Title: My Soul Looks Back: A Memoir
Author: Jessica B. Harris
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Scribner (May 9, 2017)
Like several books previously reviewed, My Soul Looks Back, was an accidental find. I hadn’t read any prior reviews, knew little of the author (except she did something in the culinary world), and, based on the cover of the book, couldn’t begin to imagine what I was embarking upon. But, as the book began, I was instantly awestruck and inspired.
Harris is a writer, chef, thespian, critic, and academic who, aiming for this outcome or not, struck my core with vivid memories of European travel, the exciting journey into the tastes of the unfamiliar, and the beautiful faces and physiques of an alien world seemingly etched by the gentle touch of Bernini or Rodin. If was her meeting and admiration for James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and a dozen other writers that solidified my desire to read further, to delve into the deepest parts of the book, not realizing that there no shallow areas.
Jessica Harris is an academic who writes, speaks, and lives academia. She elaborates on the people, places, and objects with the tongue of privilege, but admits, directly and indirectly, that she was fortunate in meeting the people who knew the people, places, and things and that without them she wouldn’t have had a story, of this sort, to tell. My Soul Looks Back is not a conventional autobiography, it explores friendships and acquaintances and time in space. It is a diary of events throughout history (without being historic), of life, love, passion, peril, birth, and death. Through Harris, the reader is offered the highly revered Greenwich Village and the mystical magnificence across the Atlantic (including Africa), enhancing our desires with both broad and absolute longing to taste, hear, and smell and an emotional core that we would never be able to adequately or accurately describe.
My Soul Looks Back, as wonderful and billowy as it often is, can sometimes feel heavy. Harris’ experiences are not everyone’s experience (which is okay), but her approach and consistent infusion of French phrasing, name-dropping, and self-inflation can and occasionally does feel a bit… well… heavy, especially if you do not speak/read French or have not had the opportunity to travel extensively or eat Choucroute Garni. This does not take away from the overall beauty of the book’s language, nor does it lessen the sincerity that Harris effectively projects, but it can potentially be problematic to those who are not versed in the art of braggadocio.
Fortunately, many of Harris’ experiences mirror my own, and as a result, I devoured her every word. She mentions the names people I have befriended and praises the many places I have grown to love. This made the book, for me, personally; a time capsule, a portrait of people, places, and objects, I was sure to forget as time progressed. My Soul Looks Back is a breezy walk through artistry and aesthetics, friendships and heartbreak (she writes about the start of the AIDS epidemic and its direct effect on her circle of friends). It will inspire some to throw caution to the wind and others to wonder if they had spent time wasting time. Regardless, you will not be able to help being moved, or at least stirred.