Panel Discussion: Cape Town International Book Fair: 17 June 2006
Autobiography, Biography, Memoir: Restoring the authority of the personal
Good afternoon Madam Chair, Panel and Friends, when I looked at the topic for this panel discussion, I struggled with the phrase ‘authority of the personal.’ I wasn’t sure whether it referred to writers or the subjects being written about. If it referred to the writer, was it with reference to empowerment, freedom of choice? If it referred to the subjects was it a reference to respect and human dignity. The phrase also suggests a personal endorsement, like the signature of an artist at the bottom of a painting that declares this is mine and I am proud of it. Then the word ‘restoring’ which suggests both the past and the present and implies that writers lost ‘authority of the personal’ in the past and have regained it in the present.
Putting all these random thoughts together, I decided to concentrate on the writer rather than the subjects of writing and to look at how differing circumstances influence writers.
First, considering empowerment, the belief in oneself, implied in the phrase ‘authority of the personal’, I asked, Who gives the writer this authority? and realised that there is only one person who can do that and that is the writer herself. The authority to write is inherent in the act of writing so it does not matter when you write, during apartheid or after, the moment you set pen to paper, you write with personal authority.
Without that assumption of authority, there would be no storytellers and we would not have a list of admired writers from the apartheid era.
So storytellers of the past did not, could not, lose their authority.
Did they have freedom of choice? In terms of subjects, I believe they did. They didn’t have to write about the horrors of apartheid; I am sure that there were many writers who did not. But many of the ones we admire, chose to write about apartheid conditions because they were so deeply affected by its inhumanity. Writers do not avoid such situations. Are there not many stories about the holocaust? About war? About terrorism? Doesn’t human fallibility provide the most fertile ground for story telling?
If they had freedom of choice, did writers in apartheid times have freedom of expression? I believe that I have at last hit upon an area of restriction. But even here, though they were not allowed to criticise, being writers and ingenious people, they found ways around constraints: they changed names and places, created allegorical situations, found parallels from the past, in fables, in classics and they satirised. Restrictive conditions discourage only the weak, but to authors who understand their authority, they offer challenges that often lead to their finest works.
The only way, besides being detained or assassinated, that the writers could have lost their authority, would have been to give it up voluntarily. But they did not; they wrote. The mere fact of writing demonstrated their authority.
So why do we speak of restoring the authority of the personal as though it did not exist before 1994?
Is it because the pre-1994 writers concentrated on the injustice and inhumanity of their times in their writing? Do we believe that they felt obliged to inveigh against these conditions? That their writing had become protest literature? Are we saying to them that what they wrote had no literary merit? Are we saying that Sol Plaatjie’s Mhudi is not worth reading today?
If the answer is no, then we cannot accuse them of having lost their authority. Instead, we have to admire them for their courage and perseverance in the face of tyranny.
According to Salman Rushdie: ‘Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it and by doing so to make it true.’
And writers of apartheid times were courageous people, extremely courageous, because they didn’t simply speak their thoughts, they wrote them down and gave them substance.
So they were not only courageous but also dangerous.
They used their authority, used it to undermine an iniquitous system.
That is why so many of their works were banned.
And the stories they told of their times, bore their personal stamps.
That is why we are able to differentiate between writers like Zakes Mda and Eskia Mphahlele, Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing, Agmat Dangor and Don Matera, all of whom wrote during the apartheid era.
Now in a new dispensation that has outlawed prejudice and discrimination, circumstances that influence how writers use their personal authority have changed. As we slowly divest ourselves of feelings of superiority and inferiority, we are beginning to find a new respect for ourselves and others. So many more people are beginning to write, to celebrate the release from self-doubt and self-hatred. We are now finding inspiration in our birth communities, in old traditions, in our histories, as well as in new associations and new encounters.
But we have to be realistic.
We are not yet free of apartheid.
For the most part, we still live in racially divided areas, and have not yet begun to think of ourselves as members of one community.
Thus when writers look into what is still referred to as ‘their own communities,’ they are in danger of being declared politically incorrect, ethnocentric or irrelevant.
In our post-Apartheid society, if historical descriptions of our still ethnically divided communities do not somehow reflect a non-racialism that wasn’t there in the past, one is considered ethnocentric.
One invokes the contempt of the superior non-racialist, who, nevertheless, still thinking in apartheid terms, slots the writing into a ghetto and relegates it to a sub-culture because he does not see it as part of his new culture. It is not easy to eradicate racism; it often gives way to other forms of discrimination such as xenophobia.
Unlike the writers of the past who were secure in their personal authority, the many new writers of today are in the process of establishing theirs.
