Memoir, Autobiography, Testimonio

Authored by: Norma E. Cantú

The Routledge Companion to Latino/a Literature

Print publication date:  August  2012
Online publication date:  October  2012

Print ISBN: 9780415666060
eBook ISBN: 9780203097199
Adobe ISBN: 9781136221613


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As a life-long reader of biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, testimonios, and what Gloria Anzaldúa called autohistorias, I expect certain features or characteristics of books that pretend to render a person’s life on the page. Certainly, I expect to situate the story in a time and space/place so that I have a sense of how the person’s life was shaped by the environment. As a creative writer of what I call autobioethnography, I am also interested in the cultural or ethnographic aspects of that life; furthermore, as a Chicana/Latina feminist scholar, I am also very much interested in life-writing that explores the intersections of oppressions in Latino/a communities. And finally, I expect such writings to offer a glimpse into someone’s life that will illuminate my own. Perhaps that is too much to ask as a reader, but I must say that I am not often disappointed and that most Latina/Chicana life stories meet my expectations. In writing this chapter, then, I present an exploration of the genre that I am calling life-writing. Because of my personal penchant for epistemologies born of experience, I examine the three main subgenres – autobiography, memoir, and testimonio – focusing on the contributions each makes to the overall development of Latina/Chicana literature. The autobioethnographic project, thus, emerges from theorizing and assessing knowledge formation from the author’s exploration of a self-folklore, that is a self-knowledge akin to what Anzaldúa called “autohistoriateoría”. As such, then, the life-writing genre, collectively framed as it is, adds to the body of knowledge gained from the folk, from the communities we inhabit as Latinas/Chicanas. In reading autobiographies, memoirs, and testimonios, I delve beyond the story of the life to that of the knowledge produced by living that life in a community, and specifically in the latinidades that we Latina/Chicana writers inhabit. I want to draw an important distinction within the life-writing genre and that is the person who is telling the story – if that person is an author who is in some way, setting the record straight, or offering his or her construction of a life as an author, it will invariably result in a much different narrative than if it is a non-academic, or a person not in the business of writing, as it were; this I have perceived in reading the autobiographies, memoirs, and testimonios of Latinos/as and Chicanos/as who come from the world of business or of medicine, for example, and those written by professional writers. In this brief essay, I limit my discussion to exploring works of autobiography, memoir, and testimonio as genres that constitute an important subsection of Latino/ a literature; focusing on these forms allows me to explore the particular sociopolitical conditions of the writers and the transnationality of the genres while also addressing issues of definition and classification and the larger literary and sociocultural aspects of life-writing. I argue that Latino/a and Chicano/a life-writing differs from that of more mainstream authors. Even as it adheres to the conventions of the genres, in general, I note that the dislocation of fixed boundaries and the nudging of the conventions adds to the development and enrichment of the genres of life-writing. But, before I begin my discussion of the genres and the themes and kinds of life-writing they constitute, I offer a brief discussion of the cataloging and defining of the genres, which includes a perfunctory discussion of the origins of such writing in the Americas.

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