Autobiographical writing

In the mind of the modern reader the phrase `autobiographical writing` conveys a notion of an accurate retelling, in part or in whole, of the author’s life. The Concise Oxford Dictionary definition of the term reinforces this preconception, `autobiography : a personal account of one’s own life.`2 This idea of an `account` implies something factual, a recounting of events as they actually took place.

The so-called `autobiographies` of Maxine Hong Kingston and Jeanette Winterson challenge these rather limiting definitions. When assessing these texts it is no longer acceptable to think of them as straightforward descriptions of the events in the lives of the authors. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and The Woman Warrior are both texts that go beyond the realm of the factual account. They blend history and myth, fact and fiction. Both texts fit more appropriately into Eakin’s definition of autobiography, which sees the process as an `art of self-invention`.3 This notion of invention of the self is a theme that plays a major part in both books.

The authors themselves view their works as texts that fit Eakin’s definition rather than that offered by the dictionary. When asked whether The Woman Warrior was fact or fiction, Kingston responded `it’s closer to fiction.`4 Similarly, when Winterson was asked about the truthfulness of Oranges, in an interview for The Guardian, she asserted that `she’d made some of it up….and some of it was true, but what was what she couldn’t remember anymore.

One of the chief implications of recognising these works as fictions as much as they are fact, is a need to detach Winterson and Kingston, as authors, from Jeanette and Maxine, the characters about whom they write. King Kok Cheung, in her essay on The Woman Warrior, stresses the need to `distinguish each fictive `I` from the writer.`6 This is a view that can also be found within Oranges itself: To create was a fundament….Once created, the creature is separate from the creator, and needed no seconding to fully exist.(p.45) Winterson is the creator and Jeanette her creature, existing independently from the author who gives her life.

The writing of autobiographies in its conventional sense can be viewed as a passive exercise. The author holds up a mirror to their past and records their experiences. However, Winterson and Kingston are creators rather than recorders. They do not use reflection, they start with a blank page and the very act of writing is part of their construction, a process in the creation of their identities. One of the underlying themes of feminist literary theory is the notion of woman as `made` rather than born.

This idea is strongly supported by the autobiographical techniques employed by Winterson and Kingston. They do not write linear texts with fixed positions, a pre-conceived starting and finishing point. Their writing is pasted together from a variety of materials, more like a collage than a photograph, not a precise representation but a diverse, fragmented image. One of the chief motives Winterson and Kingston have for writing is that they are figures that have overcome oppression. They are more than women writing in a patriarchal society. Kingston must surmount linguistic and racial barriers while Winterson grows up in a community that will not accept her sexuality.

Speech and language play an important role in Maxine’s fight against the oppressive societies of which she is part. The Woman Warrior opens with an implicit instruction: `You must not tell anyone…..what I am about to tell you.`(p.11) This negation of language, the removal of speech, is a recurrent theme of the text. It is ironic that in writing The Woman Warrior Kingston has told and her ultimate achievement is in this telling. Maxine has a unique relationship to language. She lives and was born in America, and writes in English, yet her first language is Chinese and her early life is profoundly affected by Chinese culture and ideology. Maxine is what Heilbrun has called an `outsider twice over`.7 Firstly she is `other` because she is female, secondly because she is Chinese.

The notion of being an outsider is closely bound up with the theme of `tonguelessness`. This idea is evident from the outset of the book, the `no-name aunt` is an important figure to Maxine. Her silence, a silence she was culturally bound to maintain, is the key to her tragedy. Firstly she is silent when a man demands to sleep with her, then she is unable to explain to the villagers how she has fallen pregnant. Metaphorically gagged by society, the silent victim is treated as the silent criminal. Maxine’s other aunt, Moon Orchid, is also a character who is unable to speak. When she confronts her husband, who has moved to America and remarried, she can only `open and shut her mouth without any words coming out.`(p.138)

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