How does one get an identity? This is one of the questions that sociologists have tried to unravel for some time now. Many argue that the self is created and nurtured by the society and cultures we interact with and is therefore capable of change and adjustments. Carrying this argument in literary works, the self as portrayed in narratives is not only dependent on the narrator but all the characters and the setting of the story.
In this paper I will define the “self” in the writing concept and how this concept has been used in the book “Jordan, Mary Ellen 2005, Balanda: My Year in Arnhem Land’. The author a young single white woman leaves her home and goes to Maningrida where she hopes to learn more about the cultures there. The only reason she is visiting the place is because she knows very little about the area and would like to learn more about it. Jordan (p. 25).
The story is told from the self life writing concept which this paper seeks to address. In trying to understand the self I will rely on the arguments of Harré who described three types of selves. According to Harré narrating our encounters will see three of these selves at play. Self 1 as Harré refers to it plays the major role as one narrates the encounters they have. It simply reports what is happening and does not interpret or attaches any feeling to it. Self 2 on the other hand is defined as a “context of reflections where one actually begins to look at their inner self in relation to the encounters they face.
In reference to Jordan she simply begins her narration be describing the environment with no much emotions or reflections attached to it. It is just a description. At this point we can say that Self1 is at play. However as we meet new characters we begin to understand who this narrator is through some of the reflections and monologues she undergoes and Self 2 then takes centre stage.
“Self 2 is a complicated mesh of very different attributes, some occurrent, such as images, feelings, and private dialogues, but most are dispositional, like skills, capacities, and powers.” Harré (p. 59).
Jordan gives an account of an experience she faces where she was been harassed by an Aboriginal man who constantly harassed her by asking for sex. (p. 118). Introducing this incidence shows the reader the fears of the protagonist and any reader at this point would understand her fears. At this point Jordan again is simply describing the harassment and we see that she is scared (p. 118).
But later in her recollections we realise that there are underlying issues to this fear of the indigenous Aboriginal man. This we get through a discussion they were having with her friend Alice in which they discussed about two Aboriginal men who were arrested for sexual assault relate cases.
As she goes through this experience with the Rodney (the man harassing her) she ends up admitting that she had transferred her fears to all the Aboriginal men because according to her they all reminded her and even looked like Rodney (p. 123). Here her Self 2 begins to take centre stage to the point in her reflections she actually begins to question whether she was being a racist?
Self 3, in the context of social interaction, is used to refer to the way that certain aspects of a person’s actual or self-attributed Self 2 are manifested to others in the course of some life episode. Harré (p. 59). I will use the same episode where Jordan was getting this visits from Rodney. It is also during this time that her father dies and we learn that he was a violent man and it is this violence that had led to her parent’s breakup. In my opinion, Jordan unconsciously brought out a side of her that the reader did not know-a past that she herself did not know was haunting her. This automatically links the reader to the gender violence being faced in the society at that time. Her interactions with Rodney and her fathers death helps ring out the issue in the society.
When all these selves are brought together Harré concluded that it “opens up the disparity between what one believes about oneself (self-concept) and what is true about oneself, including those beliefs.” (p. 62).
In writing an autobiography the narrator in this case is also the protagonist and the essence is to make the two of them meet and be one. It is only through this way that the reader is introduced to the narrator. It is also the only way the narrator can identify himself or herself to the reader.
Bruner argued that the main task of the narrator is to find the protagonist and bring him forth to a point where they become one Bruner (p. 27). According to him the narrator is usually in the present but the protagonist is in the past. The job of the narrator will be then to bring out the protagonist. Bruner (p. 27).
Writing in the self means, personally introducing the reader into your life. The use of present tense and the first person pronoun makes the reader see the world through the eyes of the narrator.
“What after all is an autobiography? It consists of the following. A narrator, in the here and now, takes upon himself or herself the task of describing the progress of a protagonist in the there and then, one who happens to share his name. He must by convention bring that protagonist from the past into the present in such a way that the protagonist and the narrator eventually fuse and become one person with a shared consciousness.” Bruner (p. 27)
The self is therefore the subject he or she is the one who experiences everything and who feels everything in the narrative. The self must be omnipresent and relates to all characters that are in the narrative. It entails how people give an account of themselves as they tell the story. Is everything they experience in their life interesting to tell about or must they be cautious as to what might actually interest the reader?
Bruner stated that “a narrative must also answer the question “Why”, “Why is this worth telling, what is interesting about it?” Not everything that happened is worth telling about, and it is not always clear why what one tells merits telling.” (p. 29)
His argument that the reader may not be necessarily be interested in detailed accounts of events that do not add value is one this paper stands by. “The “why tell” function imposes something of great (and hidden) significance on narrative
Jordan managed to tell her story and make it relate to those of her kind. While introducing her narrative she has made it clear that she is a visitor/stranger in this place. She is ready to watch and learn. Though it can be argued, I believe that Jordan was writing for people of her kind. They are the ones who could relate to the issues she faced in this foreign land. According to her account she felt out of place, the culture shocks and the surprises she received made her sit back and think about herself and her life. Her description of the indigenous people she meets helps the reader to know that Jordan is indeed white and non indigenous.
