Life Stories in Literature
we are what we remember
inside vs. outside stories
hidden identities & secrets
creating/controlling one’s own narrative
alternate life options
turning points/life decisions
when/how lives intersect
multiple points of view
change your story, change your life
“Research has long been a backbone of the genre. But beyond the textbooks, there’s a whole world of family stories that have not yet become history. They deserve their place in fiction, too.”
Vanessa Chan, author of the well-received recent novel The Storm We Made, writes, “Historical fiction is lived experience, often traumatic, made legible and digestible by the novelist.” And, she continues, “people want to know what kind of instruments the author used to excavate said experiences. They want to see the way the pudding is made; they want to understand the ways you stitched the broken shards of history together.”
“Can memory be research?” Chan asks. She wrote her novel based on stories she had heard repeatedly and internalized from her grandmother: “In order to write my book, I had to think of my family and my own ancestral stories simply as an earlier iteration of the research process. Our stories, because they have not been given their due attention, have not yet become history. This meant relying on less ‘traditional’ methods of research.”
Chan’s novel, then, is an example of using fiction as a way to preserve and communicate the stories of marginalized people whose stories have been erased from history.
“Several new books grapple with displacement and diasporic living in ways that feel particularly resonant in this moment”
Samia Madwar, a senior editor at Canadian publication The Walrus, addresses the same general topic that concerns Vanessa Chan in the article above. Tracing family histories, Madwar writes, is often nearly impossible, “especially for those whose families were torn apart by war, colonial conquests, and genocide. In North America, institutional—and often colonial—record keeping obscured the intricacies of Indigenous family relationships. That’s not to mention those whose lives weren’t considered important enough to be documented.”
She has, therefore,”found myself drawn to fictional family trees” in these three novels:
- The Island of Forgetting (2022) by Jasmine Sealy
- A History of Burning (2023) by Janika Oza
- The Syrian Ladies Benevolent Society (2023) by Christine Estima
While I’ve read plenty of multigenerational family fiction in the past, the genre has taken on new meaning for me now that I’m a parent, worried about what kind of world my kid will inherit. Each story confronts the theme of intergenerational trauma—a topic that’s received heightened attention in recent years—and how it exerts a force that many of us can barely perceive. And each of these stories was motivated, at least in part, by the missing pieces in the authors’ own family trees.
In the narrowest sense, novels like these represent the life story element of giving voice to people who have been erased from history. But, for the authors, these novels also represent the search for identity through understanding the culture that shaped the families that, in turn, shaped them. For readers, these novels can lead to understanding by opening up worlds and ways of life different from their own.
Of all the typical pivotal points in life stories, coming of age is among the most frequently addressed. In this article for CNN, Dan Heching discusses several films and television series from 2023 that provide “subtle, hilarious and heartfelt takes on the journey from child to adult, with all the awkwardness and jubilation that goes with it.”
These are the shows he discusses:
- Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (film based on Judy Blume’s novel)
- You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah (film)
- Bottoms (film)
- Barbie (film)
- The Last of Us (series)
The characters in these “coming-of-age stories navigate through and negotiate with the outside world while their identities are actively changing, which allows for awkward or even humiliating exchanges to come as easily as the heart-pounding blissful moments of first love – or something akin to it.”
“Whether you’re starting over or discovering a new identity, these works can help reset your perspective.”
Change your story/change your life is one aspect of Life Stories in Literature. Here Chelsea Leu writes, “The first step [in changing oneself] should be attempting to understand the self you’re trying to change.” To help with that process, Leu suggests some books that “are honest about the difficult emotional realities that accompany personal growth—discouragement, self-recrimination, fear of the unknown—and still offer hope.”
“There are good reasons you always feel 20 percent younger than your actual age.”
I thought of myself as “just out of college” right up until the moment I found myself focusing a huge zoom lens across the width of a football field as my daughter received her college diploma.
Jennifer Senior examines “subjective age”—how old we think of ourselves as, as opposed to our actual age. She reports on research from Denmark that found adults over 40 perceive themselves to be, on average about 20% younger than their actual age. She also speculates on some reasons why we might feel a certain age in our head that differs from our current age.
“New research shows that the transition from general to specific memories involves the maturation of inhibitory neurons in the hippocampus.”
We are what we remember is a key feature of life stories. This article briefly discusses the results of scientific studies performed in Canada and reported in the journal Science.
A key finding from the research is that most early-childhood memories are vague and hazy. The ability to recall specific memories usually doesn’t develop until sometime between the ages of 5 and 8.
Life-story narrations of experiences from younger ages are often the result of family reinforcement—for example: “Remember the time you ran down the hallway and fell down the stairs at Grandma’s house?”
Mystery novelist Caz Frear explains why she needed 7 point-of-view characters in her latest novel, Five Bad Deeds:
at its core, Five Bad Deeds is a story about perception – how we perceive ourselves, how others perceive us, and the occasional yawning gap between those two things. Therefore, it was important that Ellen’s character, and her actions, be seen through the lens of a number of different people – her family, friends and neighbours (and among those, her sworn enemy).
Here’s a reminder that there are as many sides to any story as there are participants in the events involved.
Related: My review of Caz Frear’s debut novel, Sweet Little Lies.
© 2024 by Mary Daniels Brown