the little joys in life. As sisters Dawn and Kim and their best friend, Debra, navigate the harrowing twists and turns of growing up during the aftermath of the civil rights movement in this beloved South Side community, Dawn attempts to answer questions we all have about our own lives. The most important question being why—why they all have chosen their current paths and how exactly did their past and present environments, namely, Bronzeville, shape their futures. THREE GIRLS FROM BRONZEVILLE is a piercing memoir, one that celebrates sisterhood, friendship, and explores how race, class, and opportunity shape our lives, most pointedly in the places we call home.

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Three Girls from Bronzeville
Dawn Turner

A “beautiful, tragic, and inspiring” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) memoir about three Black girls from the storied Bronzeville section of Chicago that offers a penetrating exploration of race, opportunity, friendship, sisterhood, and the powerful forces at work that allow some to flourish…and others to falter.

They were three Black girls. Dawn, tall and studious; her sister, Kim, younger by three years and headstrong as they come; and her best friend, Debra, already prom-queen pretty by third grade. They bonded—fervently and intensely in that unique way of little girls—as they roamed the concrete landscape of Bronzeville, a historic neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, the destination of hundreds of thousands of Black folks who fled the ravages of the Jim Crow South.

These third-generation daughters of the Great Migration come of age in the 1970s, in the warm glow of the recent civil rights movement. It has offered them a promise, albeit nascent and fragile, that they will have more opportunities, rights, and freedoms than any generation of Black Americans in history. Their working-class, striving parents are eager for them to realize this hard-fought potential. But the girls have much more immediate concerns: hiding under the dining room table and eavesdropping on grown folks’ business; collecting secret treasures; and daydreaming about their futures—Dawn and Debra, doctors, Kim a teacher. For a brief, wondrous moment the girls are all giggles and dreams and promises of “friends forever.” And then fate intervenes, first slowly and then dramatically, sending them careening in wildly different directions. There’s heartbreak, loss, displacement, and even murder. Dawn struggles to make sense of the shocking turns that consume her sister and her best friend, all the while asking herself a simple but profound question: Why?

In the vein of The Other Wes Moore and The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Three Girls from Bronzeville is a piercing memoir that chronicles Dawn’s attempt to find answers. It’s at once a celebration of sisterhood and friendship, a testimony to the unique struggles of Black women, and a tour-de-force about the complex interplay of race, class, and opportunity, and how those forces shape our lives and our capacity for resilience and redemption.

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The Distance Between Us
by Reyna Grande

In a vein similar to Dawn Turner, Grande’s memoir vividly brings her early years to life, spent playing games and navigating heartbreak with her two siblings. When her father leaves their family behind in Mexico with the promise that he will ensure they all live a better life in “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side), the siblings learn how to cope with the sting of abandonment at an early age. Stuck between two parents and two countries, Grande loses herself in books, music, and an imaginary life, where every place feels like “El Otro Lado.” Toeing the lines between humor and utter tragedy, this memoir examines our relationship with our homes and our families and reminds us of the bitter nostalgia and unmissable joys of childhood.

Be sure to pick up Grande’s new book, A BALLAD OF LOVE AND GLORY, a riveting historical saga about survival and love during the Mexican–American war, publishing this spring.

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The Distance Between Us
Reyna Grande

Funny, heartbreaking, and lyrical, The Distance Between Us poignantly captures the confusion and contradictions of childhood, reminding us that the joys and sorrows we experience are imprinted on the heart forever, calling out to us of those places we first called home.

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House of Sticks
by Ly Tran

Ly Tran’s memoir recounts her coming-of-age experience after she and her family immigrated from a small town along the Mekong river in Vietnam to Ridgewood, Queens. In this new landscape, Tran struggles to uphold the expectations of her parents, devout Buddhists, and contribute to the family’s livelihood, all while navigating the crushing pressure of blending in at school. When she runs into a conflict with her father over a pair of glasses, Tran questions who she is outside of familial expectations. Written intimately with a sprinkle of humor, this story is about a young girl’s courage in forging her own path from a small two-bedroom railroad apartment and all the hardships and small joys that come with it.

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House of Sticks
Ly Tran

An intimate, beautifully written coming-of-age memoir recounting a young girls journey from war-torn Vietnam to Ridgewood, Queens, and her struggle to find her voice amid clashing cultural expectations.

