by Jane Anderson
A memoir is a nonfiction narrative of a specific time or collection of essays within a specific theme told in first-person by the author. French for “memory”, the memoir form acknowledges the biases inherent in the narrator’s personal recollection but is ultimately intended to be a truthful account of objective events. Or, at least, that’s what I thought until the Writers’ League of Texas May Third Thursday event with Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton.
Mouton is many things. A director; a performer; the author of essays, stage plays, and operas; the city of Houston’s first Black Poet Laureate. She is a mother, a daughter, a wife, an activist, a genealogy enthusiast, a member of the African diaspora, an American. As an interdisciplinary artist and multifaceted human, it is perhaps unsurprising that in writing her first memoir, Black Chameleon, Mouton defied convention. Instead of writing the collection of recollections to which us memoir-enthusiasts are accustomed, Mouton’s approach to memoir is as complex as she is.
At our May Third Thursday gathering, Mouton walked us through three approaches she integrated into her memoir, the first of which was incorporating the stories of the “wildly rebellious women” in her family. Some of these were women who lived and died before her, so she relied upon the retellings by her mother, grandmother, and aunts. Through an excerpt she shared, we learned that her great-grandmother was as quick-witted as she was fierce in defying segregation in the 1960s American South. While these stories may seem like they belong in historical nonfiction, we understood how integral they are to Mouton’s own story, how these women shaped her even long before she was born. As she laughed, “Maybe this is why my mouth is the way that it is,” and after a bit of reflection, “There’s something in me that always wants to speak out against injustice and always wants to fight for a more equitable world.”
Mouton’s second approach included exploring her own mythology. As she explained, we are all molded by economic status, social status, religion, race, or other identity markers that complicate who we become, and each of these entails respective mythos. In reflecting upon her own experience, she considered what it would look like to have a mythology of the shared colloquialisms among Black American women. So, she created the myth of how Black women got eyes in the back of their heads. While it was a myth of her own creation, she shared how reading it made her feel seen and understood. She decided to use mythology in her book to provide moments of context and clarity.
In her third approach, Mouton incorporated traditional first-person narrative. But, in telling stories that damped her confidence, she opted to use mythology to rewrite the endings. Through an excerpt, we saw Mouton as a 10-year-old girl at a fast-food restaurant, naively living in her own mind and excitedly awaiting her cheeseburger. We saw a grown man shout across the restaurant a commentary about her developing body. Those of us who were once young girls learning what it meant to live in a woman’s body braced for the shame and humiliation that would come next. But instead, the man transformed into the soul-slaying warrior spirit Acirema, and we saw young Mouton battle the spirit using food trays and sunflower seeds. Through mythology, Mouton didn’t have to be the victim just because she was a young girl; she, too, could be a warrior.
In closing, Mouton shared advice with the aspiring memoirists in the audience, “I think it’s really important that you stay authentically true to what you want to create.” The experience of hearing her speak about creating Black Chameleon was a beautiful testament to what can happen when an artist maintains that authenticity. You can check it out for yourself here.
“As we write our stories, it’s important that we’re the ones holding the pen.”
“All of us have identity markers that quantify who we have become, whether that’s economic status, social status, religion, race, you know, all of those things complicate us in the most beautiful ways.”
“I’ve been in love with hybridity for much longer than I can remember.”
“As a multidisciplinary artist, I find that sometimes I will write things in one medium and realize that they need to live in an entirely different medium.”