I must admit that I approached Malika Mokeddem’s memoir with trepidation. I found it hard to believe that I would enjoy a life story recounted only in terms of the men involved. In retrospect, however, it is possible that a telling of Mokeddem’s story would not have been thoroughly explained without the background she provides on her men.
Mokeddem, a French Algerian immigrant, was raised in a society that encourages huge discrepancies between the treatment of men and women, to say the least. Her traditional upbringing gives her a sharp and discerning eye for the ways in which her life differed from the men around her and Western women all over the world. It takes a little bit of reading to reach a point where Mokeddem’s relationships with men move out of predictability—specifically, past the first chapter.
Titled “The First Absence,” chapter one is a laundry list of the ways in which Mokeddem's father failed her and occasionally borders on the melodramatic. (Oh, Freud, where would literary criticism be today without your theories? In a much less disturbing place, I think. But I digress.) Once this chapter is out of the way, Mokeddem explains in moving detail the most important relationships she’s had with men—from her first mentor, to her brother, to her longtime lover and partner. These men both establish and interrupt the expectations Mokeddem holds for men, and she shares openly the ways in which she has been disadvantaged and healed through these relationships.
Mokeddem’s writing retains the heartbreaking beauty of the French language even through translation, which is partly why I enjoyed it so much. She has a particular talent for turning a phrase, and the vulnerability and wisdom transmitted through her work is undeniable. She walks a fine line between conversational and lofty writing, never veering too extremely to lose her charm and approachability as a character.
My Men does suffer moments of dependent thinking; for example, at the end of the chapter on the author’s brother: “How long will the men I love continue to force me to sum up love’s failures—until I lose track of the years?” These low points are and far between, however, and definitely not enough so to make the story disappointing to the feminist reader. Mokeddem shows herself an indomitable female character with her own set of foibles and fears, and her unique perspective makes her memoir worth reading for any reader, feminist or otherwise.