Writing your way through grief: how to create a powerful, moving memoir

Arifa Akbar, whose memoir, Consumed, explores the life and tumultuous death of her sister, Fauzia, shares her advice for how to begin writing a moving memoir. 

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In the spring of 2016, Arifa Akbar’s elder sister, Fauzia, became engulfed in an inexplicable medical mystery. After months of experiencing mysterious chest pains, night sweats, inflamed lungs and face swellings, Fauzia was taken to hospital and put into an induced coma.

While doctors searched for a diagnosis, Fauzia’s condition worsened until a brain haemorrhage left her in “the holding-cell between life and death”. It wasn’t until the day before she died that her perplexing illness was finally discovered to be tuberculosis.

“The suddenness of her death, the horror of it and the medical confusion around it, made me lost for words,” Arifa, a journalist and The Guardian’s chief theatre critic, tells Stylist. “So many questions remained: ‘How did my sister die in a leading hospital of an ancient illness?’, ‘How could this happen, in this day and age?’ But, I think anyone who writes uses it to try and make sense of the world, and that’s probably where the seed to write my memoir was sown.”

This anxious pursuit for answers is one of the driving forces of Arifa’s memoir, Consumed: A Sister’s Story. In it, she examines the glamourisation and stigma surrounding TB. She reads medical texts and speaks to experts, discovering that TB, as the biggest infectious diseases killer in the world, is a global pandemic and currently making a comeback in certain pockets of Britain.  

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As well as a courageous inquiry into the questions looming over her sister’s death, Consumed elevates itself beyond the usual blueprint of a grief memoir to paint a sensitive portrait of sisterhood, dysfunctional family dynamics, identity and the redemptive power of art.

We learn about Arifa and her family’s rupturing move from the colourful Pakistani city of Lahore to a “dark, cold little flat with no furniture and no heating” in Primrose Hill. We witness her parent’s tumultuous marriage and the stark difference in how her father treats both sisters; worshipping Arifa and chastising Fauzia. The reverberations of this linger long into adult life, causing Fauzia to fall into eating disorders and depression, straining the relationship of the once impenetrably close sisters.

Consumed: A Sister's Story by Arifa Akbar is a story of sisterhood, grief and the redemptive power of art.

“It wasn’t cathartic. It was a pained experience to write,” says Arifa. “If relationships have been unresolved in life, they don’t stop being complicated because you’ve written a book about them. I’ll always carry around the complications between me and my sister, but writing helped me make connections that led me to understand grief and pain and sisterhood better.”

Despite, the raw pain and guilt that simmers through the book, Consumed is also a soulful celebration of sisterly comradery and a loving quest by Arifa to immortalise her sister’s passions and complexities. But, this doesn’t make it any easier for her to read.

“I can barely bring myself to open the book now,” says Arifa. “I can look at the cover and be happy I’ve told my sister’s story, but I can’t bear to read it. In time, I think it could be really valuable for me. I will read it, just not yet.” 

Arifa’s advice on how to start writing a powerful memoir

Create a roadmap

“Starting to write a memoir can be really overwhelming,” says Arifa. “I found it useful to create a roadmap.” Arifa worked with her literary agent to start creating a very basic structure for her book to guide her writing.

“I didn’t just want to write a grief memoir. I wanted to incorporate the big mysteries of TB and how it’s been portrayed. To tackle it, we started thinking: ‘How would I begin?’, ‘What might the first chapter be?’ and ‘What will the journey of the book be?’.”

Arifa created five main headings and placed certain memories beneath them. “It became an organisational tool,” she says. “Those headings turned into chapters, and although I shifted them around and changed the original structure, it gave me a really useful map of where I was heading.”  

Take your time

“Giving yourself time and space is really, really important,” says Arifa. “You don’t want to feel your memoir is going to be rushed out.”

“Even when you’re not writing and researching, the book still carries on percolating in the back of your mind. That process is really vital for gathering new thoughts and deepening your thinking.”

Arifa kept a notebook with her to write out thoughts and memories as they struck her. “Once you’ve decided to write a book and started thinking about the past, it’s almost like setting a train in motion. Really interesting thoughts hit you when you’re shopping or walking about, and it’s vital to capture those vivid memories.”

“You shouldn’t put pressure on yourself to start making those thoughts into a narrative. That’s jumping the gun. The first bit of the process should be gathering interesting thoughts, accessing memories and allowing them to come into your dreams. Give yourself time to fully think back.”  

Tackle research in bite-sized chunks

As Arifa began to explore TB, research from other sources became vital. “I needed a foundation of information and medical experience beyond my sister’s stays in hospital,” says Arifa.

