Autobiography and Autonomy?

Literature Politicized

The stories that are chosen to be shared by the markets, the way in which they are told, and the voices that validate them as authentic all contribute to an external politicization of our literature. Within these stories, too, is an inherent politicization that influences the way we think and interact with others- often for the better, but sometimes for the worst.

I endeavour to explore some of the most interesting instances of literature that are written, or simply marketed as political statements by looking closely at the relationship between the books we choose to read and the impact this has on our understanding of one another.

Autobiography seems, on the surface at least, to be one of the most powerful and effective ways of sharing real life experience with people scattered across the globe. Here, the West can market stories from places far removed, promoting the improvement of human rights by sharing stories of oppressive conditions or gruesome contexts of war and violence.

It must be said that autobiographies have an enourmous potential to raise awareness on issues and ultimately promote a universal conception of human treatment. Unfortunately, it is here that the enormous possibility for positive change intercedes with politicization, and as such, a struggle for human rights based on autonomy becomes a subtle, yet constrictive commodification of certain voices for the benefit of a few.

Gillian Whitlock, in her book, “Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit”, explores how autobiography may be co-opted as a “soft weapon” in the venture of informal imperialism pursued by Western hegemony. Whitlock argues that we must look critically at book markets, examining the power that is central to deciding whose stories are told, as well as the way in which they are received.

This politicization of the autobiography does not begin or end merely within its pages. Pick up any work at a bookstore and you will notice that the method by which they are validated as authentic is blatantly political. I, like many others, have decided to read books because of their starred reviews in prestigious journals and newspapers, their chosen place in celebrity book clubs, and the fact that famous authors have recommended them.

Looking more closely at these covers, it becomes evident that these newspapers, celebrities and authors are predominately Western sources. Although we may not notice it, we are choosing to read about the experience or suffering of others because we value the Western sources that tell us to do so.

This does not mean that we should not read these stories, or that these stories are less worthy than a self published, generally unknown autobiography. It means, rather, that we need to critically examine the extent to which autobiographies impart an autonomous and authorial sense to their writer. If we truly valued the person sharing this autobiography, would we not care equally that they and their nation were authenticating the very experiences that they have lived? Shouldn’t the person who has produced this ultimate expression of self, as well as those who may share in this expression, have the power and agency to validate their own experiences and become empowered? Autobiographies will be hard pressed to reach their full potential as instruments in the achievement of human rights if they are also being used as instruments in the maintenance of power for a select few.

Whitlock, Gillian. Introduction. Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit. By Whitlock. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007