Your autobiography isn’t about you

by Elodi Troskie

How honest are you allowed to be when writing about your own life? A ridiculous question, it seems. 100% honest, of course. Dive into the truth. Cut it all open. Lay it out. It is your life, after all. Isn’t it?

But what if the deep waters of your truth are a drained concrete swimming pool for someone else?

What if the antagonists in your story are not only still alive and likely to read what you write about them, but they are also the ones you love most? When your writing implicates others – when you start questioning how objective, how fair, how justified your truth is; whether your story really belongs to you and you alone – are you still allowed to share it? These are difficult, ethical questions.

My father was an alcoholic until he died of brain cancer when I was fifteen. He started believing in God before he became ill. Actually, he had been believing in God for many years by then, but he had trouble staying convinced of what he could not see. Then there is my brother. Addicted to drugs and drunk as a sailor round the clock, he stopped studying after three months at university. He lived at home for another three years and studied at night. He could have been a doctor or an astronaut. He never brought girls home, but he moved out to live with his girlfriend a year ago. He never hit me but sometimes he spat on me. My mother renovated his room to rent it out on Airbnb. She still sees him on Mondays when he cuts the grass for her. She caused me to develop an eating disorder but she doesn’t pay for my antidepressants.

Some of these statements are true – or they might be true - but there is no way for you to know, is there? Only those directly involved in these stories would be able to confirm or deny and besides, if they are indeed true, who are they true for? The question, really, entails a difficult mix of factual, documentary truth, and the powerful emotional, affective truths which accrue depending on how well a narrative is told.

There are the facts. And there is the shaping of the facts into a story. Then, somewhere between these poles, there are different forms of the truth, if not The Truth. Ask a writer like James Frey, who got himself into a whole lot of trouble with his so-called memoir, A Million Little Pieces, published in 2006. The book was initially marketed as a memoir, but after it came to the light that many of the events described in the book were completely made up by the author, it was rebranded as a semi-fictional novel. Frey faced accusations of literary forgery and responded by saying he never denied altering small details. In an interview with Seth Mnookin published on Slate, Frey said he stands by the book as “being the essential truth of [his] life”.

Again, this raises the question: who is your ‘truth’ true for?

Am I allowed to fictionalise my life? If I fill the gaps with twisted truths and writer’s freedom, am I lying or am I merely imagining?

Allow me to bring this issue home by referring to the melodramatic teen-girl television series, Gossip Girl (a joyous day for 14-year old me, who would not in a thousand years have predicted that her future self would be presented with the opportunity to write about the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite). A quick background, for those not informed: the story starts with Serena van der Woodsen’s return to Manhattan after mysteriously disappearing for six months. The opening scene at the train station shows Dan Humphrey, who has been in love with Serena for many years, longingly stealing glances at her while she impatiently waits for her mother to pick her up, all the while performing subtle but perfectly executed hair flips. Fast forward about four drama-packed seasons: Dan and Serena are finally dating (after their parents married each other and then divorced again – it’s a lot to keep up with) and he releases his first novel titled Inside. Although he changes all the names, it is very clear that the book is an exposé of the lives, loves and lies of the who’s who of the Upper East Side. Perhaps he could have been a little bit more creative with the renaming – merely changing “Serena” to “Selena” might have been underestimating the reader, just a little bit.

I’m getting side-tracked.

My point is: we are presented here with a beautiful example of someone writing his story but strongly offending his friends and family when they read his (truthful) take on things. Teenage-me, watching this show, was taken aback. I wanted to become a writer. I had always thought my own life to be a great source of dramatic inspiration and watching the fictional Dan Humphrey’s life crumble and fall on account of his controversial autobiographical writing, I decided rather to stick with fiction writing and never to look back upon the treacherous terrain of the autobiographical.

That lasted for a good few years. I was happy, dreaming up distant characters unrelated to my own life, writing my little stories at a safe remove. (Confession: I wrote poems too, but I kept those buried in a drawer.)

