EL382 Freedom from Oppression: Literature that Changed the World
“The Invisible Irish”
Re-asserting literature from below: memoir as a means of establishing postcolonial identity and/or history.
2012, Mark: HD 90%
“Memory is not about recovering a past but about the production of possibility-memory is a recreation, not a looking backwards, but a reaching out to a horizon, somewhere 'out there'”.1 (Ben Okri)
This essay aims to introduce and address some of the ways in which memoir as a literary genre is a companion to postcolonial literature, in the sense that they both endorse and reinforce each other’s concerns. Memoir complements postcolonial concerns of re-assessing and re-asserting history from below, questioning and constructing identity, and lends itself to postcolonial incorporation of the oral tradition. This partnership can be explored in Frank McCourt’s memoir of his Irish upbringing Angela’s Ashes. McCourt’s memoir relocates Irish history in a personal sphere, and serves to give a voice to the “invisible Irish”- all the marginalised and oppressed Irish men, women, and children who fought on behalf of Ireland against the many forms of oppression that have threatened Irish culture and survival that are not recognised in official history books. An analysis of memoir in light of postcolonial concerns highlights as a powerful genre through which postcolonial people can fight for freedom from oppression.
Central to postcolonial literature is the notion of ‘re-asserting history from below’. Without challenging colonialist versions of history, the marginalised would be lost to history, and by definition be absent from authorative annuals.2 In the words of Jacqueline Bussie, “art has often creatively functioned to capture the perspectives of the marginalised when a state or other systemic powers denied such persons mainstream political voice and expression”.3 Memoir greatly endorses this notion of history from below, as by its very nature, it is a genre that is accessible and open to all members of the public. It does not, by necessity, require any specific or advanced reading and writing skills. Unlike official history books, it is not grounded in academia, and does not entail any advanced education or research. All peoples, of all cultures have the necessary qualifications to write a memoir, that being, their story. This is particularly important for postcolonial literature, as it allows writers voices to speak to a much wider range of people, going beyond academia and speaking out to all members of the community and general public. It is through this that memoir provides a powerful opportunity to instigate greater social awareness and change. The fact that Angela’s Ashes is written from the point of view of a child, illustrates how capable memoir is in relocating and re-asserting history from below. Of oppressed peoples, women and particularly children were even more so marginalised, and in this sense can suffer double oppression.4 It is constitutive of the very nature of marginalisation that the marginalised are denied a voice; oppression sustains its systemic grip by aspiring to virtual invisibility through silencing of dissenting voices. As Bussie puts it, “hegemonic thinking absolutizes itself, excluding a priori to the potential worth of modes of thought other than the ideology endemic to the dominant culture”.5 Memoir disputes this by offering an open invitation for any member of society to share their story. Yet texts such as Angela’s Ashes are more than simply testimonies to History. Although this is important, they do more than this for they localize history. Their stories give the events of history a shape, a narrative; they remind readers that the events of history have affected, and continue to affect the lives of living breathing men, women and children....
Bibliography: Bhabha, Homi K., “Introduction: Narrating a Nation”, in Nation and Narration, Homi K Bhabha (ed), Routledge, London, 2006, pp. 1-7.
Brown, Megan, “The Memoir as Provocation: A Case for ‘Me Studies’”, College Literature, West Chester University, vol. 37(3), 2010, pp. 121-142.
Bruss, Elizabeth W., Autobiographical Acts: The Changing Situation of a Literary Genre, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1976.
Bussie, Jacqueline A., The Laughter of the Oppressed, T&T Clark International, New York, 2007.
Eakin, Paul John, How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves, Cornell University Press, New York, 1999.
McCourt, Frank, Angela’s Ashes, Harper Perennial, London, 2007.
Okri, Ben, The Famished Road, Spectrum Books, Ibadan, 1992.
Olney, James, Memory & Narrative the Wave of Life-Writing, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998.
Rushdie, Salman, “Notes on Writing and the Nation”, in Burn This Book, Tony Morrison (ed), Harper Collins, New York, 2009, pp. 78-83.
Tyson, Lois, Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, 2nd edn, Routledge, London, 2006.
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