Family History, Secrets, and Universal Truths in Creative Nonfiction
By Lopa Banerjee
In “Writing the Family”, a chapter from the book, Tell it Slant, editors Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola closely examine why writing about the family is a crucial aspect of Creative Nonfiction writing. Family, they specify at the outset, is the first window of the child to the external world, “our first mirrors, our first definitions of who we are.” While the adult self assimilates into the external world with disparate individuals, cultures, and experiences, the immediate family still remains at the core of his/her values/impulses; they still remain “the first objects of love, anger and loyalty.” It is, thus, quite natural that writing about the family remains at the heart of memoir/creative nonfiction writing. A considerable number of creative nonfiction works revolve around the family, the parents, the grandparents, uncles and aunts, and sons/daughters and even grandchildren.
As writers, all of them may have faced the universal duality of their roles within the family, the need to be an integral part of their own clan, and establish themselves as separate entities. Being the forbearers of their families’ cultural and personal past, they expose the personal, private, and intimate details of the immediate family, while striving to attain a universal perspective. That is the only way their work can be solidified in the realm of literature.
For that matter, all great memoir and nonfiction works begin with the writer’s impulse to tell a true story with honesty, passion, and urgency. It may be a story that involves the lives of immediate others who surround him, but the writer is successful after unfolding the story to his audience only if and when the purpose is to bring forward universal truth, to evoke universal emotions where the family is the nucleus. Here, even if the subject matter is apparently centered on the family, it eventually becomes a metaphor to explore some more complex human issues, the larger historical/cultural context. The family and its little, specific details, moreover, serve to link the writer’s personal experiences with the greater world.
I will analyze four essays in which the writers successfully strive for a balance between the personal and the universal, while becoming more than a simple narrative of family history and secrets: “No Name Woman” by Maxine Hong Kingston, James Baldwin’s “Notes of a native Son”, Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self”, and “Three Pokes of a Thistle” by Naomi Shihab Nye. All of these essayists accomplish this by the unique use of form/structure and narrative voice.
In “No Name Woman,” Maxine Hong Kingston starts with her mother’s version of a forbidden aunt’s story, which is characterized by unusual silence. Ironically, in the very first section, the readers come across the author’s mother who warns her: “You must not tell anyone… what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born.” As the story unfolds, the author narrates a detailed account of a young woman in a Chinese village, who transgressed the cultural norms and became pregnant, not from her husband, whom she very briefly encounters, but from another man whose identity she never reveals. The author narrates graphically with gory details of the family’s suffering as a result of this ‘sin’, when the villagers flock to the house and slaughter the livestock. “The Villagers broke in the front and back doors at the same time…their knives dripped with the blood of our animals. They smeared blood on the doors and walls. One woman swung a chicken, whose throat she had slit, splattering blood in red arcs about her…” The descriptions and the details involve the violence and also the ostracizing of the aunt from Kingston’s family, including the poetic, emotionally charged scene of the aunt giving birth to a child in a pigsty.
However, as the narrative proceeds, we understand that it is the author herself who uses her imagination to weave in the details. Her mother’s version of the story is only sparse, minimalist, with occasional reminders, “Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us…” The author chooses a peripheral form of a story woven within that story. By creating a portrait of a woman, she attempts to look back at her life, the clothes she wore, the bun she tied, the men she may have encountered in the fields, who may have coerced her into a sexual relationship in a world where adultery was an extravagance. She delves into her past and contemplates the way she had been married off to a young man whom she met and slept with only for one night. She also vividly recreates the scene where her dead aunt goes into labor, gives birth, and also nurses the newborn for a few moments, as she desperately wants to protect the child, despite the fact that the child would “not soften her life but only trail after her, ghostlike.” Her aunt finally carries the baby to the well and they both dive into it.
