In secondary school biology, we were taught taxonomy: Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species… Mr. Boniface – whose face was actually bony – told us that different species could interbreed only if they belonged in the same genus. Yeah yeah, I’m aware of the rare case of organisms of different genera being able to have the hots for each other, and have sex with success i.e. produce viable young and…abeg!
Cut to literature class (yaayy!). There we were taught a different kind of taxonomy where we learnt that though the autobiography and novel come from the same family of Prose, they, however, belonged in different genera. (That word sounds like genre, ba? ;-)) While the one was about true stuff, the other was all made up stuff. So technically the autobiography and novel were oil and water, couldn’t mix. However, years later, I would encounter these dissimilar genera not just mixing, but mating shamelessly to give birth to a weird new species: ‘autobiographical fiction’ – what tha…!
Over to you Google:
Wikipedia: The autobiographical novel is the form of novel using autofiction (sic) techniques, or the merging of autobiographical and fiction elements. The literary technique is distinguished from an autobiography or memoir by the stipulation of being fiction. Because an autobiographical novel is partially fiction, the author does not ask the reader to expect the text to fulfil the ‘autobiographical pact.’ Names and locations are often changed and events are recreated to make them more dramatic but the story still bears a close resemblance to that of the author’s life. While the events of the author’s life are recounted, there is no pretence of exact truth. Events may be exaggerated or altered for artistic or thematic purposes.
More from this interesting literary site, LitReactor:
There is a fine line between a fictionalised autobiography or memoir and autobiographical fiction. In both cases, the author includes tidbits about his or her life. The difference is to what extent. Fictionalised autobiographies are mostly a truthful telling of the author’s experience with sections fictionalised to’ protect the innocent’, filling gaps where memory fails, and occasionally rearranging events for maximum narrative effect. Generally speaking, the reader is to believe the author’s account and take it for truth.
On the other hand, autobiographical fiction is primarily comprised of made up events that may be based on the author’s own experience and self. The protagonist might be modelled after the author and do at least some of the things the author has actually done in his or her life. However the ratio of truth to fiction will be somewhat small. [‘Autobiographical Fiction: Using Your Real Life to Craft Great Fiction’ by Taylor Houston]
Fade in to the Nigerian literary scene. Everybody has read at least a review or two of Eghosa Imasuen’s Fine Boys and there’s this one song the critic-choir keeps singing. Yep, you know it – ‘The novel is autobiographical…tra-la-la-la-la!’
They are saying that, like Imasuen, his protagonist, Ewaen, was a medical student in the University of Benin in the 90s, and that…umm…oh well, I don’t know if there are any other similarities between author and character except for the fact that their names begin with the same letter, and that Ewaen’s name looks like a contraction of the Eghosa’s name and surname (You didn’t hear it from me oh!). I haven’t read the novel yet so I stop here to face my topic.
How do reviewers and readers know when a work of fiction is autobiographical? What are the criteria? Did the author admit to parallels between his story and his story? Is it a gut feeling? Or does the reviewer know so much about the given author’s life to reach this conclusion? Aha. Is that where the problem lies? The reader does know the author’s bio, some of it from the book’s blurb, most of it from the internet and interviews! He knows where the author grew up, the jobs his parents did, schools he attended, when he first started to write, an intertribal clash he witnessed in his teens…and so the second any of these details feature in his novel, the reader’s alarm goes – grrring – autobee alert!
Why would his protagonist divorce his wife when the author himself went through a divorce five years ago? (No, it doesn’t matter that the author’s own divorce may have been messier than his character’s, or that his novel’s character never remarried whereas the author’s new missus had been right in the next room to his study, impatiently waiting for him to come and make her happy as soon as he was finished writing the divorce sections of the story.) Are readers saying that nothing remotely connected to a writer’s life should feature in his works? I’m not sure. Does this question the maxim that says a writer is better off writing what he knows about? Err…let’s see.
So this dude has spent most of his life in a small town where everybody knew everybody else and all noise ceased by nine p.m. Now, how well is he going to write about characters living in sleepless Lagos or Abuja – places he’s never been to? How credible is that? Even sef, imagine a writer who grew up on the street, running buy-me-cigar errands for ‘uncles’, and standing guard at weak doors while consenting adults did their thing inside. Imagine such a writer not having known his father, and his nine other siblings being from four different men. How credibly can he tell stories of normal families when he hails from something that hardly qualifies as one? He can try, but I doubt he’d waste his time talking about things he only saw in dreams and films, especially early in his career.
Again, what now happens to the concept of the universality of the human condition? That that writer’s character suffers from motion sickness like he does makes the work autobiographical? Is there supposed to be one person in the entire world who gets sick in moving vehicles? So half the novel is set in Dekina where the writer was born…well? Dekina is a town like any other – isn’t it? – and there are many people living there, the author being only one of them…
Does this then conclude that the writer should always write what he knows? Err…in my opinion, NO. Come on, am I going to marry my sister just because she’s one woman I know so well, wetin? I’d have to explore na, chyke someone else’s sis, get to know her, then marry her. The hardworking writer explores. What’s that thing you wouldn’t unconsciously write about? Well, get conscious now and try writing it. It may be slow in coming, it will be slow, but with research, dedication and patience with yourself, you’ll get something from it. It’s the best way to prevent your works – whether poetry, prose or drama – from falling into a predictable pattern (ugh!). Okay oh, I done dey enter anoda topic.
Autobiographical fiction! Fiction that is not quite fiction with reference to the author’s life, ba? Issorait. Whatever it is with readers and this term, I’d like to keep believing that fiction is fiction and the autobiography is autobiography. And when all else fails, I’ll do what a friend of mine prescribes: Conceal details of my personal life from the public (perhaps beginning with getting that pseudonym) and then write as it suits me, and even when oodles of stuff drawn from my life get entangled in the mess of my stories, readers wouldn’t know the difference, and I would have avoided that funny word ‘autobiographical’ gracing the reviews of my books. Amen. ;-)