Barry Lopez

Legend, Memoir, and the Mid-70s

Three publications, in this sequence: Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in 1974, Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior in 1975, and Barry Lopez’s “The Raven” (part of his collection Desert Notes) in 1976.

Three opening lines:

  • I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. (Dillard)
  • “You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “What I am about to tell you.” (Kingston)
  • I am going to start at the other end by telling you this: there are no crows in the desert. (Lopez)

If I squint just a little, I can connect these three lines through their comment act of compressing the stories of others into the story of the self and, particularly, in the way memoir can be written within the stream of cultural myth, not so much as citation but as an experience that lies in the flowing stream.

Another factoid: last weekend, as part of a research trip for my own writing project, I met a (very) conservative Catholic who explained his continual belief in St. Christopher — a saint excised, among others, from the official canon of saints due to a lack of factual evidence defining his existence — as driven by ontology. To this man, the truth of tradition is as valid as the truth of verifiability, with tradition more or less corresponding with the concept of faith itself. Thus, St. Christopher is a saint because tradition says he’s a saint, whether or not the current hierarchy of the church recognizes him as such.

The three writers I cite, then, are engaging the truth of tradition. Dillard, (in)famously, did not own that cat, nor experience that moment but, in fact, borrowed the story from someone else. Kingston begins her memoir with the story of No Name Woman, an aunt she never knew, but writes within multiple versions of that aunt’s point of view and, later, within the point of view of Fa Mu Lan, a legendary warrior woman of ancient China. Lopez writes of the natural history of ravens and crows, desert mythologies of those creatures mixing with naturalist observations to create a fabulous totality. Common among these openings, then, is the implicit declaration that story carries truth in a way different but equally powerful as verifiable acts. More importantly, story offers an access to truth and reality that cannot or should not be considered as subordinate to that which can be measured “rationally.”

Thinking particularly in the context of Kingston, Woman Warrior opens with two chapters that invite the reader to consider the present persistence of story in experienced reality. Kingston herself does not experience that which her aunt suffered (in the first chapter) nor what Fa Mu Lan experienced. But those stories also cannot be  placed into the limiting situation of metaphor. Stories are not to be told as a means of relation. Instead, stories are presented as extant within her own experience. Kingston memoir begins with the apparent subordination of the self — very little is written about her — and the foregrounding of exterior, “unverifiable” second-hand experience, but that subordination is actually the activation of stories power. Her life has been lived within and around those stories; her life is itself a story that intersects and overlaps the universalities of the tales being told. Specifically, then, Woman Warrior begins with two stories that demonstrate the limited prospects of being a woman warrior. The choices are to a) commit suicide after suffering the violence of male domination or b) conceal one’s identity as woman in order to do things considered masculine. Neither is a suitable choice, and in fact Kingston seeks to write space away from those restrictions. But, in fact, both her memoir and her life exist within the ongoing context of the framing stories. They are not examples or counterpoint; they are life itself.

I offer, also, the observation of the consecutive publication of the three texts I cite here: 74, 75, 76. This may be mere coincidence, but I’d like to make the unsubstantiated claim to consider the mid-70s as an important root in the comprehension of memoir as a literary way of being instead of as facts written to paper. Indeed, the usage of story in these three texts indicates an important shift away from narrow conceptions of what counts as truth. Crucially, I don’t mean this to suggest that truth doesn’t matter, nor that we can make simple separations between emotional and literal truth. Instead, I’m think close to the sense of truth of tradition, and closer still to an ill-informed citation of the intellectual love child of Derrida and Heisenberg. If, as writers, we believe words matter, and stories matter, we also intend to conceive of the world as a place where story is as real as stone.