Elnaggar, Marwa, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
The article argues that fiction and fantasy are an artistic necessity in autobiography, and analyzes the presence of the fantastic and its function in Maxine Hong-Kingston's A Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976). In this autobiographical novel, the main character, who remains nameless throughout the book, undergoes a series of transformative experiences which lead her to explore and come to terms with her identity as a Chinese-American. These experiences, however, occur in both the 'real' world and in her 'fantasy' world. Mythology and imagination function as a kind of measure of Kingston's identity and her struggle to place herself in society. The 'wish-mirror' of fantasy--a medium through which Kingston both wishes and 'is' a character she fantasizes about--becomes an indication of the narrator's growth as a character. The narrator's 'real' American life and her fantasy-filled Chinese life are at first incompatible. However, these two lives finally find a common rhythm that molds them into a more or less coherent life.
Most writers write to say something about other people and it never lasts. Good writers write to find out about themselves--and it lasts forever. --Gloria Steinem
The first documented use of the word "autobiography" was by Robert Southey in 1807 (Goodwin xviii). This does not mean, however, that the genre did not exist before that time. As a matter of fact, the origins of autobiography can be traced back to the twelfth dynasty (1991-1962 BC) of ancient Egypt, in the writings of Amenemhet (Kramer 20). Other ancient autobiographers include the Hittite king Hatusilis, the Assyrian king Tiglat Pileser, and the Persian Darius (20-21). Socrates' Apology is also considered an autobiography (Goodwin xv). More formally acknowledged autobiographies of the early centuries include the meditations of Marcus Aurelius and St. Augustine's Confessions. From this point onwards, literary history is full of autobiographical writings, from The Life of Benvenuto Cellini: A Florentine Artist, to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, to Edward Said's Out of Place. Autobiography has also appeared in a poetic form--as in Wordsworth's Prelude and Dante's La Vita Nuova--and in drama, such as David Hare's Via Dolorosa. Of course, these titles are only a very small sample of the long, and continually growing, list of autobiographies and memoirs. It is worth noting that autobiography has been written in all forms: narrative, poem, and play. This is an important point in the argument about what autobiography is--an argument that continually crops up in any writing about it. Very few critics feel the need to define what a poem or a play is, whereas any study of autobiography is necessarily introduced with a definition within the framework in which the critic proposes to work.
At this juncture, it becomes increasingly necessary to raise the question: can we consider autobiography as a literary genre unto itself? According to J.A. Cuddon, the term "genre" means "a literary type or class." He goes on to point out that "[t]he major classical genres were: epic, tragedy, lyric, comedy and satire, to which would now be added novel and short story" (366). This definition would seem to exclude autobiography, which is none of the above. However, Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines genre as "a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content" (486). This interpretation offers much broader parameters by stressing that style, form or even content defines characterization. Taking this into account, autobiography would therefore fall under the category of a genre of content, as we have seen that it can exist in any style and form. By labeling autobiography in this way, however, criticism must necessarily question the parameters of this genre.
Autobiography promises little more than plain narrative on first notice. What constitutes good autobiography would inevitably be the way the author has decided to tell his or her life and, of course, how interesting that life is in the first place. The author who writes of a compelling life, whether it is full of fascinating events, or whether the main character is quite extraordinary or interesting, can be ascertained of literary success. However, the scale by which autobiography is measured is not as simple as that. When one studies the amount of criticism that autobiography has generated, two things are striking: the amount of criticism, and the confusion therein. Although one can trace a general outline of an evolutionary pattern through which works have been defined as autobiography, this pattern is unclear and is at best very simplistic.
According to Dryden, who was one of its earliest commentators, biography is simply "the history of particular men's lives" (Goodwin 2). Autobiography would, by inference, be that history as written by the self (auto-). This straightforward definition would certainly include the ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman autobiographies. More recently, it would also include works like Edward Said's Out of Place. On the other end of the critical spectrum, Carolyn A. Barros interprets any first person "narrative of transformation" as autobiography: "someone telling someone else 'something happened to me'"(6). But what she fails to discuss is whether a completely fictional work written in the first-person can be considered autobiographical, and whether a first-person narrative that does not necessarily depict any transformation is an autobiography. Furthermore, there is the question of whether the first-person narrator must necessarily be the author. Could this narrator merely be a completely fictional persona that the author adopts?
