• Appropriating Their Way Into Existence: How Black Writers Upended Autofiction

    DK Nnuro on the Power of Mimicry and Subversion in the Black Literary Tradition

    In a 2020 piece in The New Republic titled “Can a Black Novelist Write Autofiction,” novelist Tope Folarin argues that, by design of the publishing industry, the artistic movement that is “autofiction” excludes Black writers, and, by extension, writers of color. According to Folarin, rather than the assignation of autofiction, which is “…at the cutting edge of literary innovation,” the works of writers of color who engage in the practice synonymous with writers like Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard are instead tagged by critics as autobiographical fiction, which is “…old as time.”

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    If the industry chose to broaden its perspective on the output of writers of color, Folarin, who identifies as Black, concludes, “we would have an opportunity to establish new literary movements ourselves, movements that would not be beholden to the frames of reference that predominate in the current literary environment.”

    But there already exists an innovative literary movement particular to writers whose work centers the ethnically and culturally marginalized backgrounds with which they identify. Contrary to the mode through which Folarin believes innovation could be won by such writers, theirs is a literature that embraces “the current literary environment”—put more bluntly, the work of mainstream white writers—as “frames of reference.” Practitioners include writers like Nathan Englander, Chinelo Okparanta, and Jamel Brinkley.

    Engaged in an unacknowledged literary movement of appropriation, these writers literally write their marginalized identities into works by white writers. Indeed, this appropriation is a cultural one that subverts our common understanding of “cultural appropriation,” with these writers adopting the dominant culture’s output for their own purposes. What results is a multilayered subversion, that, as if in resistance, can be argued as a more nuanced—and frankly more interesting—autofiction in the ways in which the writers’ selves are brought to bear through craft.

    The delineation between “autofiction” and “autobiographical fiction” is utter tautology.

    First, a question: What, really, is autofiction? I have already implied its baseline definition: bringing the self to bear in a work of fiction. But let’s set that aside for a moment, because, truly, the delineation between “autofiction” and “autobiographical fiction” is utter tautology. Each time I find myself participating in such musings, I hear the frustrations of members of my family who err on the side of expediency—as striving Ghanaian immigrants to the US, they are simply too busy to waste time on the obvious: “Isn’t it just the same word cut short?” It is.

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    And yet we continually strive to define autofiction uniquely from autobiographical fiction, however uncertainly. “If we can say that autofiction…” Do you see the uncertainty with which Folarin is compelled to begin to define it in his essay? And yet he proceeds: “…generally lacks traditional character development and jettisons traditional notions of plot, while sometimes featuring fragmented structure and diaristic prose…” Really? This is autofiction? Couldn’t this be said about craft choices distinct to other literary genres?

    Consider modern epistolary works like Calvin Kasulke’s Several People Are Typing. What is more lacking in traditional character development, more uninterested in plot, more fragmented, more diaristic (it is after all in the epistolary tradition!) than a novel entirely told in Slack messages? Fact is, the craft of autofiction—I join Folarin in flagging its predominant association with white writers, and thus its purported craft inventiveness—ain’t crafting with newness or originality.

    In his intro to “Jewish Literature: A Very Short Introduction,” which was excerpted in this publication, Ilan Stavans outlines what makes Jewish literature Jewish. Among Stavans’ standards are the facts that Jewish literature “…is made of bursts of consent and dissent… It is also marked by ceaseless migrations.”

    In the short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” which recontextualizes Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” with Jewish characters and sensibilities, Nathan Englander, who identifies as Jewish and grew up in a religiously observant Jewish family, engages in consent and dissent. I want to note that, like the majority of U.S. Jews, it is very possible that Englander also identifies as white; more relevant, though, is the historic marginalization with which he identifies, as evidenced in his work.

    Here’s the opening of Carver’s story:

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    “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.”

    Here’s Englander’s:

    “They’re in our house maybe ten minutes and already Mark’s lecturing us on the Israeli occupation. Mark and Lauren live in Jerusalem, and people from there think it gives them the right.”

    Englander echoes Carver’s syntax, as if the title of his story is insufficient at establishing consent. Throughout the story, other echoes wonderfully resound—the congregation of two married couples, the loosening of characters’ lips via alcohol, the old question on the nature of true love. It is in Englander’s moments of departure, however, his acts of dissent that markedly employ Jewishness, that a certain craft excellence is achieved.