This means that whatever the writer decided to put on paper must be able to serve a purpose and should not just be a chronology of events. Bruner Indicated that “not only must a narrative be about a sequence of events over time, structured comprehensibly in terms of culture, it must also contain something that endows it with exceptionality. (p. 29)
However as much as we want exceptional accounts, other authors argue that what makes life writing interesting is the way the story is told. The writer is able to make an ordinary event look interesting without exaggerations. Autobiographies are true accounts of ones life, when deciding what to tell and what not to tell authors could run the risk of skipping the ethics and introducing untrue events. This introduces us to the aspect of narrative integrity. In using the self the reader totally relies on the accounts of the narrator. The same reader holds trust that the events are told as they happened and that he/she has liberty to interpret them as one feels appropriate. With this in mind
Freeman and Brockmeier remind us that the need to be exceptional and interesting should never affect the degree of narrative integrity. It should not just be about the aesthetic value but the ethical concept (p. 72)
“We do not simply want to advance a concept of coherence, predicated exclusively on quality of form; narrative integrity, as conceptualized here, encompasses both aesthetics and ethics and is thus to be considered a dialectical structure of meaning.” Freeman and Brockmeier (p.76)
So what defines the self … is it just what we say about ourselves or can it be influence external factors. In the definition of self the term is seen as very subjective in that it belongs to the individual and the individual is in control of the self. But there are those that believe that this broad description can not be taken in totality. Such is the argument of Bart where he argued that in life-writing, ‘geographical location strongly inflects the story being told. This is illustrated with brief reference to immigrant life-stories, narratives of city dwelling and prison testimonies.” (p. 52).
In Jordan’s account her description of the cultures of the Aboriginal people and how she is amazed and shocked at some of their practises the reader gets to learn of her frustrations to try to change these people to what she would prefer them to be. Indirectly he communicates that she thinks her culture is more superior and should be adopted by the indigenous people. She thought the Balandas would be working together with the Aboriginal people to try and assist “such communities”. But realises this is not the case. She slowly learns that there are disparities that even her good intentions can not solve.
The self cannot exist in a vacuum. It is determined by external factors which define who we are and our beliefs. These external forces can be cultural social and even environmental. For example Jordan sympathises with the life the Aboriginals are leading because she keeps comparing it to her home town which she considers superior. She just wants to help them.
Freeman argument on the autonomy of self is similar to that of Bart. In his article he stated that “my story” can never be wholly mine, alone, because I define and articulate my existence with and among others, through the various narratives models my culture provides.” (p. 287). According to him autobiographies are personal stories that are conditioned by our cultural worlds. (p. 287). The culture does not necessarily affect the form of the piece but more of the ideas that the writer introduces. It is important to note at this point that the ideas presented by the writer may be brought out intentionally or unintentionally.
For example in Jordan, the conversation about the Aboriginal men who were arrested and released on gender violence cases may have sounded like a normal chitchat. However as a reader the tone used in telling about the release of this man is an angry tone. This goes to show that she is angered by the society that sets free a man who murders his wife. She may be unable to tolerate this because she know that in her culture a woman would have a choice of walking out of an abusive marriage just like Jordan’s parents separated due to such violence.
I will now get to discuss self in terms of flexibility. Here I would like to review whether there is any possibility that a self as portrayed at the beginning of the story can eventually change at the end of the narrative. This paper intends to show that the self can indeed change. This can be linked to the fact that the self is flexible and is not autonomous. Therefore change of external forces can also change our self at some point.
In the book by Jordan, towards the end of the narrative she knows she has to go back home after 14 months of her stay in Maningrida. When she came in she was shocked at the way the people lived and desperately wanted to help. She was later appalled by the society that seemed to adorn gender violence but the only thing she could do was but angry and scared about it. But towards the end she begins to think of this place as home. The reader now sees a changed version of Jordan.
She marks her moods at the closure of the journey by describing the weather “it was getting heavier” as her days drew to a closer. (p. 199). She had gotten to learn the cultures of these people, their art their language and she was actually managed to be a part of them though with difficulty. She says she was excited to go home but at the same time very sorry that she had to leave so much behind (p. 199). At this point she is not all about being superior. She actually acknowledges that the stories she will tell will be contradictory “with no good ending” because in the process of trying to understand these people she had ended up a changed person.
In conclusion this paper asserts that the self as a writing concept must be looked at in a broad perspective. As seen in the arguments presented in the paper, the self is not autonomous and cannot exist in a vacuum. The paper has also managed to illustrate and successfully argue that the self is not rigid and can therefore be influenced.
Bart M., Postcolonial Life-Writing: Culture, Politics, and Self-Representation. Viewed 03
Brockmeier, J. and Carbaugh, D. 2001, Narrative and Identity: Studies in Autobiography, Self and Culture, viewed 03 August 2011. f.deakin.edu.au/lib/deakin/docDetail.action?docID=5004938>
Jordan, M.E., 2005, Balanda: My Year in Arnhem Land. Viewed 03 August, 2011,