Fragmented and Powerful Memoir: A Woman Alone by Isabel del Rio

Jan 13, 2022 | Reviews

I absolutely love how varied and eclectic this blog has made my reading. Interestingly enough, memoir is the genre where I’ve found the most unusual books. There was memoir-as-diary from Fran Hill in Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean?, memoir-as-flash in The Naming of Bones by Jan Kaneen and then memoir-as-poetry in The Girl and the Goddess by Nikita Gill.

This time, I read memoir-as-fragmented narrative. In her book A Woman Alone, Isabel del Rio offers us snippets of her life in a seemingly random order. Events from childhood are juxtaposed with adulthood, scenes of civil war brush up against experiences of sexual assault and bereavement, childhood and adulthood share the same page.

As you continue through this beautifully written and intriguing tale of a most unusual life, you find yourself connecting up the threads. Shaping her life back together, finding the structure, in what has been taken apart. It makes the experience of reading it very involving and enjoyable. There are even moments when she talks directly to the reader, or reflects on the very nature of writing a memoir itself.

I wanted to find out how such an unusual style came to be, and the decisions behind the use of language (some of it is in Spanish) and the events selected. Read on to find out more.

The most striking thing about your book is the structure. We are shown fragments of your life, often with moments juxtaposed that are far in time and mood from each other. Although it feels jarring to begin with, I found that it fitted wonderfully with the themes and ideas in the book around different languages, identities and cultures. Why did you decide to structure your memoir like this?

The writer includes images of herself throughout her life, including this lovely one!

Memories are sudden bursts of images, dialogues and scenes from the past. When recalling events, your mind moves unbrokenly from one episode to another, from the present to the past and back again, with several other episodes in between. And sometimes, things that had been forgotten for years suddenly reappear, surprising you and sometimes shocking you.

What I wanted with this book was to replicate this process, creating a kind of scrapbook with memories but also with anecdotes, sketches, historical facts, quotes from those writers or artists that I admire, as well a few brief sections from my own fiction and poetry. I narrated all of this like a series of sketches that can be read easily and, what is more important, engagingly. In a way, I dramatised the text, naturally without changing the facts. Memory is a very selective process, and here is what I say in the book about reminiscing:

‘I tried to keep all these recollections alive by reliving them in my mind time and time again, always afraid to let go in case I would forget them. It appears, though, that when you try to remember events, you do not recall the original happening but the successive memories of it. It could then be claimed that, over time, I accrued several life stories, depending on when I retold a memory, how and to whom; a little like recounting the lives of several people who would probably not recognise each other were they to cross paths. My hope was that piecing together a narrative from such diverse material might provide a sense of wholeness. And yet, a composite picture of who you are, superimposing all those versions of yourself, might shock you into the realisation that you have been living with a total stranger all this time.’

Although the book is not written following an exact chronological order, there is definitely a progression, starting with my birth, and then childhood and adolescence and then later years, though all these timelines are interspersed with other elements from my life experiences. I suppose that, because all these ‘fragments’ are self-contained, you can open the book anywhere and it all makes sense.

Along with the structure, there are passages in Spanish, sometimes with you reporting things other people have said. Why did you decide to use two languages and, in places, not offer translation?

I am bilingual, and I write in both English and Spanish. Although I was born in Spain, I have lived in the UK most of my life, including part of my childhood and adolescence. So instead of rejecting one language to make my life as a writer so much easier, I decided to write in both languages. I have written poetry and fiction books in either English or Spanish, but a few books of mine include both languages, and this is one of them. Here is what I say in the book about being bilingual:

This image is labelled ‘wearing the wrong mask.’

‘I was born with one mother tongue. But aged seven, I acquired a second one just like that. Each mother tongue arrives with a fresh set of thoughts and desires and beliefs, requiring me to be a different person when speaking one or the other. Both languages fight furiously within me to control the situation and establish the rules. Who am I, I would ask, this one or that one? ¿Ésta o ésa?’

In any case, the book is mostly in English, with only a small number of sections or fragments in Spanish. To provide a translation alongside the main text would have made the reading rather awkward – I would have had to include the translated text in footnotes, endnotes, or perhaps in block at the end of the book. Also, if I provided the translation of the Spanish sections into English, then I would have also had to include the translation of the English sections into Spanish.

Auspiciously the world is becoming increasingly multicultural, and so the future is definitely multilingual. Using several languages in a book is certainly not a new thing, and today there are a number of writers who use their various languages in their writing (or write one book in one language and the next in another language.) To quote one of the most celebrated multilingual books, and without wanting for a second to compare myself to the brilliant Umberto Eco, ‘The Name of the Rose’ (published in 1980) embraces sections in various languages, including Latin.

Regarding the quotes in Spanish that are included in the book, I decided that I could not possibly translate, for example, what my grandfather used to say, or the quotes from poets or authors who wrote in Spanish. Keeping those sections in the original was ultimately a homage to the Spanish language itself and to all those who I loved (and who are sadly no longer with us) and who used Spanish as their main language. Here is an example:

‘Grandfather rightfully used to say: “No me dan miedo los muertos sino los vivos.”’