    Some of the most beautiful moments in Carver’s story feature meditations on setting. Here’s one:

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    “Outside in the backyard, one of the dogs began to bark. The leaves of the aspen that leaned past the window ticked against the glass. The afternoon sun was like a presence in the room, the spacious light of ease and generosity. We could have been anywhere, somewhere enchanted. We raised our glasses again and grinned at each other like children who had agreed on something forbidden.”

    Responding to this moment in his story, Englander takes advantage of what Stavans highlights as a mark of Jewishness: ceaseless migrations. While Carver’s story is tightly confined to the interiors of its domestic setting, Englander migrates his characters outdoors and into the rain. There, it soon becomes clear that Englander is capitalizing on a lot more than the baton of ceaseless migrations Jewishness affords him on a craft level.

    Here’s Englander’s rendition:

    “We do not talk. We are too busy frolicking and laughing and jumping around. And that’s how it happens, that I’m holding Mark’s hand and sort of dancing, and Deb is holding Shoshana’s hand, and also, they’re doing their own kind of jig. And when I take Deb’s hand, though neither of those two is touching the other, somehow we’ve formed a broken circle. We’ve started dancing our own kind of hora in the rain.”

    While Carver’s narrator is merely restricted to contemplating himself and the other characters becoming “like children who had agreed on something forbidden,” Englander’s characters can engage in the forbidden—or the prospect of it—because Jewishness affords Englander a line of tension with which he can raise the moment’s stakes.

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    One of the story’s underlying tensions is the Orthodox Jewish concept of Shomer Negiah, which prohibits contact with members of the opposite sex. Because two of the story’s main characters—Yerucham (Mark) and Shoshana—are Orthodox Jews, they refrain from touching members of the opposite sex. Our narrator and his wife Deb do not subscribe to Shomer Negiah. So during this moment of carefreeness in the rain, when it seems we are witnessing the domino effect of touch, Englander is able to imbue his story with superior suspense: might Yerucham hold Deb’s hand? Might Shoshana hold our narrator’s?

    Not only does this not happen but Yerucham and Shoshana also refrain from touching each other. Shomer Negiah generally excludes spouses. Therefore, Yerucham and Shoshana’s restraint registers as a poignant and skillful moment of foreshadowing, as the story’s denouement hinges on questions about their union’s durability.

    Carver and Englander’s stories open in medias res, as does another pair of stories: “Corrie” by Alice Munro and “Benji” by Chinelo Okparanta. In “Benji,” Okparanta, who identifies as Nigerian American, transports Munro’s story, which is set in Canada, to Nigeria. The magic of both stories can be located in the plot twists they work up to. But the best surprise endings have grounds laid for them, and it is evident that Okparanta’s Nigerian upbringing prompts her to lay more resonant ground.

    “Corrie” hardly delves into backstory; it hardly lays ground for its ending. “Benji,” in contrast, takes pains to establish this backstory:

    “Well, wealthy husband or not, Alare was a God-fearing woman… In fact, so God-fearing was she that when her precious congregation had disintegrated, owing to a scandal involving the pastor—a congregation that she had attended almost as long as she had been married to her husband—she did not lose her faith, did not give up attending church services altogether. Not all pastors were quacks, she knew. But it had indeed been a shock to her—to the entire congregation—that, all these years, the soft-spoken pastor had been pocketing the money that was supposed to go toward renovating the church. But then suddenly a part of the roof had caved in, and the rain poured in, drenching them all. Everything came out then, of course, and the pastor had no choice but to flee.”

    In an interview with the New Yorker, which first published “Corrie,” Okparanta explains, “I think organized religion can be the vehicle for many a convoluted scheme. I’ve been to at least one church in Nigeria where the pastor told the parishioners, very bluntly, that the only way that God would hear their prayers was if they gave money. No money, no God, essentially.” Okparanta points out that duplicitous pastors are not unique to Nigeria, and she’s right. Nevertheless, it is her Nigerian experience that shapes “Benji”’s backstory of a deceitful pastor, lending the entire story a heightened satisfaction—especially in comparison to “Corrie”—when the plot twist is revealed at the end. In a place where pastors our duping people, why not those of lesser cloth?

    I explained that my novel is part of a unique and important tradition of autofiction that is in fact more transgressive than what they understand autofiction to be.

    Sticking with the topic of endings, the short story “Comfort” by Jamel Brinkley, who identifies as Black, responds to William Trevor’s “A Day” through the lens of contemporary Black American life. Brinkley renders an ending that, steeped in Blackness, arguably outstrips Trevor’s already perfect ending.

