Writing About the Family: Family History, Secrets and Universal Truths in Creative Nonfiction

In the chapter ‘Writing the Family’ in the book ‘Tell it Slant’, editors Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola closely examine why writing about the family is a crucial aspect of Creative Nonfiction writing and how that originates in the writer’s mind and how he/she gives shape to it in the course of the writing process. Family, they specify in the outset, is the first window of the child to the external world, “our first mirrors, our first definitions of who we are”. While the adult self assimilates into the external world with disparate individuals, cultures and experiences, the immediate family still remains at the core of his/her values/impulses, they still remain “the first objects of love, anger and loyalty”. It is thus, quite natural that writing about the family remains at the heart of memoir/creative nonfiction writing, keeping in mind so much of creative nonfiction works that revolve around the family, the parents, the grandparents, uncles and aunts, and sons/daughters and even grandchildren.

As writers, all of them may have faced the universal duality of their roles within the family, the need to be an integral part of their own clan, and establish themselves as separate entities. Also, being the forbearers of their families’ cultural and personal past, what they do with exposing the personal, private and intimate details of the immediate family while striving to attain a universal perspective is also crucial, as that is the only way their work can be solidified in the realm of literature.

For that matter, all great memoir and nonfiction work begin with the writer’s impulse to tell a true story with honesty, passion and urgency. It may be a story that involves the lives of immediate others who surround him, but the writer is successful after unfolding the story to his audience only if and when the purpose is to bring forward universal truth, to evoke universal emotions where the family is the nucleus. Here, even if the subject matter is apparently centered on the family, it eventually becomes a metaphor to explore some more complex human issues, the larger historical/cultural context. Also, here, the family and its little, specific details serve to link the writer’s personal experiences with the greater world. I will mention four essays here in which the writers successfully/effectively strive the balance between the personal and the universal, while becoming more than a simple exposure of family history and secrets. ‘No Name Woman’ by Maxine Hong Kingston, ‘Notes of a native Son’ by James Baldwin, ‘Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self’ by Alice Walker and ‘Three Pokes of a Thistle’ by Naomi Shihab Nye. All of these essayists accomplish this by the unique use of form/structure and narrative voice.

In ‘No Name Woman’, Maxine Hong Kingston starts out with her mother’s version of a forbidden aunt’s story, which is characterized by unusual silence. Ironically, in the very first section, the readers come across the author’s mother who warns her: “You must not tell anyone . . . what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born.” Apparently, as the story unfolds, the author narrates a detailed account of a young woman in a Chinese village who transgressed the cultural norms and became pregnant, not from her husband whom she very briefly encounters, but from another man whose identity she never reveals. The author narrates graphically, with gory details how the family suffers as a result of this ‘sin’, as the villagers flock to the house and slaughter the livestock. “The Villagers broke in the front and back doors at the same time…their knives dripped with the blood of our animals. They smeared blood on the doors and walls. One woman swung a chicken, whose throat she had slit, splattering blood in red arcs about her….” The descriptions and the details involve the violence and also the ostracizing of the aunt from Kingston’s family, and the poetic, emotionally charged scene of the aunt giving birth to a child in a pigsty. However, as the narrative proceeds, we understand that it is the author herself who uses her imagination to weave in the details. Her mother’s version of the story is only sparse, minimalist, with occasional reminders, “Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us…”. However, the author chooses a peripheral form by weaving a story within that story, she creates a portrait of a woman and attempts to look back at her life, the clothes that she wore, the bun that she tied, the men that she may have encountered in the fields who may have coerced her into a sexual relationship in a world where adultery had been an extravagance. She delves into her past and contemplates the way she had been married off to a young man whom she met and slept with only for one night. “Then he left for America. She had almost forgotten what he looked like.” She also vividly recreates the scene where her dead aunt goes into labor and gives birth, and also nurses the newborn for a few moments, as she desperately wants to protect the child, while also the truth that the child without any descent line “Would not soften her life but only trail after her, ghostlike” keeps plaguing her, until she carries the baby to the well, and they both dive into it. All this while, the author recreates the character of the dead aunt, the scene and the settings, richly detailed and nuanced, and by doing this, creates a story within a story. Her mother’s version of the story is there as a metaphor to explain how family histories are traditionally handed down, travels from one generation to the other, whereas her own version of the dead aunt’s story is the structural device through which she ultimately looks to discover her self-identity. By reanalyzing her aunt’s life, she actually intends to explore how the cultural history of her Chinese village, her family can help her reconcile with her own, emerging sense of self, growing up in a more fluid, cosmopolitan America. Her aunt’s life in the story represents the patriarchal trappings, the urgency to wipe out family secrets, as Kingston uncovers her family history while recreating the old, untold stories, altering and reinterpreting them for herself and also the audience, in her ultimate attempt to connect with her family’s past/history.