Then I turned 18 and sent in some of my writing for a poetry anthology, while I was learning online using a Proofessor site online. (This was understandable; I’d just finished high school, started learning French and liked to think of myself as an artist.) The poems I regarded as the best and most creative pieces of ‘my work’ were turned down. Meaning all those poems in which I tried to comment on Important Issue and The Hopelessness of it all – the vastness of being legally allowed to buy cigarettes and tequila and open a bank account without your mother’s signature – having the entire world in front of you but having no idea what to do with it. What I considered to be creative revolution – rhythms and rhymes and shapes and words beyond the wildest imagination – was probably laughed at by the fellow poets-cum-judges who were filtering through the slew of submissions.

I was hurt. But what hurt more was that the poems that were accepted for publication were ones with real potential to hurt. They were about my mother and my father and my brother. They were about me and my life and they were true, never mind that I’d filtered content, or given artistic shape and poetic patterning to the facts. I revisited my section; I edited my memories and rephrased the lives of the people around me and cut the poems down to what I could most bear for my mother to read.

These are the kinds of tough issues that autiobiographers must grapple with: issues engaging a raft of serious scholars in the field of life writing. Truth. Relationality. The various forms of the ‘I’ and their relative relations of distance and immediacy, masking and exposure.

In previous writing exercises, the ideas of people like Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson have proven useful; their Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives has helped me clear my mind a little about the ethics of responsibility and life writing. But in a sense it has also muddied the waters even more. So right now, I’d prefer to move on to discuss Indian-Dutch writer, Ernest van der Kwast, who writes his autobiographical novel, Mama Tandoori (2010) about his mother who moved from India to the Netherlands, where she married his Dutch father and raised their three sons. While he beautifully portrays the proverbial baggage she brought with her from India, growing up in war and poverty, along with the continual struggle and pain of raising her mentally handicapped eldest son amid the hints of a strained marriage, Van der Kwast uses his imagination and creative freedom to exaggerate and amplify events and family members’ distinctive characteristics to comically recount his childhood and young adult memories. For example, a recurring anecdote threading its way through the novel is his mother’s habit of negotiating discounts on everything she buys: from houses to linen to train tickets to chicken. It seems unlikely his mother was able to bargain her way down to paying only 20% of the original price on a piece of furniture, but this exaggeration of one of her determining characteristics paints a very specific picture of this character, according to the likes and wishes of the author.

In an interview with the NRC Handelsblad in 2010, Van der Kwast says he considers the text the truth, thickened with the tools he has at his disposal as a writer: exaggeration, selective portrayal and colourful imagination. He says he never questioned whether he should publish the book under a pseudonym, which he had done before with other books, because he did not doubt that he would personally be identified as the focaliser in the novel. In some interviews, he describes the text as “fictive biography” rather than autobiography. What is the difference, I wonder? The term ‘autobiography’ seems self-explanatory: an account of a person’s life written by the person himself, or herself. But ‘fictive biography’? If ‘biography’ refers to an account of a person’s life written by a different person, does the genre Van der Kwast categorises his novel in mean that he differentiates himself from the first-person narrator in the text? Which cannot be, since he clearly states that he confidently identifies as the focaliser. Perhaps ‘fictive biography’ then opens a whole new world of relational writing where the author writes a text in such a way that he or she serves the role of an audience member in his own life; where understanding a close family member of the person in question is so crucial in understanding the person that the narrative finds itself almost completely woven around characters other than the autobiographer. (I should probably go back to Smith and Watson here, looking for scholarly guidance. There must be subtle distinctions and understandings that are eluding me, still young in the thoughts of life writing, person, and personae, narrating self and experiencing self. I will have to study the works, and get my thoughts sorted.)

Van der Kwast recently visited South Africa for the annual Woordfees in Stellenbosch and I attended a panel discussion where he was one of the speakers. After reading Mama Tandoori – all the while aware of the fact that it was based on the truth – I was completely awestruck listening to him talk about the characters in the book. He reminded me that they were – and still are – real, even still alive; that the events he wrote about, however humorously handled via the liberties of narrative and character, however inflated and coloured in, really did happen. Material facts. He was sitting there: the book, a product of his imagination; but also him, he himself, sitting there as a product of the stories in the book. I could not separate the embodied person from the person of the book.

