The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts
Encounter with an Angry God
Autobiography, by far the more durable tradition, has never been honored for art the way fiction has, presumably because it lacks the requisite property of “invention.” But it might be argued that to impose significant form on the chaotic materials of life lived, instead of fashioning them from the more restricted, more determined, more orthodox contents of the imagination, or from the more restrictive conventions of fictional genres, requires a superior faculty of invention, or at least the grace and clear-headedness of an inventor. The artist writing his memoir is in double jeopardy; first he must lead the risky life worth reading, must come through it and face in retrospect the awful disparity between what it meant and what he had intended. Then he must make a fiction of it, a work that has many or most of the formal properties of fiction.
Autobiography, that is, requires some strategy of self-dramatization. It normally contains, as in fiction, a crisis and denouement, and it appears, very generally, that the form of this crisis in autobiography by men has tended to be different from that of women, and that fully fictionalized dramatizations tend to be different still. Men, for instance in the great nineteenth-century autobiographies (Mill, Carlyle, Newman, and countless others), recount disillusion and depression, followed by recovery and action. In fiction this is, curiously, often dramatized as crime, as in much of Dickens.
In writing, as in mourning, it sometimes appears that women have reserved or been assigned the duty of expressing human resentment, leaving men to fashion the consolations. Perhaps this is division of labor, rather than native querulousness; but it has meant that wisdom and “adjustment” are often qualities of the masculine tone, and women since Margery Kempe have tended to write in tones of protest and madness. The crisis is of silence or withdrawal, and is dramatized as “being silenced.”
There are exceptions, of course, but three recent memoirs, by N. Scott Momaday, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Carobeth Laird, reflect these sexual distinctions and also suggest that the distinction between what is autobiographically true and fiction has become somewhat arbitrary; fiction and memoir have come to resemble each other more and more. Novelists make real historical figures speak to fictional characters. Memorialists dramatize the thoughts and speeches of their forefathers, as in a novel about them. The access of the autobiographer to dramatic techniques has allowed him to handle root meanings, the mysterious crises of spirit, even the intangibles of heritage more essentially, that is more truly, than he once could.
Ancestors in autobiographies seem really to belong there, unlike the fashionable gramps and grannies whose rather boring recurrence in contemporary fiction probably arises from the same nostalgic impulse. How much more immediate the sometimes baleful influence of real ancestors than the academic caperings of those prehistorical ancestors whose tribal arrangements and religious rituals we are asked so often lately to believe have determined our “reading readiness,” our attitudes toward violence, to motherhood, and so on.
Momaday is …
The Mysterious West April 28, 1977