Last week I wrote about who memoirs are about – the ‘I’ characters that are found within the narrative. This week I ask what is memoir about? You may say it is about a personal experience. Something that happened to you. It is about an experience that the ‘I’ character has had. However, the experience is far from being a personal event and if you and I were to have the same experience, my experience is going to be different to your experience because each experience is a constructed reconstruct, altered by memory and the language used to relate it. How then do we have an experience?
There are five ways that the experience is created for the ‘I’ character in memoir.
The first is determined socially and historically. Our place in society will have a huge effect on how we view an experience and are part of an experience, both culturally and within the class systems which give us differing tastes and subjective viewpoints. Society will also determine the identity that is given to the ‘I’ character. For example, they will recognise themselves as male or female, Australian aborigine or Jewish, rich or poor, heterosexual or homosexual and, their individual experience will be attached to these social identities.
Secondly language will create an experience as the ‘I’ becomes attached to labels created by institutions and within the course of a day the ‘I’ may have known experience in multiple ways. For example as a scholar, dancer, wife and patient. As language changes over time and is historically specific, these meanings will alter. Language is also necessary in order to retrospectively turn the internal feelings, spirituality, bodily needs and emotions into narrative, so that meaning can be derived from it.
Experience is also self-reflexive. This means that we add our interpretations to it, with the ability to change these interpretations over time as cultural or historical change occurs.
The ‘I’ must also be able to claim ownership of the experience, that is, it must be a truthful account of the memory of the self. There have been examples where experience has been found to be fraudulent such as in the James Frey case where he claimed time in prison that he didn’t have. The ‘I’ must also be culturally authorised to tell the experience so if the memoir is about, for example, an aboriginal woman, the narrating ‘I’ must be an aboriginal woman. An example of this was the memoir written by Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance who wrote as the son of an Cherokee Chief but was eventually exposed, as not being a full blood cherokee but rather an African American. Another fraud by Misha Defonseca tells the unbelievable yet inspiring tale of a Jewish girl searching for her parents, her life with a wolf pack, the long trek from Belgium to the Ukraine and back again. It turned out to be totally untrue and the author was actually of Belgian catholic heritage.
Finally there is the experience and the reader. There is a pact between the reader and the author, coined in 1975 the “autobiographical pact” by Philippe Lejeune. Here the reader on seeing the author and the protagonist having the same name consume the narrative believing that the narrative is the cultural and historical truth of the author and that the author is authorised to relate the experience. The reader has expectations and although they are accepting of the kinds of inconsistencies that we all have without our own memories, intentional fraud is not acceptable. Additionally, readers will bring their own culture, social standing and language to give their own interpretation of the narrated experience.
For more on the creation of experience see Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson explanation in their book “Reading Autobiography”.
Essential to the relating of the self and the experience being told is memory. But is memory infallible? The subject for a later Memoir on Monday, memoir discussion started by Lisa