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North-American Novelists’ Autobiographical Acts: Nonfictional Disruptions

Aix-Marseilles University, 6-7 July 2023
Klaudia Kopiasz

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1The conference entitled “North-American Novelists’ Autobiographical Acts: Nonfictional Disruptions” took place on July 6-7, 2023 on the campus of Aix-Marseilles University in Aix-en-Provence. It was organized by Sophie Vallas (Aix-Marseilles University, LERMA) and Arnaud Schmitt (University of Bordeaux, CLIMAS). As announced by the organizers of the event, the conference intended to focus on autobiographical texts published by American novelists and thus attempt to raise various questions, such as: How may fiction and non-fiction come together within the same career? How does the disruption of non-fiction influence the reception of the novelist’s fictional work? What are the artistic logics underlying the writing of both fictional and autobiographical texts?

2The overlapping of self-writing and fiction turned out to be the starting point for a complex discussion about identity, agency, writing and exposure which, combined, help—to some extent—understand, examine or even disrupt the construction of the figure of the author. Opening the conference, Sophie Vallas highlighted that the conference aimed, among other things, to address the transgressive, often heterogeneric, nature of some autobiographical works by North-American novelists.

3Arnaud Schmitt then introduced Claudine Raynaud (University Paul Valery-Montpellier 3, France) who delivered a presentation entitled “‘Like a hog under an acorn tree?’ Probing the Thwarted Fate of Hurston’s Dust on Tracks on a Road (1942).” Ever since her PhD, which she wrote on African-American female self-writing, Raynaud has been interested in black autobiography. In her paper on Zola Neale Hurston, Raynaud explored the constraints and tensions obvious in the autobiographical volume that the Harlem Renaissance writer signed in 1942. She also highlighted the extent to which it is both pertinent and problematic to assign an autobiographical dimension to Hurston’s fictional works. The question of whether there existed a dialogue between fiction and non-fiction was central to the presentation: are they isolated or are there any strong connections between those two genres? Hurston’s case is particularly interesting as she, indeed, was reluctant to write an autobiography, fearing it would lead her to produce “a programmatic form expected from the American audience,” and, instead, wanted to reclaim the self by providing the critique of what race is based on—race understood as a stereotypical, social and historical construct. While discussing Hurston’s ethnographic account, “Hoodoo in America,” Raynaud called the writer “the precursor of the collective observation,” showing that although she was not interested in being a spokeswoman for the community, she eventually became the central figure of the Harlem Renaissance.

4The complex relationship to autobiographical writing of another American novelist, widely known for her depiction of black experience, was discussed by Lucas Cantinelli (Aix-Marseilles University). Entitled “‘The prison of ‘I’: autobiography as contradiction in Toni Morrison’s writings,” his presentation examined the links between Morrison’s work as a novelist, on one hand, and, on the other, her sporadic autobiographical acts (in essays, for instance). Morrison never wrote any autobiographical volume, and, like Hurston, strongly resisted doing so. As she explained in a 1977 interview: “It’s never about my life.” Yet, quoting Raynaud, Cantinelli successfully demonstrated that although Morrison does not directly write about her personal experiences, her writing nonetheless stems from her life. Even though the distinction between fiction and non-fiction in her works seems clear, Morrison’s production proves that every form of writing necessitates both the act of remembering and the act of creation. Thus, instead of being what Cantinelli called “the center of her writings,” she becomes “their point of origin,” and her remembrances are recreated and rechanneled through her fiction. Cantinelli also raised the important question of authenticity. Drawing from “Site of Memory,” an essay by Morrison published in 1984, he argued that the author was more interested in “fact and truth” than “fact and fiction” and ambitioned to get access to “interior lives,” thus providing the closest insight into the experience of the enslaved. Eventually, what Morrison writes is another form of expressing the self: it is, according to Cantinelli, the self-writing of another. Yet, even in becoming another self, the Other, Morrison’s autobiographical I still penetrates her writings.

