AFFINITY WITHOUT IDENTITY? RESPECTING LIMITATIONS

It is becoming clearer that all autobiography is shaped by narrative convention.  Much of the literature addressing this issue comes from studies of women’s life stories because they so regularly diverge from the critical ideal of “good autobiography.”  Jelinek observes that classic male autobiographies tend to be modeled on a heroic literary tradition, projecting an image of self-confidence in the process of overcoming difficulties; women’s autobiographies rarely present a coherent polished synthesis, and the form of presentation is frequently discontinuous, reflecting the nature of women’s experience.  Other writers, analyzing accounts by minority women, point out that their life stories are doubly marginalized–first by male-centred conventions defining what events are signfiicant enough to describe in writing, and second by the position these women have as members of a minority culture…(3)

To interpret an orally narrated life story, we need enough sense of the speaker’s cultural background to provide context for hearing what is said.  One obstacle hampering the analysis of autobiography is the very real human tendency to make implicit comparisons between the account heard or read and one’s own life.  Our interpretive abilities are inclined to fail, though, when we hear a culturally unfamiliar account, in which we may grasp the general framework but flounder when faced with the particular.  Frequently, this is complicated because a narrator believes that the listener understands far more of the unspecified context than is actually the case.(5)

Cruikshank, Julie in collaboration with Angela Sidney, Kitty Smith, and Annie Ned (1990)  LIFE LIVED LIKE A STORY:  LIFE STORIES OF THREE YUKON NATIVE ELDERS.  Lincoln, NB:  University of Nebraska Press.