I tend to call my work “autofiction,” a term I borrowed from Marguerite Duras after I read her seminal book, The Lover.
Serge Doubrovsky coined it in 1977 with reference to his novel Fils. It is a genre that parallels Truman Capote’s own made-up genre, faction (or the nonfiction novel), when he wrote In Cold Blood. Work under this vein tends to combine two paradoxically contradictory styles—memoir and fiction—and whenever I bring up this term, I usually mention that many Black writers have been writing in this “mixed genre” for years (Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Louise Meriwether, just to name a few).
For me, I define autofiction as a genre heavily obsessed with memory and its effects on fragmenting the “Self.” The disorientation of the Self. In my own work, it usually deals with the reflection of trauma.
But often, my work is defined as either poetry—prose poetry that is—or flash fiction. I believe in bending genre, if the boundaries of genre really are that rigid, and I usually am amused when others label my autofiction, which tends to have flashes of poetic rages or bursts of fragmentation and re-remembering, as poetry. I started writing young, when I was five or six years old, and was always obsessed with repetition. Richard Rhodes once said: Repetition is the mute language of the abused child. I take that sentiment with much gravity.
My very first poem was a nonfiction assignment in the first grade, where the teacher wanted us to write about our parents. Back then, I had no parents: my mother had abandoned my sister and me when I was one or two, thrust us into my paternal grandmother’s care, and my father was running away from police for a white crime and was hiding somewhere in the Philippines. I entitled the piece, “I Am So Only,” and repeated over and over again the phrase “I am only,” between bits and pieces of narrative images of my childhood. It was my sad, child-like way to express my loneliness—through an ungrammatical error, a misspelling, a typo. What I did not know then was this: it was the very first time I maligned the English language, a colonizing tool that has reaped erasure and warped colonial memory for me and every child of the Filipino diaspora, for my own artistic, salvaging expression. It was my first poem, my first flash fiction, my first piece written in the blurred and memory-obsessed genre of autofiction—this act of mythologizing the Self.
In my art, I desire to explore new narratives of the Self. I believe every life is worth mythologizing. In my work, I want to excavate and illustrate the functions of memory. Memory is fluid, malleable, a fragile thing. It is a selection of images—elusive at times, but imprinted indelibly on the brain—and serves as a vital tool for the creative process, whether we write about the Self or not. Whatever we write about, even through imagination, all is filtered and distilled through the Self. “It’s surprising how much of memory is built around things unnoticed at the time,” the novelist Barbara Kingsolver once said. Memory happens. We accumulate memories as we live, breathe and walk on this earth, and in turn, we become an accumulation of our memories. And if our memories were one of trauma, abuse, and dissociation, then the need to make things up, the need to rewrite what happened, the need to control what had happened, to erase it and rebuild it and change it—this is what leads me autofiction. But it also leads me to poetry, to the vast movements of poetry, especially the identity movement in poetics.
I once took a Craft of Poetry seminar at Mills College, where the poet Juliana Spahr asked us to deconstruct the Self. The Self as identity. Specifically, the identity movement in poetics. Under her whimsical and wonderfully spiraling tutelage, we debated eleven diverse and decisive poets in the American spectrum, the CIA’s funding of American literature, the Poetry Foundation’s birth overnight when a wealthy philanthropist donated $200 million to the nonprofit, and tried, as writers might, to historicize the narrative arc of identity. It’s a tough, difficult, coiling task. But at the end of it, when I reached the threshold of what identity, what the process of identity could mean, I discovered how the Self can, and must, be regained.