As with any memoir, the telling of personal stories is always a difficult process. In your memoir, there are many incidents, particularly related to your life as a woman, that deal with difficult and emotional circumstances. How did you find writing about these things and why did you want to include them in the book?

The book is ultimately the story of a woman (who happens to be me), and it includes some very personal experiences about loss and hurt as experienced by women, and also about the abuse and sexual harassment we are subjected to; about physical ailments and medical conditions that women have to cope with in the course of their lives; and about the difficulties women encounter in the workplace, in interpersonal and affective relationships, and in society in general, as a result of trying to defy the roles that have been imposed on us.

Women have suffered terrible ordeals and deprivations throughout History; thus, I wanted to pay homage to all those women who were unable to contribute to the world commensurately with their moral and intellectual worth as a result of injustice and prejudice. Here is how I put this in the book:

‘Women’s history is mostly an oral history, and our knowledge was passed from generation to generation by word of mouth through traditions and rituals: from dialogues that held many of the secrets of civilisation and progress over centuries to the teachings of universal folklore and mythologies. It is a history that still needs to be fully and painstakingly documented. Until then, we must write it down individually, one by one.’

Also bear in mind that I lived in Spain at the end of Franco’s dictatorship, which was the stuff of nightmares. In such extreme situation, you can either succumb or become an unswerving fighter. I was lucky in that during part of my childhood and adolescence I lived in London for a few years, and after finishing my studies I returned to the UK. I explained this in the book:

You can get your own copy of the book here

‘As a child I was taken away from a fascist dictatorship to 60s London, and I could not believe such freedom was possible. Then as an adolescent, I was taken away from London and returned to a fascist dictatorship, and I thought that I had been condemned to some kind of Underworld. A few years later, after university, I got a full-time job in London and returned, but only after having witnessed what fascist dictatorships can do to people and countries, and more so to your young mind and your blossoming dreams. Freedom is what we must live for, and if you have to move away, whether from countries, people, ideas, situations, time spans, then so be it.’

You have also published several collections of short stories and poems. How did you find the process of both writing and publishing memoir different to the other types of writing?

Yes, I have published both fiction and poetry, including novels and novellas. And I am a linguist, and have worked as a translator, specialising in literary translation. Later this year I will be publishing the English translation of an anthology of Latin American poets living in the UK, as well as a couple of other books of mine, a collection of short stories and a bilingual poetry collection.

The main difference between fiction and memoir is the obvious one: the first is mostly made up (though some would claim that a lot of fiction is veiled autobiography), and the second is not something stemming from your imagination, but from life itself. Yet, you need to dramatise a memoir in some way in order to make it readable and compelling; it must feel like a story (incorporating all the literary devices and embellishments that are required in fiction) and not sound like an unadorned chronicle of whatever happened to you in your life. A memoir is the narrative of your life, the truth told as a story.

Memoirs are a blend of the historical truth and the narrative truth; most of the time they coincide, but sometimes storytelling takes over.

What is the best advice you keep for yourself that you would offer to other writers?

Most of all, read everything and anything. Read the masters, books from centuries ago (and realise that what people went through then is not so different in terms of human emotions and perceptions as to what we feel now). But the reading by a writer is not the usual reading by a reader. It must be a much deeper, critical and analytical reading; not for escapism but for study. And above all write and rewrite. Throw things away and start again. Writing is basically a muscle and it needs to be continuously flexed.

In the memoir I talk about how I was rejected by my first publisher because they wanted a novel, and at the time I only wrote short stories (they claimed that the novel was the real thing, and that readers did not read short stories!) So, my publisher dropped me, which at the time was unbearably painful. Should I have given up then? Well, since that episode I have written several novels and novellas, as well as dozens of short stories, several books of poetry, as well as non-fiction. So, don’t let anyone interfere with what you think is the right way to write. But at the same time listen to those who offer you wise and generous advice about your writing.

Writing is a life-long commitment, a vocation, a craft, a profession. It does not make you special or superior in any way, for it is like any other job, albeit a very demanding occupation that demands total devotion. You need to work really hard, and especially study hard, at any age. Learning and knowledge can never enough.

And remember that the most important thing is to never give up!

Isabel del Rio is a British-Spanish fiction writer, poet and linguist. Born in Madrid, she has lived in London most of her life. She has published poetry and fiction in both English and Spanish. Her most recent books are her memoir ‘A Woman Alone: fragments of a memoir’ and ‘Dolorem Ipsum: poetry in a time of pain‘, a poetry collection dedicated to the victims of the 2020 pandemic. Isabel regularly takes part in performance poetry, spoken word and literary events. At present, Isabel is doing a PhD in ‘Creative Writing’.

Social Media Links


Twitter: @isabeldelrio

Instagram: @isabeldrs


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