For today’s Non Fic November post I have a fabulous guest post from Janet at Words That Can Only Be Your Own, make sure you head over and give her some blog love!
Coal To Diamonds is billed as the memoir – rather than the autobiography – of Beth Ditto, the self-described, “queer, fat, femme” frontwoman of garage punk band Gossip. I think this distinction is important, as although the book covers Ditto’s life from childhood onwards and largely follows chronological order, this slim and elegant volume is a far cry from the bloated celebrity autobiographies which clog the bookshop shelves in the run up to Christmas every year, and take a reader through the star’s every movement year-on-year, no matter how banal. Rather, Ditto and her co-writer Michelle Tea have selected key events and anecdotes that do a great job of explaining where Ditto has come from, in both a metaphorical and a literal sense.
Place is central to her story; the opening lines of the book are an almost elegiac description of her hometown’s decline, from a “booming metropolis keeping pace with the rest of country” until a tornado tore through the town, “leaving a dusty depression in its wake.” An escape from Judsonia, Arkansas at the age of 18 to Olympia is also vividly drawn. The small college town in the Pacific Northwest that became famous for its vibrant music culture and Riot Grrrl scene is described in almost awe-struck terms; the reader gets a real sense of the wonder the teenage Ditto and friends felt on encountering ex-Bikini Kill drummer (and ex-girlfriend of Kurt Cobain) Tobi Vail at a party. Equally, the later sense of being stifled by small-town life and subsequent move to Portland is well conveyed.
The sections of the book dealing with Ditto’s time growing up in Arkansas make for particularly difficult reading, but this is far from a misery memoir. Harrowing tales of abuse are told, without detracting from their horror, in a seemingly casual way, leaving the reader in little doubt how common such experiences were locally. She paints a picture of a family – a whole community, in fact – precariously struggling to survive in poverty and escape the scars of abuse. Her own struggles with poor mental health and two breakdowns are dealt with unflinchingly and she doesn’t shy away from the gritty truth: this is no glamourous rock star decline.
Anyone who knows how it feels to be the only fat girl in class, or the only queer in the village, or the only indie music fan in a crowd of mainstream teenagers, or the only feminist in a group of friends, will find much to enjoy in Coals To Diamonds. As someone for whom all of the above are or have been true, I loved it.
Thank you for contributing your review to Non Fic November Janet, can’t wait for your next post!