5However, if there are personal histories behind each and every writing, then what does make the author choose fiction to accommodate the self? Does it mean that fiction enables the writer to express themselves more freely, while guiding the reader through “the maze of history of race relations in the US?” Such a question, which perfectly applies to both Raynaud’s and Cantinelli’s presentations, was raised by Béatrice Mousli (University of South Carolina, USA) who delivered a presentation on “Autofiction in Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence.” Erdrich’s novels generally take place in Ojibwe country, representing what Mousli called the “cradle of her maternal life.” In Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country: Travelling Through the Land of My Ancestors (2003), Erdrich steps away from fiction once she introduces a character named Louise who runs her own bookstore selling indigenous literature and history books. This is confusing since the author herself, whose first name is Louise, is the owner of The Birchbark, a bookstore promoting Native American literature. Such blurring of fiction and non-fiction seems inherent to Erdrich’s writing and one could thus wonder why, for instance, she at one point chose to write something else than a novel. Given the autobiographical material that regularly appears in her works, especially in The Sentence, a story on ghosts but more importantly a personal story of what she calls a “fraught year,” would it be more accurate to write a journal or a chronicle instead? Answering the question, Mousli highlighted the creative and imaginative potential of fiction which shifts a focus from the individual to the collective and becomes a form of a “safeguard.” But, more importantly, it also expresses a form of freedom that reflects the author’s own wish and that corresponds to what Mousli refers to as “the need of the moment, a moment in the life of the US, a moment in Louise Erdrich’s writing life.” One’s writing life or writing career may then lead to the construction to a certain type of persona, an image that the author is likely to create—either consciously or unconsciously, purposefully or unintentionally.

6Ending on a personal note, the first session of the conference was then followed by the presentations delivered by Héloïse Thomas (University Bordeaux-Montagne, France), David Lombard (University of Liège, Belgium) and Adriana Haben (University Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, France). The afternoon was chaired by Claudine Raynaud.

7In her presentation entitled “Life, Writing, and the Pursuit of Queerness: Queered Autobiographies as Ars Poetica for Fiction,” Héloise Thomas first explained how queerness is used by American writers to blur the boundaries between fiction and life-writing. In Edinburgh, Alexander Chee’s debut novel (2001), everything, Thomas claimed, “is a way to depict what happened to Chee and how he dealt with it in the aftermath.” Because he was often asked if Edinburgh wasn’t a memoir Chee decided to publish an autobiographical essay. According to Thomas, Edinburgh is as much about the writing process—writing a novel, a memoir and a hybrid text—as about living in different places and dealing with various problems. As a queer author who is constantly asked about his genre status, Alexander Chee is, however, concerned about the bind of minority writers who are expected to write autobiographical texts. However, queerness becomes for him a site of inventiveness where fiction and life-writing turn into something creative. It also becomes “a contested identity site,” resisting patriarchy and privileging fractures, tensions and contradictions instead. Thomas’s second study case, Carmen Maria Machado, presents in her second book, In the Dream House (2019), “the split self of the autobiography.” As Thomas explained, Machado “materializes the blurred boundaries that arise in the abusive relationships… and from then on, the self becomes blurred. […] She shows how the two selves—the narrative and the abused—become parallel.” By using the image of the house of memory, Thomas demonstrated that Machado is not only a victim and survivor of domestic abuse, but also that she is “every single script she wrote to survive, to make sense of [it].” The text is in fact the house of memory: through images, samples and scripts we imagine ourselves. Machado thus constantly questions those images and tropes in order to engage with queerness. According to Thomas, “[for queer writers such as Machado] queerness opens up for an unabashed discussion of the complex and fragmented self.”

8Héloïse Thomas’s presentation highlighted the triangular relationship between genre, identity and queerness. Alexander Chee’s rejection of the “memoir” and Machado’s experimentation with genres in her hybrid work show that minority writers tend to reject traditional autobiographies­—those characterized by linearity, coherence, and the notion of a stable self, as theorized, for instance, in Linda Anderson’s Autobiography (2001). For them, the writing of the self becomes the process of crossing and rewriting boundaries imposed by traditional autobiographies, and thus of coming up with hybrid and experimental writings.