In James Baldwin’s essay, ‘Notes of a Native Son’, the relationship between Baldwin and his father, their internal struggles and conflicts are apparently the focus of the narrative, as the author recounts the varied emotional tensions of the relationship on the day of his father’s funeral. However, as the narrative progresses, the readers understand that the familial relationship between the father and the son serves to uncover greater existential truths in Baldwin’s life, including racial discrimination rampant in the 1950’s America and also the question of American identity. While in the opening scene, Baldwin lays out the settings of the essay, the day of his father’s death, July 1943, the day when his last child was also born, the distressing period in the city of Detroit, marked with “one of the bloodiest race riots of the century.” The day of his father’s funeral, also the day of his nineteenth birthday, as well as a day he comes to terms with his epiphanies, and his father’s vision of the apocalypse.

While from the very beginning, he provides rich details into his family life and also narrates how he had always got along very badly with his father, the fact that they both shared, in his own words, “the vices of stubborn pride” unfolds as the narrative progresses, and through the course of the essay, he articulates how this ‘stubborn pride’ in his blackness, a legacy, evolves and shapes his own persona as an African American. Structurally, he builds the essay around a definite/finite time frame, the day of his father’s funeral, and this context helps him situate the essay, while also letting the author explore the many complex, difficult issues that arise in his family and also in the world around him. In the narrative, Baldwin tries to situate the early memories of his father and how he grows up under his intimidating presence, the pride of his father in his own blackness, “his outrageously demanding and protective way he loved his children”, and his groping personality, his “proudly pursed lips and rigid carriage”. He provides a rich, layered account of his young life under his influence, stifling and wanting to escape his tyranny, and also his father’s gradual surrendering to illness provoked by his “intolerable bitterness of spirit.” Also, in the narrative, Baldwin’s father’s failures in life, his afflictions and his gradual surrendering to death is coupled with his own episodes of struggle and animosity as he starts living in New Jersey, separately from the family. In the vignettes of this independent young adult life of Baldwin, including his experiences in bars, diners and public places, his fights and violent self-resistance, the first epiphanies of his life happen when he realizes that he actually, unknowingly carries the burden of his father’s existential crisis, his father’s smoldering anger and bitterness in the white-dominated America.

In the scene of his father’s funeral sermon, Baldwin employs the use of memories most effectively, while he remembers the characteristic grin in his father’s face, his father teasing his mother, the comfort his father offered when he as a child, scraped his knee on a barber’s chair. With these little details, he transforms his father’s image into an enduring, memorable one, interspersed with flaws and humanity. Also, with his exposition of the scene of the race riot in Harlem, he simultaneously brings out the images of violence and racial hatred, as his own emotions now start to reflect in the world outside. Thus, by placing the story of his father and his personal memories in context of the larger American history, he successfully transcends the personal terrain to move towards a more universal experience.

Alice Walker, in her essay ‘Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self’, poignantly tells the story of an old scar in her eye caused by her elder brothers, which affects her vision of physical beauty and also later acts as an epiphany to understand the true value and significance of it. In the essay, Alice Walker steps forward to give a very personalized account of how her brothers hit her with the pellet of a gun that resulted in a permanent scar tissue in one of her eyes, and how she has suffered the onslaught of that childhood event by slipping into a kind of stigma, and a low sense of her beauty and self-esteem.

