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3 June 2023

Autofiction and Emotional Truth by Durre Shahwar

In this reflective essay, Durre Shahwar, Wasafiri's Writer-in-Residence, reflects on her journey to autofiction, the genre's 'slippery and elusive' capacity for deeper, emotional truths, and the writerly work of reaching beyond the self into community and into new ways of seeing.

I considered many themes when I was choosing the focus of my Wasafiri Writer-in-Residency. There were the obvious ones: nature writing, Welshness and identity, class - themes that I have written about in various forms and that I feel comfortable within. And then there was autofiction: an area that I have been researching for the last couple of years for my PhD, but that I hadn’t explored outside the somewhat closed-off structures of academia. I knew what autofiction was, and I had written autofiction – at times without even knowing it. Taking this work that only a couple of people had seen and putting it into practice for workshops and essays that could be shared more widely seemed like the next step, but an unnerving one. What if I got things wrong? How would I fill the gaps in my knowledge where my research was still incomplete? But it was also exciting, this not knowing. It seemed like an invitation from my more adventurous self, a push to find out more and step outside of what was comfortable and familiar. And so, I took a deep breath, and stepped.

Autofiction originated in France and although arguably variations of autofiction had existed for a long time, the term was first coined by writer and academic Serge Doubrovsky in 1977 to describe his novel Fils (a title that translates to both Son and Threads). There seems to be no universally agreed singular definition of this genre, only a perception of what it is based upon different elements that can be found in an autofictional text. One such identifying element is that autofiction is explicit about employing what Doubrovsky calls an ‘adventure of language’ to mix fact and fiction and get to an emotional truth behind an experience that the author has had. In doing so, it questions the notion of objective truth and the reliability of memory.

This element was exactly why I was drawn to autofiction. For a long time, much of my work has been based on my own experiences with some details changed, in order to respect other people’s privacy as well as my own, or simply because the narrative that I wanted to write was better than the one that I had experienced. Autofiction was a way for me to reimagine and reflect on what had happened, and to capture an emotional truth through symbolism and motifs rather than through a traditional plot. It was a way to situate the personal within a wider cultural, social, and political landscape, to see if my thoughts and feelings would resonate; a beacon sent out to see if anyone would answer back. Except I didn’t call it autofiction, not only because I did not have the knowledge to name it until recently, but also because I felt like I needed permission to do so. Outside of academia, and outside of the huge success of writers such as Ocean Vuong, Sheila Heti, Rachel Cusk, you don’t often hear someone refer to their work as autofiction. To find global majority writers of autofiction, you have to dig deeper still. I still find myself asking who has permission to call their work autofiction, and why; who keeps the gates around different genres, and who is allowed to pass?

The question is inextricable from other questions that come up for me as a South Asian working-class writer, navigating an industry that is still largely white and middle class. Questions of permission, of autonomy, of voice, and of who I am writing for. It was these questions that I embedded within the three workshops on autofiction that I delivered during my residency in an attempt to encourage, facilitate, hold space, and find like-minded views as well those that gave new perspective.

The workshops were a brief introduction, a skimming over the surface, because there seems to be no beginning or an end to a genre that is still evolving within British research and writing. And the workshops sold out – much to my surprise and delight – with participants attending from Germany, France, Singapore, UK, Oman, Chad, Malaysia, Senegal, and Canada. People from all walks of life with varied experiences and languages came together with one common goal – to be curious and learn more about autofiction and find a form of writing that worked for them. Each workshop, I would set out with exercises, reading material, all planned down to the minute, and yet the wide-ranging discussions would always lead us away from my regimented schedule. I realised that we could have spent two hours just covering the various definitions and viewpoints around autofiction, and another two hours on the idea of fact and fiction in autofiction, and then another two on voice, truth, autonomy...  I saw this as a positive. Not only did it show the need to engage with something on a much deeper level, but it also created an environment within which the participants came together to learn, discuss, share, and converse with each other as much as from myself.

The best learning and inspiration often happens this way. In these moments I would find myself thinking of bell hooks’ seminal text Teaching to Transgress (1994) in which hooks repeatedly highlights how important it is for teachers and facilitators to create an environment in which we transgress the boundaries of the teacher-student relationship, to one where everyone is engaged in mutual sharing and learning, rather than being a passive consumer of knowledge. Of how important it is that pedagogy is linked with practice and self-actualisation and vulnerability so that we all grow together. It was this that I witnessed in these workshops, where my singular beacon transformed into a collective bonfire of shared knowledge, light, and warmth.

It was affirming and inspiring to have so many writers in one space who wanted to take ownership of their narratives in a way that didn’t confine their lives to the arguably strict limits of memoir or autobiography. Many of the writers wanted to experiment with the adventure of language that Doubrovsky described, to embed a playful fictiveness to their stories, to find truths beyond the factual. The terms ‘slippery’ and ‘elusive’ were used repeatedly in the workshops, gesturing perhaps to a freedom that we should feel in writing: less concerned with traditional literary genres, plots, constraints, and hierarchical definitions. A mode that shows autofiction to be less ‘navel-gazing’, as some critics would call it, and more urgent and important in a world full of uncertainty and chaos — especially for those of us who are still marginalised. Autofiction, as I see it, stems from an existential desire to understand and make sense of our lives by allowing language and the imagination take control of the narrative of what has happened to us. Through it, we regain autonomy; through it, we can imagine better for ourselves, and use the personal to turn towards something that goes beyond us.

Some of the texts we discussed, such as Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019) and Annie Ernaux’s Happening (2001) did just that. Writing that came so viscerally from the self and yet still managed to touch us deeply because they had something meaningful to say and communicate in a way that was autonomous to them. This feels important in a world where our voices and therefore our identities are constantly contested. It was this that I encouraged within the workshops. To write to be free and be seen and heard in a form that feels comfortable; not to win a prize or to be marketable. To be seen from the inside, from the emotional truth of an experience – not from the outside, from what is projected onto our outer surfaces. This, I think, is how we find our own voices in the face of patriarchal, capitalist, colonialist, ableist structures.

The workshops reminded me of how important it is to keep fighting for that. For the freedom to choose the labels we pick up and put down, to write in the styles we want to, and above all, to find the right spaces in which our writing is celebrated. Often called ‘finding your audience’, but on a holistic level, this is a community, and a platform like the one that Wasafiri provided, and that we in the workshops shared together. I’m glad I took the step that led me to feel like I’m now a part of a larger community of writers endeavouring to find styles of writing that feel more like an embodied practice rather than something apart from us; that allow us to expand the personal into other realms of possibility.

You can read Durre's other essay on autofiction, 'Writing Myself Down', online, or her story, ‘The Golden Books’, first published in Wasafiri 112: Reimagining Education, which is available to purchase in the Wasafiri shop. Feature Photo Credit: Vadim Sadovski on Unsplash.

Durre Shahwar is a writer and Deputy Editor of Wasafiri. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Cardiff University on autofiction and marginalised identities. She is the co-editor of Gathering, an essay anthology of nature writing by women of colour (2024, 404 Ink).
Winter 2022
Wasafiri 112: Reimaging Education

Edited by Darren ChettyAngelique Golding, and Nicola RollockWasafiri 112: Reimagining Education considers what education means within and beyond the classroom, investigating government intervention and the reclamation and exploration of decolonisation, and addressing the forces of change and continuity in Britain today.

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