Let me explain: during this class, I flew to New York and spent four hours in the Met alone for the very first time. I did not pick up a map. I let myself become lost in its grand hallways, snaking corridors, expanding rooms. I entered the Greek exhibit first, experienced the solid marble statues and ceramic vases and manmade frozen moments of love, birth, death, daily life, and then went on to the Oceania exhibit, the Egyptian and Parisian and Venetian upper class rooms and Italian arranged church altars and then finally the European Great Hall of Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse, et al. Then I entered the crowded hallway toward the post-modern’s room, emerging into William Kentridge’s “The Refusal of Time” installation with the clashing of cymbals, the repeating, white-and-black images of a man walking over and over again on a chair, and through the dark-noisy exhibit, I walked into the rooms housing Rothko’s No. 16 and No. 13, paintings by Pollock and Kiefer and Picasso and Lichtenstein and Warhol and Gorky, and to me, there was an obvious, contrived arc I had implanted into my head on the movement of identity and Self.
My mind obsessed over Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” to Bonhoeffer’s “Who am I? This or the other?”
There was an obvious clash, a push-and-pull between the Self and the outside Self, the inner fractured being and the outside chaos, an obvious artistic response to the great wars, the encroaching industrialization and splitting of Self, the want of anti-memoir, anti-erasure, anti-silence in the hopes of creating memory, form, solidified beings.
Here is my take on identity: first, the “historicizing,” then to “innovativing.” That is, to write.
The following list are eleven poets Spahr assigned to us, to deconstruct and study a kind of “identity” movement in American poetics. This is a tiny and brief list of American poetics, but it strives to be a survey for an “American” identity. Before I begin to “historicize,” I’ll list and catalogue the date of birth and affirming adjectives that describe the following selected poets’ works and subjects (please excuse my stream-of-conscious way of “defining” them):
Walt Whitman: 1819–1892 (catalogue of details, free verse, a chorus, chanted poetry, celebrated inclusion, democracy, unity, oneness, nineteenth-century American poet, Leaves of Grass = long cadences and rhetorical strategies of Biblical poetry)
Langston Hughes: 1902–1967 (Harlem Renaissance poet: 1920s, inclusion, race, intensely subjective, passionate, free verse, poems of the “plain black man,” humanism, musical, chorus-like poetry)
Rodolfo Corky Gonzales: 1928–2005 (Mexican American boxer, poet, and political activist; Chicano poetry; separationist)
Marilyn Chin: 1955– (cultural assimilation, political overtones, anthology on identity/1970s identity politics movement)
Robert Frost: 1874–1963 (A poet at the intersection between nineteenth-century American poetry and modernism—modern idiom, sense of directness, and economy, regionalism, realism, he creates no picture of regional unity or sense of community, individualism)
Maya Angelou: 1928– (African American oral traditions, “sassy” by William Sylvester, “we hear her poetry, we listen to ourselves,” use of personal narrative, the “I” poem, but calls to unity and community, the slave narrative: “I meaning ‘we’”)
Elizabeth Alexander: 1962– (Cave Canem founding member, subjects: race, gender, politics, history, and motherhood, illuminating the universal, memory and race: Faulkner’s claim that ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past”)
Richard Blanco: 1968– (Cuban poet, the youngest, first Latino, immigrant, and openly gay writer to read an Inauguration poem, considers himself simply a writer who happens to be Cuban, does not align to a particular group: Latino, gay, or ‘white,’ embraces them all within the individual)
NourbeSe Philip: 1947– (experimental poetics attached to literary form and social justice, cultural erasure, the artifice of form, emotive truth)
Edwin Torres: 1958– (self-proclaimed, “lingualisualist,” a poet rooted in the languages of sight and sound, interactive eclecticism, avant-garde fractist, our 21st Century Mayakovsky)
Trisha Low: 1982– (Internet age poet, post-conceptualism, poetics of restraint and restraints, politics of poetic form, post-porn queer practice, embodied and performative texts, a poetics of masochism, a poetics of hyper-narcissism, of existential hyper-awareness via the Self)
