Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden, by Camille Dungy
Plus 5 More Unconventional Narratives of Mothering and Being Mothered
Memoirs with Melissa shares bimonthly reviews intended to expose readers to diverse authors and life experiences. To see more of what I’m reading, browse my virtual memoir shelf on Goodreads.
Diversity is something I actively cultivate in my yard and my bookshelf, which is why Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden caught my eye this month. I’ve been working on my own version of Dungy’s “prairie project,” where she takes on the work of transforming a conventional suburban yard into a native, pollinator-friendly patch of earth.
The garden is ground zero from which Dungy digs into the history of America, the underrepresentation of mothers and Black and brown people in the canon of nature writing, and the ways we oppress plants, animals, and people. How she weaves personal narrative with social justice concerns, plants with people, and domestic life with environmental activism is like a literary garden. Dungy describes the aesthetic of her memoir best when she says, “I crowd my mind like I sometimes crowd my garden. Surprising things grow together in a tangle.”
“I crowd my mind like I sometimes crowd my garden. Surprising things grow
together in a tangle.” -Camille Dungy
Whether tending to her plants or parenting her child, Dungy demonstrates the hope, resilience, and faith required to nurture life on planet Earth. Her narrative winds through the 2016 elections, the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires near her home in Fort Collins, Colorado, and the Black experience in America. Her crusade against bindweed is a chilling reminder of the countless ways racism grows unchecked, then rears its ugly tendrils in a chokehold that threatens any life it touches.
For those who wonder if one person tending one small plot of land or raising one tiny human is worth the effort, Soil shows what’s possible for anyone who’s willing to plunge their hands in the dirt. Whereas many of us are conditioned to fear all the ways we can fail, Dungy assures us of the potential rewards from the work at hand. Progress may be slow and nonlinear, but fruit comes in its own time, whether in the form of a blossom, a maturing child, or one more book to tip the scales of environmental writing toward balance.
5 More Unconventional Narratives of Mothering and Being Mothered
1. The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood, by Krys Malcolm Belc
In The Natural Mother of the Child, Krys Malcolm Belc reflects on the many ways parenthood and gender are intertwined. Giving birth to his child turns out to be instrumental in clarifying his gender identity as a nonbinary, transmasculine person. His memoir is an intimate portrayal of family life with striking insight into how societal narratives often fail to make room for individual experience. I listened to this book through my public library and enjoyed hearing the author read his own story.
2. All You Can Ever Know, by Nicole Chung
In All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung offers an adult child’s perspective on transracial adoption. Her memoir investigates the story she grew up believing about her birth to Korean parents and adoption by a white family. When she decides to seek out the birth family she never knew, her story transforms in uncomfortable and delightful ways. Her newest memoir A Living Remedy is also on my 2023 TBR list.
3. The Place of Peace and Crickets: How Adoption, Heartache, and Love Built a Family, by Tricia Booker
In The Place of Peace and Crickets, journalist Tricia Booker shares a parent’s experience of transracial, international adoption. In addition to her experience with adopting three children, Booker offers humor and insight into fertility challenges, parenthood, and the quest to simplify life for herself and her family. For more on how her life has transformed and her perspectives on adoption have evolved since her book was published, check out her Substack.
4. Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, by Angela Garbes
In Essential Labor, Angela Garbes contends that mothering is some of the most impactful work a person can do. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted just how essential that work is and how much we undervalue and under support the people who do that work. Packed with personal anecdotes and thoughtful exploration, Garbes’ writing is both validating and inspiring. My sense of worth and purpose got a much-needed boost by reading about another person whose household values her parenting and writing work equally to her partner’s higher income-earning job.
5. I’m Glad My Mom Died, by Jennette McCurdy
I don’t tend to review many memoirs by famous people, but I’m Glad My Mom Died, by childhood actor Jennette McCurdy made it to my nightstand after winning the 2022 Goodreads Choice Awards Best Memoir & Autobiography. This is a brave telling of an abusive mother-daughter relationship—one that’s slippery in its subtlety on one page and outrageously, obviously wrong on the next. McCurdy’s raw, detailed experience with disordered eating makes up a good chunk of the narrative. While her descriptions of binging and purging, calorie restriction, and overexercising may be triggering for some readers, the extremes put my own challenges with food and body image in perspective and made me grateful for a mom who steered me away from rather than toward the danger.
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