Academic journal article MELUS

Lost in Nostalgia: The Autobiographies of Eva Hoffman and Richard Rodriguez

Academic journal article MELUS

Lost in Nostalgia: The Autobiographies of Eva Hoffman and Richard Rodriguez

Article excerpt

In "The Plural Self: The Politicization of Memory and Form in Three American Ethnic Autobiographies," in which she compares N. Scott Momaday's The Names, Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands/La Frontera, and Audre Lorde's Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez concludes,

   Ethnic autobiography gives "new meanings" and new possibilities to the term
   autobiography. Using "retrospection to gain a vision for the future," ...
   ethnic autobiographers create a hybridized, double-voiced form of
   autobiography in which collective ethnic memory and individual memory are
   linked in a dialogue. (57)

Although Browdy de Hernandez's argument is convincing with respect to the three writers she discusses, I will demonstrate that some "ethnic" American autobiographies resist hybridization and double-voicedness. Hybridization, as Mikhail Bakhtin defines it, is "the mixing, within a single concrete utterance, of two or more different linguistic consciousnesses, often widely separated in time and social space" (429). Furthermore, Bakhtin's definition of double-voiced discourse is "another's speech in another's language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way" (324) so that double-voiced discourse is always "internally dialogized" (324). The examples of double-voiced discourse that Bakhtin cites are "comic, ironic or parodic discourse, the refracting discourse of a narrator, refracting discourse in the language of a character and finally the discourse of a whole incorporated genre" (324).

I would like to suggest that "ethnic" discourse could consequently be read as the discourse of an "ethnic" writer who dialogizes the dominant language by self-consciously resorting to "ethnic" form and language to express his or her intentions in a "refracted" way through the dominant language. Since autobiography is traditionally both a "western" and an "androcentric" genre, "double-voicedness" in "ethnic" autobiography would be apparent in the "refraction" of conventional discourse, that is, in its rewriting, or, at least, in its self-reflexive questioning of autobiographical conventions.

A comparison of texts by writers of different ethnic/racial background also raises certain methodological questions. After a brief overview of the current debates over methodological concerns regarding critical writing about "ethnic" literature, I will compare and contrast the autobiographies of Eva Hoffman, a Jewish Polish immigrant to the United States, and of Richard Rodriguez, a Mexican-American, to demonstrate that neither is hybridized and double-voiced. In doing so, I will not neglect the differences between the respective diasporic locations of the two writers. Other autobiographies by so-called visible minority writers born in the United Stated lend themselves to comparison with Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, such as Maxine Hong Kinston's The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts and Zora Neale Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road, not least because, like Rodriguez's autobiography, their texts have been criticized for misrepresentation by members of their "own ethnic" groups. However, I choose to compare a text by a non-Anglo-Celtic immigrant and that of an American-born writer whose ethnic group has experienced colonization in a way not shared by any other group in the United States. The similarities and differences between these autobiographies are instructive, and a comparison of the two can provide significant insight into the intricacies involved in comparing two texts that are both consent oriented (1) and that share a number of narrative strategies, even though their authors and the autobiographical selves represented in the texts belong to different "ethnic" groups.

The main question one needs to consider when comparing the texts of writers with different "ethnic" backgrounds is how one can read these texts as sharing ways of conceptualizing the pull of two or more cultural loyalties without losing sight of the fact that their "ethnic" communities have experienced different degrees of dislocation, colonization, and racism. …

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