On the Line between Memoir and Fiction
In A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography, Sidonie Smith writes of the impossibility of the autobiographer ever recapturing the entirety of her subjectivity or her experience. She argues that the “I” of the narrative “becomes a fictive persona”: “Involved in a kind of masquerade, the autobiographer creates an iconic representation of continuous identity that stands for, or rather before, her subjectivity as she tells of this ‘I’ rather than of that ‘I.’ She may even create several, sometimes competing, stories or versions of herself as her subjectivity is displaced by one or multiple textual representations.”
To understand Smith’s point, imagine the following scenario: At thirty, a writer writes a memoir of her childhood. Then, at sixty, she writes another memoir of her childhood. Which memoir is true or truer? And is truth—that is, the literal truth—the most pressing question for a reader of either memoir?
At the same time, if one admits the “fictive” nature of autobiography, the question remains about how the autobiographer or memoirist on a practical level addresses the problem of this form. I’m talking here about the sorts of strategies and questions that might anchor a discussion in a writers’ workshop or in the mind of the writer, as opposed to an academic analysis. For in actual practice, the line between fiction and nonfiction in literary memoir is often less rigid and more ambiguous than people on both sides of this question sometimes acknowledge.
In my memoir Turning Japanese, as I’ve noted, I used various narrative structures to recount my experiences living in Japan for a year. In the process, I had to address certain basic questions: How much was I willing to fictionalize in order to achieve narrative structure? Could I alter events? Could I rearrange the sequence of events? Could I alter the cast and persona of the characters I encountered in Japan? Could I alter the picture I was creating of myself? My wife? What were the ethical and aesthetic issues involved in answering these questions?
Just as importantly, since the work was to be nonfiction, what was accuracy? Sometimes I was working from notes written almost immediately after the events, but with other events, I had no notes. In some instances, I was dealing with events from my childhood or even from my parents’ and grandparents’ lives that occurred before I was born. What did it mean to be faithful to my memories or present accurate accounts of events I had not even witnessed? Or for that matter, to events I had witnessed? Think, for instance, of a memoirist like Frank McCourt, who in Angela’s Ashes renders dialogue that occurred when he was a young child. Clearly, McCourt is not providing an exact transcription of what was said.
Over the course of writing my first memoir, I constructed my own answers to these questions. For example, with dialogue, I wrote what I felt was accurate according to my memory or my sense of the people I knew. Or at least I started the dialogues in such a fashion. When the conversations relied on notes, I generally kept to them. Yet I also let the dialogues move in ways that didn’t absolutely reflect my memory or in ways that I had not planned if somehow the scene demanded this. My sense of these demands sometimes involved practical questions, such as transition, logic, and progression of the conversation or placement of the people, but I also allowed for heightening or slight exaggerations to create tension and dramatic interest or to sharpen some ideological or intellectual difference.
In this way, I was following a principle I had learned from writing poetry: If the aesthetic truth of the writing seems to ask for fictionalizing, I would do so. Yet I was writing a memoir, not a novel or a poem. So where did the line between the two exist for me?
Eventually, I came up with a set of rules for the memoir that allowed a certain amount of what might be called fictionalizing but still, in my eyes, kept the writing within the realm of memoir.
In terms of the overall narrative, I decided I could not alter major events. This proved particularly tricky when dealing with my encounter with Gisela (not her real name), a German woman with whom I had a brief flirtation. Though nothing overtly sexual occurred—there was no physical contact between us—the fact that I did not immediately inform her that I was married constituted a breach of marital trust, and I wanted to make this clear to the reader. I realized that the whole question of betrayal would have been more dramatic and, at the same time more easily rendered, if I were writing fiction. There the obvious solution would have been for the protagonist to have sex with the woman or at least for them to physically touch. To choose the more accurate rendering required a subtlety and complications that were more difficult to convey.
I did decide that I could alter less important events, and perhaps even more significantly, I could rearrange the sequence of events to heighten the narrative flow. For example, take the fire festival that ends the first half of the book and comes immediately after the argument between my wife and me over my flirtation with Gisela. In actuality, the fire festival did not take place at this time, nor did I go there alone, as I do in the book, but instead I went with my wife. But placing me in isolation at the fire festival increased the uncertainty and consequences of the argument and my actions. In a similar fashion, my trip to my grandparents’ hometown did not come at the end of my stay in Japan, as it does in the book. But I wanted to use the trip as an ultimate goal, which keeps being deferred and which could act as a culmination of my time there.*
In the end, I felt comfortable changing the sequence of events in my trip to Japan, and I accepted that as a legitimate aesthetic device. A knottier problem was how to portray myself and those around me. Obviously, the portrayal and analysis of oneself and others involve subjective judgments. But beyond this, as I started to rearrange and construct a narrative through line, as I began to dramatize rather than describe or analyze, the nature of the book and its characters began to change.
