Anti-Memoir, Anti-Me


I was a teenage anti-memoirist. This is not a confession, because we all know that memoirs today feel a tad different than they used to—a tad safe, a tad sterile, a tad sucky. Walk into any major bookstore and you’ll be surrounded by shelves of your quietly forgotten celebrity crush, once known for being colorful and brash, now staring at you in the silent pause of a black-and-white cover, their half-nude body posed in a way that screams vulnerability.

These ‘true tales in an authentic voice’ dominate the literary landscape. In 2023, Amazon’s bestselling book was a memoir written by a prince who quit royalty to make royalties, followed by a singer who followed up her “Piece of Me” Las Vegas Residency making $300,000 a night with The Woman in Me, making 12.5 million at signing. As with any major literary trend, bestsellers are ripples of the wider literary industry. In the case of memoir, these ripples create a constant demand for rawness, for ‘truthtelling,’ where writers are expected to expose their most private parts. And these memoirs, for the most part, kind of suck. Their ‘authenticity’ contains the hidden manufacture of an Instagram influencer. Their ‘true voice’ is co-fabricated by editors, literary agents, legal advisors, and often uncredited ghost writers.

Memoir today feels unrecognizable when compared to radical historical resurgences of life-writing that have brought attention to marginalized communities and histories censored by state and for-profit medias. Classics from slave narratives to Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and the works of This Bridge Called My Back are politically resistant narratives that bear witness to injustices in creative, unexpected ways. Continuing these traditions are auto-theory works like Testo Junkie, The Argonauts, Citizen: An American Lyric, and recent queer works that challenge the genre of memoir itself: Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, Ocean Voung’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and Billy Ray Belcourt’s A History of My Brief Body.

Unlike life writings of the past, most memoirs today have sterile, apolitical, and ultimately de-mobilizing tendencies. The scholar Melissa Phruksachart has called such forms of writing “The Literature of White Liberalism” that “eschew[] the novel and cohere around the genres of nonfiction, autobiography, and self-help.” The problem with the memoir today has nothing to do with the value of personal story to reflect on our deepest and most troubling social issues, but is rather about how memoirs are marketed as stories of “personal overcoming,” as spectacles focused on the oppressions of one marginalized person, so that readers expect exposure, cultural authenticity, and victimization. All of this can result in reading practices that conjure feelings rather than encourage action. We might empathize fully with the memoir of a refugee who escaped U.S. bombing and war, yet do nothing in the face of ongoing bombings and genocide.

 But as I said, I was a teenage anti-memoirist. Coming from Filipino, Chinese, and white heritages, I started my writing career railing against what Betsy Huang has called the “autobiographic imperative” that casts “all Asian American fiction as forms of life writing.” I saw this ‘imperative’ as the pressure to speak from an outside, white reader’s point of view about my cultural background, or worse, my psyche. But then, in 2023, I published a book of prose-poetry, Nimrods: a fake-punk self-hurt anti-memoir. Though the term “anti-memoir” sits in the book’s subtitle, it is, like all memoirs, also a reflection on my ‘real’ life story. What changed?

Nimrods forced me to break a promise with myself that I held for my first four books: never to write an autobiography. I would only write fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, and essays, but never focus on the ever-alluring brand of “me.” It took four books and a lot of reading, thinking, and experiencing, for me to find a style of writing that felt authentic enough to handle the reality I wanted to express. I needed new tools to dig deep, to express my ‘self’ without subjecting the raw materials of reality to the manufacturing processes of stripping, watering down, or polishing up. To do so, I turned to an alternative writing tradition, one that was both “anti-establishment” and “anti-me:” punk poetics.

Punk poetics is a form of musically-infused writing shaped by queer and trans authors like Patti Smith, Kathy Acker, Kai Cheng Thom. Like punk rock, punk poetics can crowd-surf us along the rhythmic tug of words, only to drop us into a circle pit and leave readers bruised and gasping for air. Punk rock’s adrenaline anger and often nihilistic obsessions with social decay and suicide are also a refusal of the trappings of memoir: that songs about fucked-up social structures, family and community abuse, and permanent US militarism are rarely told through the singer’s marginalized identity—except perhaps the ‘big identity’ of marginalization itself. Does it feel necessary to know while listening to their music, for example, that the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O is Korean American, or that Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong is bisexual?

