Basically, memoir is a fancy word for a true story.
But it's not quite as simple as writing down the true events that have shaped your life. Most good memoirs have a theme and a purpose—they're about something particular. Shaka's memoir is about a big transformation in himself that occurs during his prison experience. In other words, the theme is how he grew into a different person and became free…from both prison and violent, angry tendencies.
The stories of his early life explain how he ended up in prison, the stories of his time in prison cluster around how he eventually transformed, and the stories of life after show how he acts as a new person because of that transformation. It all fits together. And if you look closely, Shaka has worked very hard to give it a structure that ties back to that transformation…making it a classic example of a memoir.
There are several layers of significance wrapped up in Writing My Wrongs' double meanings:
Pretty clever, huh? Shmoop loves a good pun, and the ones here are really smart. It all gets across one of the main messages of the book: writing about your thoughts and experiences can help you get the bad stuff out, do something good, and make a difference in the world.
Shaka ends the book with a letter to the reader, an afterword that tells the story of how his victim's godmother had hope that he could change. Then he makes an eloquent statement about having hope for every person, even if they've done something wrong.
He invites us, the readers, to be part of changing society and making things right where they're wrong. It's a moving way to end, and it invites us to be part of the project of making things right at the heart of the book. It's pretty insanely inspiring.
And on top of that, it's a really great move for Shaka to make as a writer. This is a book about Shaka's own personal transformation, and it's riveting enough just for that reason. But Shaka is looking to go even bigger than that. He's not just interested in his own comeback story—he's interested in other people getting a similar chance at transformation. And he's saying that's not just an individual question: it's a question all of American society faces.
Talk about big stakes.
And here's the coolest part: Shaka's inviting us, the readers, into that project. He's saying we can all be part of transforming society.
Shaka's old neighborhood is one of the nicer ones in the city of Detroit…at least until crack becomes a huge problem. What Shaka calls "the crack epidemic" (5.69) wreaks havoc in the city and creates a lot of the problems Shaka describes in the book.
When Shaka gets incarcerated, he moves into the Michigan prison system. Shaka's experience of them suggests that the prison system is a brutal, eat-or-be-eaten world wherever you experience it. Some prisons have nicer buildings and more privileges, and some are really old and depressing.
But either way, the system is brutal…even if things like neatly trimmed lawns makes people forget it temporarily.
Those two settings are part of the backdrop to this memoir, but so is the hope Shaka feels when he's released and working to help his community. Like he tells the people from the Media Lab and IDEO, there's a huge amount of promise and potential in Detroit, and a lot of people working hard to make their city better.
"The unexamined life is not worth living." —Socrates, Plato's Apology
This whole book is about Shaka learning to live the examined life. It's an unwillingness to examine his life and deal with his emotional problems and tough experiences that pushes Shaka into the extreme state of mind where he's willing to shoot someone.
And it's the long, slow process of learning to look at his life, understand it, and try to change it that helps transform him and redeem his past. So this is a great quote to use.
On top of that, as a reference to one of the most widely read philosophers of all time, it foreshadows the importance of reading philosophy and trying to learn wisdom that Shaka will discover in the book.
This book has some heavy-duty themes: life, death, drugs, revenge, redemption, racism—you name it.
But it has a riveting narrative told in everyday language that's designed to be approachable to a wide range of readers. If you weren't around in 80s and 90s, a few phrases and pop culture references may be confusing, but Shaka usually explains them when necessary.
Pop quiz: what does a 14th Century Italian dude who wrote really long poems got to do with a prison sentence in 1991?
A lot, according to Shaka.
He describes his life in prison like this at one point:
Like Dante journeying through the inferno, my life would forever be changed by the things I would witness and take part in— the violence of oppressed against oppressor, predator against prey, and the insane against the criminally insane. (2.28)
This sounds pretty grim, and it is. Dante's Inferno is basically a tour of hell. Dante sees all sorts of horrors, and Shaka is telling us that his life in the prison system was similar.
But what's not quite as obvious is that there are seeds of hope in this metaphor, too. Dante learns a lot from his tour of hell, and he finds something he's been looking for, metaphorically speaking. And then he gets a tour of Purgatory (better than hell), and Paradise (which is, well, paradisiacal). Shaka's use of this image gives us hope that he too is going to find his way and journey to better things eventually.
And that's exactly what he does in the book.
Shaka describes his life on the streets as "rolling the dice and gambling with my future." (17.31) But when he's facing a murder charge he can't beat, he says
The game was over, and I had no future left to gamble. (17.32)
Gambling is a standard image for risky behavior, and Shaka really sells it here by the way he phrases it. Basically, he's saying he's out of time to play the game, and he's out of something to gamble on.
Only instead of money, he's been gambling with his future. So running out is a complete disaster.
It's a set of imagery that really brings home what a tough situation he's in.