    Both stories focus on the lives of troubled women. Mrs. Lethwes, Trevor’s protagonist, is a childless, middle-aged white woman living in England; her husband is having an affair with a younger woman and Mrs. Lethwes drowns her sorrows in alcohol. Simone, Brinkely’s protagonist, is a young Black woman living in Brooklyn and mourning the loss of her brother Marcus who has died at the hands of police brutality; Simone also drowns her sorrows in alcohol (pot also comes in handy). For the most part, on a craft level, Brinkley’s story stays true to the original—until the ending.

    Trevor’s story is told from Mrs. Lethwes’ point of view. In the final paragraph, the point of view suddenly changes:

    “On the mottled worktop in the kitchen the meat is where Mrs. Lethwes left it, the fat partly cut away, the knife still separating it from one of the chops. The potatoes she scraped earlier in the day are in a saucepan of cold water, the peas she shelled in another. Often, in the evening, it is like that in the kitchen when her husband returns to their house. He is gentle when he carries her, as he always is.”

    Here, we learn that Mr. Lethwes has come home to find his wife as he always does: drunk. It is an unexpected denouement that lands with intense poignancy.

    Brinkley’s ending establishes the switch in point of view at the outset:

    “When he returns, he notices that the door to the apartment is unlocked, as it often is. She forgets. He sees the white plastic bag from the supermarket, the black one from the liquor store. He suppresses any desire to tease or scold her about the unripe fruit. In fact, he loses the desire to tease or scold her at all. He chuckles at the way she opened the banana, but the sound doesn’t disturb her. He shakes his head at the empty candy wrappers scattered on the coffee table. He takes her phone, with its unsent message, out of her dangling hand and sets it aside. She looks so unwell lying there on the flattened cushions, so thin, but he still believes in her, in the idea that one day it won’t be like this anymore. He wishes he could make her eat more, or drink less, but he can’t. He does just one thing, the only thing he can on nights like this, when he finds her alone on that terrible sofa. He offers her a chance at a decent night of sleep, a chance that she will hurt a little less when she awakens, a comfort. Before he leaves, he picks her up tenderly and brings her to her bed.”

    The “he” here is vague. Unlike the certitude with which we can identify the “he” in Trevor’s ending to be Mr. Lethwes, there are a few possibilities for Brinkley’s “he.” It is intentional vagueness on Brinkley’s part that reflects Eudora Welty’s idea of the “crucial recognitions” of great endings. The crucial recognition evoked has to do with Black life: because of the precariousness of Blackness—so easy it is to end a Black life—this Black woman can never be too sure of where her comfort might come from.

    Englander, Okparanta, and Brinkley are only a small sample of practitioners of this thrilling movement of autofiction. In the novel form, examples include A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass, which recontextualize Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and Lan Samantha Chang’s The Family Chao, a reimagining of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

    My own novel, What Napoleon Could Not Do, began as an exercise in appropriation. In 2015, after rereading Ian McEwan’s Atonement, I realized that the novel’s conceit—that Briony Tallis, a precocious thirteen-year-old girl growing up in 1930s England, is immediately believed when she gives an account of what she’s observed—would not work in a Ghanaian setting. In Ghana, children are not only not to be heard, but also not to be believed. It would be impossible for Ghanaian readers to suspend their disbelief over a thirteen-year-old Ghanaian girl’s version of events being accepted enough to ruin people’s lives, which is what transpires in Atonement.

    For the four years it took me to draft the novel, I experienced revolving bouts of consent with and dissent from Atonement’s construction. For example, interested in making Atonement’s conceit fit a Ghanaian setting, I rendered an eight-year-old Ghanaian boy who, because he serves as the primary interpreter between his deaf and mute parents and the rest of his household, must not only be heard, but be believed.

    Recently, an interviewer, with the pretext that most debuts are autobiographical, asked about my novel’s autobiographical elements. In response, I characterized it as autofiction. I explained that my novel is part of a unique and important tradition of autofiction that is in fact more transgressive than what they understand autofiction to be. I think the interviewer bought it. I hope they will pass the word on.


    What Napoleon Could Not Do

    DK Nnuro is the author of What Napoleon Could Not Do, available from Riverhead Books.

    DK Nnuro
    DK Nnuro
    DK Nnuro is a Ghanaian-born writer and is a graduate of Johns Hopkins and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. DK has taught novel writing at the University of Iowa and is currently curator of special projects at the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.

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