Minority Writing and the Autobiographical Narrative Voice (Narrative, 2005)


Narrative, Louisville, KY – April 2005

Literary criticism has had a difficult relationship with narrative voice throughout the twentieth century. From the distinction between author and narrator inaugurated by formalist critics in the early moments of the twentieth century, to Roland Barthes’ influential “The Death of the Author” in 1977, separation of author from text has become customary. Concurrently, historicist and feminist criticism criticism encourage critics to consider the circumstances of writing though which writers produce text. Operating between these competing discourses, the critic is caught between a framework that considers an author’s life to have absolute determinative power over text and a framework that refuses to consider the author as a category at all.

Particularly in the case of autobiography, we must respect the distinction Paul de Man notes between “experience and the representation of this experience.” This respect does not evade or marginalize the potential importance of biographical analysis, but it does acknowledge that biography does not offer access to a truth that would be exempt from formal literary analysis. As Hortense Spillers writes, “the narrative which the writer offers for consideration operates according to the logic of the literary form,” and the narrative should be attended to as such prior to additional considerations. This paper reads Dionne Brand’s 2001 Map to the Door of No Return both within the logic of autobiography as experiential testimony and within the logic of autobiography as literary form. This reading aims, as Barbara Johnson has written, “to seek in [biography] not answers, causes, explanations, or origins, but new questions and new ways in which the literary and nonliterary texts alike can be made to read and rework each other.