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Biography 24.1 (2001) 57-71

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"Heightened By Life" Vs. "Paralyzed By Fact": Photography And Autobiography In Norma Cantú's Canícula

Timothy Dow Adams

As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure.

--Susan Sontag, On Photography

In this essay I would like to discuss interrelations between photography and autobiography in Norma Elia Cantú's Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera (Figure 1), published in 1995, hoping that some of my discussion of the relationship between word and image in that text might begin to move us beyond an impasse I believe autobiography criticism has reached in the first year of the new century. The impasse I refer to can be described briefly as follows: although scholars have repeatedly demonstrated that attempting to define autobiography as distinct from autobiographical fiction is fairly futile--finally all writing is to a degree autobiographical and fictional--nevertheless there remains something about life writing that makes it feel distinct. And as anyone who has ever taught a course on autobiography can attest, if we don't try to make some distinctions, readers begin to treat autobiographies as if they were novels, and the genre begins to disappear just as we enter an era sometimes described as the age of memoir.

This impasse has recently been further confused by the Rigoberta Menchú controversy and the sophistication of two recent memoirs: Lying by Lauren Slater, and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: Based on a True Story by Dave Eggers. Subtitled "a metaphorical memoir," Lying tells the story of [End Page 57] Lauren Slater, who may have grown up with epilepsy or Munchausen syndrome (a factitious disorder), or may be using the book's elaborate descriptions of seizures and auras as examples of the sort of images common to epileptics, or may be suggesting that epilepsy itself can cause one to lie. Lying opens with a chapter which consists solely of these words--"I exaggerate" (3) --and concludes with an afterword in which the author writes "In Lying I have written a book in which in some cases I cannot and in other cases I will not say the facts" (219). Chapter Seven, "How to Market This Book," takes the form of a memo to the Random House Marketing Department urging that Lying be sold as nonfiction.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, on the other hand, despite its being "based on a true story," acknowledges in its archly ironic preface that "many parts have been fictionalized," though not we presume the sections that detail the author's attempts to become a cast member of MTV's Real World San Francisco. Eggers's humorous self-conscious self-consciousness about genre is reflected in the following words from his preface: "All the individual words and sentences have been run through a conveyor, manufactured like: 1) they are remembered; 2) they are written; 3) they are rewritten, to sound more accurate; 4) they are edited to fit within the narrative (although keeping with their essential truth); 5) they are rewritten again, to spare the [End Page 58] author and the other characters the shame of sounding as stupid as they invariably do or would, if their sentences . . . were merely transcribed" (ix).

I had once imagined that one way out of this perhaps passé impasse involved photographs. I had thought that the mere presence of photographs within the text might constitute an unambiguous sign of some difference between autobiography and autobiographical fiction, though now I see that photographs have been included in fiction, almost from the invention of photography, almost always used as illustration of place or atmosphere rather than of characters, and far more common in the nineteenth century when novels were commonly illustrated. As Timothy Sweet reminds us, "The era of the half-tone, beginning around 1885 for magazines and about a decade later for books, saw the emergence of 'categories of appropriateness' for relations between images and texts...


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