Her mother’s version of the story is there as a metaphor to explain how family histories are traditionally handed down and travels from one generation to the other. Her own version of the dead aunt’s story is the structural device through which she ultimately looks to discover her self-identity. By reanalyzing her aunt’s life, she actually intends to explore how the cultural history of her Chinese village and her family can help her reconcile with her own emerging sense of self, growing up in a more fluid, cosmopolitan America. Her aunt’s life in the story represents the patriarchal trappings and the urgency to wipe out family secrets. In her ultimate attempt to connect with her family’s past/history, Kingston uncovers her family history and recreates the old, untold stories, altering and reinterpreting them for herself and also the audience.
In James Baldwin’s essay, “Notes of a Native Son”, the relationship between Baldwin and his father, their internal struggles and conflicts are apparently the focus of the narrative. The author recounts the varied emotional tensions of their relationship on the day of his father’s funeral. However, as the narrative progresses, the readers understand that the familial relationship between the father and the son serves to uncover greater existential truths in Baldwin’s life, including racial discrimination rampant in the 1950s America as well as the question of American identity. In the opening scene, Baldwin weaves his father’s death in July 1943 with the distressing period of “one of the bloodiest race riots of the century” in Detroit. The day of his father’s funeral is also the day of his nineteenth birthday, as well as the day he comes to terms with his epiphanies, and his father’s vision of the apocalypse.
Baldwin provides rich details of his family life and narrates how he had always got along very badly with his father. They both shared, in his own words, “the vices of stubborn pride”, which unfolds as the narrative progresses. In the course of the essay, he articulates how this ‘stubborn pride’ in his blackness, a legacy, evolves and shapes his own persona as an African American. Structurally, the essay’s definite/finite time frame – the day of his father’s funeral – helps him situate the essay in his personal upheavals, while letting the author explore other complex, difficult issues in his family and in the world around him. In the narrative, Baldwin tries to situate his growing up under his father’s intimidating presence, the father’s pride in his own blackness, the “outrageously demanding and protective way he loved his children”, his intimidating personality, and his “proudly pursed lips and rigid carriage”.
Baldwin provides a rich, layered account of his young stifled life under his influence, his desire to escape his father’s tyranny, and his father’s gradual surrendering to illness, provoked by his “intolerable bitterness of spirit.” Baldwin seamlessly weaves his father’s failures in life, his afflictions, and his gradual surrendering to death with his own episodes of struggle and animosity, as he starts living separately from his family in New Jersey. Baldwin provides vignettes of his independent young adult life, including his experiences in bars, diners, public places and his fights and violent self-resistance. The first epiphanies of his life happen when he realizes that he unknowingly carries the burden of his father’s existential crisis, his father’s smoldering anger and bitterness in the white-dominated America.
In the scene of his father’s funeral sermon, Baldwin employs memories most effectively. He remembers the characteristic grin on his father’s face, his father teasing his mother, the comfort his father offered when, as a child, he scraped his knee on a barber’s chair. These little details transform his father’s image into a loving individual, despite his flaws. Baldwin further explores the race riot in Harlem, thereby moving the narrative to his own reflections on the world outside, a world racked with violence and racial hatred. By situating his father’s story and his personal memories in the context of the larger American history, he successfully transcends the personal terrain to move towards a more universal experience.
In her essay, “Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self”, Alice Walker poignantly tells the story of an old scar in her eye, which affects her vision and later acts as an epiphany to understand its true value and significance. In the essay, Alice Walker steps forward to give a very personalized account of how her brothers hit her with the pellet of a gun that resulted in a permanent scar tissue in one of her eyes. She suffered the onslaught of that childhood event by slipping into a kind of stigma, resulting in a low sense of her beauty and self-esteem.
