Literary wanderings: Hisham Matar’s ‘The Return’ redefines the memoir

Hisham Matar’s memoir “The Return” centers around his return to his native Libya to search for his father. (Courtesy: WikiImages from Pixaby)

Everything you don’t understand is magic. Before any study or investigation, there is simply the thing itself, inexplicably there, weaving some captivating tale — an alchemy of words. It is mysterious and powerful and awe-inspiring. About once every few months, a book does this. Hisham Matar’s memoir, “The Return,” is one such book. It sat, slender and unassuming, on my ‘to read’ shelf for nearly a year until I finally picked it up one afternoon. 

I had to stop after the first chapter. The sheer power of what I had just read went shooting through me. I put it down, both so I could sit and metabolize all I had just read and because I wanted to savor it. Another chapter felt gluttonous and unnecessary; one was enough. 

“The Return,” at its core, is about a son and his father. Matar, originally from Libya, is a 19-year-old university student in England when he receives the news that his father (a central figure in the anti-Gaddafi movement) has disappeared. Matar would never see him again. 

Twenty-two years later, Matar, riven by fear but moved by a desperate curiosity, finally decides to return to Libya for the first time in two decades to search for his father. What happened to him on that day so many years ago? Is there any way, hope against hope, that he might still be alive? 

Thus begins the arresting story of “The Return.” It is both the tale of a gripping international search and the quietly beautiful portrait of a boy who has become a man, seeking his father. 

Matar, who began his writing career as a novelist, initially wrote two books of vaguely autobiographical fiction with middling success. Then, his first memoir, “The Return,” burst onto the scene, winning that year’s Pulitzer Prize and quickly becoming a classic of the genre. 

Hisham Matar is an interesting writer, to be sure. For most of his life growing up, he almost exclusively read poetry, and it shows. The prose of “The Return” is masterful. He captures the subtle detail of light filtering into a room with as much grace and power as he recounts tense conversations with the last known people to see his father alive. 

Hisham Matar could write about quotidian tasks like doing the dishes or taking out the trash, and I’d still read it. It’s that inexplicable alchemy of words. 

But over the last few months, what was once ineffable has been given shape, form and flesh. In the past year, I have unintentionally read an uncommonly large amount of memoirs — drawn to the genre by something I can not express. Then spring rolled around, and I found myself in Creative Nonfiction, a class devoted to the study and practice of writing in this very form. 

So naturally, the memoir (why it’s been having such a “moment” in the last decade, what it’s really worth, etc.) has been on my mind.

So why the memoir?

Like anything, there are two sides to the proverbial coin. Historically, the memoir, at least in the form we recognize today, isn’t that old. While classics of the genre, like Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior,” do stretch back several decades, the explosion of the memoir as we know it now is a more recent phenomenon. 

In some more pessimistic moments, I might trace it back to an internet generation endlessly keen on sharing about ourselves with the world, wanting, needing, to be heard. While my class has been a joy and constantly instructive — pulling back the curtain to how writers integrate scene and dialogue and emotion to create that written magic — it can occasionally feel deeply narcissistic. We write about ourselves and our lives and read what other people write when they do the same. It can sometimes feel as if every book cover and page is silently screaming, “Look, here! Pay attention to me, I have something to say!”

And yet, there is so much more.

While this pessimistic view still occasionally grips me, I try my best not to subscribe to it. I believe the genre has far more to offer, and perhaps no memoir illustrates this better than “The Return.” 

Engaging with a memoir, either as the writer or a reader, is a powerful, potentially life-shaping experience. 

As the writer, it can be deeply clarifying and healing. While “The Return” was surely at times excruciating to write, Matar did it. He faced the mystery of his father and his lost country. He reconnected with family members and places that had been lost to time and war — and, in the process, began to heal decades-old wounds. Putting it on paper, sharing it with others, is a terrifying and redeeming act. 

As the reader, it can be impactful and comforting. While no one else has Hisham Matar’s lived experiences, he taps into the universally-shared joys and struggles of family, homeland and loss of a parent, weaving it all into stunning art. 

The memoir is an intimate exchange between writer and reader. At its best, it possesses the power to profoundly change both parties. It throws open the doors of the human experience, laying out stories that capture and challenge us — offering a salve when we have none. 

Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 is a book columnist for TSL. This week, he is heavily procrastinating by building out reading lists for the summer.

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