Oh, sometimes I feel so bad about how much my language has changed in the past year. I worry that I am limiting who is going to read what I have to say because of how I say it. The benefit of all this new language is that it more accurately describes the things I’m talking about. If I mean vulva, I’m going to say vulva. If I mean intersectional, I’m going to say intersectional. But all of that is no good unless I explain what it means, too, because language isn’t doing the work of language if it’s not being understood.
Today I wanted to talk about two specific words that had a pretty big emphasis in my life over the past few months.
Narrative and Canon.
I’ve spent a lot of time reading memoirs. A lot of time. A lot of time. A lot of time. I’ve read so many memoirs, in fact, that the lives of all of these people have criss-cross apple sauced in my brain meats and formed one giant monster lifeline of a person who never existed. Oof.
In reading memoirs and talking about memoirs, you’re going to use these two words a lot.
A narrative is a story. A puzzle piece. A small piece of meaning that connects to a bigger picture. You could say “Her narrative is that of a small girl growing up in the woods. She experiences great struggle being tormented by a beast, and the heartbreak of losing her grandmother to a gruesome murder. Through these experiences she talks about strength and growth and the color red.”
Narrative brings out this important point that everyone has a different story to tell. That even if two people have exactly the same circumstances, their narrative – their story – is going to be different. Two people who are gay are not the same kind of gay. Two people who are trans are not the same kind of trans. Their narratives are influenced by so many different factors that no two people are ever going to be exactly the same. Understanding that can help us feed more unique factors into our minds about what different things mean.
Narratives can also have specific categorizations. For instance, you might read a story about a small girl defeating a wolf and think “that was a feminist narrative.” Certain narratives overtake others. A narrative can be political. And others can try to exploit narratives that are deemed unworthy or unusual. I have found it easiest to think of narratives as stories that are complex and personal.
The canon is the collection of stories that create a knowledge base about what something is. We’re not talking Star Wars here, we’re talking real life stories. We’re talking personal lived experience. Through collections of literature we can write and re-write our truths.
We might say that the canon of feminist literature is formed by writers who contribute the most meaningful literature – the real heavy hitters – but I find that problematic. In short, because being published in itself is a kind of privilege that many women aren’t afforded. For this, blogs and the internet make up an interesting space to add to that canon of literature.
I believe to add to the canon it is important to be truthful in your narrative and to share with others what it means to be you, uniquely, and to help others see that they can do that too.