Biography 26.3 (2003) 457-460
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Helen M. Buss argues convincingly that memoir serves as an ideal form for women—in particular—to "repossess ways of knowing the world and the self that do not divide the heart from the head" (xxv). Much of her certainty derives from direct experience: Buss has written her own memoir, Memoirs from Away: A New Found Land Girlhood (1999), and a number of scholarly works on women's life writing. Every chapter focuses on a different facet of memoir, each developing the genre's versatility and potential. In her preface, Buss presents a brief but engaging memoir of her own, both to convey some sense of the form, and to explore the reasons she chose this genre.
In chapter one, Buss responds to the anticipated question, "What is the difference between autobiography and memoir?" promptly and complexly. Buss cites the various characteristics of memoir, but cautions that she does not intend to create a rigid definition for the genre. However, Buss does clarify the qualities memoirs share. Principally, memoirs are episodic in structure and carefully positioned within a particular history and culture. Memoirs use elements of the confession, by having at their core "the desire to reveal the hidden thing, the forbidden knowledge" (12), but unlike traditional confessions such as those of Rousseau or Augustine, women's memoirs emphasize relationships, and "often end not with resolution, but with a condition of continuing renegotiation" (13). Further, Buss contends, successful memoirs use a tripartite narrative voice that functions as participant, witness, and reflective/reflexive consciousness. In addition, memoirs must be researched—in the broadest sense of the term—so that the subject is historicized and placed in a larger cultural context. The memoir writer also "performs" the self, working complexly through the self's various layers and stages. The memoir's sharp focus on particular events—rather than on an entire life—provides a "scenic quality" that helps to "create the dramatic nature of memoir" (23). Memoirs borrow strategies from the personal essay as well; both forms establish personal contact through their use of a constructed "I" or signature. In contrast, autobiographies generally treat a whole life, rather than the particular occasion or focus characteristic of memoir, and proceed in a more linear and chronological fashion.
Despite Buss's comprehensive explanation of memoir, some ambiguity lingers. In her second chapter, Buss performs a close reading—a "reading with an attitude"—of Maxine Hong Kingston's The Women Warrior: A Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. It is an interesting choice, because the book has been classified, variously, as a novel, "autofiction," autobiography, [End Page 457] life writing, fantasy, and so forth. Despite the inclusion of the word memoir in Kingston's title, Buss's use of this less-than-standard memoir provokes a reader to wonder precisely how this dichotomy would play out. What books would be viewed as memoirs? What books would be categorized as autobiographies? For the sake of clarity, as well as for an interesting analysis, I would have appreciated seeing how Buss might have contrasted a book such as Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which I think she would view as more autobiographical, with her analysis of The Woman Warrior. Both books are classified under the general category of "biography," but the differences between the two books are telling, and would serve to illustrate the distinctions Buss draws between autobiography and memoir. Like a memoir, Angelou's book does not treat her entire life. Angelou focuses instead on her first sixteen years, and there are, within the book, a number of memoir-like moments. When Angelou tells about her grandmother's initial humiliation, followed by a small victory, after she tries to get a white dentist to treat Maya, we hear both the "real" version, as her grandmother tells it, and the richly fictive version Angelou had constructed and much preferred. Here, Angelou's...