15 enero 2011

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HOW MANY biographies have you searched for on Google in your life so far? (Surely no less than twenty?) Now, how many autobiographies have you written on Word so far?
On JUNE 5th, at U.C.E.L (Universidad del Centro Educativo Latinoamericano) Dr Elyse Demaray (English & Women’s Studies, Iowa University, U.S) visited Rosario during her tour round Argentina in order to deliver a most thought-provoking, extraordinary-in-topic presentation on Women’s Autobiography—needless to say, 99% of the attendees were women.

What is Autobiography?
Mrs Demaray started her lecture by making us introduce ourselves to the rest of the group and, later on, her first Power Point presentation was put on display.
In considering the morphology of the word AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Demaray presented us with a fairly simple yet rather complex concept concerning the self. The prefix auto means “self”, bios means “life” and graphe stands for “writing.” From this one can easily infer that AUTOBIOGRAPHY implies the writing of an account of one’s own life. However, how many underlying concepts are there beneath the surface structure of the word “autobiography”?
Immediately, the first challenge set by Demaray to her audience was that of reflecting on and actually writing briefly the answer to the question, “Who am I?” Not surprisingly, every answer proved quite different from the other, yet there emerged quite a few which resembled one another, thus letting show that we are all inherently human, and within this category, women can’t help being women, all of them daughters and, most of them attending this seminar, mothers as well, among other similarities. This first group activity provided for, inevitably, the starting point of a series of contributions that the audience, always attentive and highly active in turn, would make during this 5-hour lecture.

[...] Models of identity constitute a factor not to be neglected in the reading and analysis of autobiographies [...]

On “Models of Identity
Most of the issues discussed during this seminar may not be considered to be as groundbreaking as the actual reflection on them has certainly proved to be: it seems that, on 21st century globalisation times, few people will stop and care to think about how they have come to be who they are, or how come their circle of friends and acquainatnces would claim to know them and still describe them in a way that sounds exactly contrariwise to how these peopel themselves conceive their true, inner self.

Attendants discussing an activity
suggested during this seminar
Because the autobiographical author happens to be the writer of his own life story, the target readership of his work will inevitably be presented with a rather particular, subjective, somewhat limited and, perhaps, distorted point of view—that adopted by the writer himself. This viewpoint will have been adopted on the basis of the writer’s own willingness to be more or less honest, authentic, transparent, and so on. Just as there happen to exist unreliable narrators[1] in fiction, an author’s autobiography may be regarded with equal suspicion by the reader: readers cannot check upon writers’ life experience, for only writers themselves know exactly what the course of events has been during their life.

Apart from the subjectivity implied in the writer’s attitude to his own biography, there is the question of time, society and culture to be considered. “A variety of models of identity are available at specific times and places,” reads one of Demaray’s slides. Though perhaps sensible it is not always present in readers’ minds the idea of cultural as well as temporal context to be taken into account when reading an autobiography[2] (and any piece of writing that they may set to analyse.) It is a matter of universal knowledge that we are in terms of whoever we have been brought up to be, and that we later become the fusion of our parents/tutors’ education as well as the influence exercised by the society surrounding us, modelled accordingly by the times we live in.
So, to be aware of the particular society roles belonging to the community in which a writer is immersed may be of considerable help to the reader of an autobiography, especially if the latter is to deal with the autobiography in terms of psychological, even linguistic analysis. It is precisely because autobiographical authors shape their writing (either consciously or unconsciously) according to their own identity—which in turn is bound to their times and culture—that models of identity constitute a factor not to be neglected in the reading and analysis of autobiographies. What the writer may have chosen to prioritise, or even include at all, in his own life account will largely depend on these.

Different forms of Autobiography and Time Frame
Another relevant feature of autobiographies is the fact that they can come in the way of several different genres, such as letters, diaries, memoirs, novels and, what may read both familiar and strange to the reader of this article, an “on-line blog.
During Elyse Demaray’s presenation, the question of who the target audience is gave rise to the most frequent form of autobiography writing nowadays: blogs and, even more so, Facebook. Both such forms are widely known as some of the easiest, fastest and cheapest ways of massively communicating not only one’s thoughts but also one’s life experience. So why not consider them alternative (perhaps later in the future, even “traditional”) forms of autobiography?
Another issue that came up at the seminar was that of the time frame used to write an autobiography. While relatively up-dated biographies tend to present reliable birth and death dates, autobiographies may end at a point within the writer’s life which may be more or less distant from their time of actual “departure.”
There aroused a comment from one of the lecture’s attendees regarding that, if so is the case, if the writer chooses to write his autobiography while he is still alive and kicking, then his decision sort of presupposes the “virtual” killing of himself in order to start thinking in retrospect and as if his life had come to a virtual end—such an end being the present time at from which he thinks in retrospect and begins to write. As a consequence, there may be more than one autobiography attributed to one single author while, on the other hand, the reason why some posthumous editions may be titled “The Unfinished Autobiography of X” may be attributed to the fact that the writer did not wish to publish his autobiography until he was already dead and, in all likelihood, that his time came earlier than expected.

Elyse Demaray is not only an undoubtedly competent lecturer and teacher but, also, a most agreeable, approachable human being [...]

Elyse Demaray

Women’s Autobiography: A Comment on the choice of Subject Matter
For those who have attended this seminar, it seems true to claim that it proved to be a most enlightening experience. We have been honoured with the presence of an expert in the less often addressed issue of Women Writers and Autobiographies and, as well as this, every one of the attendees have made their own worthy-of-reflection contribution. In many societies women are still being regarded as the fair sex, and the fact that Demaray has chosen to lecture on Women & Autobiography has given us the chance to reflect on a rather yet-to-be-conquered field. Similarly, several debates spontaneously emerged which would not have been possible unless the lecturer had been readily open to them, which actually turned out to be the case. Elyse Demaray is not only an undoubtedly competent lecturer and teacher but, also, a most agreeable, approachable human being who doesn’t turn a deaf ear to her audience’s queries and (enriching) remarks.

[2] To Mikhail Bakhtin, for instance, the subject is inherently made up of  “the other.” This implies that in defining ourselves we are already implying the range of social “voices” present in our culture and by which we are inevitably influenced.

[1] Unreliable narrators are those featured in stories such as The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger. This type of narrator is usually found to be “untrustworthy” because they tell their story or experience about certain events through their own point of view, making their own subjective judgment of them. They are said to be unreliable, then, because the reader cannot fully trust that they are telling the facts exactly as they happened, in the same order as they may have happened and without excluding any impotant event, etc.

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