The essay starts with Walker’s childhood recollections of an Easter Sunday in 1950, her mother braiding her hair with ribbons, the Easter speeches that she listens to in the church, and people admiring her prettiness, her dress and her appearance. The narrative gradually progresses to a detailed, harrowing account of how her life had been severely affected by that childhood accident when she was “eight years old and a tomboy”, surrounded a group of brothers who “shoot and shoot everything with their new guns”. The scene, the settings of that event and its exposition is carried out in vivid, visual details. “I feel an incredible blow in my right eye….my eye stings and I cover it with my hand.” The brothers, notorious and bullying in nature, make her hatch a lie, and later, fever-struck, when she visits a doctor, he says, “Eyes are sympathetic…If one is blind, the other will likely become blind too.” The author confronts this moment of terror and insecurity of her child self and continues it as an ongoing journey well into her mid-life crisis, when she asks her mother and sister whether she has changed in any way after the incident. She presents the memories of a school where she had been terrified by the ‘electric chair’, and also by friends who questioned her about her scarred eye and called her “one-eyed bitch”. Through the vignettes of her early childhood and adulthood, she actually shows us windows to her mental world, snapshots of how her life is affected by powerful forces that are not within her own control, including race, social class, family dynamics and her own cultural notions of beauty. In the essay, we see how the family is instrumental in her silent suffering, and also how the family becomes a redeeming gift in the end, when Walker’s three year-old daughter Rebecca gleefully says that she sees a world in her mother’s blemished/scarred eye. In her presentation of the perception of her own beauty in respect of family and cultural values, her three year-old daughter becomes the metaphor through which she attains the most profound epiphany: she is beautiful in her own uniqueness. With Stevie Wonder’s song “Always”, she discovers another dancer within her own self, a dancer who is “beautiful, whole and free”, which reflects how she comes out of the conventional perspective of beauty thrust on her by family/cultural expectations and forms her own paradigms of living and acceptance.

Naomi Shihab Nye’s essay “Three Pokes of a Thistle”, also replete with evocatively woven family stories, is also in essence, the universal journey of a young girl striving to attain her sexual and psychological maturity. She segments her essay in three individual sections. The first section is about her childhood and school life, her first grade report card, a car accident and her loneliness and her discovery of Mark Twain’s book that shapes her vision of life. In the second section, she recounts her experiences with her father’s rich, stimulating world of language and cadence, the fragrant syllables in Arabic in contrast to the constrained Catholic environment of her friend Marcia’s house and her father’s pig-like grunt, and also her first tryst with the adult world of sex with the boys in the park, ragging her with the F-word. The third section is about her introduction to the feminine world of growing breasts and training bras in which she fumbles and eventually finds her way on her 12th birthday, when she is been gifted with a training bra. The three segments of the essay are neatly structured as various disparate layers of the author’s life, which she eventually joins with her metaphorical/artistic vision, and in the process, unfolds her relationship with her parents as a metaphor to discover/attain a recognition of her gradually maturing self.

Her mother cries “mightily, heaves of underground rivers”, peels beets, “her fingers stained deep red”, stands at the “screen door peering out, my baby brother perched on her hip”. Through these lyrical images, the author presents her mother as a primal force who actually leads her towards her fascinating discoveries of life. Her mother also represents the pervasive silence that permeates the author when she questions her about the F-word, when she questions her: “What really happens between men and women to make babies.” In the author’s life, it is this silence of her family, particularly her mother that leads her to the quest of understanding and discovery, which is again the author evoking the universal human emotions of wonder, anger, fear and insecurity. Moving back and forth between her family’s cultural truths and her discoveries of the greater physical truths, including the blossoming of her sexuality and her gradual awareness of it, Nye’s essay accomplishes the task of a successful/effective personal essay. The tension between the cross-cultural conflicts and her assimilation to conformity is brought out beautifully, with the portrayal of the family.

Thus, it can be seen that in all respects, these four essays are effective in bringing out the larger perspective which moves the writing beyond the merely personal to resonate with the general audience.

References:

Miller, Brenda and Paola, Suzanne: Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003

Root, Robert L. Jr. and Steinberg, Michael: The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction–4th ed. Pearson Education, Inc., 2007 

 

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5 thoughts on “Writing About the Family: Family History, Secrets and Universal Truths in Creative Nonfiction

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. I especially, like the part about family “being the first window into the external world.” This gave me a different perspective for the memoir I am writing. I love the pieces by Kingston, Baldwin, Walker and Nye that you chose for this post. I am looking forward to reading your memoir.

  2. Hello There. I found your blog using msn. This
    is a really well written article. I’ll be sure to bookmark it and come
    back to read more of your useful information. Thanks for the post.

    I’ll certainly comeback.

  3. Thank you for this post. Family dynamic in my personal writings, always seem strained as I am somewhat protective of their trust. The authors you’ve written about make great examples for writing memoir/personal story. I will look out for your memoir.

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