Rhetoric and Authority
Rhetoric in literature has come to be known as the use of literary and persuasive devices used in various styles of writing. More specifically, rhetoric includes not only use of literary elements such as symbolism or metaphor but also the combination of style and arrangement of words and sentences - the interrelated aspects of form and meaning in a work of literature. Essentially, rhetoric is the study of an author’s use of language. In an Advanced Placement class that focuses on analyzing literature in terms of its rhetorical approach, the general idea of rhetoric means that students are asked to look at literary elements and how they work together to execute an author’s purpose and create a response from the reader.
A rhetorical analysis requires the reader to look closely at details, the author’s tone and to get a sense of the author’s general purpose. For students who are learning to take a critical approach to reading, a discussion of authority provides a strong introduction to analyzing autobiography. The most noteworthy resource on the subject is Michael Foucault’s essay “What is an Author?” In his essay, Foucault discusses writing as a relationship an author has with the text, not the reader. The reader witnesses this relationship and the circulation of language and ideas. The author is not at the center of the work, but us only a part of the overall structure of a novel – even an autobiography.
Autobiography has always been defined in English classrooms simply as the work of literature based on the author’s life. In today’s English classrooms, autobiography is included in the study of literary genres, because it is often the approach taken in many “coming of age” stories, used in classrooms to address lessons in literature and writing and well as to confront social issues. A successful coming of age story depicts a protagonist who is initiated into adulthood through knowledge, experience and understanding. In this process, the protagonist destroys any false senses of security and experiences a loss of innocence. Santiago’s novel When I Was Puerto Rican follows this design.
Students usually try to identify with subjects in concrete terms, therefore, providing a definition for autobiography is important. Is it separate from other forms of narration? As stated earlier, Santiago’s autobiography reads like a story, like a novel – and the author admits to being rather removed from the experiences described in the book – so is it an autobiography or a work of fiction based on her life? Who or what is the subject of autobiography? Are the perspectives and experiences communicated true or created? Is autobiography an effort to define or recapture the self? Is it even possible to truly know oneself? How important are the answers to these questions in analyzing Santiago’s autobiography? From a rhetorical point of view, these questions are less important than the actual narration. From a personal perspective, however, a reader may ponder these questions while searching for a personal connection to the themes and events in the novel.
For a high school English class, these complex questions provide topics for intense analysis and class discussion. Students may claim that the novel is true because Santiago’s experience is true to her whether she crafts her memoir or not. Some students experiencing their own identity searches, may find Santiago’s self-awareness impressive as she makes infinite statements that reflect insight and understanding. Because of Santiago’s eloquent narration, it is effective to look at the novel as a mirror of the writer’s life. It doesn’t matter if we, as readers, assess Santiago’s self-awareness as limited, because she is communicating experiences more than anything else. It is through the experiences she describes and the way that she describes them that her “self” emerges.1 In this sense, the subject of the novel is Santiago’s experiences. At the same time, it is through Santiago’s reactions to experiences that students can make personal connections.
Ultimately, students will have to read the novel and analyze the author’s purpose and success to decide what an autobiography is to Esmeralda Santiago. Defining autobiography too strictly at this point in the unit only allows for students to make judgments based of what they’ve been told in school or read previously. It is my goal to set the stage for reading When I Was Puerto Rican and defining autobiography through close reading and group analysis.
The Truth in Autobiography
Simply because the author uses her own name as the main character, the novel seems to be openly autobiographical. However, an experienced reader knows better than to assume that the “I” of a novel is automatically the “I” of the narrator. This is not an easy concept for students to grasp and provide this unit with a great challenge – guiding students to analyze the author’s use of narration in the text. Using a first person narrator might mean that some of the events and experiences presented in the novel are autobiographical, but the use of first person might also simply serve as a vehicle for telling the story. This is the essential idea of the unit for students to examine.
The main element that contributes to the storytelling effect of When I Was Puerto Rican is Santiago’s eye for detail as she describes people and events. But how reliable is Santiago’s perspective? After all, When I Was Puerto Rican begins when she is only about age four. It is valuable for students focusing on critical analysis to look at the concept of truth within autobiography. As bell hooks states in her essay, Writing Autobiography, “The longer it took me to begin the process of writing autobiography, the further removed from those memories I was becoming. Each year, a memory became less and less clear.”2
It is amazing that Santiago could recall experiences from her childhood with such vividness. Negative experiences, such as punishments, arguments or embarrassing incidents are the information of family secrets. To reveal family secrets is to disturb the bond of family – a task necessary for the memories of an autobiography to be true. The struggle an author must face to break this bond and truly reveal both the positive and negative aspects of experience is where writing autobiography may have its limitations. As such, the fictionalized aspects of When I Was Puerto Rican may actually reveal more difficult truths because fiction allows experience and emotion to be expressed in another voice.