In dialogues, as I set various characters in opposition to me, it became apparent that if I exaggerated slightly certain personality traits or tendencies of mine, I could create more tension and interest. Again, I gave myself permission to avail myself of these fictional techniques, pushed on by the writing process.
Then too I developed my own sense of how I would portray my relationship with my wife and our marriage. I wanted to be as open about our conflicts and tensions as I could. After some discussion, my wife and I reached an agreement about this issue (the question of how the writing of memoir interacts with one’s personal relationships is a whole other essay). But I also felt that because I was the one telling the tale, if anyone was going to look worse in the relationship, it would be me. This decision to tilt things against myself as the book’s protagonist was also reinforced by my sense that it made the book more interesting and highlighted certain issues in ways that were more dialectical.
Self-assessment is, of course, difficult, as is assessing one’s own writing. But I believe that the person portrayed in Turning Japanese, the past self, is a bit more naive, a bit more self-righteous, a bit more irritable and opinionated, a bit more insecure, and a bit more self-centered than I was in real life. For instance, one alteration of my own person I constructed occurs at the very start of Turning Japanese. There, in part to contrast with my wife’s eagerness to visit Japan, I deliberately exaggerated my own reticence about going to Japan and learning about Japanese culture and deliberately heightened my Francophile leanings and my general fear of travel. Such exaggeration provided the protagonist with a much further distance to travel, as he acclimated himself to Japan and learned to love the culture there. It also provided opportunities for humor and drama that wouldn’t otherwise be available.
Of course, fiction writers have used such techniques over and over again, and the uncertainties such exaggerations bring up have plagued writers of autobiographical fiction. In considering these issues, I have in part been influenced by Philip Roth’s fictional practices rather than his autobiography, The Facts. As Roth frequently notes, readers often mistake Roth the author for his fictional protagonists. In actuality, Roth has maintained that he is constantly distorting and changing real life to accord with the demands of fiction; autobiography and fiction, he insists, are not the same. In an interview with the Paris Review, Roth was asked whether his character’s rage at Milton Appel, a critic who accuses Zuckerman of being a self-hating, anti-Semitic Jew, reflects “the expression of a kind of guilt on [Roth’s] part?” Here is Roth’s answer:
Guilt? Not at all. As a matter of fact, in an earlier draft of the book, Zuckerman and his young girlfriend Diana took exactly opposite positions in their argument about Appel. She, with all her feisty inexperience, said to Zuckerman, “Why do you let him push you around, why do you take this shit sitting down?” and Zuckerman, the older man, said to her, “Don’t be ridiculous, Dear, calm down, he doesn’t matter.” There was the real autobiographical scene, and it had no life at all. I had to absorb the rage into the main character even if my own rage on this topic had long since subsided. By being true to life I was actually ducking the issue. So I reversed their positions, and had the twenty-year-old college girl telling Zuckerman to grow up, and gave Zuckerman the tantrum. Much more fun. I wasn’t going to get anywhere with a Zuckerman as eminently reasonable as myself.
One way of stating this point is that issues of accuracy in fiction are not as important as issues of aesthetic interest. But unlike Roth, I believe that maintaining such a tension is also important in memoir, although to a lesser extent. For example, there were vast stretches of time in Japan when my wife and I got along amicably, when we sat spooning together in bed reading or watching television. I myself get bored with the idea of writing about such occasions, and I wasn’t going to inflict them on the reader. No, the more revealing and energizing incidents during our stay in Japan were our arguments. But by highlighting these and even at times exaggerating them slightly, I did not give a literally accurate portrayal of our marriage.
A question then arises: How do such alterations and exaggerations of the protagonist affect our readings of autobiography or memoir? When Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee wrote Days and Nights in Calcutta, a memoir about their travels together in India, they decided that the book would be improved if they exaggerated slightly Blaise’s character and position as a white male. Through such highlighting, not only was the book made more dramatic, but certain other truths were revealed. Would a more satisfactory way of reading such a work be to take the portrayal of their relationship as a version of the truth, rather than the whole truth? But isn’t this what we do with autobiographical fiction?
At the same time, there are clearly limits to this: If readers found out I wasn’t Japanese American or that my parents hadn’t been in the internment camps, neither of my memoirs could be considered a legitimate memoir or a work of nonfiction.*
Beyond the facts and events of a writer’s own life, if his memoir involves his relationship with his parents, it’s often the case that his imagination must inevitably enter the writing. How else can he picture the lives of his parents before he was born, or who they might have been beyond their interactions with him as a child? And what about his grandparents or even his great-grandparents?
