Autobiographical Fantasia

By Elnaggar, Marwa | Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

Autobiographical Fantasia


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.

Introduction

 
   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. …

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