Academic journal article Communication Studies

Performing Family Stories, Forming Cultural Identity: Franco American Memere Stories

Academic journal article Communication Studies

Performing Family Stories, Forming Cultural Identity: Franco American Memere Stories

Article excerpt

I was thirteen when my mother was pregnant-again-with the baby who would unsettle the symmetry of my profound place in the middle: I had three older brothers and three younger brothers, one older sister and one younger sister. Then another baby sister makes ten: the Langellier tribe, clan, family. Someone at school, in one of those dusters of kids, a boy, said, "geez Kris, don't your parents know about birth control." It got a laugh and I got red-faced, fell silent, felt the embarrassments of adolescence. More than by anything else, I have felt defined by my big family, a family size I interpreted in terms of our Roman Catholicism. But not yet in terms of my ethnicity, of being a French Catholic family in an area of French Canadian immigrants, the Bourbonnais, Kankakee, and St. Anne of our families that formed the Little Canadas (les Petits Canadas) of the Midwest.

After my father died I decided to get some of my mother's stories on tape, something I regretfully did not do enough of with my dad. In asking her to tell some family stories, she narrated scenes from her childhood, stories of her parents, fragments of French, Depression stories, grade school, work at 13, marriage, children, and, in her 50s, a degree and work as a licensed practical nurse. "We were all one thing," she said-meaning Catholic. About her ten children: "you know I loved babies and it never bothered me to have another. We always made room." (One bedroom for the boys, one bedroom for the girls). When others began "limiting their families, "as she puts it, "I just didn't do that. I tried it, and I always felt guilty." Then a little laugh. "It didn't take with me." And I thought, is that it? Is that all? Two of three sentences about all ten of us? Searching not just for more explanation but perhaps for myself among the multitude, the magnitude of this family.

My mother tells me her mother's stories and her own; I tell my mother's and grandmothers' stories and my own. Family storytelling is an embodied performance that materializes particular conventions to reproduce meanings for family as well as to constitute family itself over time. Within a performative perspective, a family is the communication medium of "material expression" as well as the ordering of information and meanings inscribed in that medium (Langellier & Peterson, 1993, p. 63). Although family storytelling functions in many ways-to represent family history, to teach family values, to entertain at family gatherings, to bond family members--here I want to explore the cultural formation of family as it is implicated in some social and historical relations of power. As families perform themselves, they imagine and reproduce identity, including their ethnic identity. According to Appadurai (1996) the performance of cultural identity is less the mechanics of primordial sentiment, that is, group identity based upon shared claims of blood, soil, or language, and more the work of the imagination in the modern, global context.

Gillis (1996) identifies family narrative as a process of enchantment that maps a family we live by onto the family we live with. The enchanted family is always on display, performing itself to itself and to others. Responsibility for this performance falls heavily on family women who create and maintain the rituals, myths, stories, and images upon which the enchanted, ethnic family has come to depend (Pleck, 2001). Family narrative about grandmothers--here the memeres of Franco American families--is crucial to the imaginative effort of cultural identity. In the enchanted family, mothers give birth to a mythic motherhood, and grandmothers come to epitomize a nurturing and loving presence. For many women in the world, mothers and motherland become linked in the imagination of cultural identity. From a transnational feminist perspective Radha S. Hegde (1998) argues that "the feminine has always spurred nationalist ideology with images such as motherland, mother tongue, and nation as mother" (p. …

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