“My family flipped out,” Ariel Gore said at a recent book signing when asked how her kin responded to the recent publication of her memoir. “I need ten years of therapy now.” The audience, packed into Berkeley’s Black Oak Books in mid-June, laughed out loud.
Gore, the 32-year-old creator of Hip Mama magazine and author of The Hip Mama Survival Guide and The Mother Trip, was back in the San Francisco Bay Area from Portland to read from her new memoir, Atlas of the Human Heart (Seal Press, 2003). Until recently, Gore lived in Oakland with her daughter for a number of years, and Hip Mama magazine was part of her senior project at Mills College.
Although Seal Press labels the book as memoir, Gore categorizes her book as follows: “This one’s a work of fiction, meaning it’s about 76 percent true. Or it’s a memoir, meaning it’s about 76 percent false.” Whatever the mix, readers who were put off by Gore’s righteous attitude in previous books will be pleasantly surprised by the lyrical and magical tone of her writing in Atlas of the Human Heart.
I was impressed by both the poetry of her writing, and the raw honesty of her experiences. In Atlas Gore illustrates both the personal and on-the-road journeys she takes before becoming a mother at age 19. The book begins in the late 1980s, when at 16, Gore dropped out of high school and bought a one-way ticket to Hong Kong. Like many suburban teenagers — Gore grew up in Palo Alto, California — she had turned to keg parties and sneaking out with her boyfriend.
However, by age 15, Gore wanted more out of life. So, she simply packed her backpack and left home for China. She told her mother that she’d already been accepted to the Beijing Language Institute. With the $2,000 she had earned at the local movie house and a copy of her I Ching, Gore flew to China and talked her way into the Language Institute when she got there. This began a three-year voyage that took her to China, Tibet, Nepal, India, Amsterdam, England, and Italy.
At one point in the novel-memoir, Gore’s mother sent a letter to her daughter in China, asking about her braces: “Your orthodontist told me that NOT ONLY did he never take the braces off of your teeth, but you hadn’t been to see him in over a year. I repeat: Over a year! What happened to those braces, Tiniest?”
So, what really happened to those braces? Before leaving the States, Gore had gone into the garage and pried off her braces one by one with a pair of pliers. Meanwhile, her mother was off visiting “my guys at San Quentin,” helping them with their appeals. (After teaching art on death row, Gore’s mother kept in touch with some inmates and visited them often.) The book is filled with such amusing, insightful and candid scenes.
As Gore traveled the globe, more than one person upon learning how old she was, remarked, “Your mother is crazy.” Throughout the book, I was captivated by Gore’s candid protrayal of her relationship with her mother.
I stayed up late for a few nights, anxiously following Gore’s journey as a smuggler and a squatter, the lover of a Nepali girl (it was a part Gore played for a movie about love and illusion), and lastly, the girlfriend of an alcoholic shoplifter named Lance. A journal entry from the fall of 1987 was written inside a Tibetan cave: “sometimes i want to go home, but then i wonder/realize: maybe it’s not home i miss, maybe it’s my childhood not ritzy stupid shallow alto silicon valley but spring fairs at the peninsula school, hippie shows at the stanford amphitheater darting under picnic tables?”
Symbolically, perhaps, whenever anyone in the book asked her name, Gore answered, “White Ghost Girl.” She concluded: “I closed my eyes and it occurred to me that no one in the world knew where I was. And then, almost simultaneously, it occurred to me that maybe no one was wondering. I could die here.”
Then, at age 19, living in Italy with her bully boyfriend, Gore found herself pregnant: “Bright morning in early June, I already knew I was pregnant. I sat at the bar, nursing a cafe con leche and my second black eye in as many weeks.” As a reader, I could not help but cheer Gore on: C’mon girl, move on, you’re gonna be a Mama now!
Asked if her teenage daughter, Maia, has read her memoir, Gore said, “It’s not banned reading. But at the moment, what could be more boring than reading your Mom’s work? Then I’d need another twenty years of therapy!”