Someone asked him how his mother reacted to his portrayal of her as an impossibly strong-willed woman who ruled their family with an iron hand (and sometimes a rolling pin). He answered that she was not always amused by the picture he paints of her – that, while he describes the text as something of a fictionalised autobiography, she likes to refer to it as ‘friction’: fiction occasionally inspired by truthful events, which can rub some people the wrong way. Jokingly, he added that his mother, when talking about her children, uses provocative categories. She disappointedly refers to her eldest as ‘the intellectually handicapped’, her middle child as the one who betrayed her by marrying a Muslim woman, and her youngest as a writer.

He laughed while saying this. And I am sure his mother does not intentionally compare her children based on their intellect, marriage or career choices. Yet his joke did not leave me. Would my mother one day feel the need to defend herself to her friends and family when talking about her children, telling them she is unsure about the whereabouts of her son, who once kicked her door in and thrashed the house before he broke into the safe, oh and of course, her daughter (glancing around to make sure no one else is listening) – yes, she is doing great, but, you know (an almost inaudible whisper now), she is a writer.

One of the characters in Van der Kwast’s novel in his father’s brother, a man with whom he, as a child, had minimal interaction. Yet he dedicates an entire chapter to his uncle’s travels, written as though the writer had accompanied him on all his adventures. The narrator in the novel says something important about this: he is writing this story because no one else will, because no one else knows it. The author admits that he does not know all the details about the lives of everyone he writes about, but that knowing the broad outlines is enough for him to fill in the gaps with his writer’s creativity. I wonder: might a distant niece one day pick up my book in a bookshop, recognising my name but only vaguely remembering me from that one family Christmas way back in 2004, and, much to her surprise, find a section dedicated to her botanical work in South East Asia? Perhaps. As the books I’ve been reading make clear, much stranger things have been known to happen. And writing and writing lives: they are terribly entangled.

At the same discussion where I met Van der Kwast, the South African writer, Dominique Botha, was interviewed about her debut novel, False River (2013). The book is based on the true events of her eldest brother, Paul, an evidently brilliant mind and talented, budding writer, who tragically dies in his twenties after a drug-overdose. When reading this novel, initially, it was as though someone was repeatedly beating me with a shovel against my chest. It was too close to home. It was too familiar. But more than a year after I first read it, I now perceive it in a completely different light, especially when presented alongside Van der Kwast’s novel: both can be read as form of familial tribute. Both focus on relations with close family members and the impact these relationships had on their own lives, thus almost forcing them into a back seat in the show about their own lives. I find that both of these books work as biographical fiction rather than fictionalised autobiography since the narrative is so strongly centred around a different character, one whose mind the author does not have access to.

However, while the texts deal with subjects of severe emotional trauma, and the authors find a way to create a distance between themselves, their fictional equivalents and the events that inevitably overshadowed their childhoods and continual adult-life, Botha’s novel lacks the element of humour so ever-present in Van der Kwast’s writing.

Humour in self writing is important. Wilma Stöckenstrom opens her novel, Die Kremetartekspedisie, with the words, “Dan met wrewel. Dan met spot”. Translated: “Then with resentment. Then with ridicule”. If tackling one’s memories with resentment seems a task too impossible to bear, it must be done with laughter. Humour is multifunctional: it makes the writing process slightly more endurable for the writer and it makes the reading process much lighter for the reader. It helps us drag ourselves through the waters with a bit more ease.

I think I understand. I understand that most of us are gravely sad. We need humour not to ridicule our pain, but to endure it. And if writing has often been considered a form of therapy, we can see that therapy does not always mean soothing harp music and candlelit stretching sessions. Often therapy is tearing and bleeding and scratching. (And this can sometimes be only a slight exaggeration.)

We use humour not to diminish ourselves, but to get through life. This is true both for the writer and the person sitting in the audience, laughing at a poem, but understanding.

Am I allowed to take ownership of my family’s pain and write it into something light enough to read? Does that mean I am lying? Or am I simply enduring it?


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