A stack of 3 closed books, next to an open notebook on which rests a ballpoint pen. Text: Literary Links: Life Stories in Literature

Literary Links: Life Stories in Literature

Life Stories in Literature




we are what we remember

inside vs. outside stories


hidden identities & secrets


creating/controlling one’s own narrative

cultural appropriation

alternate life options

alternative selves

turning points/life decisions

when/how lives intersect

multiple points of view

rewriting history

change your story, change your life

Writing About Yourself Isn’t Inherently Selfish

Novelist Tope Folarin examines the work of French novelist Édouard Louis. But first, Folarin quotes from The Good Story, a 2015 book by the Nobel Prize–winning novelist J. M. Coetzee, co-authored with Arabella Kurtz, a clinical psychologist. Folarin calls The Good Story “a searching, erudite treatise about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.” Here’s the passage Folarin quotes:

To think of a life-story as a compendium of memories which one is free to interpret in the present according to the demands (and desires) of the present seems to me characteristic of a writer’s way of thinking. I would contrast this with the way many people see their life-story: as a history that is forever fixed (‘you can’t change the past’).

Folarin goes on to examine Louis’s work:

Louis is interpreting his memories according to the demands of his present; he is redrafting the story of his life to make sense of where he finds himself in the current moment. In so doing, Louis is teaching his readers how they might benefit from arranging—and possibly even revising—their memories in ways that might help them cope with, and better understand, their contemporary experiences.

In other words: Change your story, change your life.

What my mother’s sticky notes show about the nature of the self

Retired philosophy professor Crispin Sartwell thinks about “we are what we remember” through the sticky notes his 98-year-old mother puts all over her house to try to remind her of important things:

Perhaps this is how human personality fragments or disintegrates: as it frays, it extends into the world, even desperately, and alters it, rearranges it into a memory hoard. It wasn’t only the notes, after all: if self is memory, her house and its every artefact – every print and every spatula, every earring and every room – is in her, as she is in it.

From Red Riding Hood to Beowulf: On the Essential Role of Literary Reimaginings

Joel H. Morris’s novel All Our Yesterdays “takes its inspiration from Macbeth to imagine Shakespeare’s characters in the decade leading up to the beginning of the play.” Such literary reimaginings—think Madeline Miller’s Circe and Percival Everett’s James—comprise a significant portion of the content of life stories in literature.

The proliferation of literary retellings—narrative re-imaginings that guide us through a story we know, or thought we knew, telling them from another perspective—says something about our current moment. For one thing, they allow us, in the age of “multi-” and “metaverses,” to experience the world from a never-ending selection of perspectives and possible outcomes.

Even more importantly, they celebrate of a multitude of voices—voices that were marginalized by the culture and time in which their original stories appear. 

Literary Rashomon: 10 Novels with Rotating Perspectives

When a novel is written from rotating perspectives within a family, it creates a richness and depth in the narrative. . . . Often, we need to hear from different characters in order to piece together the full story, particularly when it comes to understanding how the decisions of our ancestors affect us, and how events can ripple through our descendants’ lives. . . . Reading a novel that is masterfully written from the perspectives of multiple family members can feel like piecing together a puzzle that parallels the complex reality of life.

Shilpi Somaya Gowda recommends “some of my favorite novels, where the varied voices of family members together create richly layered stories,” including The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.

Past Tense​ | Our Historical Fiction Hang-Ups

David Schurman Wallace takes a deep dive into the concept of the historical novel and its significance. He begins by asking whether the historical novel is a particular genre at all:

Though there can be no one metric for success, historical novels have not only sold well for decades, but also garnered far more critical acclaim than their zeitgeisty peers. . . . Today, the historical novel may be the dominant form of literary production, exceeding the small clutch of more “innovative” work in footprint. Only its theory lags behind the present.

In explaining what historical fiction is, Wallace writes “the past is like a mineral deposit, where stories and images are dug up and repurposed.” Despite historical fiction’s reputation for stodginess, there is “something important about the historical novel’s unique power, namely how a past society can be pictured in a way that the present often cannot.”

“As the historical novel continues to prosper, there has been an explosion of different varieties and styles,” Wallace continues. He cites, for example, current “recuperative impulses,” especially “in various novels that appeared in the wake of the Black Lives Matter moment, such as Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black (a globetrotting story of a former slave’s scientific brilliance), Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer (an antebellum speculative novel that owes something to Octavia Butler), and Robert Jones Jr.’s The Prophets (a brutal plantation tale that revolves around an illicit queer relationship).”

“Other recuperative novels elevate unsung women in history, particularly women geniuses who have been blotted out by centuries of patriarchy. . . . Other recuperative fiction has tended toward the multigenerational epic, a form now so widely replicated that spotting the term on a book jacket can make one’s eyes glaze over.”

Téa Obreht on the Serbian Folktales that Inspired Her Dystopian Novel

Folk tales and origin stories are stories that particular cultures collect and pass down through generations to communicate a body of beliefs, values, and expectations. Here Irene Katz Connelly talks with novelist Téa Obreht about the folk tales that inspired Obreht’s latest novel The Morningside

Why Some Narratives Are So Easy to Fall For

“A conversation with Jerusalem Demsas about the misunderstood policy issues that deserve more nuanced analysis”

Stephanie Bai, an associate editor at The Atlantic, interviews podcaster Jerusalem Demsas about “how some narratives get lodged in the public’s mind and the dangers of stories that feel true but aren’t.”

Narratives are a way of simplifying a really complicated world. Compelling ones follow story structures that we’re used to seeing: a villain and a hero, a bad developer versus a mother who’s struggling to get her kids through college. These kinds of narratives are compelling because there’s a spark of truth in them, which is that there are power struggles in the world; there are winners and losers. Many narratives stick because they reaffirm our own opinions and views, but that can be really dangerous: Just because something feels true doesn’t mean that it is.

The narratives that don’t stick, Demsas continues, are the ones that are more complicated: “Trying to describe a world full of that kind of complexity is not as satisfying.”

This difference suggests why some narratives take over popular culture, even if counter-narratives try to explain the complexities of issues.

© 2024 by Mary Daniels Brown

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