9Finding a form to accommodate some ideas or experiences is, of course, the author’s major concern, and, as David Lombard showed during his presentation entitled “He Wanted to Live”: Hunting, Local Fictionality, and the Sublime in Gerald Vizenor’s Interior Landscapes: Autobiographical Myths and Metaphors,” the exploration of some tropes, such as that of hunting, might be achieved through a generic investigation: here, the analysis of both fictional and non-fictional modes of writing. Lombard analyzed Vizenor’s autobiographical episode of a squirrel hunt which, as he explained, represents “one of the ‘shadows’ [Vizenor] wished he could have ignored and not experienced, and which he consequently chooses to narrate and debunk as a way of coming to terms with this act of killing from his past.” He underlined the importance of the “silences, absences, and shadows between the said and the unsaid, between the author’s textual presence and absence, and between the representational and experiential narrative self” (Bell 193). Lombard argued that some passages from Vizenor’s work, which exclude the autobiographical “I” and introduce the figure of the “trickster,” become the reflection of what can be referred to as “unsaid” or “unnarrated.” He eventually observed that by using local fictionality, irony, spectrality and some narrative techniques aiming at debunking the rhetorics of hunting, Vizenor strongly opposed the hunting tradition. Fictionalizing his own views and experiences thus enabled the author to both distance himself from the autobiographical I and, in some instances, to embrace it.

10Lombard’s presentation was followed by Adriana Haben’s insightful analysis of the intersection of documentary and autobiography in James Agee’s works. Her presentation aimed at revealing one of the less explored research angles when it comes to this American writer, journalist, and film critic: the parallels and links between Agee’s autobiographical fiction and some of his nonfictional texts. As Haben underlined, “the outline of Agee’s autobiographical project suggests he conceived life writing as more than just creating a narrative out of the events of his life.” Agee’s life writing project, which remained incomplete, seemed to include “a decentered vision of autobiography,” offering not only a portrait of the author, but also of his family, and more particularly of his father. In the restored edition of his incomplete and posthumous novel, A Death in the Family (2007), such an endeavor to move beyond the constraints of traditional autobiography can be observed. This generic strategy, however, proved to be confusing, even for the author himself. As Haben remarked: “On the same page where he outlines his autobiographical project, a discarded draft of an introduction labels the project ‘a fresh start on the autobiographical novel’ (580), though other fragments reject the term “novel” altogether.” The generic confusion was also central to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), a documentary that he cowrote with photographer Walker Evans and in which Agee paradoxically allowed “the irruption of personal, intimate memories.” Already the writing project of the documentary focusing on the life of sharecroppers during the Great depression proved special for Agee first because he wanted social justice for tenant farmers, and secondly because he believed that the farmers’ situation also had to do with his family’s origins and, therefore, his own identity. According to Haben, the crisscrossing of autobiography and documentary in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men opposed the standards of the 1930s classical documentary and was, for Agee, the only way to tell His-story.

11The second session of the conference was chaired by Sylvie Mathé (Aix-Marseille University) and was centered around three presentations by Tanya Tromble (Aix-Marseille University, France), Agnieszka Rzepa (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland) and Anne Green Munk (Aarhus University, Denmark). As announced in the title of her presentation, “To what extent is Oates’s life reflected autobiographically in her fiction?”, Tanya Tromble was interested in the intermingling of non-fiction and fiction, or, more precisely, in the autobiographical material featured in Joyce Carol Oates’s fictional works. Tanya Tromble first observed that “for a writer like Joyce Carol Oates, who has been publishing fiction and non-fiction in parallel from relatively early on in her career, it can be difficult to distinguish fiction from personal reality.” Such close connections between fiction and non-fiction may evoke fundamental questions on both the claiming and the forging of the personal self through writing–questions which Tanya Tromble addressed while quoting from Oates’s essays, in particular “On Fiction in Fact” (1999) in which the author claims that all facts are fictionalized, a statement which might imply that writing non-fiction could be similar to fiction writing. Oates’s production, however, proves it wrong. The resonances between the author’s fiction and non-fiction enable the readers to identify the autobiographical material as much as they warn them about the possible risks of taking up a further investigation into those autobiographical elements. An excerpt from “After Black Rock,” quoted by Tromble, underlies the idea of the simulation of the “real” that pervades every one of the author’s fictional works: “In much of my fiction there is a simulacrum of the ‘confessional’ but to interpret it in these terms is misleading. Not literal transcription but emotional transcription is the way of the writer” (64). Hence, Tromble made it clear that Oates’s production is characterized by the absence of “direct correspondences”: instead, the transcription takes place on an emotional—and thus more “subjective” and “intangible”—level.