That brings me to that implication in the phrase ‘the authority of the personal’ which suggests endorsement and carries us into the future. When the writing demonstrates a sustained level of mastery and the author proudly says, ‘This is mine,’ we are no longer speaking of political situations, of considerations external to the writer. We are speaking of the writer whose writing has become an expression of her total being; a writer who has dedicated herself to the muse and whose belief in herself, her vision and talent and her commitment to truth, courage, and knowledge are total. When a writer reaches this level of self-assurance, her personal authority is no longer private; it is universally perceived. I don’t think any author will describe herself as having reached the pinnacle of her achievements and for her there are still heights to be scaled, but, for her readers, she is a master.
And because Salman Rushdie exemplifies, such a writer for me, I am going to read an excerpt from his writing that deals with people trapped in other people’s perceptions of them
The manticore ground its three rows of teeth in evident
frustration. ‘There’ s a woman over that way,’ it said, ‘who is
now mostly water-buffalo. There are businessmen from Nigeria
who have grown sturdy tails. There is a group of holidaymakers
from Senegal who were doing no more than changing planes when
they were turned into slippery snakes. I myself am in the rag trade;
for some years now I have been a highly paid male model, based in
Bombay, wearing a wide range of suitings and shirtings also. But
who will employ me now?’ he burst into sudden and unexpected tears.
‘There, there,’ said Saladin Chamcha, automatically. ‘Everything
will be all right, I’m sure of it. Have courage.’
The creature composed itself. ‘The point is,” it said fiercely,
“some of us aren’t going to stand for it. We’re going to bust out
of here before they turn us into anything worse. Every night I feel
a different piece of me beginning to change. I’ve started, for
example, to break wind continually …I beg your pardon…you
see what I mean? By the way, try these,’ he slipped Chamcha
a packet of extra-strength peppermints. ‘They’ll help your breath.
I’ve bribed one of the guards to bring in a supply.’
‘But how do they do it?’ Chamcha wanted to know.
‘They describe us,’ the other whispered solemnly. ‘That’s
all. They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures
So far, I have been considering the authority of the personal only as it applies to fiction and the writer of fiction.
But our topic is Autobiography, Biography and Memoir – not fiction, and the implication is that these genres are the prime expressions of the personal.
I find that difficult.
These forms, because they deal with historical truth, require objectivity, whatever that means. Mostly we take objectivity to mean suppressing the personal, confining ourselves to fact and allowing fact to dominate the writing. From the writer’s point of view, being impersonal means inhibiting imagination and expression.
Biography is the most difficult of these three genres
With autobiography and memoir, the writer is at least in control of the material and can take liberties with expression. But with biography, the subject knows the material better than the author. So who has the authority? The subject or the writer? In this case, the personal becomes contested terrain and is definitely not a way to restore authority to the writer. It may be a way of restoring authority to the subject, if the biographer and the subject understand each other perfectly. If not, it can only be a course of frustration and conflict.
To end, I want to look at Anthony Sher’s assertion in his book Beside Myself that writers write about themselves; that’s true but it does not mean that everything that one writes is autobiographical.
That brings us to what it is the writer does when composing a story.
Writers get ideas for stories from newspaper reports, from casual remarks, from things observed, experienced, dreamt and so on. What they do then is to grow these ideas inside themselves, inside their own understandings and perspectives on life. Like a baby in the womb, the story, which takes its nourishment from the author, will inevitably reflect his characteristic view of life.
Writers aren’t the only ones who use themselves as resources in this way. I believe all artists do. Take the actor, for example.
Stanislavsky, who wrote extensively about acting, gave actors many ways in which to become the character; one of his techniques is called ‘emotional memory.’ When an actor is called upon to portray a character with whom he has very little in common, he brings that character to life by going deep within himself to find experiences as close to those of the character as possible in order to recapture emotional and psychological states that will give authenticity to his performance.
In the same way, writers go deep within themselves to find the contexts, the feelings and the thoughts of their characters. So their writing does contain elements of the autobiographical because they supplement from their own experience to give their work its roundness. But the writing is not autobiographical. The stories that they tell are not the stories of their lives.
Just as one distinguishes between the actor and the character, one has to distinguish between the author and the writing. The writing is something that is complete, that moves towards a defined end, and has a structure that brings all kinds of happenings, themes and ideas into a unified, artistic whole.
Writers, however, are human beings who live untidy, unpredictable lives. They move through events – with a predetermined goal perhaps – but are quite unable to predict where they will eventually end up.
That is why they write: to give meaning to the random.