The Reliability of the Narrator in Memoir
In a work of fiction, even autobiographical fiction, the sophisticated reader will assume the writer is different from the first-person narrator. The first-person narrator is a creation, however closely he or she might resemble the writer.
People don’t necessarily assume this with memoir. Instead, they assume that the first-person narrator is commensurate with the writer; the view of the first-person narrator and the actual living writer concerning what is on the page is one and the same.
A key issue lurking here is the question of the reliable narrator.
As I explained in the previous essay, the reflective voice separates the present narrator from the memoir’s account of and picture of the self in the past. This establishes a distance between the present narrating self and the past self, a distance that enables judgment, interpretation, contextualization.
Without the reflective voice, that is, without a critical present narrator, the reader may be uncertain about how to assess or judge the narrator’s younger self. As a result, the reader may more readily assume that the way the younger self views herself and her experiences is commensurate with the writer’s evaluation of the younger self and experiences. The reader would then be more likely to think that the writer may be slanting the tale in some way and may not be a reliable narrator of the events of the past.
If the reader of a memoir thinks that the narrator is unreliable, that is clearly a problem aesthetically. In such a case, the reader may make judgments of the younger self that the younger self does not make of herself. At the same time, the reader will not assume that the writer is aware that the reader can interpret the information in the text in a way other than how the younger self understands that information.
Say, for instance, the past—and younger—self possesses a view of an ex-lover that appears to most readers to be one-sided or blind to the past self’s own flaws or part in a breakup. Without the voice of the present narrating self somehow indicating a different view, how is the reader to know that the past self’s view of the situation is not also the view of the writer in the present?
In other words, if the reader concludes that the narrator is unreliable, the reader thinks that the clues or evidence through which he makes this conclusion are inadvertent on the writer’s part. They occur because the writer is unaware of the implications of what she has written.
In fiction, the situation is different. In fiction, if the narrator is unreliable, the reader will assume that that unreliability is something the writer is aware of and is creating; that is, the writer is leaving clues through which the reader can detect that narrator’s unreliability. As a result, the reader will judge and contextualize what the narrator says and the story she relates accordingly.
In contrast, in memoir, the reader is not inclined to separate the writer from the narrator, and that is a crucial difference between the two genres.
How does a narrator establish reliability and a sense of trust with the reader? Is the achievement of that reliability for a nonfiction writer the same as for a fiction writer?
One way the narrator establishes reliability is by acknowledging two things: First, there are other viewpoints; she may not be able to articulate or know all those other viewpoints, but she is aware they exist and she makes the reader aware that she is aware. She may try to speculate what those viewpoints might be. But if those speculations seem slanted or unfair, then her reliability falters in the reader’s eyes.
The narrator’s ability to speculate fairly or accurately about others depends in part on the narrator’s ability to read other people. This is a skill. Some people are better at it than others.
But there is also a conceptual and psychological side to the question of reliability, which leads to my second point: to be reliable, the narrator must possess and make clear her awareness of her own subjectivity. This involves first an understanding of her own motives and inclinations. Is the narrator aware that she, in the past or the present, might have unconscious motives? Is she willing to investigate them? Is she aware she may have blind spots? Is she willing to investigate the nature of those blind spots and their causes? Is she willing to be at least as critical of her past self as, if not more than, she is of the other people she writes about?
In my memoirs, in order to establish the reliability of my account, it was important for me to do two things. First, I needed to give adequate voice to the ways my parents viewed the past and the present and how their interpretation of the past differed from mine. In doing this, I had to consider both my parents and my past self in a way similar to the ways a fiction writer might view the characters in a novel. The views of my past self and my present narrating self were not omniscient.
Thus, in both memoirs, I viewed my past and the history of my family from the viewpoint of a Sansei, a third-generation Japanese American. My parents’ viewpoint was that of the Nisei, the second generation. On an absolute level, I could not be certain that my view was any truer than theirs. What I could be certain of was that the truth did include both my view and theirs.
