Saturday, November 8, 2014

Are We There Yet?

In his review of poet Richard Blanco's new memoir The Prince of Los Cocuyos (a book I have not read) Kevin Nance hoists a tiresome complaint. After writing favorably of the memoir, which dramatizes and explores Blanco's youth in the 1970s and 80s in South Florida's Cuban-American community, Nance writes, "Regretfully, however, I have a significant reservation, which has to do with the author's note that introduces the main text."
In it, Blanco describes his childhood as "concrete and accessible" but also "elusive and fractured. As such, these pages are emotionally true, though not necessarily or entirely factual. Certainly, I've compressed events; changed the names of people, places, and things; and imagined dialogue. At times I have collaged two (or three) people into one, embroidered memories, or borrowed them. I've bent time and space in the way that the art of memory demands."

Call me old-fashioned, but the art of memoir demands factual accuracy, not collaging, embroidering, borrowing or bending. While the form is subject to the author's fallible memory—and is therefore less stringent, in terms of documentation, than biography or autobiography—Blanco baldly admits that he is making things up in the service of a larger "emotional" truth.

The problem with this is that we don't know which parts of "The Prince of Los Cocuyos" are facts and which are fiction.
Allow me to sigh. Every human being who has been burdened with the charge of remembering and conceiving of her or his past—that is, every human who's ever lived—has employed "collaging, embroidering, borrowing or bending" and has made things up "in the service of a larger 'emotional' truth." Everyone, virtually always—at bars, in bedrooms, in the mirror at night, toward the ceiling at 4 am, in a court of law, at parties, and in the car on the way home from work. Often—perhaps more often than not—we aren't aware that we're doing this, which underscores the power and ubiquity of memory's unreliability, But it's all we have, nothing and everything. Nance writes "Call me old-fashioned," which is pretty tricky of him. The phrase implies that in earlier eras we demanded and received factual, verifiable memory in our autobiographies, that there was a time in human history when our memories were infallible. Saint Augustine would have a thing or two to say about that. The sooner readers and critics of memoir and autobiography—as narrative books, personal essays, graphic art, Tweets, or whatever shape it takes—resist the tyranny of taxonomy and the fascism of genre, the better.

Can we talk about art, and not category? Story-telling, and not classification? How are we not past this yet?

Image via The New York Times


Darlene Mueller Morse said...

I think if we tell the truth at 87%, we're doing good. Anything beyond that would be boring.

Unknown said...

"The older I get the more clearly I remember things that did not happen."-Twain7486