The poets we studied during this identity arc embodied that intersecting push-and-pull of want for Self, for community, for the existential validation of being. We begin with Whitman, with his ties to nineteenth-century romanticism, and there is a chorus in his words, there are voices, there is oneness. The same can be said of Hughes: he sings of the plain black man, and there, in his specificity, he creates, he unravels, he exhumes the oneness, the humanisms that we share. Then there is Corky Gonzales: the call, the reactionary poetics of separation, the naming of an oppressor, the exhuming of a sub-culture within the American aesthetic. With both Whitman and Hughes, we see there is a call to American-ness, a tying of cultural binds that intersects with the American soil, and we see that also in Frost, though he is hard to place between the nineteenth-century poetics and modernism. The landscape is alive in these three poets’ works: the landscape and its voices. In Corky Gonzales, he molds a separationist voice among the fugue. Then we have the Inauguration poets: Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Alexander, and Richard Blanco. They follow the strain of Whitman and Hughes, but their works are more insidious, they sing a chorus in hopes of unification but there is an undertone of political and economic and classist nature within the poems. Maybe it is because the U.S. government approved their words. Maybe it is because there is no separation between governing body and the body of the artist when the work is supported, fed, and uplifted by the powers that be, the powers that oppress, the powers that keep. I think of, then, Marilyn Chin’s poetics, the poetics of assimilation, of political overtones, of situational and Eastern cultural irony: the forms, still, are quite pleasant here, the irony not breaking, not fractured.
Then we have Trisha Low, M. NourbeSe Philip, and Edwin Torres, a self-proclaimed, “lingualisualist.” We have three poets who break form, fracture Self, enter through the dark places of the Self and paint, mold, recreate poetics of disembodiment and embodiment, of reactionary response to so many things: colonization, post-colonization, neo-colonization, globalization, the Internet age, Third World industrialization, etc.
They enter through anti-erasure (Philip). Through anti-memoir (Low). Through the languages of sight and sound (Torres).
I am most attracted to these poets, and maybe it is because I am of the experimental school due to Mills, but I am attracted to the ways they upend, break, and rebuild the Self.
I am interested in the Self digested in hyper-narcissism, in hyper-awareness, in hyper-silence and anti-memory and anti-erasure. I am interested in the self that cannot rebuild itself because the trauma inherited is of darkness, rape, un-memory, inability to speak or say or affirm because to not speak of such trauma is to erase, is to say I am an object.
Cathy Linh Che, during an interview with NPM Daily, says it better:
- I think about the struggle between erasure and anti-erasure. To me the act of speaking is anti-erasure. Writing, witnessing and documenting is anti-erasure. Writing down my mother’s story says that this matters. History matters. Trauma matters. The occurrences of her life and their implications matter.
- It has been said that reading, and especially reading fiction, increases our ability to feel empathy. It expands our worlds and asks that we look through others’ subjectivities.
- Whereas, rape is a form of object permanence. The memory of the event persists long after its occurrence. The victim or survivor is the object of the action, the recipient of someone else’s power. Coupled with silence, this person becomes, to the perpetrator or unempathetic reader, forever the object.
So, what can I say of the identity movement in poetics?
What can I say about my obsession in writing under the vein of autofiction—this act of mythologizing the Self?
I can only say what I know the body knows: it is a constant push, a constant pull, a constant rebuilding, a constant rewriting, a constant becoming, a constant being, a constant solidifying, a constant renewing, a constant re-knowing. In my own elementary analysis, I know the movement wants to say that the self exists. That the body exists. Whether it is of togetherness in a community, whether it is of the plain man or woman, whether it is of the self within a sub-culture, sub-community, whether it is of the Self existing within the Self, within the fractures, it is the Self existing.
Identity is the pressure to become.
Here is my innovation: two pieces, “To Write” and “To Manila, Luzon, An Address.”
