Reviewed by Kate Champlin
In her introduction, Alice Wong refuses to duplicate the traditionally “harrowing” or “triumphant” disability memoirs where narrators overcome either physical limitations or ableism. Wong disdains the first type of disability memoir while also questioning why “inspirational” stories sell so well. In regard to tales of ableist discrimination, Wong says:
I’ve got a bunch of these stories, and you’re going to get only a sliver. I will not excavate my innermost secrets and traumas for your consumption.
Good! Many readers expect memoirs to be confessionals, and many culturally centered readers enjoy memoirs because they allow these readers to “consume” the experience of being marginalized. Alice Wong’s introduction questions both disability memoirs that recenter ableism and the privileged (often nondisabled) reader’s sense of entitlement, each of which desperately need to be made transparent and then undermined This necessity is especially the case if the publishing industry continues to make memoirs the “expected” genre for disabled writers. None of us should feel obligated to lay ourselves bare for our readers’ entertainment.
Instead of a confessional or a traditional “birth to present” linear narrative, Wong promises:
an impression-istic narrative comprising irregular dots that fade, drift, and link.
She provides exactly what she promises: a personal history that encompasses poems, interviews, letters, hand-drawn Tarot cards, and a recipe for Shelter-in-Place Jook (a dish that became a family comfort food during pandemic quarantine). The final section is projected into the far future and presents a “retrospective” look at the disabled activists of our time and at discrimination during the pandemic.
The resulting text is far more effective than most traditional, linear memoirs. After reading the book, I feel I “know” Alice Wong. If I ever meet her in person, I’ll be tempted to skip the introductions and just start chatting about northern Indiana or great food or cats. Indiana is the state where Wong grew up (and the state where I currently reside). In one of the memoir’s many interviews, Wong and her mother discuss Shandong Lunar New Year celebrations and the process of making money dumplings. Wong adores cats and uses the cat or tiger as her personal emblem, saying:
I have…found the fiercest role models, from the domestic Felis catus to the wild Panthera tigris, on how to truly savor each day and allow yourself all the good things. Curl your body under the sun, eat to your heart’s content, hiss at your mortal nemeses. It takes practice to live the Cat Life, but I’ll get there eventually.
Readers will remember this advice. Wong certainly models a life filled with good things. In fact, one of this memoir’s most memorable features is the sense of joy that infuses the chapters. Wong describes her involvement in a diverse variety of projects, including voting activism and the StoryCorps oral history archives. All are clearly necessary to the disability community, and Wong makes each sound fascinating. Readers will finish reading the memoir and likely want to search online for more information about these vibrant and necessary projects. Moreover, Wong’s interviews with knowledgeable people—many of whom are deeply grounded in San Francisco’s disability community—are nearly always with close friends or family members. Readers will be able to read the speakers’ regard for each other between the lines of every interview. Community, love, and food are among the many facets that make this memoir an extraordinary experience.
On the subject of the extraordinary: I’m not sure whether the memoir’s final section should be termed science fiction or science fictionalized personal history. Either way, it was the most interesting mix of genres I’ve (personally) encountered since Audre Lorde’s biomythography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Year of the Tiger’s final section extends imaginatively into the far future and also posits a world that has become more accessible. Alice Wong’s obituary (obviously fictional since Alice Wong is very much alive) mentions the end of institutionalization, the emergence of supported decision-making instead of conservatorship, and a funeral that can be attended both in-person and remotely. The future section of Wong’s memoir consequently offers readers the chance to imagine better alternatives to the current system. It’s the perfect ending for such a tigerish autobiography.
Title: Year of the Tiger: An Activist’s Life
Author: Alice Wong
Publisher: Vintage Books
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About the Reviewer
Kate Champlin (she/her) is a late-deafened adult and a graduate of Ball State University (Indiana). She currently works as a writing tutor and as a contract worker for BK International Education Consultancy, a company whose aim is to normalize the success of underserved students.