“I found a TB expert who was really useful in explaining how much of a tricksy and elusive disease it is and what it does to the body. Going on to research TB, and see it in its wider historical context, gave the book a scope that was bigger than just my sister’s experience of TB.”

If you are considering undertaking research for your memoir – be it understanding a place that is significant to you, or a wider issue that touches your personal history – Arifa suggests breaking the process down into manageable chunks.

“Try not to do all the research for the book at once. Break it down so it’s not all jumbled,” she says. “The idea of writing a book with all that research could easily have put me off if I hadn’t taken it chunk by chunk, almost like a series of articles.” 

Understand the importance of physical experiences

As well as delving into past memories, Arfia artfully weaves trips and experiences into the narrative. She visits Rome, a city Fauzia took huge creative inspiration from, and travels to Tuscany for a performance of Puccini’s La bohème – an opera culminating in the death of a beautiful consumptive. In a particularly moving section of the book, she takes her mum back to Hampstead where her family lived when they first arrived in the UK.

“I would advise people to go and visit places that are significant to them – the place they were born, or the place something good or bad happened to them,” says Arifa. “Memory can lose its colour and reliability and going to places brings a story to life.”

“I went to Hampstead to find colour there. I could see the house that we squatted in when we were homeless and was able to really see us as a family stuck in secret poverty in the midst of such a gentrified area. Taking my mum with me, was really important because I got her physical reaction. I could see her turning into the young wife and mother she had been while living there.”

Arifa Akbah embroidery
Fauzia's embroidery discovered by her sister Arifa.

Use physical artefacts 

Family photographs and artwork made by Fauzia, who was studying for a degree in fine art before she died, are peppered throughout Consumed. The pictures work like artefacts, revealing hidden family secrets on closer inspection. While Fauzia’s embroidery becomes another means of deciphering her inner world. 

“Fauzia’s art and embroidery was a treasure chest of discovery and a big tool for the book,” says Arifa. “It’s a gift to have physical, creative things because you can see so much of the person who’s left them behind. You can see their mood, their thinking, their ideas. Every new embroidery I found, gave me a slightly different version of things.”

“Physical objects are useful because they anchor you in the story. Otherwise, you could write in a general or abstract way that becomes boring to the reader. A diary entry, a letter, or a series of photographs, adds texture and makes your memories more accessible.”  

Beware the unknowability of memory

Consumed is not just an artfully written portrait of grief, it’s also a fascinating interrogation of the reliability of memory. Arifa agonisingly confronts her perceptions of the past, becoming all too aware that it is an unknowable jigsaw: “I am placing snippets of received information next to blurry childhood memories,” she writes. “I run the risk of jamming pieces together wrongly.”

“This was a key bit of the book that I struggled with,” says Arifa, explaining that as she pieced together her family history, she began to see “the gaps and unreliable bits in my own memory”.

“It surprised me that even fairly recent things, I’d slightly misremembered,” she says. “It made me feel memory is a bit unreliable; we pick and choose the things we remember and what we conveniently forget.”

“By writing and curating you are creating a version of someone, and it’s worth contemplating that it might not be all that correct, even if you’ve tried to be honest.”  

Think about the responsibility of writing a memoir

Arifa’s struggle with writing about the darker aspects of the people she loves is blisteringly raw in Consumed. “It is hard to believe that the people you love, who love you, can be monstrous,” Arifa writes, as she grapples with the disparaging way her father often treated Fauzia.

“I’ve never ever doubted that [my father] loves me. So, it was shocking to write those things down,” she says. “I say in the book that I felt really guilty, like I was betraying my family, by writing out some of these memories.”

In dealing with the personal histories of those closest to you, the memoirist carries certain responsibilities. “When you’re dealing with not just yourself, but someone who has died and those who are closest to you and still alive in the world, there is some level of responsibility,” says Arifa.

“You have to think deeply about why you want to write your memoir in the first place. Understand that this is your version of events and follow your own moral instincts around how much you want to reveal.” 

Consumed: A Sister’s Story by Arifa Akbar is available to buy now. Hear more from Arifa at The Stylist Literary Festival on 20 June, when she will be in conversation with author Xanthi Barker, discussing the process of turning grief into an elegant and moving memoir. Buy tickets here.  

Images: Arifa Akbah, Jocelyn Nguyen

  • Arifa Akbar, author and journalist

    Arifa Akbar
    Arifa Akbar

    Arifa Akbar is the chief theatre critic for The Guardian. She was previously the literary editor at The Independent and has been a judge for literary prizes, including the Orwell Prize, Costa Biography Award and the Women’s Prize for Friction. Consumed: A Sisters Story is her first full-length book.