“To rewrite everything.” — Cathy Linh Che
To write is to rewrite is to remember is to embody is to sin is to become is to exhume is to be is to want is to long is to hope is to rewrite is to write is to remember is to hope is to want is to forget is to rename is to recall is to change is to pain is to hope is to name is to damage is to anti is to negate is to want is to remember is to be is to rewrite is to rewrite is to rewrite is to hope is to know is to change is to become is the pressure to become is the need for movement for identity for the clashing of cymbals for the gnashing of teeth for the mouth to say to speak to open to change to become to need to be —
TO MANILA, LUZON, AN ADDRESS
— Found text from The Christian Advocate, January 1903
First only Manila then Luzon
the other islands perhaps perhaps perhaps I am not
Gentleman: Almighty God for light down on my knees prayed
Guidance first only Manila then Luzon
the other islands one night it came:
we could not give them back to Spain cowardly and dishonorable
not to France or Germany—our commercial rivals The Orient
in the Orient Bad business Discreditable
Three: we could not leave them to themselves
Worse than Spain’s
Nothing left for us to do but to take them all
educate the Filipinos uplift civilize Christianize them by God’s
grace: do the very best we could by them
as our fellow men for whom Christ died
(I walked the floor of the White House
after night until midnight
I am not ashamed to tell you
educate the Filipinos take only Manila, then Luzon, then other islands
And I went to bed, went to sleep and slept soundly
And I went to bed, went to sleep and slept soundly
And I went to bed, take only Manila went to sleep then
and slept soundly
soundly s o u n d l y
s o u n d l y — . . . . .
These two works—they are poems, little infant ones—and though they are not in the usual vein of my autofiction work, they revealed to me why I am so enamored with the need to mythologize, the need to salvage what happened to my familia, my father, my mother, my grandmother, my country, my diaspora, my Self.
They were written in response to Philip’s work in Zong!. The first was written toward “Zong! #26,” and simply, I was moved by Philip’s homage to Setaey Adamu Boateng, her homage to the ghosts of Zong, her homage to the dark imagination of anti-memory. It is about the act of “rewriting,” the act of anti-erasure.
The second piece is a found poem: I took the words from the article, “Interview with President William McKinley,” in The Christian Advocate, dated January 22, 1903. It speaks of the president’s demand to colonize the Philippines. It is his ironic “freedom” speech that convinced the nation to usurp the Philippine freedom fighters’ right to democracy, to label us as “Little Brown Brothers,” as the n-word, as savages, as little children who did not know how to be civilized, who could not govern themselves.
What interests me the most about the second poem is Spahr’s questions after I read it aloud: “What attracts you to anti-erasure? When poets write of trauma like this, I’m interested in their process, their attraction to the anti? Why write this way?”
I don’t quite have an answer yet. But I know it lies within the rage I feel when I read McKinley’s address. I know it lies within my obsession to write toward autofiction, toward mythologizing the Self, the collective Self. When I take his words and reorder them, reconstruct their meaning, usurp what he had usurped in my inherited, traumatized body, I reclaim something. Something that is beyond the rage. The idea that I am, that my body, was once labeled as a savage. The memory that my body was once, yes, my body, my family’s bodies, my ancestors’ bodies, were claimed as savages. I chose to write through anti-memory because the rage within is too palpable to write without. I chose to write through the tradition of “experimental, found, and language-based” poetics to enact the reclaiming, to proceed the knowing, the re-knowing, the fight against erasure, the disowning of cultural assimilation. It is my way of ownership, my way to identity, my way to say—I am not an object—my way to mythologize and pressure the act of becoming.
This is autofiction—the power of creating a multitude of narratives for the Self, whether fragmented or not, broken or not, colonized, erased, or maligned—autofiction is what Vievee Francis embodies in her poem, “Say it, Say it Anyway You Can“—it is a way to break and regain what was lost years or centuries ago—it is a naming, a calling, a knowing that what one has experienced and suffered and endured happened, and that no one, not the oppressor or history itself, can steal or bury what has been done to the “Other”; because maybe our bodies have been murdered or massacred, but our stories, our voices, our ideals—they continue to live.