Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, and Malcolm X’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X all represent a distinct voice from a different subaltern community. By claiming narrative power through the authority of the autobiographical text, these writers contribute to the creation of a community of people like them, and they generate opportunities for other voices to tell their stories. This is especially true for people who come from marginal or dispossessed communities, which have not been afforded the opportunity, authority, or narrative space to tell their stories. By analyzing four representative autobiographical texts, this claim can be substantiated.
One of the fundamental assumptions about the autobiography and memoir genre is that anyone can write his or her story. Gone are the days when only an illustrious political or social figure was the authoritative autobiographical voice. The assumption about the democracy of this genre has become more widespread and held with greater conviction in recent years, both by writers and by readers, as the popularity of the autobiography has surged and books have been written by people whose lives are not particularly extraordinary, but are, in many cases, painfully quotidian (Couser 13). While the autobiography is a work that is by its very nature deeply personal, it is possible that the autobiographical text can create a larger category or archetype within which others can understand, define, and describe themselves.
There are several characteristics of the memoir and autobiography that distinguish them from other genres and which permit the autobiographical text to avoid many of the literary criticisms and challenges that plague other genres. First, the autobiography is automatically authoritative, if not legitimated (Cosslett, Lury, & Summerfield 1; Couser 22). Whereas an author of a non-fiction historical text, for example, must possess a particular fund of information or knowledge and prove, in some way or another, his or her authority, the purview of the autobiographical author is limited to the subject of himself or herself. This is an oversimplified observation about autobiography or memoir as a form, of course, neglecting such variables as the reliability of memory; however, it is a useful construct to keep in mind. The author of the autobiography or memoir has far less work to do than many other writers with respect to establishing authority and proving his or her literary skills. Second, it is rare that the author of an autobiographical text is called to defend his or her subject and the claims that are made about it in the same way that another author might be.
This characteristic of the memoir or autobiography is related to the first one in that the reader cannot easily question the author with respect to the “truth” of the autobiographical author’s narrative. One’s deeply personal truth may not be able to be corroborated in the same way that a historical truth might be, to name just one example (Ashley, Gilmore, & Peters 54-55). Third, the intentions of an autobiographical text are radically different from the purpose of other literary products. While autobiography is used “increasingly [as a] visible means of confession [and] of accusation” (consider, for instance, the recent example of Augusten Burroughs’ best-selling memoir, Running With Scissors), it is also, and perhaps more importantly, intended to serve as a means of “legitimation…[and] a source of authority” for the author, who is seeking to establish his or her place not just in the literary canon, but in society (Cosslett, Lury, & Summerfield 1). The autobiography is a “powerful tool of resistance and personal redefinition” (White 107), not only for the writer, but for the reader who receives it also.
Oftentimes, the act of writing the autobiography or memoir is a very literal process of naming oneself, as well as placing oneself within the context of a larger community which may, in the reception of the work, appropriate the very definitions of self and community that the writer has proposed. This is especially true of writers who come from communities that have been marginalized historically. Such is the case both for Maxine Hong Kingston, of Chinese heritage, and for Audre Lorde, of West Indian parentage and expressed in her work, “Zami : A New Spelling of My Name”. Both women clearly articulate that their autobiographical works are intended to name themselves and, in doing so, to situate themselves within the communities of their families of origin, as well as the wider geographical, social, and cultural communities with which they identify. The very subtitle of Lorde’s autobiography, A New Spelling of My Name, indicates that she is engaging in an act of willful inscribing of the self. She is, quite literally, renaming herself, and in the act of writing about this new name, she claims and expresses her voice, establishes her territory, and defines those communities with which she feels the greatest affinity.
One of the strategies that Lorde uses in Zami : A New Spelling of My Name for doing this involves providing the reader with details about the names of other people. As she recalls memories from the past, Lorde names the people who inhabit each space and states in one of the important quotes from “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name” There is “my first grade teacher named Sister Mary of Perpetual Help” (19); “a sweet strong boy of few words named George Vaginius” (38); “sweet little Helen Ramsey [who] had decided it was her Christian duty to befriend me” (55); and even “two little black kittens…named Crazy Lady and Scarey Lou” (200). Each of these names, presumably of real people, give the individuals character. It seems that by knowing and acknowledging others by using their names Lorde comes to understand just how important naming is, and it is through this knowledge that she can claim a name for herself. “Zami,” she writes, means “women who work together as friends and lovers” (255). The word “Zami” that forms the title, “Zami : A New Spelling of my Name” comes from her mother’s Carriacou culture, and the selection of this particular name to claim her identity is significant because it not only honors where Lorde has come from, but it situates her within two communities: first, a particular Caribbean culture, and second, a wider culture of women, specifically lesbians. By claiming this name, Lorde creates a larger self, one that is both connected to community and one which invites other women like her to join her community.