In Japan, for instance, I realized that as my knowledge of Japanese culture and history grew, I could create a more complete picture of who my grandparents were. This in turn affected my understanding of my parents; I realized that until I visited Japan, I had known only the side of my parents that reflected American culture. I could not picture what it was like for them to go from the household of their Japanese immigrant parents to the streets of America because I had not known much about Japan or Japanese culture.
So, as I proceeded in the drafts of Turning Japanese, I began to imagine moments in the lives of my grandparents and parents, as well as in the life of my uncle. But even though I now knew something about Japan and Japanese culture, I was faced with another void: neither of my parents had talked to me much about their parents or about their lives as children, just as they had not said anything to me about the internment camps. For them the past was better kept in the past, silent, forgotten.
In writing China Men, which focuses on the men in her family, Maxine Hong Kingston encountered a similar dilemma. While her mother was quite voluble about her past, Kingston’s father was not; she was faced then with the problem of how she would write his story. In China Men, Kingston finally says to her father, “I’ll tell what I suppose from your silences and few words, and you can tell me that I’m mistaken. You’ll just have to speak up with the real stories if I’ve got you wrong.”
With Kingston’s words in my head, I decided I would simply re-create the past of my parents and other relatives as best I could. Early on in my writing of Turning Japanese, this appeared to represent a different task from writing about my own life. But at one point, looking at an early draft, my editor remarked that some of my writing about my father was more vivid than anything else in the book. I thought about this and realized that when I was dealing with my own life I was only putting down what I could remember. If I could not remember what a person was wearing or what the weather was like that day, I wouldn’t place these elements in the scene. When I was writing about my father’s life, all of it was imaginative re-creation; I entered the freedom one enjoys in fiction to provide all the details and to use whatever details my imagination came up with.
In a way, this marked a crucial turning point in my writing of the memoir. I realized then that I should avail myself of the same freedom when I was writing about my own memories. As a result, the scenes involving my life became in a way more fictional and, at the same time, more vivid, more compelling, as writing. For me, this seemed more important than any rigid distinctions between genres. The line between memoir and fiction still did not seem clear. But the line between dull and interesting writing? That was a line I wanted to cross.*
* Another instance where I altered actual events occurs later in the book when I take a trip to Osore-san (Mount Osore), where I engage in a séance with one of the famous blind women shamans there. In real life I took this trip with friends who do not appear in the book. But I felt that introducing a whole new set of friends near the end of the book would have bogged down the narrative momentum and also would have been confusing and weakened the narrative, providing the reader with too many characters to digest. My solution was to have friends who had already been introduced accompany me on the trip; in writing about the trip, I used dialogue reconstructed from actual conversations we had had at other times and in other places.
* Once we stray from these larger areas, though, things become fuzzier. For instance, in the eyes of many readers, Bruce Chatwin has written two travelogues, In Patagonia and Songlines, the second a book about his investigation into the ways Aborigines in Australia map the landscape through songs. After I finished Songlines, by chance I read an interview with Chatwin in which he pronounced the book a work of fiction. However, there’s nothing to indicate this on the book cover and, in fact, the narrator of the book calls himself Bruce Chatwin. Chatwin declared Songlines a work of fiction in part because he made up a major character, the Russian émigré who serves as his intermediary with the Aborigines. In the interview, Chatwin was asked about the division between fiction and nonfiction. He responded: “I don’t think there is one. There definitely should be, but I don’t know where it is. I’ve always written very close to the line. I’ve tried applying fiction techniques to actual bits of travel. I once made the experiment of counting up the lies in the book I wrote about Patagonia. It wasn’t, in fact, too bad: there weren’t too many. But with Songlines, if I had to tote up the inventions, there would be no question in my mind that the whole thing added up to a fictional work.” Similarly, Hilton Als has said that in his essay collection White Girls, “Tristes Tropiques” contains fictional elements, and “It Will Be Home Soon,” ostensibly based on an interview with Richard Pryor’s sister, is entirely fictional, though nothing in the book or on its cover indicates this.
* In my opinion, there is a difference between the autobiography of a public figure and a memoir written by a private figure. When a president writes an autobiography, everything in the book must be factual and accurate; no dialogue can be altered from what was actually said (unless there’s an indication that the dialogue is a loose re-creation). Most literary memoirs are not read for their historical accuracy and are not intended as literal history. No one actually believes, for instance, that throughout his childhood, Frank McCourt took notes or tape recorded all the dialogues that appear in Angela’s Ashes. At the same time, if readers discovered that McCourt’s father was not an alcoholic, that would alter our opinion of the work (e.g., the case of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces). My point is that literary memoir is practiced in a gray area between the historical accuracy of a public figure’s autobiography, and the exaggerations, distortions, and invention of autobiographical fiction.