feature: Life Stories in Literature

Literary Links: Life Stories in Literature Edition

Related Post:

Back in May when I worked at pulling together all the many threads of appreciating life stories in literature, I wrote that once I realized how life stories function in fiction, I began to see them everywhere in the novels I read. But my realization didn’t end with novels. I also began to see that much of the literary criticism I read includes elements of life stories, even if the authors didn’t specifically mention this concept.

Here are some of those articles of criticism I’ve collected over the last few months, along with my interpretation of how they pertain to the common themes of how life stories function in literature.

Infographic: Life Stories in Literature / Characteristics of Life Stories: They give meaning to our experiences. They create our sense of self and identity. They explain our past and shape our present and future. They evolve throughout our lives. They demonstrate that different people remember the same event differently.

If We Want Historical Stories About Women, We’ll Need to Read Between the Lines

Brigitte Dale, a graduate student in history at Yale who focuses on uncovering women’s stories, explains why women’s stories are missing from history: “But for a few conspicuous outliers (think: Joan of Arc, Marie Antoinette), women were widely overlooked until the second wave feminist movement in the 1970s.”

For centuries, men have written history and have systematically omitted accounts by and about women. “It has always been up to women ourselves to make sure our stories are not forgotten,” Dale writes. And this is why many of the authors who have recently written imaginative renderings of the lives of female historical figures (Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, Madeline Miller’s Circe, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet) are women—women intent on rewriting history to include the stories of the other half of the human population.

“I wanted to write about people who had not left behind their own accounts of their lives,” Ms. Dunmore wrote in The Guardian in March. “Their letters have been lost, their pamphlets have not been preserved, their money has not amounted to an inheritance and they had no epitaphs. Historical record does not know them, but fiction can imagine them.”

—Sam Roberts in his obituary of historical novelist Helen Dunmore


“Women who write about their pain suffer a double shaming: once for getting injured, twice for their act of self-exposure”

I discovered narrative identity theory, or the study of life stories, through nonfiction, particularly the lack of historical women’s stories. My early studies centered on the sparse early works of autobiography by women and then extended into the more recent proliferation of women’s memoirs. 

Much more recently I began to explore how applying aspects of narrative identity theory to fiction informs and deepens my understanding and appreciation of novels. I’ve found this to be particularly true with contemporary novels about how women navigate lives that represent changing roles and societal expectations for women.  

In this scholarly article Katherine Angel, head of the MA in Creative and Critical Writing in the Department of English, Theatre and Creative Writing at Birkbeck, at the University of London, writes about the concept shame and how women experience it in their lives. “Shame has long been an instrument of oppression, a way of regulating and policing the behaviour of women, of queer people,” she writes. 

Women who dare to write about their shame over an experience such as being sexually assaulted suffer a double does of shame, Angel writes: first for the experience itself and, second, for talking about it. Both senses of shame pertain to a woman’s sense of self.

I will always defend the right of every woman to tell her story, to write her words, to utter her speech. But it pains me that women’s speech is so often promised as the stepping-stone towards greater equality, while this very equality is so often rendered ineffective by forces that so easily coexist with a celebration of women’s stories; by policies that consistently make women socioeconomically vulnerable; that fail to protect women from domestic violence, economic precarity, racial violence, or transmisogyny.

In her conclusion Angel asks, “What would it be like, I wonder, if women didn’t have to detail their pain and shame in order for their inequality, and the violence done to them, to take up its due place in the landscape? At the moment, we have the worst of both worlds: a fetishisation of our stories, and a stagnant social reality, in which progress is not only impeded but is rolling back.”

While Angel seems to be talking mostly about women’s memoir writing here, I find the same questions valid for the many female novelists now writing about all aspects of women’s lives. The tendency to belittle women’s concerns and shame those who express them raises some specious (and annoying) complaints, for example the regularly recurring discussion about why so many fictional women characters are just so plain unlikeable.

So I find this article relevant to several life story themes, particularly creating/controlling one’s own narrative, hidden identities and secrets, and  presentation of alternate life options.

The Tragedy of Self: The Millions Interviews Makenna Goodman

J.A. Tyler recently interviewed Makenna Goodman about her novel The Shame. I haven’t read this novel, but its title caught my eye because of the previous article. Here’s Tyler’s description of the story:

In Vermont, Alma and her family tend chickens and sheep, make maple syrup, and harmonize with the land. And while it seems idyllic, when her husband leaves each day to teach at a nearby college, Alma vacillates between raising their children and feeling utterly trapped. She’s constantly questioning if she is good enough, if she is doing everything right, and The Shame is a record of her breaking point.

And Tyler’s first question to Goodman is what the word shame means to her and to Alma. Goodman replies, “Shame is a human emotion, something everyone feels at one point or another, and in some cases is a determining factor in how we interpret the stories about our lives, a metric which we often use without knowing.” But, she adds, “titles are just teasers, or suggestions, and I don’t hold it too tightly.”