The essay starts with Walker’s childhood recollections of an Easter Sunday in 1950 – her mother braiding her hair with ribbons, the Easter speeches in the church, people admiring her prettiness, her dress and her appearance. The narrative gradually moves to a detailed, harrowing account of how her life has been severely affected by that accident when she was “eight years old and a tomboy”, surrounded by a group of brothers who “shoot and shoot everything with their new guns.” The setting of that event and its exposition are carried out in vivid, visual details: “I feel an incredible blow in my right eye….my eye stings and I cover it with my hand.” The brothers, notorious and bullying in nature, make her lie, and later, fever-struck, when she visits a doctor, he says, “Eyes are sympathetic…If one is blind, the other will likely become blind too.” The author confronts this moment of terror and insecurity, carrying it into her mid-life, when she asks her mother and sister whether she has changed in any way after the incident. She presents the memories of a school where her friends question her about her scarred eye and call her a “one-eyed bitch.” Through the vignettes of her early childhood and adulthood, she opens a window to her mental world, snapshots of her life affected by powerful forces that are not within her own control, including race, social class, family dynamics, and her own cultural notions of beauty.
In Walker’s essay, we see how the family is instrumental in her silent suffering, and also how the family becomes a redeeming gift in the end, when Walker’s three-year-old daughter, Rebecca, gleefully says that she sees a world in her mother’s scarred eye. Her three-year-old daughter becomes the metaphor through which she attains the most profound epiphany: she is beautiful in her own uniqueness. With Stevie Wonder’s song, “Always”, she discovers another dancer within her own self, a dancer who is “beautiful, whole and free.” This reflects how she comes out of the conventional perspective of beauty thrust on her by family/cultural expectations and finds her own standards of acceptance.
Naomi Shihab Nye’s essay, “Three Pokes of a Thistle”, also replete with evocatively woven family stories, narrates the universal journey of a young girl striving to attain her sexual and psychological maturity. She segments her essay in three individual sections. The first section is about her childhood and school life, her first grade report card, a car accident, her loneliness, and her discovery of Mark Twain’s book that shapes her vision of life. In the second section, her experiences with her father’s rich, stimulating world of language and cadence, the fragrant syllables in Arabic are presented in contrast to the constrained Catholic environment of her friend Marcia’s house. Also, here she chronicles her first tryst with the adult world of sex with the boys in the park, ragging her with the F-word. The third section recounts her introduction to the feminine world of growing breasts and training bras. She fumbles and eventually finds her way on her 12th birthday, when she is gifted with a training bra. The three segments of the essay are neatly structured as various disparate layers of the author’s life, which she eventually joins with her artistic vision. In the process, the essay unfolds her relationship with her parents as she gradually recognizes her maturing self.
The essay also presents her mother as a primal force in her teenage years, leading her towards fascinating discoveries of life. Her mother is projected in a series of lyrical images. Her cries are “heaves of underground rivers”, as she peels beets, “her fingers” are “stained deep red”; she stands at the “screen door peering out”, with her baby boy “perched on her hip”. Her mother also represents the pervasive silence that permeates the author when she asks her: “What really happens between men and women to make babies.” In the author’s life, it is this silence of her family, particularly of her mother, that leads her to the quest of understanding and discovery. In the process, the author evokes the universal human emotions of wonder, anger, fear, and insecurity. Moving back and forth between her family’s cultural truths and her discoveries of the greater physical truths, including the blossoming of her sexuality, Nye’s prose accomplishes the task of an effective personal essay. The essay beautifully captures the tension between the cross-cultural conflicts and her assimilation, in addition to the portrayal of the family.
It can, thus, be seen that these four essays are effective in bringing out the larger perspective which moves the writing from the personal to resonate with the general audience. In essence, chronicling one’s life in the context of one’s family and the larger personal history is a daunting, challenging task, but one that is truly a cathartic and liberating process. Through the exposition of the family, the essayists have brought out the most rewarding and fraught relationships that have been the nucleus of their narratives. It is through the depiction of the essayists’ lives in connection with their families that their experiences are defined organically.
Miller, Brenda and Suzanne Paola. Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
Root, Robert L. Jr. and Michael Steinberg. The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction–4th ed. Pearson Education, Inc., 2007.
Painting: Carl Wilhelm Hubner
Lopa Banerjee is a writer and poet. She is also an editor at Readomania and Learning and Creativity Journal.
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