These questions raise a much more controversial one: how relevant is truth in autobiography? Robert Elbaz answers this question confidently enough, saying: "Autobiography is fiction and fiction is autobiography" (1). He goes on to support this by arguing that
... text 'begins' through the voice of a third party because language accommodates the Other by adopting the voice of an Other in its movement towards meaning. This process of mediation in turn calls for the non-differentiation between autobiography and fiction; because self-possession is a myth, one can only possess an Other. Thus everything having to do with language is fiction, the construction of a speaking subject: one always speaks from a linguistic-metaphoric reality. Every discourse is an interpretation. The hope of grasping events in their bareness and immediately as they happen is an illusion.... (14)
His reasoning is significant in that it deconstructs the act of writing in such a way that autobiography as fact becomes an impossibility. Even if the author assumes to identify with the 'I' of the text, he or she is necessarily separated--through the act of writing--from this 'I', and therefore the text, cannot pose itself as a proclaimer of truth. This rationalizing stems from another definition that Elbaz assumes: that 'truth' is fundamentally non-interpretative, and consequently must be the record of "events in their bareness and immediately as they happen," which he claims is "an illusion." By inference, all literature--since it is essentially language--is fiction, and at least one step removed from truth. (1)
Elbaz's definition of autobiography is non-categorical, for he rejects generic categorizing as a "hegemonic phenomenon which restricts literary practice to approved, institutionalized forms of expression" (14-15). Instead, Elbaz claims that autobiography is a "discursive practice ... both a process of production of meaning and at the same time a process of structuration of a subjectivity" (155). This definition limits autobiography in two ways: by assigning it the role of a producer of "meaning" and by defining it as providing a structure for the subject. To simplify, according to Elbaz, autobiography is any discourse that works within a subject-oriented structure to provide a meaning. Elbaz's reasoning, however, fails to point out what 'meaning' is, and neglects to define the characteristics of this structure. If Elbaz insists on deconstructing the terminology of 'truth' and 'factuality', as well as other critics' conceptions about autobiography, he should be equally prepared to deconstruct his own terminology of "meaning" and "structuration of a subjectivity." It is only through this deconstruction that he can form a more valid definition of autobiography.
For Albert E. Stone, in contrast, the argument is not as complicated. He simplistically labels autobiography as "nonfictional writing by and about the self"(1). He does not bother to question the nonfictionality of this writing but rather claims that "there is simply no clear line to be drawn between fantasy and real life" and that when "the impulse toward fantasy ... outweighs the wrestle with memory in a given reader's perception of a text, then the shadowy line between autobiography and fiction has been crossed," thereby relegating fantasy to the world of fiction (14, 322). This statement also evokes an interesting suggestion: that it is the reader's--as opposed to the writer's--perception of fantasy and memory that is decisive in determining what can pass as autobiography and what has transgressed its boundaries. (2)
Most critics agree, however, that autobiography has little to do with truth. Frank Kermode claims that
... the honest truth, insofar as this suggests absolute fidelity to historical fact, is inaccessible; the minute you begin to write it you may try to write it well, and writing well is an activity which has no simple relation to truth. For memory cannot do the necessary work independent of fantasy; and if it tries, the result will be a dull report. (1)
The inexorable relationship between memory and autobiography implies the factual imperfection of autobiography. Kermode raises a relevant and interesting point about the role of "fantasy" in autobiography, claiming that it enlivens memory's otherwise "dull report." This is, without doubt, a feature that can be seen in Maxine Hong Kingston's novel, The Woman Warrior. (3)
Andrew Hudgins agrees, saying that "[a]utobiography is in some ways a translation of actuality onto the page and in other ways a selective and imaginative recreation of it, a work of art--and the two roles can go to bed together and …
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Publication information: Article title: Autobiographical Fantasia. Contributors: Elnaggar, Marwa - Author. Journal title: Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics. Issue: 22 Publication date: Annual 2002. Page number: 169+. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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