This is a short but packed interview, and I encourage you to read through it because Goodman refers to so many life story themes:

  • Identity: “In my mind the book is about the tragedy of self, more than anything.”
  • Creating/controlling one’s own narrative: “For Alma, I see it as her reclaiming the narrative of her life.”
  • Change your story, change your life: “I think there is . . . [an] acknowledgement of a story that needs to change. I hope readers will interpret the ending as a beginning of a new one, perhaps the same story, told again, told differently. Isn’t that the case with life?”

For All The ‘Survivors’ Who Don’t Survive

“By writing a character who shares my trauma, I found a path forward even though she couldn’t”

I was drawn to this brave piece by fiction writer Shawn Nocher, author of the recently released novel A Hand to Hold in Deep Water because it illustrates how an author transmutes life experience into fiction. Nocher emphasizes that her fictional character’s story is not the same as her own, but the very fact of writing the novel rescued her from the trauma she experienced in childhood.

I don’t find that Nocher’s experience exactly fits with one of the themes of life stories I’ve found in literature, but it is a testament to the healing power of writing

It also reminds us that fictional material may have origins in the author’s own experience but is not necessarily a direct narrative of that experience. We should not interpret a character’s statements as the author’s truth.

Is America a Racist Nation? I Am Sikh and Tired

This piece is not directly related to literature, but I include it here because it illustrates how concepts inherent in the study of life stories have been embraced by popular culture. 

Vishavjit Singh describes some of his personal experiences under the hashtag #StopAsianHate:

While stories have been carriers of these infectious ideologies, stories can also be a force for slowly undoing the generational damage of racism. We are swimming in a sea of stories — in our conversations, in our books, and on our screens. . Who gets to create and tell these stories is of paramount importance. Stories have to be armed with truth. Stories have to represent our incredible diversity. Stories have to pierce through our contradictions, follies, and shortcomings.

I couldn’t agree more. He’s right about the power of stories and about the importance of telling one’s own story.

The Inheritance of Books and Patriarchal Narratives

Senjuti Patra, who was born and raised in a small town in India, lovingly describes the family book collection she inherited from her grandfather and father. “But as I grew up, I began to notice a marked gap in my family’s collection – almost all books were written by upper caste men (the Indian equivalent of the dead white guy).” 

As a result, she “began to prioritize stories by and of those oppressed by the caste system and a heteronormative social structure. For I had seen in the casual casteism and sexism of the men I used to look up to, and in the misogyny that I internalized as a young reader, the perils of undiversified reading.”

She wonders “what our bookshelves would have looked like if patriarchy had not deprived us of half of our inheritance. . . . I look for the stories of my female ancestors in the scant historical studies that focus on them, and in historical fiction.” In her search to diversify her reading, she apparently understands the need for rewriting history and for seeing presentations of alternate life options. In reading about people from cultures different than our own, we broaden our view of what it means to be human in today’s multicultural world.

We Become the Stories We Tell: The Millions Interviews Kirstin Valdez Quade

In another interview from The Millions, Nick Ripatrazone talks with Kirstin Valdez Quade about her experience of expanding a short story from her 2015 collection Night at the Fiestas into a novel, The Five Wounds

Quade says, “My novel is about healing from the wounds of the past, and part of that healing requires looking closely at oneself and one’s place in the world and the hurts we have caused.” She adds, “I’ve always been interested in engaging with myth and folklore in my fiction.”

When the interviewer said, “I believe that we become the stories we tell—even the ones that are fiction,” Quade replied, “I think you’re exactly right that we become the stories we tell.”

The Five Wounds encompasses the year after the birth of a baby. Quade says, “I didn’t know how they’d navigate the first year of Angel’s baby’s life, and I wrote to find out.” I haven’t yet read this novel, but I’m interested to find out how these characters handle their turning points or major life decisions.

On the Counterintuitive Appeal of the Literary Time Loop

“Catriona Silvey Wonders Why We Don’t Mind Retreading Common Ground”

Silvey opens this article with a look at Kate Atkinson’s novel Life After Life, in which Ursula Todd is born over and over again on the same day. Silvey tells us this novel illustrates “a particular kind of narrative: a time loop, where the protagonist repeatedly relives a day, a week, or in Ursula’s case, a lifetime.” Silvey observes that “the past decade has seen an explosion of time loop stories across books . . . , films . . . , and television.” 

Silvey, a linguist and novelist, believes readers like this type of narrative because it allows them to infer meaning from the similarities and differences of the various iterations: “we construct meaning via an active process of inference: extrapolating beyond what is explicitly said to build a larger understanding. Inference is what makes reading pleasurable.”

Silvey writes that she used the literary time loop in her debut novel, Meet Me in Another Life. And, as this title indicates, part of the appeal of such a narrative structure is that it allows the consideration of possible alternative selves.

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: