Re-imagining the American Family

Developed by Rebecca Nisetich with librarian consultants Emma J. Gibbon and Kate Hessler

  • Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
  • Fun Home by  Alison Bechdel
  • Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
  • What The Living Do by Marie Howe
  • Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman


Americans have long held a particular obsession with the family. What images does the “family” conjure in the American imagination? What does the “family” really mean in national, social, and political discourses? And how do we square societal expectations with reality?

The representations on this reading list attempt to expand, complicate, and challenge our vision of what constitutes the “American family.” This series exposes readers to a wide range of experiences and perspectives, with the goal of broadening our conceptions of individual and family identities. We will also broaden our conception of the memoir genre by exploring traditional long-form writing alongside graphic and poetic self-representations.

This series offers a compilation of memoirs by contemporary American writers who imaginatively represent, shape, and challenge our conceptions of the American family. Alison Bechdel, J.D. Vance, Marie Howe, Roz Chast, and John Edgar Wideman share a fundamental interest in the formation of identity–familial, individual, national and global. Together, we will investigate the possibilities and limits of literature to shape identity and to construct (or deconstruct) categories of race, class, gender, and sexuality.

The writers of each of our memoirs seek to more fully understand themselves and the worlds they inhabit. They search for authentic modes of self-expression. Particularly, each writer  endeavors to develop a more complete and cohesive sense of self in the face of competing forces in a multicultural and multiethnic America, where “diversity” is purportedly valued but where difference is so often divisive.

Our challenge will be threefold: first, to recognize the strategies our authors use to depict American identity in its many iterations; second, to situate our own ideas about American identity within the context of other articulations inflected by race, class, gender, and sexuality; and third, to come to a deeper understanding of whether there is such a thing as an essentially “American” identity at all.