Memoir and Autobiography: Pathways to Examining the Multicultural Self

By Calvillo, Caroline M. | Multicultural Education, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Memoir and Autobiography: Pathways to Examining the Multicultural Self


Calvillo, Caroline M., Multicultural Education


Introduction

Memoirs and autobiographies provide a connection between selves to learn about, explain, interpret, and analyze multicultural selves in relation to American selves as well as in relation to a constantly changing and increasingly complex American culture.

"In the last decades, many scholars interested in examining marginalized cultures in the United States have turned to autobiographies to trace both cultural traditions and patterns of identity" (Bergland, 1993, p.446).

Significantly, in discussions about multiculturalism, memoirs and autobiographies can be pathways that segue to discovering and "tracing" complex, intertwining connections between selves and American culture. Critically reading literature written by selves, who experience lives of multiculturalism, living with a foot in one culture and the other foot in another, can serve to illuminate the problems of navigating both cultures successfully as many Americans do, although not without intense questioning of self and identity as a hyphenated American.

The self in memoirs and autobiographies, as an intimate insider, brings to dialogue detailed, personal knowledge and understanding with regard to issues and problems of multicultural selfhood, and serves as links between cultures and generations. In How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves, Eakin (1999, p.4) discusses the "legitimate sense in which autobiographies testify to the individual's experience of selfhood, that testimony is necessarily mediated by available cultural models of identity and the discourses in which they are expressed." He then questions "How much of what autobiographers say they experience is equivalent to what they really experience, and how much of it is merely what they know how to say?"

The self, framed in a number of ways -as standing alone, individualistic in the American and Western cultural sense; as in a linked cultural continuum of selves, such as in some Eastern cultures; as "I" or "Other" in the intellectual and physically grounded sense, as Eakin's (p.43) "relational selves, relational lives" proposal - points to the utilitarianism of memoir and autobiography as connections and pathways to exploring richly multitextured selves in kaleidoscopic multicultural American society.

If connections are to be cultivated and encouraged between cultural selves in America, then why not use writings by multicultural individuals who, by the public act of writing about the relational self, invite dialogue and discussion. These set the stage for examining the multitude of ways the self engages with others, and operates in relational cultural situations.

Multicultural selves are the ones who "know how to say" the experience of multiculturalism as they are each one experienced in it. As to whether "what they say about experience [is] equivalent to what they really experience," investigating and examining writings may or may not reveal answers to a potentially unanswerable question. Each memoir and autobiography, unique and individualistic, details a personal life experience at a particular moment of time or over a period of time within the history, experience, and memory of American culture.

Reading memoirs and autobiographies critically means using reasoning abilities to engage the mind. Learned and taught abilities are defined by Weil (1998) as

uncovering significant similar-ities and differences, refining generalizations and oversimplifications, clarifying issues, beliefs, and conclusions, developing criteria for evaluation, generating and assessing actions or policies, comparing and contrasting ideals with actual practice, identifying and exploring concepts, arguments, and theories, and lastly, transferring insights into new contexts. (p.72)

Thinking critically about other people's lives -experienced through reading and examining memoirs and autobiographies -generates discussions about complex, multi-layered topics such as age, race, gender, and class within cultures and between cultures, all within the context of American culture and selves. …

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