This brings me to my second point about the establishment of the narrator’s reliability in memoir, one that may at first seem counterintuitive. Rather than assuming an objectivity I did not possess, I made it clear that I was approaching my past from my own subjective viewpoint. I needed to be open and up front about the limits of my own personality and character; I could not hide my faults or misdeeds.
But my subjectivity involved more than my own particular personality and psychology or the particular events of my past. That subjectivity also involved an examination of my racial and ethnic identity and an acknowledgment of how that formed a lens through which I viewed my experiences. It involved seeing myself not just through the lens of individuality but also through that of my membership in a group—Japanese Americans, particularly third-generation Japanese Americans.*
Such a view goes against a dominant strain in American thought and culture: the emphasis on the individual (as in that familiar white bromide, “I don’t see race”). To understand the limits of this particularly American slant, consider the British novelist Doris Lessing, who was born in Iran and spent her childhood in Zimbabwe. Lessing’s consciousness of her identity as a woman and gender roles is well known. What’s perhaps less recognized is how she grew up in a racial environment where she was highly aware that she lived within the context of a group: she was a white colonist living among African colonials. Thus, in her book of essays Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, she writes:
The fact is that we all live our lives in groups—the family, work groups, social, religious and political groups. Very few people indeed are happy as solitaries, and they tend to be seen by their neighbors as peculiar or selfish or worse. Most people cannot stand being alone for long. They are always seeking groups to belong to, and if one group dissolves, they look for another. We are group animals still, and there is nothing wrong with that. But what is dangerous is not belonging to a group, or groups, but not understanding the social laws that govern groups and govern us.
When we’re in a group, we tend to think as that group does: we may even have joined the group to find “like-minded” people. But we also find our thinking changing because we belong to a group. It is the hardest thing in the world to maintain an individual dissident opinion, as a member of a group.
Sometimes, when I work with students writing memoir, they have difficulty seeing themselves as a member of a group. This membership can involve any number of elements—sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, religion, class, generation, culture, history, region, and so on (note: the inability or refusal of white writers to acknowledge their racial identity can also be viewed as marking them as part of a group). In this way, investigating the limitations and subjectivity of one’s viewpoint leads to a new articulation of one’s identity, a search for a language to describe and contextualize one’s membership in a group. Often, when a beginning memoirist cannot articulate a portrait of the present narrating self or even refuses to, her membership in a particular group may be involved in this resistance.
As I was writing Turning Japanese, when I looked at how certain white American males tended to write about Japan, what often bothered me was their assumption that their viewpoint was objective and without bias. They generally never investigated or questioned their own identity and so never investigated or questioned how their own identity might shape the ways they viewed the Japanese or interpreted various aspects of Japanese culture.
For example, one commentator argued that the Japanese were particularly insular, and as evidence of this, he used an anecdote about a white gaijin (foreigner) who spoke fluent Japanese and was looked at with amazement or disapprobation by the Japanese people he encountered. This white male writer never considered the fact that I’ve experienced such reactions when I speak English—even though I grew up here in America, and my family has been here for three generations and over a century. In other words, this author wrote seemingly unaware of the insular way that native-born white Americans often view people of color or immigrants; as a result, at least for me as a reader, his lack of awareness of his own subjectivity/bias made his assessment of the Japanese unreliable.
In Turning Japanese, my view of Japan came out of my position and experience as a Japanese American; in delineating this lens, I was acknowledging my subjective position. I was not presuming an objectivity that I did not possess.
* The history of the Issei (first generation), the Nisei, and the Sansei is distinct from that of other immigrant groups. Like other Asians, the Issei were forbidden from becoming citizens or owning property, but immigration from Japan, and Asia in general, was halted by the racist Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, and unlike other Asian governments, such as China, Japan strictly enforced this ban from its side. It was mainly the Issei and the Nisei on the mainland who were imprisoned by the U.S. government during World War II, while my generation, the Sansei, did not experience the internment whose existence in many mainland Japanese American families was kept a zone of silence. It is impossible, then, to tell the story of Japanese Americans or my family without referencing race and racial politics.