12Emotions, the term which, in itself, includes the word “motion,” suggest the idea of “movement” as well as that of “stirring” and “shifting”—something transient, unstable and intangible. Agnieszka Rzepa’s presentation, “‘Water is the first thing in my imagination… Water is the first thing in my memory’: Drifting with Dionne Brand,” brought together the notions of movement, fluidity, identity, and ambivalence at the crossroads of fictional and non-fictional modes of writing. Focusing on Dionne Brand, a black Canadian writer of Trinidadian origin, Rzepa explained the extent to which liquid imagery permeates the author’s both fictional and autobiographical texts, and revolves around identity, sense of self, and belonging. The fluidity of water helps translate the experience of the flow of the Black Diaspora as much as it enables Dionne to re-channel her complex and multivocal identity. Interestingly enough, Agnieszka Rzepa also focused on the representation of the city of Toronto in Dionne’s work— the heterogenous cityscape, according to her, epitomises “the nature of human relationships in the contemporary world, the ebb and flow of relationships that go beyond the strictures of racial belonging or nation-state.” Indeed, black diasporic writers reclaim an identity that cannot be assigned to one category, place or genre. Writing in various forms, both in fictional and non-fictional modes, also becomes a way to alter identity or even identities, to reclaim and reinvent oneself.

13The last speaker was Anne Green Munk who delivered a presentation on “Hemingway’s Rewriting of the Literary History of the Lost Generation.” She began by introducing the audience to Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, published posthumously in 1964, three years after the author’s death. That first edition was partly edited by Hemingway’s wife, Mary, who came up with the title of the work. In 2010, a restored edition of A Moveable Feast was published, which is much closer to the manuscript that Hemingway left unfinished. Hemingway’s work represents a crossroads of fictional and autobiographical writing. The restored edition perfectly underlines the unresolved ambiguities of the genre that A Moveable Feast embodies. Munk’s presentation discussed the existence of the two editions and the fragmentary nature of the different sketches of prefaces that Hemingway left, which betray his hesitations as to the nature of his autobiographical text.

14The presentations delivered during the conference underlined different artistic logics behind the autobiographical texts which were studied, as much as they focused on the connections and dissonances between fictional and autobiographical modes of writing. It is worth reminding that initially, the conference was said to address the apparition and “disruption” of autobiographical texts within the novelists’ careers as well as their effects on their overall productions. Although this central theme was at times left aside during the conference, the latter nonetheless led to a surprising exploration of other questions showing the diversity of subject matters and dilemmas once we explore the ambiguous status of the author writing both “within” and “without” the autobiographical act.

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ANDERSON, Linda. Autobiography. London: Routledge, 2001.

BELL, Betty Louise. “Almost the Whole Truth: Gerald Vizenor’s Shadow-Working and Native American Autobiography.” Auto/Biography Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, 1992, p. 180-195. DOI: 10.1080/08989575.1992.10815021. Accessed 10 July 2023.

MORRISON, Toni. “The Site of Memory.” Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Ed. William Zinsser. Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995, p. 83-102.

MORRISON, Toni. “Memory, Creation and Writing.” Thought: Fordam University Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 4, 1984. DOI: 10.5840/thought198459430. Accessed 10 July 2023.

RAYNAUD, Claudine. Toni Morrison. L’esthétique de la survie. Paris: Belin, 1996.

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Klaudia Kopiasz, « North-American Novelists’ Autobiographical Acts: Nonfictional Disruptions »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Klaudia Kopiasz

Aix-Marseilles University

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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