Punk’s “anti-identity” philosophy is a remnant of its growth in lower-class white communities, which over time, have been challenged by musical subgenres of Afro-punk, queer punk, Riot Grrrl, Latinx punk, and the worldwide influence of punk in the global south. These moments of rupture against the radical, yet white and cis-hetero, communities of punk rock often result in sparks of rage and inspiration, when the “me” insists on being part of the “anti-me” philosophy of punk.

The “anti-me” philosophy of punk is integrated into the name of the aggro-political band Against Me!, who emerged in the post-911 radical youth of South Florida. Against Me! became famous with the anthem, “Baby, I’m an Anarchist,” whose lyrics could be redrawn to influence my own anti-memoir commitments: “I burn down buildings / While you sit on a shelf inside of them.” But then, in 2010, the band released their most successful song, “I Was a Teenage Anarchist,” which turned the band’s rage toward the anarchist-punk community itself: “Narrow visions of autonomy / You want me to surrender my identity.” Other songs on the album hinted at what this identity was (like Bamboo Bones’ “What God doesn’t give to you / You’ve got to go and get for yourself”), yet the “me” that punk communities had dismissed as politically meaningless did not fully emerge until Laura Jane Grace’s official “coming out” as transgender in a Rolling Stone interview in 2012. Two years later, Against Me!’s 2014 album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, insisted upon the importance of Grace’s transition to understanding the vilification of both trans people and the blind patriotic violence against enemies of the state (“Osama Bin Laden as the Crucified Christ”).

As in many punk rock songs, thoughts of suicide and self-harm permeate Transgender Dysphoria Blues, emanating a sense of “self-hurt” to combat the inane and often toxic positivity associated with “self-help.” “Self-hurt” is the third subgenre in the title of Nimrods, a nod to the way literature expresses and helps understand pain, not by trying to heal or compartmentalize our pain, but, as James Baldwin wrote, to understand how “the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

I found self-hurt not just in literature but in the ruptures of punk poetics, when the armor of punk’s “anti-me” commitments fractured under the weight of one’s personal story, when the personal becomes so political one cannot imagine discussing politics without first breaking through that armor. Nimrods tells of my own complications with fatherhood, racial anger, and queer non-belonging. It uses many forms of experimental prose: queer punk poetry, musical ekphrasis that lifts, remixes, and splices apart lyrics and rhythms, odes, sonnets, rhyme royals, hai buns, and triptychs, as well as constant notations and disruptions that reveal sources of inspiration, context, or forms of violence. This eclectic mixture of poetic and prose forms emerged after years of searching for an adequate way to express the painful and fragmented memories I carried. But it took the determination, playfulness, and full-tilt anger of punk rock to jam it all together.

The anti-memoir carries the tradition of punk’s “anti-me” philosophy by seeing the self not as myself per se, but as a collaborative project in conversation with the many selves. The experimental prose of Nimrods cross-references other poems, novels, academic texts, and popular culture, which contain expressions of my own embodied practices, experiences, and ways of seeing—similar shades of my own queer brownness. “Anti-memoir” does not claim whole personhood or authenticity—it merely shares a single shard of ourselves, and it reflects the many structures that dominate us: patriarchy, white supremacy, colonial history, and ongoing war in America. To do this, I turned to three-chord rhythms of a jagged, adrenaline-fueled flow. Once I absorbed the “anti-memoir” politics of punk, the music never let loose, and neither did its distorted strum of words.


Kawika Guillermo (they/he) is an award-winning author and third generation Filipinx American whose family is primarily from Hawai’i and Texas. He has lived in Portland, Las Vegas, Seattle, Gimhae South Korea, Nanjing China, Hong Kong, and Vancouver Canada. His debut novel, Stamped: an anti-travel novel (2018), won the 2020 Association for Asian American Studies Book Award for Creative Prose, and in 2023 was adapted into a free-to-play video game, Stamped: an anti-travel game. His follow-up speculative fiction novel, All Flowers Bloom (2020), won the 2021 Reviewers Choice Gold Award for Best General Fiction/Novel. His first prose-poetry book, Nimrods: a fake-punk self-hurt anti-memoir, was published in 2023 by Duke University Press, and was a Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Bisexual Nonfiction.


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