Essayist-in-residence, Kabu Okai-Davies, explores how the author’s “self” is always integrated into fiction.
In reflecting on my career as an author, autobiographical writing has always been the substance of my literature. However, there is an ambivalent attitude and misunderstanding amongst those who perceive autobiographical-based fiction as not being grounded within the genre of literary fiction. Yet, one wonders how the evolution of fiction would have been possible without the raw material auto/biographical experience?
Every work of literature is tied up within the creative practice and true-life experiences of the writer. Writers live in the imagined world of the characters they create—from conception to completion. The practical process of writing a book and having it published is part of its author’s life. Hence writers become the autobiographical representation of their fictional creations, making the written story a representation of the author’s life, thoughts and experiences. What writers think about becomes part of their book.
That is why I appreciate the fact that, who we are, what we are and where we come from; influences the literature we create. Hemingway could not have written like Fitzgerald or Hardy writing like Dickens, neither can we compare Dostoyevsky’s writing style and process to that of Tolstoy. Imagine Elliot writing poetry like Pound, or in this instance expecting Ellison to write like Wright or Morrison writing like Walker or Ngugi, Soyinka and Okri writing like Achebe. I cannot imagine Singer and Bellow writing in a similar style, even though these writers share similar backgrounds or are products of the same literary traditions and heritage. Every writer is different, even if they share creative and literary connections as writers of the same generation, nationality or even if they were married, like Plath and Hughes. The differences in writing styles and thematic preoccupations are the result of biographical differences. Every writer lives and writes by the mandate of their backgrounds and upbringing. No two writers are similar, the way, no two lives are the same.
As an autobiographical writer, I excavate my material from my experiences and understand that the best way to make sense of my life is to engage with my life history, through the solitary process of reading and writing, whether it is framed within the genre of fiction, memoir or autobiography. In this case, fiction becomes the means by which a novelist or storyteller creates the form, shape, texture, arc and structure to deliver a story. Fiction is the mask, a device for disguising the evidence and a garment to cloth the naked truth, to make the reader a detective to investigate the writer’s life.
Everything else is cosmetic, a face lift, a costume and an ornament to provide a work of literature the means for literary classification. Every day, as I sit facing the blank page or screen, I ask myself: What is fiction? Is it not an imaginative imitation of life and a means to provide the author a sense of detachment, to discuss lived experiences in a dispassionate way? That is why I believe my writing serves as a medium by which to make sense of what I know, and what I do not know.
If Marlon James was not Jamaican, whose mother was a police detective and had a father who was a lawyer at the time of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, he could not have written The History of Seven Killings. Autobiography in essence is a metaphor for fiction. Let us not forget that our experiences as humans are not only determined by our engagement with the external world of visible or sensory reality and our interactions with other humans. Our experience of life is also linked to our cognitive, emotional and imaginative experiences. Besides having the gift, learned discipline or training as writers, we all live by the mandate of our imaginative and real life experiences, which in turn determines the kind to literature we create. I write the way I write, because of who I am and what I am.
Out of the realm of our fantasies comes the literature of fantasy, mythology and magic. Our imagination enables us to create comic, seductive, murderous, dubious and tragic characters. Additionally, through the lens of our cosmic and scientific visions, writers create stories that are situated in distant futures and far away galaxies as science fiction. Every day, we strive to understand the nature of our existential condition and we build cultural, social, philosophical, political and policy frameworks by which to advance and improve our understanding of our human experience. As writers the factors of race, gender, faith, education, talent, class, nationality or ethnicity affects what we write and how we write. Autobiography also determines the resources at the disposal of each writer, when it comes to finding opportunities for representation, publishing, popularity and defining our lives as writers.
Autobiography is central to fiction and fiction feeds on the autobiographical. I cannot see how the two are mutually exclusive. And this is why I choose to differ in opinion when critical voices in the establishment insist that, writers have to ‘grow up,’ out of the trappings of their autobiographical experiences. How could Junot Diaz write The Brief Life of Oscar Wao without being a Dominican-American or how could John Grisham write his legal thrillers if he had not trained and practiced as a lawyer?
The rise of autobiographical driven novels by Knausgaard, Ferrante, Lerner, Offill and Cusk, proves that it is time the literary and publishing establishment accepts the fact that, the autobiographical represents the flesh, bones and blood beneath and behind the garment of fiction which writers use to fill up the gaps of memory.
After all, writers from antiquity to the recent past, including contemporary writers started out writing autobiographical novels disguised as fictional, before branching out in wider fields of imaginative fiction, based on experiences and memories about things that have happened in their lives. In this age of the selfie, Facebook, Instagram and voyeuristic culture; the narcissist within us, endlessly seeks to look at itself in the mirror of time. The auto-self is on display every day, every moment, saying to ourselves: Look at me, here I am. How do I look? Therefore fictionalised auto/biographies are to the writer, what self-portraits are to an artist.
Our obsession with the self as subject on display is at the core of our desire for self-knowledge and self-acknowledgement. Like any other writer creating literature from ones lived experience, I write autobiographical fiction as a means for self-exploration, self-examination, self-appraisal; to revaluate my values, re-dream my dreams and to find out how my life could have been and what it can become in the future.
To conclude, I want to reaffirm that autobiographical narration is relevant to the evolution of fiction. Any attempt to separate autobiography and fiction must be seen as a symbolic or semantic separation. Life can sometimes appear fictional and fiction always imitates life. In my imagination, I am no longer able to separate the imagined life from my past-lived experiences. The mind is its own interpreter of memory. Who we are, what we are, indeed determines what and how we write. My auto/biography informs the substance of my fiction, making my life the metaphor of my fiction.
Kabu Okai-Davies is an African-Australian playwright, novelist and poet from Ghana. He is the author of Long Road to Africa, Curfew’s Children and Evidence of Nostalgia and Other Stories. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing–UC. He is currently a Visiting Fellow in Writing–School of Arts and Humanities at ANU and the 2015 Alumni Award Winner for Excellence, Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra. His website is http://kabuokai-davies.com/
Thank you for your thoughts on autobiography and fiction, which I agree with 100%. In fact, I have written along similar lines in the preface to my own memoir-in-progress, albeit from a slightly different angle. I would be happy to send you the link to my comments on whether autobiography is fact or fiction, if you wish to see it.