The Voice of the Mother: Embedded Maternal Narratives in Twentieth-Century Women's Autobiographies

The Voice of the Mother: Embedded Maternal Narratives in Twentieth-Century Women's Autobiographies

The Voice of the Mother: Embedded Maternal Narratives in Twentieth-Century Women's Autobiographies

The Voice of the Mother: Embedded Maternal Narratives in Twentieth-Century Women's Autobiographies


Every woman autobiographer is a daughter who writes and establishes her identity through her autobiographical narrative. In The Voice of the Mother, Jo Malin argues that many twentieth-century autobiographies by women contain an intertext, an embedded narrative, which is a biography of the writer/daughter's mother.

Analyzing this narrative practice, Malin examines ten texts by women who seem particularly compelled to tell their mothers' stories: Virginia Woolf, Sara Suleri, Kim Chernin, Drusilla Modjeska, Joan Nestle, Carolyn Steedman, Dorothy Allison, Adrienne Rich, Cherrie Moraga, and Audre Lorde. Each author is, in fact, able to write her own autobiography only by using a narrative form that contains her mother's story at its core. These texts raise interesting questions about autobiography as a genre and about a feminist writing practice that resists and subverts the dominant literary tradition.

Malin theorizes a hybrid form of autobiographical narrative containing an embedded narrative of the mother. The textual relationship between the two narratives is unique among texts in the auto/biographical canon. This alternative practice -- in which the daughter attempts to talk both to her mother and about her -- is equally an autobiography and a biography rather than one or the other. The technique is marked by a breakdown of subject/object categories as well as auto/biographical dichotomies of genre. Each text contains a "self" that is more plural than singular, yet neither.

In addition to being a theoretical and textual analysis, Malin's book is also a mother-daughter autobiography and biography itself. She shares her own story and her mother's story as a way to connect directlywith readers and as a way to bridge the gap between theory and practice.


Look at me: autobiography, it is I!

--Phillipe Lejeune, On Autobiography

Women catch courage from the women whose lives and writings they read, and women call the bearer of that courage friend.

--Carolyn Heilbrun, The Last Gift of Time

I write this preface after my book is almost complete. In it, I try to sort out two issues: Why have I chosen to write about this topic? Why have I chosen these texts? I also introduce myself as a writer whose personal voice enters this text.

Why do women's autobiographies continue to fascinate me? Why am I most interested in the story each woman writes about her mother and the place of this story in the text? For, as my book discusses at length, each of the women autobiographers I include definitely does write of her mother and this biographical telling is central in the given woman's autobiographical text.

Like Lejeune, I must have chosen the topic because I am interested in writing autobiographically myself. In fact, just the process of selection of texts and critical views of the texts is an autobiographical act. The careful reader can see what the process reveals about any writer. My readers can see that I am fascinated with, even fixated on, the mother/daughter relationship and its evidence in a woman's text, not all women's texts, but many. Further, it reveals my continual and continuing interest in my own relationship with my mother and more recently my relationship with my daughter. I am very close to both these women. One's body held my own and gave me life. The other was carried in my body and nourished at my breast. I am constantly aware of an overlap, a joining of voices, histories, and genetic markings in both relationships.

Thus, it would be an artificial act to separate my own autobiography from my work on the texts of Woolf, Suleri, Rich, Moraga, Lorde, Nestle, Steedman, Allison, Modjeska, and Chernin. In fact, the reader will find two voices in this text, one critical and theoretical and one personal. The personal one tells my own story around the margins of the critical voice's domain. The texts prompt the personal telling. The writers are particularly important to me because I feel the connection of shared experience. And, at this point in my life, I've lived with each so long that we are what . . .

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