In the lush world of contemporary memoir, the old trappings of the genre have, thankfully, been obliterated.
Writers are proving that the art lies not in how public, salacious or renowned one is, but in the storytelling itself. Ashley C. Ford’s debut memoir, “Somebody’s Daughter,” is a shining example of story and craft that embodies how exquisite a memoir can be.
Ford earned a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Media in 2017 for her storytelling, seen in rich features and essays published in the likes of The New York Times and ELLE, and while hosting podcasts, including HBO’s “Lovecraft Country Radio.” In that sense, she is a pop culture figure. But the beauty and strength of “Somebody’s Daughter” lies in the inherently extraordinary nature of an ordinary life.
Ford’s prose is clear and measured and hits the transcendent symphonic notes that often accompany poetry. Her story blooms outward from the experience of growing up as a Black girl in Indiana while her father was incarcerated. “I looked for my father, for his unending love, in the faces of every adult around me,” Ford writes. “I knew he would know how to protect me. He might even know how to help me protect myself.” While his absence for much of her life is a vital part of the story, the book is expansive, encompassing Ford’s early childhood, adolescence and adulthood; her experience in her family and community; her education and work; and her father’s eventual release from prison.
Although it is told in a straightforward, chronological way, “Somebody’s Daughter” is complex. Ford is a master of layering emotion and insight into plot, creating an absorbing narrative from the mundane and the marvelous parts of life, which often occur at the same time.
One of the most striking aspects of this book is the remarkable detail Ford renders, especially regarding her early childhood and the development of a child’s curiosity. Recalling her teacher reading her kindergarten class a picture book about sunrise, Ford writes, “I repeated the word ‘sunrise,’ and the sound opened like a spring bloom on the tip of my tongue. There are few words worthy of the wonders they describe, but sunrise sounds like it feels. A u sunken to the bottom of one’s throat, and an i, pointing upward and onward to a warm beyond.” Constructing such intricate and sonorous sentences is one of Ford’s greatest skills. They appear around things as seemingly small as a word and a pink sky, and as painful and confusing as sexual assault.
At the core of the book is a powerful love — for people who make up family, for people who forgive and people who require forgiveness. Ford does reveal why her father is in prison, and reckons with the particular nuances of that forgiveness. The writing navigates this with poignancy and grace while also fully embracing the difficulty of it.
But while the relationship with her father is in some ways the guiding arc of the book, it is far from the only one in which Ford deftly explores forgiveness and love.
These are elements of every relationship, and memoir generally has plenty of those. Ford’s mother, whose own struggles with men and love and the body influenced the ways she was able to parent, is described in a similarly loving, forgiving, complicated way. The same goes for Ford’s grandmother, her siblings, her friends and her romantic interests. Her first romantic relationship, after a terrible experience with an abusive boy in her class, is a particularly moving part of the book, as is her evolving relationship with her own body. Telling the truth with kindness is an ethos of this book, and Ford accomplishes it with clear-eyed emotional literacy.
Ford illustrates perfectly the messy, demanding work of coming into one’s self. “Too many parts of my life seemed unpredictable, much too dependent on the moods and inclinations of others,” she writes. But ultimately, the words of Ford’s grandmother are folded into the truth of how we as people grow up and into and around each other, for better or worse: “We don’t give up on our people. We don’t stop loving them. … Not even when we’re burning alive.”
“Somebody’s Daughter” is a brief but superbly crafted memoir that embraces the nuances of truth and love. “I knew I had it in me to tell the truth, and be loved anyway,” Ford writes. And thank goodness she did.