‘Nonfiction is undoubtedly problematic, but in a good way.’

My reflections upon our very first Nonfiction lab, during which we discussed David Shields, the construction of reality and whether or not the “prettiness” of something tells us that it’s made up —

Thinking about the concept of “nonfiction” and my research, I wonder if I could convey another woman’s experience in a way that it will remain a true account but also captivate its readers. As discussed in last week’s Nonfiction lab, the significance of ‘I’ expressing my experience of the world makes a work nonfiction – but does this mean my subject’s story becomes my story through that mode of expression?

Beyond the basis of my research question, our discussion about new-age concepts of capturing memories and personal histories opened an area of research that I’d love to explore. This could be through experimenting with different modes of interview with my subject, e.g. recording an interview simultaneously with a voice recorder and with notetaking, and reflecting upon how my own subjectivity (found in the notes) will have already “changed” my subject’s story. Another way to approach this idea of capturing memory is to test how my subject’s story might change tone/focus if she is presented with stock photographs of her experience (which, by the way, was the series of natural disasters occurring in Japan in 2011-12, and her family’s subsequent immigration) while I interview her. I could ask her, if she is comfortable, to reflect on how she feels media coverage may have changed her experience/memories, and how the events she has lived through may have changed the way she has thought about her life and history since. This research may begin to reveal an answer (one of many, I’m sure) to my questions, ‘Whose story is this? How is it true?’

I have been reflecting in these last few days on the question of intention. If someone writes a work with the intention to write the truth, does that make it nonfiction? What if no one believes it? On that note, I am reminded of a story (one of my few fiction pieces) I wrote two years ago about a woman who finds out she was an accidental pregnancy. Upon reading it my mother called me from across the country to reassure me I was ‘always wanted and loved’ – she worried that my story was true, regardless of my intention. How relevant is the intention of the writer, anyway? And what is my intention, in regards to my project? Do I wish to tell the truth? Do I wish to tell a captivating story that will be published and resonate with its readers? Can both these objectives be achieved within the same work? Does it matter if they can’t?

One phrase mentioned in our class that has remained with me, is ‘negotiated memoir’. Having gone home and Googled it, I was pleased to find that this is David Carlin’s own concept; writing someone else’s story is a negotiation of sorts – you are the writer, the ‘first person’, but essentially you are bound by the trust of the subject. (I may or may not have jumped right onboard this idea and read David’s paper, ‘After Barthes’, which discusses it further.) I guess my project will be a kind of ‘negotiated memoir’ too, and so I hope to further explore the implications of this in the weeks to come.

As we discussed, the area of nonfiction is undoubtedly problematic, but in a good way.


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