Ly Tran is just a toddler in 1993 when she and her family immigrate from a small town along the Mekong river in Vietnam to a two-bedroom railroad apartment in Queens. Ly’s father, a former lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army, spent nearly a decade as a POW, and their resettlement is made possible through a humanitarian program run by the US government. Soon after they arrive, Ly joins her parents and three older brothers sewing ties and cummerbunds piece-meal on their living room floor to make ends meet.

As they navigate this new landscape, Ly finds herself torn between two worlds. She knows she must honor her parents’ Buddhist faith and contribute to the family livelihood, working long hours at home and eventually as a manicurist alongside her mother at a nail salon in Brownsville, Brooklyn, that her parents take over. But at school, Ly feels the mounting pressure to blend in.

A growing inability to see the blackboard presents new challenges, especially when her father forbids her from getting glasses, calling her diagnosis of poor vision a government conspiracy. His frightening temper and paranoia leave an indelible mark on Ly’s sense of self. Who is she outside of everything her family expects of her?

Told in a spare, evocative voice that, with flashes of humor, weaves together her family’s immigration experience with her own fraught and courageous coming of age, House of Sticks is a timely and powerful portrait of one girl’s struggle to reckon with her heritage and forge her own path.

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Refuge
by Terry Tempest Williams

In this story set in Great Salt Lake, Utah, Terry Tempest Williams’ life is filled with uncertainty. The year is 1983, and Williams has just found out that her mother is dying of cancer and the Great Salt Lake is on track to rise to record heights, threatening endangered wildlife in the area. Williams, both a naturalist and poet desperately works to protect Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, a sanctuary to the herons, owls, and snowy egrets of the region while also managing the painful task of caring for her mother as she transitions. Plunged between two unimaginable situations, Williams manages to document her moments of tragedy with a spiritual kindness and grace against the natural scenery.

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Refuge
Terry Tempest Williams

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The Pianist from Syria
by Aeham Ahmad

From war-torn Syria to Germany, Aeham Ahmad details his heartrending account as a second-generation Syrian refugee in a Damascus refugee camp. The son of a blind violinist, Ahmad is thrust into a world of both upheaval and artistic beauty, being part of a new generation of Syrians in a foreign land. But when a new conflict arises in Syria, it becomes apparent that making it back to their home country may never be an option. With his family’s asylum status in jeopardy, Ahmad is forced to leave them behind in hopes of finding a place they can finally and permanently call home.

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The Pianist from Syria
Aeham Ahmad

This astonishing true story presents an “affecting viewpoint on life in Syria before and in the midst of extreme violence” (Booklist), offering a deeply personal and unique perspective on one of the most devastating refugee crises of this century.

Aeham Ahmad was born a second-generation refugee—the son of a blind violinist and carpenter who recognized Aeham’s talent and taught him how to play piano and love music from an early age. When his grandparents and father were forced to flee Israel and seek refuge from the conflict ravaging their home, Aeham’s family built a life in Yarmouk, an unofficial camp to more than 160,000 Palestinian refugees in Damascus.

As a devoted family, they waited for the conflict to be resolved so they could return to their homeland. Their only haven was in music and in each other, especially when another deadly fight overtook their asylum. Forced to leave his family behind, Aeham sought out a safe place for them to call home and build a better life, taking solace in his indestructible familial bond to keep moving forward.

Heart-wrenching yet ultimately optimistic and told in a raw and poignant voice, The Pianist from Syria is a “deeply moving account of one man’s struggle to survive while bringing hope to thousands through his music” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

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My Soul Looks Back
by Jessica B. Harris

Set against the backdrop of the early seventies, Jessica B. Harris finds herself surrounded by some of the most brilliant cultural forces of our modern times. Dancing in jazz clubs from Manhattan’s West Side to the restaurants of Greenwich Village, Harris becomes acquainted with the likes of James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Nina Simone, and others. Harris shares stunning illustrations of each of these extraordinary people and how their lives crossed paths against the backdrop of New York City. MY SOUL LOOKS BACK honors the social circle dedicated to Black activism, intellectual engagement, and unity that Harris became a part of.

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My Soul Looks Back
Jessica B. Harris

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Photo credit: iStock / plej92

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