Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Power of Memory in Children's Literature

Recently I got wind of an event that took place last week at Hunter College called "The Art of Memory: A Roundtable Discussion." Memory and children's literature have cropped up in my thoughts a lot lately, especially considering some of the texts I've been reading. Since I wasn't able to make it to New York to attend the roundtable, perhaps hosting a discussion here can aid in sorting out my thoughts.

The role of memory in literature is a complicated thing in Doris Pilkington's Rabbit-Proof Fence. This book, about the incredible journey three Aboriginal girls undertook to get home from the boarding school of which they were forcefully placed, is considered by many- myself included- to be powerful and important and a great read. Rabbit-Proof Fence is based on the true story of Pilkington's own mother and aunts, who, as Pilkington stated in the introduction, "are anxious for their story to be published before they die" (xi). The book is testimony to the devastation that occurred in the 1930's when the Australian government insisted on the removal of children from their families because they were of mixed Aboriginal and white settler descent.

Pilkington lays out in her introduction the work involved in telling this story. She credits her mother and aunts for relaying their memories to her, and adds that she researched Australian documents and even, in her mind, made the same 1500 mile journey, trying to recreate a landscape that has either changed drastically or disappeared entirely. What Pilkington does not mention in her introduction is that she is trained in journalism- not in fiction writing. Her journalistic expertise was evident when she first brought the manuscript to The University of Queensland Press; at that time the manuscript was a strictly fact-based account of the trek. The press asked Pilkington to add narrative.

After first reading Rabbit-Proof Fence then considering the "fictionalization" of the manuscript, I am struck by two things. One is that this may be a prime example of cultural memory, since Pilkington embarks on a project that requires her to enter into nearly forgotten Aboriginal ways and to relay memories that are not personally hers. The passing-on of memory is fascinating (and a good reason to check out Second-Generation Memory and Contemporary Children's Literature: Ghost Images by Anastasia Ulanowicz, which I blogged about in an earlier post). Cultural memory is undoubtedly a poignant way of reclaiming what has been destroyed by imperialist agendas- but even more noteworthy is that childhood memories and/or the child protagonist via cultural memory is a powerful tool within this reclamation project. I'm thinking also of The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich, which I mentioned briefly in my Columbus Day blog post.

Secondly, in the past I've pondered how childhood memories contribute to an adult author's ability to authentically portray childhood experience. It seems to me that retaining powerful and vivid childhood memories would bolster this ability; however, writing skill may contribute more to fictionalized accounts of childhood experiences. Skilled fiction writers often realistically relay roles that they do not inhabit, such as the experience of a protagonist of the opposite gender, or a protagonist of a different race... or any fictional element of a story for that matter. Skilled authors do portray childhood authentically and connect with child readers, even if they aren't very in touch with their own childhood memories. But, to be blunt, Pilkington is not what I consider a skilled fiction writer.

Her narrative in Rabbit-Proof Fence is often disrupted by her inability to to reconnect with her child self. Pilkington speaks of accessing her childhood in the introduction, claiming that the attempt to write through the eyes of a child was, for her, difficult. She states, "The task of reconstructing the trek home from the settlement has been both an exhausting and interesting experience...I found it necessary to become a ten-year-old girl again in order to draw on my own childhood memories of the countryside surrounding the settlement" (xii). Pilkington's book is- as I stated earlier- powerful and important and a great read. This is an unusual discrepancy; I don't know that I've ever come across a book that I admire and enjoy, but do not consider beautifully written. I wonder- is the power of memory behind the success of Rabbit-Proof Fence?

I guess in the end attempting to measure the contributions of memory and skill in a piece of fiction is a bit like getting caught up in the nature vs. nurture argument: messy! We can theorize for decades but in the end it's a tangled web of influences from both that contribute to a (subjective) end result. That being said... I still find memory an area of study particularly fruitful and interesting for children's literature scholars.

One of the panelists from last week's roundtable is a children's literature scholar who is studying memory and children's literature, albeit differently than the discussion I've presented here. Alison Waller, author of Constructing Adolescence in Fantastic Realism, is currently working on a book about how adults renegotiate relationships with books from their past. I've been doing some of this renegotiating myself as I lately reread Little House on the Prairie. The book was a favorite of mine as a child, one that I hadn't touched in about two decades. Asked to recall my childhood reaction to the scene in which Laura demands that Pa get her an Indian baby for keeping, I ashamedly admitted to thinking it was along the same lines as really, really wanting a new doll. My child self sympathized with Laura! However, my adult awareness of absurd and downright racist depictions of American Indians in pioneer literature is forcing me to renegotiate, or maybe reconsider, my childhood love for the Little House series. As I gain appreciation for the problem of misrepresentations of indigenous peoples in literature, will there be (or should there be) room left in my adult self to love Little House on the Prairie? 

*Thank you Alya Hameed, Lydia Heberling, and Prof. Cummins for listening to all my half-formed thoughts

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