It is almost impossible for the retelling of memoir to be completely “accurate.” No two people perceive experiences the same way. It is important for students to internalize this fact when reading and analyzing autobiography. Literary critic Leigh Gilmore calls the study of autobiography, Autobiographics, in order to describe the elements of self-invention, self-discovery and self-representation.3 A writer’s autobiographical accounts are extremely personal and, in order to recall, may be “recreated,” in a sense, in the author’s mind. This idea poses another topic for class discussion and student analysis.
Ask students to recall and experience from the previous week that lasted only about 5 to 10 minutes. In a paragraph or so, students should describe the incident with as much detail as possible. Have students review their description and consider the following questions – Did the memory become a bit “fuzzy”? Did they have difficulty remembering small details such as exactly what people said to one another?
Does “recreating” an incident within narration make an author’s retelling unreliable? An autobiography must have the personal perspective of the author in order to be an autobiography, but does that make the story any less real? As students debate and perhaps in discussing When I Was Puerto Rican, defend, the authenticity of an author’s retelling, students can learn to appreciate another person’s perspective. In addition, students should be aware that the ability to step away from the narrator’s interpretation and analyze an actual situation of the text is an important skill for analysis.
It is helpful to hold a class discussion on what makes a narrator unreliable. Can a person be telling the truth and be unreliable? Explore this idea openly with students. Students may provide concrete examples where they’ve found a speaker to be unreliable while still revealing truth. During class discussion, students may recognize that they are constantly evaluating the reliability of speakers in their daily lives – with teachers, parents and peers. Experience has taught us that everyone who tells a story isn’t necessarily reliable. What an instructor can do to apply this discussion of reliable storytellers is to guide students through establishing a list of characteristics that make the reader judge a speaker/narrator as reliable or unreliable.
Provide students with descriptions of short incidents. This works best if students work in small groups of two or three. Ask students to explain if they think the narrator is reliable or not. If the narrator is judged as unreliable, students should outline what they believe to be the truth of the situation. (Exercises are available in Appendix V.)
While reading, students may keep a log of the reactions to the narrator’s memoirs, responding to questions that assess the author’s reliability. Students may ask the same questions at times when the narrator’s voice appears to be that of the author as an adult rather than a child. (Guide questions are available in Appendix VI.)
Sometimes, the pleasure of reading autobiography is less about the events the author recalls, and is more about witnessing and relating to the narrator’s reaction to events. Ultimately, it is the elements of human nature and feelings that the reader, especially a young reader, connects with best. Whether some elements of autobiography are created or recreated doesn’t really effect the way a student can develop empathy for another person’s experience. The desire to “tell one’s story – to recall the past – to reminisce – to come to terms with – are all ideas that appeal to young people who experience daily internal struggles. Autobiography enables a writer, and often a reader too, to self reflect on experiences that continue to shape and inform the present.
Santiago’s Style and Eloquence
What’s so magical about When I Was Puerto Rican is Esmeralda Santiago’s ability to intertwine her childhood memories with sophisticated interpretations of her experience and communicate it all with such narrative eloquence. For example, as a child, Esmeralda wondered why she had the nickname Negi when her given name was Esmeralda. While her mother explained that her nickname was given because she was loved, Esmeralda concluded the following; “It seemed too complicated. Each of us were really two people, one who was loved and the official one who, I assumed, was not.”4
In addition to her blend of memory and self-awareness, Santiago creates a unique and original writing style as she speaks in a mix of languages, blending Spanish terms with English dialogue and description. The approach of blending languages reflects the scope of Santiago’s experience as an immigrant. In her NCTE speech in March, 2000 she also stated, “I was not American but I wasn’t truly Puerto Rican anymore either, because my Spanish had become a little rusty.” In the novel, however, it appears that certain ideas only lend themselves to be described in Spanish terms. For example, whenever Negi speaks of sexuality, the behaviors of men and women or of food, she uses Spanish terms. She refers to common terms for describing stereotypes such as “gringo,” “puta,” “Jibaro,” and “sinverguenza.” In these instances, Santiago’s style reveals a frankness of language and hearts that is an appealing narrative element of the novel. This cultural duality, blending language and images of Puerto Rico and America obviously added to the novel’s success.